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
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
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
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.