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A body of knowledge

01 April 2016

Andrew Davison on a magpie’s nest of findings and musings

Unbelievable: Why we believe and why we don’t
Graham Ward
I. B. Tauris £20
Church Times Bookshop £18


GRAHAM WARD’s book presents belief as a fundamental category of human thought and culture. As such, it counts as a sustained refutation of the supposition that belief is the preserve only of religion. Following the style of his earlier books, it ranges freely between theology, philosophy, and a variety of cultural fields, especially film and the novel. What is rather new, however, is the increase in attention to the human sciences, and the addition of the natural sciences as an important contributor to the mix.

As we might expect from Ward, what could have seemed to be the most abstract of subjects turns out to be thoroughly earthy. He has written before about the body, but the discussion here feels perhaps more pressing and direct than ever. His survey of deep archaeological time presents us with the warp and weft of what it means to be a physical creature; this is a survey of bones, after all. Upright posture and bipedal gait, dexterous hands and expressive faces, the offering of gifts and the exchange of goods — these all seem to stand out in new relief, as part of what makes us human, when we see their part in the history of our growth to humanity.

Alongside bones, caves are the other recurrent theme. On the one hand, we have Plato’s figurative cave in the Republic, which punctuates the book. That cave represents belief, here as the first stage of knowledge. Movement out of this cave would, therefore, seem to represent a movement beyond belief. But Ward seeks to show instead that — even within Plato’s writings — belief remains foundational, something not entirely to be passed beyond.

The other caves that feature here are not figurative at all, although they may well have figures traced on their walls. Scattered around the world, these are the recesses in rock where hominids have lived and buried their dead, where they have painted upon the walls, and have perhaps prayed, long before Homo sapiens was first to be seen.

Throughout the book we come across passages of considerable beauty. Ward can be a lyrical writer. This is most obvious at the beginning of the book, when he tells a Cambridge ghost story, offered as a paradigmatic case of what is believed and what is not. The story is true, at least as a record of human perceptions and reactions. The full extent of what actually happened in Peterhouse Combination Room two decades ago will never be entirely clear. These first six pages left me all the more eager to read the novel, or novels, that Ward has said he intends one day to write.

Elsewhere, the writing calls for more effort. In general, the closer Ward is to spelling out his own thoughts, the easier the ride, while the closer he is to summarising the work of others, the more one has to concentrate with a something of a furrowed brow. In these dense paragraphs, quotations come thick and fast, and one is left wishing for a little more of Ward’s own writing to let them breathe.

The book is a magpie’s nest of empirical findings and of musings collected from a range of philosophers. It is as a treasury of what anthropologists and archaeologists have discovered, alongside Ward’s own interpretations, and the book will provoke the reader into wonder, and to think differently. Neuroscience also ,and is treated with an appropriate mixture of respect and criticism.

Ward presents this book as an exploration of many fields, but not as a work of theology (“This is not a theological book, and so not a theological investigation”). As a theologian, I wish that my non-theological reading could be quite so theological.

With almost trademark style, Ward’s tendency is to leave conclusions more open than closed. This is not a book to tell us what to think. It is not even a book to tell us what to believe. But it is one that helps us to realise how integral belief is to all that matters most.

Canon Andrew Davison is Starbridge Lecturer in Theology and Natural Sciences in the University of Cambridge and a fellow in Theology at Corpus Christi College.

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