God is No Thing: Coherent Christianity
Church Times Bookshop £9
THE SUCCESS of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, and other recent books by New Atheists, indicates a cultural context in which there is a ready market for anti-religious tracts. But there seems to be much less appetite to engage with the many published responses, however catchy the title, or cogent the case made in defence of theism in general, and of Christianity in particular.
So why might Rupert Shortt’s God is No Thing fare any better? Well, first of all, the author is a layman who is not vulnerable to the “They would say that, wouldn’t they?” jibe aimed at clergy and professional theologians when on the defensive. So he is in a line stretching back to C. S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, and G. K. Chesterton; and although Shortt would demur at seeing himself in such company, his lay status does seem to carry more weight with the so-called “chattering classes”.
More important, his evident learning, combined with an engaging style and light touch, makes this a book which can be confidently placed in the hands of even the most stubborn sceptic with some hope of a fair hearing.
His chief contention, and the purport of the title, is that God cannot be a thing situated at the beginning of a causal series of other things. If God is such a “thing”, then it is reasonable to ask: “Who made God?”
But God’s singularity depends upon divine existence’s being necessary and not contingent. God is no thing, but not nothing.
The New Atheists seem incapable of grasping this perfectly coherent philosophical concept, and so persist in debunking a straw man of a god in whom orthodox Christians have never believed, anyway. As Shortt puts it: “these men are able sword-wielders, but less handy with scalpels.”
Of course, making a case for theism is only a starting-point when it comes to making a case for the coherence of Christianity. If the problems we face are at heart the problems of the human heart, then the cogency of beliefs that touch hearts, change minds, and influence behaviour is crucial.
So the second half of the book explores how “the Judaeo-Christian tradition offers a richer, because truer, account of the human subject than does secular modernity.” Spirituality, prayer, biblical interpretation, theodicy, and trinitarian theology are areas that have been subject to ill-informed caricature by critics, but when properly understood they offer essential resources for the promotion of good religion and human flourishing. Shortt is especially strong on the inter-dependence of science and theology when it comes to fashioning a credible engagement with the mysteries of existence.
The final chapter offers a hopeful but not complacent account of how, even in the most secular societies, “the theological ingredient cannot be brushed aside.” Misinformation about the relationship between religion and violence, economics, and environmental degradation, is skilfully exposed.
His belief, however, that fundamentalism as a kind of modern heresy, prevalent in some of today’s fastest-growing religious communities, might give way to less literalist approaches to scripture and tradition any time soon seems to be based more on hope than expectation.
This short book packs a punch. If it is indeed the case that “Christianity gets dismissed too readily in the West today,” then this fair but firm case for the defence should make any fair-minded sceptic sit up and take notice — and any committed but tongue-tied Christians feel better equipped to hold their ground.
The Rt Revd Dr John Saxbee is a former Bishop of Lincoln.