In pursuit of rational belief

11 January 2011

Richard Harries finds clear answers given to straight questions


Unblind Faith: A new approach for the twenty-first century
Michael J. Langford
Parapress £7.99
Church Times Bookshop £7.20

THIS book has already been welcomed by one school chaplain, who has ordered a large number of copies. It is not hard to see why. This is a rationally persuasive de­fence of the Christian faith by a Christian philosopher which does not avoid the difficult questions, both ancient and modern.

It has three main strengths. First, it defends a recognisable Christian orthodoxy, with which most An­glicans will feel sympathy. Second, in contrast to the charge that some theologians let themselves off giving a clear answer to a straight question, Michael Langford is unequivocal on what can be believed and what cannot. Where some traditional position is untrue, he says so quite clearly. Third, he never tries to claim too much. When we do not know or cannot judge, he says so. This is linked to his overall position, which is not that we have certainty in these matters, but that we have a rational position that holds up well when compared with the alternatives. A last chapter makes it clear what is meant by a rational defence of the faith.

This is a significantly rewritten and revised edition of a book originally published in 1982, which will be welcomed by clergy and teachers who work with thoughtful pupils or parishioners. The author is particularly good in discussing issues of sin and atonement, whose treatment often seems morally ob­jectionable, if not repellent.

He firmly rejects the idea of original guilt, while no less firmly arguing that the Christian insight into original sin is inescapable; in this respect, he stands with the Eastern rather than the Western Church.

He rightly argues, with Aquinas, that the resurrection of Christ is not a miracle in nature, but one com­par­able only to creation itself and the eschaton; i.e., it is a whole new order. He also offers an interesting suggestion for further thought. Rejecting the old idea that Christ’s sinlessness derives from the fact that he was born without aid of human father, he draws a distinction be­tween those aspects of our person­ality that can be achieved only as a result of a process of living and growth, and those that could, in theory, be innate.

He does this because those who believe in the Trinity are bound to believe in the pre-existence of Christ, and therefore that, unlike us, Christ came into the world with a charac­ter able to resist sin. “This is part of the meaning of the claim that he is divine.” But, as he says, we need further work on those aspects of character “that could be a kind of ‘achievement’, built up during the earthly life of Jesus, and a ‘divine character’, including a moral strength that would always be able to resist temptation”.

The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentre­garth is Gresham Professor of Divinity. His book The Re-enchantment of Morality (SPCK) has been short- listed for the Michael Ramsey prize for theological writing.

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