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Pick your argument

23 September 2016

George Pattison finds philosophical analysis close to real religion

Reason, Revelation, and Devotion: Inference and argument in religion
William J. Wainwright
Cambridge University Press £18.99
Church Times Bookshop £17.10



EARLY on in his new book, William J. Wainwright considers the argument that “while God is good, he isn’t essentially good. Hence, while God is good in our world, there are logically possible worlds in which he isn’t. . . Since God isn’t good in every possible world in which he exists, his goodness isn’t essential.”

This, some will think, is the kind of thing that gets philosophy a bad name, since it seems so entirely to abstract from the context of lived religion. For real-life religious belief, what God could be like in logically possible other worlds is fairly close to epitomising the kind of idle speculation that distracts from obligations of praise and service in the actual world in which God is believed on and obeyed.

But it is not only the case that Wainwright swiftly refutes this particular argument: his book also serves to raise the question of the kinds of arguments which are appropriate to the realities of lived religious life. In this regard, a better subtitle might have been The varieties of inference and argument in religion, or even The limits of inference and argument in religion.

Thus, although showing himself adept in handling the kinds of technical arguments familiar in a certain kind of analytic philosophy of religion, Wainwright shows how these are often the wrong kinds of arguments to be making, or achieve much less than their promoters hope to achieve.

As the autobiographical conclusion notes, Plato was a first and formative influence on Wainwright’s philosophical beginnings, when he also saw himself as an aspiring poet. Realising that, despite the Greek philosopher’s strictures on poetry and rhetoric, Plato himself regularly put poetry and rhetoric in the service of philosophy.

Likewise, Wainwright explores a range of ways in which factors other than reason, narrowly defined, affect the persuasiveness of religious claims. In doing so, he draws on an impressive range of religious sources, among which Jonathan Edwards is especially well-represented, alongside philosophical debates in Hinduism and Buddhism, and, in the last chapter, on “Theology and Mystery”, Dionysius, Rahner, and Marcel.

This, then, is philosophising in close proximity to real religion, and all the better for it. Although many of the chapters have appeared elsewhere, they collectively constitute a compact, forceful, and persuasive reflection on what analytic philosophy can and cannot do for Christian theology. As such, it deserves to be widely read and pondered.


Professor George Pattison holds the 1640 Chair of Divinity at the University of Glasgow.

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