Book title: Stubborn Theological Questions
Author: John Macquarrie
Publisher: SCM Press
Church Times Bookshop £11.70
THIS could be a fascinating and highly enjoyable book for anyone with a basic knowledge of theology and of the history of Christian thought. The “stubborn questions” of the title are: “how are we to think and speak of God in a . . . highly secularised world”; what are we to say of Christ (pre-existent? cosmic? truly human?); and the problem of religious knowledge.
The 18 chapters are edited and adapted from lectures and papers given over the years, which might lead some to say “Not for me!” That would be a pity. Not only has Macquarrie a famously engaging style, and wears his learning lightly, but the issues are presented in terms of particular thinkers who have had important things to say about them; and the respect and affection with which Macquarrie approaches them give theology a human and attractive face.
Those discussed make a long and catholic list. Names such as Wycliffe and Eckhart, Mascall and Barth, Berdyaev and Heidegger, Temple and Teilhard de Chardin sit alongside Moltmann and Hick, Bultmann and Kant, as well as less familiar figures such as DuBose and James D. Roberts. Irenaeus, Paul of Samosata, Aquinas, Newman, Pusey, William James, Rahner and Michael Ramsey also have their say. As a bonus, the book begins with a classic short essay on Jesus and Socrates.
One can argue that theology in every period is best-characterised by the ideas with which it finds most difficulty; and, thinking back over these 200 or so pages, one can see how Macquarrie’s method has helpfully identified some of the problems we all share.
Thus we are made aware that one obstacle to all contemporary struggles to make the idea of God meaningful today is our Western culture’s inability to regard as “real” anything whose presence or activity cannot be demonstrated by observation. Again, if we talk of God as in any sense absolute Being, can this convey anything in a world where we are often uncertain whether even the basic constituents of the physical universe can be said to “be” in the form in which we describe them?
We can use matter as never before; but at the fundamental level it is not just religious but all knowledge which begins to look existential, a more (or less) useful construct of our own minds.
All of which has a knock-on effect on Christology. In our times, the interpretations of Christ with which theologians are most comfortable seem to be those which start “from below”, from Jesus the human being.
Not one of the modern writers discussed by Macquarrie starts “from above”, with the idea that God might want to come to live as one of us. Such approaches are rejected as “docetic”; and, anyway, if we are so uncertain how to talk about God, how would you begin? Yet “from above” is, after all, the perspective of ordinary piety.
Perhaps the greatest value of the Macquarrie anthology is that it seduces you into wrestling with these classic fundamentals for yourself.
The Rt Revd John Austin Baker is a former Bishop of Salisbury
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