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Think, but don’t make thoughts your aim

by
01 May 2012

John Saxbee on a philosopher who saw the need for action

John Macmurray’s Religious Philosophy: What it means to be a person
Esther McIntosh

Ashgate £50
(978-0-7546-5163-5)
Church Times Bookshop £45

IN THE immortal words of the New York taxi driver: “Descartes? — Too much ‘cogito’; not enough ‘sum’.” In other words: too much thought — not enough action.

With those sentiments John Macmurray would have wholeheart­edly agreed. In his view, the separa­tion of mind and body presents the biggest single obstacle to human flourishing, and Christianity has been most corrupted when it has colluded with this Cartesian dualism. Personhood is predicated on action (agency), so that thinking should only ever be a precursor to action and never an end in itself.

Furthermore, agency entails relationality with what is other than the self; and in relation to the human Other, a premium is placed on interdependence as key to auth­entic human nature and identity. Indeed, agency and relationality are what define human nature over against other forms of material and organic existence.

Macmurray has been sadly neglected since his death in 1976, after a teaching and writing career that encompassed some of the greatest upheavals of modern times. The fact that Tony Blair endorsed him as a significant influence on his political philosophy has probably not helped his cause.

He was a complex thinker, whose philosophy developed over time, and always in response to events as they unfolded in the world around him. Brought up in Scotland with a strict Calvinist background, he re­mained committed to Christianity all his life, although his Marxist sympathies, and his passion for promoting an inclusive global com­munity based on freedom and equality for all, inclined him to­wards a religion more about ethics and communal cohesion than about doctrinal or dogmatic correctness.

He believed that, while politics can help to create a sense of society, only religion can form community, because religion is about universal friendship — that is, love and respect for all. Society he perceived to be a utilitarian construct sus­tained by rules and regulations that are imposed, whereas love is voluntarily shown and shared. It is no surprise that he was attracted to the Quakers towards the end of his life.

Esther McIntosh has done a remarkable job in summarising, explaining, and offering a critique of the work of this prophetic figure, whose ideas are as important today as when they were first aired. Of course, the collapse of Communism, the rise of religious pluralism, and the impact of globalisation have done much to change the socio-political and reli­gious landscape. But his funda­mental emphasis on Christianity as being about changing the world rather than merely thinking about it remains relevant, and his commit­ment to faith and philosophy as embodied rather than merely idealised offers enduring support to practical theologies in all their forms.

While the more theoretical sections of this book assume a good deal of philosophical literacy, more general readers will still find much here that is readily applicable to current concerns in Church and society.

The Rt Revd Dr Saxbee is a former Bishop of Lincoln.

IN HER book God Knows Your Name, Catherine Campbell tells the stories of six Bible characters who faced rejection, but found strength when they realised how important they were to God. Each story is linked to one about somebody from our times who has also discovered the power of God’s love (Monarch, £7.99 (£7.20); 978-1-85424-983-8).

IN HER book God Knows Your Name, Catherine Campbell tells the stories of six Bible characters who faced rejection, but found strength when they realised how important they were to God. Each story is linked to one about somebody from our times who has also discovered the power of God’s love (Monarch, £7.99 (£7.20); 978-1-85424-983-8).

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