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The mess that is philosophy

13 July 2010

No wonder so many theologians fight shy of it, says Keith Ward


IS PHILOSOPHY important to theology? A feature of much recent Protestant theology is its avoidance of philosophical issues. One reason for this is the sheer diversity of philosophical thought in the 20th century and beyond, and the fact that so many philosophers have been atheists. If you look at school syllabuses in religious studies, one main item is “proofs of God”, which often consists mainly in saying that all such proofs are invalid. It is not surprising that theologians often think that philosophy will prove to be an unreliable friend at best.

This book sets out to introduce recent Western thought from a Christian point of view, and to show the relevance of philosophical argument to reasonable Christian faith. As such an introduction, it succeeds brilliantly. The authors know what they are talking about, and cover a wide range of philo­sophers from Wittgenstein to Heidegger and Foucault.

What they say can be trusted to be reliable, and their account covers a much wider range than is often to be found in general introductions to philosophy; for analytic philo­sophers notoriously often think that European phenomenology is not really philosophy — and their European counterparts think the same about linguistic analysis. The authors do their best, however, to take the many diverse streams of modern philosophy seriously.

They do manage to do this, though there is a price. The price is that the account is necessarily brief, so that tracts of thought with which readers are unfamiliar may, with the best will in the world, remain rather opaque. They also defer the question of the direct impact that philosophies have had on theology, again for reasons of space.

Books have to be of a finite length, however, and there are dis­cussions of theologians such as Bultmann and Neibuhr which make crucial connections with philo­sophical movements.

The book is certainly informative and reliable about the history of philosophical thought in the 20th century. The authors remain tantalisingly reticent about whether there is, or could be, a “Christian philosophy” in such a riot of competing voices.

It is clear that the days when Plato or Aristotle could be appealed to as giving a sound philosophical grounding (via Augustine or Aquinas) to rational Christian faith have gone. Idealism (the belief that mind is prior to and the cause of matter) disappears in the first few pages, never to return. Then Frege and Husserl evoke two philo­sophical movements that can hardly bear even to recognise the existence of the other. And post-modernity completes the death of metaphysics and the deconstruction of the whole past history of philosophy.

I think this story is roughly right as a descriptive account of what has happened to philosophy. It is in a mess. No wonder theologians are wary of it. But we need to be aware that it is a mess, not an agreed secularising agenda.

The authors are, I think, vaguely hopeful that post-modernism will “make room for Christian scholarship”. Certainly, in this chaos of conflicting voices, faith can claim an acceptable place. And faith needs to know the culture to which it speaks. That is something this book can provide.

The Revd Professor Keith Ward is a former Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford.

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