THE new Approaching series from SPCK is full of promise, combining a historical survey of the topic in hand, an introduction to significant schools of thought and central concepts, and a glossary with short (but not tiny) entries. Unfortunately, this volume on the philosophy of religion does not get the series off to a good start.
Far too much is taken for granted for an “introductory guide”. A reader not already familiar with the material under discussion will find significant stretches of the text opaque. The chapter on existentialism alone stands out for its clarity.
Sometimes the problem is one of ordering. Plato’s forms imply his “antipathy to materialism”, the author writes, before he has explained the meaning of either forms or materialism. He introduces deconstruction before structuralism, even though, quite rightly, he refers to the latter to explain the development of the former.
Figures are mentioned in passing of whom the novice reader is likely to be ignorant. The reader is told that the Wisdom of Solomon is “much like Philo of Alexandria” before the first-century Jewish philosopher has been introduced (and all we learn later is that Philo was a Platonist). That Hegel regarded Schelling as “too subjective and idealist” and Schleiermacher as “too preoccupied with human feelings” comes as the first mention of either.
Often, further explanation is necessary. Yes, Duns Scotus drew an important distinction “between things ‘ordered essentially’ and ‘things ordered accidentally’”, but that is hardly a useful point to make unless one unpacks what those terms mean.
In other instances, Anthony Thiselton is simply wrong. He writes, for instance, that the soul is “changeless” according to Plato, when swaths of Plato’s dialogues are devoted to the development of the soul, in this life, and across lives. On other occasions, he is unhelpfully one-sided, surveying Plato’s forms, or Aquinas’s account of analogy, without any reference to the metaphysics of how creaturely things relate to their archetypes, which is a good part of the point.
The enterprise would also have been enriched by stepping back to ask questions about the field itself: What marks philosophy of religion out? How does it relate to other theological disciplines? Where might it be going? Without that, the topics under discussion can appear threadbare and dated: arguments for the existence of God, free will, the divine attributes, and so on.
The most recent figures in this book are generally already old men; in a four-and-a-half page section on feminist philosophy, the youngest author under discussion is probably Judith Butler. Admittedly, were the author to say too much about current excitements, his book might date quickly. All the same, something should have shown through of Continental philosophers of religion finding inspiration in mathematics, biology, and “the gift”, or of the revival of interest in metaphysics among analytic philosophers. The nearest we come to topics of the day is a few pages on gender.
From time to time, we all come across good books that are one thorough edit away from greatness. I have to write, with a heavy heart, that this book, by a significant British scholar, is a thorough re-write away from being tenable.
The Revd Dr Andrew Davison is the Starbridge Lecturer in Theology and Natural Sciences at the University of Cambridge.
Approaching Philosophy of Religion: An introduction to key thinkers, concepts, methods and debates
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