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Words from the outside

03 October 2014

The Church has not simply been influenced by books by Christians, says John Pritchard. Others have also had considerable effect

Powerful voices: Charles Darwin

Powerful voices: Charles Darwin

THE Christian Church has always been in conversation with its intellectual context. St Paul was quick to interact with Epicurean and Stoic philosophers in his debates on Mars Hill, and so began a noble history of lively dialogue between secular writing and the Church.

Christian thinkers soon engaged with Plato's views on the nature of reality, and Aristotle's approach to happiness and ethics. Plato's most famous book was The Republic, while Aristotle left us only lecture notes. Nevertheless, their influence on the Church was profound throughout the Middle Ages.

Theologians have debated with a whole clutch of philosophers from the 16th to the 19th centuries: Descartes's Meditations and his Discourse on Method; Pascal in his Pensées; Hume with his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion; Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason; Jeremy Bentham's utilitarianism (Introduction to Principles of Morals and Legislation); and John Stuart Mill's challenging views On Liberty.

Coming up fast were the natural philosophers: that is, scientists, who often spoke from faith, and also challenged faith that was too simple. Chief among these were Copernicus (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Bodies), Galileo (Two New Sciences), and Isaac Newton (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy). Most influential on the thinking of the Church, however, was Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species, in 1859 - a book that truly, and unnecessarily, set the cat among the pigeons.


KARL MARX published The Communist Manifesto in 1848, laying out his analysis of economic forces and class struggle. He forged a revolution in thought equalled only, in a quite different arena, by Sigmund Freud, whose exploration of the unconscious as the seat of our actions (The Interpretation of Dreams) was to change the way in which men and women thought about themselves and their place in life. These two intellectual giants preoccupied the self-belief and apologetics of the Church for over a century.

Christian thinkers were also preoccupied with another challenge to inherited ideas of morality. Friedrich Nietzsche asked: if God is dead, what comes next? Certainly not care and compassion, but the new Superman (Thus Spake Zarathustra). Bertrand Russell shared Nietzsche's distaste for religion, and was also very interested in sex and mathematics (Principia Mathematica). He started "the linguistic turn" in philosophy which fed Alfred Ayer (Language, Truth and Logic), and took the Church into battle with what was seen as a reductionist obsession with the meaning of words.

More recently, books that have captured the Church's attention have been - on the negative side -Richard Dawkins's flamboyant The God Delusion, and - on the positive - Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue, which takes us right back to where we started, with Aristotle. The great conversation goes on.

How is it possible to name some of the books that have influenced the Church, and not mention all the books of poetry, political theory, and social reform? But, then, how is it possible to name every bird in the sky? Gloriously, the sky, and our bookshelves, are still bursting with life.

The Rt Revd John Pritchard is the Bishop of Oxford.

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