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New Models of Religious Understanding, edited by Fiona Ellis

28 September 2018

John Saxbee considers a discussion of nature and the supernatural

THE theme in this symposium is the relationship between an exclusively scientific understanding of the world and a religious understanding. The over-arching impetus of the various chapters is towards an affirmation of supernaturalist accounts of reality, and the cumulative case is both philosophically forensic and theologically compelling.

Superbly edited by Fiona Ellis, the sequence of essays carries us along a trajectory that reflects the overall argument, i.e. that both cognitive and conative modes of understanding are needful, fruitful, and ultimately religious. She also provides an impressively succinct introduction linking together the individual chapters as well as summarising them.

Bridge-building between, for example, theism and atheism, philosophy and theology, and analytic and Continental philosophical approaches is central to the approach adopted by an international roster of contributors centred on Heythrop College, London.

The idea that there is a supernatural dimension within nature, and that it becomes accessible at the level of religious practice, is explored from several perspectives. Of course, belief and theory matter, but experiential and affective modes of apprehending reality matter as much, if not more.

So, unqualified scientism needs to be nuanced by what is described as “expansive” or “liberal” naturalism. Crucially, this legitimises a conception of nature which can accommodate the reality of God.

The keynote contributions are made by Fiona Ellis herself and John Cottingham. He argues that: “We need to recognise the limitations of intellectual analysis, and the way in which insight is achieved not just by the controlling intellect, fussily classifying the pieces of the jigsaw, but by a process of attunement, whereby we allow different levels of understanding and awareness to coalesce, until a picture of the whole begins to emerge.”

It is to these different ways of understanding the world religiously that the remaining contributors address themselves.

Morality, aesthetics, spirituality, religious practices, and saintly lives are all valorised over against the seemingly soulless nostrums of scientific positivism. But when religious and scientific modes of understanding are brought into a “mutually generative relationship”, then recognition of unexpected similarities can go hand in hand with an acknowledgment of significant differences.

This essentially constructive and eirenic approach to differences in philosophical and theological perspectives is a welcome change from more combative contributions to recent debates in the philosophy of religion — a point well made by both Keith Ward and Charles Talliaferro.

It is doubtful whether the expansive sensibilities evidenced here can do much to dent the current stand-off between entrenched fundamentalisms on the one hand and enervating post-modern relativism on the other. But that is precisely why this symposium is so timely and important.

In a recent atheistic account of “life, meaning, and the Universe”, Sean Carroll feels compelled to qualify his radical materialism by invoking what he calls “poetic materialism” (The Big Picture, 2016). This allows us to affirm moral, aesthetic, and even spiritual values so as to live lives to the full in a material world.

Surely this collection of essays should help him to see that his avowedly scientific understanding may have more in common with religious understandings of reality than he, or we, might otherwise be prepared to concede.

The Rt Revd Dr John Saxbee is a former Bishop of Lincoln.

New Models of Religious Understanding
Fiona Ellis, editor
OUP £55
Church Times Bookshop £49.50

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