MOST Christian apologists would rather engage with a thoughtful atheist than a casual agnostic, and Raymond Tallis is one of the most thoughtful of self-confessed unbelievers. In a sequence of publications, he has demonstrated his grasp of complicated ideas, and his ability to communicate and criticise them with enviable clarity and even-handed good humour.
This book takes as its key text Einstein’s observation that “the eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility.” That the world makes sense to us, given the immensity of what is out there and the physical limitations that constrain us, is a mystery that many have tried, and failed, to solve.
Indeed, Tallis makes no claim to have solved it here. Rather, his aim is “to remove some of the barriers to seeing the mystery of our capacity to make sense of things”. In this, he succeeds admirably — but still this capacity remains a mystery.
After an opening chapter scoping the territory, he explores the part played by logos in this debate. Significantly, Tallis acknowledges the critical part played by St John of Patmos in this regard.
Attempts to demystify the problem by either putting the world inside the mind (Idealism) or treating the mind as part of the world (Naturalism) are skilfully dissected and dismissed in the next two chapters.
This clears the way for Tallis to make his case for objectivity, with the world necessarily “out there” (Realism), with “an irreducible gap between our minds and the universe of which we are mindful”. The “turn to the subject” so characteristic of the Enlightenment is challenged by this assertion of the gap between the knower and the known. Consequently, our views on knowledge and information need to be radically re-examined.
Neither the knower nor the known can ever be fully comprehended, however. This “opacity”, which imposes inescapable limits to the intelligibility of the world — the senselessness at the heart of sense — is the theme of the final two chapters and determines the overall conclusion.
There is a meaningful world out there, and Homo sapiens possesses the capacity to divine that meaning. But only up to a point, and it remains to be seen whether this “sense-making animal” is progressing positively or not significantly progressing at all.
On balance, Tallis leans towards Stephen Pinker’s contention that, notwithstanding the horrors perpetrated by humankind in recent history, the better angels of our nature are delivering an evermore prosperous and peaceful world. Such optimism fuels his condemnation of religion as disparaging humanity, seeing us as “fallen creatures and infinitely less than the God who created us”. The logos as word made flesh in Homo sapiens as the sense-making animal has replaced the mythos of St John’s logos as Word made flesh in the God-Man Jesus.
But given Tallis’s acknowledgement that how we make sense of the world remains a mystery, in spite of his penetrating and perceptive analysis, the mythos of humanity fallen, redeemed, and ultimately restored to fullness of life as made in the image of God remains a sense-making option that only his pre-determined identification as an “unbeliever” denies him.
With a tinge of regret, Tallis avers that “there is no adequate secular replacement” for the idea of God. Could that be because God exists, so that a secular replacement is a hypothesis for which we have no need?
Written for the general reader with “a sub-philosophical frame of mind”, this study will re-pay reading more than once — and then again.
The Rt Revd Dr John Saxbee is a former Bishop of Lincoln.
Logos: The mystery of how we make sense of the world
Agenda Publishing £25
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