ALMOST every argument advanced in this book would be contested in your typical Senior Common Room. Almost all those great minds would be of one mind when it comes to materialism as the explanatory key to ultimate reality.
And yet, ironically, it is the very notion of mind which Keith Ward invokes to challenge the assumptions of philosophical materialism. The ancient philosophy of idealism “holds that matter cannot exist without a mind and depends on mind for its existence”.
Furthermore, “personal idealism holds that there is one supreme mind on which everything else depends and that is personal — that knows, thinks, feels and intends.” For Christians, as for many other religious believers, this supreme mind is God — Mind with a capital M.
Professor Ward is one of the most distinguished and prolific theologians of our time, with an enviable capacity to write clearly, but without compromising academic rigour. This is especially to the fore when, as here, he is expounding some of the most challenging concepts in philosophical theology.
Among these is the nature of human personhood, and, in the first of three parts, Ward equates this with something like the Christian concept of soul, i.e. “a non-material subject of experiences and agent of creative and morally free actions”. This is the human mind, which, contrary to Cartesian dualism, necessarily interacts with the material world to give to personhood an essential physicality.
In part two, he argues that there exists a supreme non-embodied mind (God) that, like the human soul, “has knowledge and acts creatively” but “is unique in existing and having its basic nature by necessity”. Furthermore, and crucially, this supreme mind “realises its own nature in creating and relating to other finite minds”.
Here he takes on the likes of Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking by invoking their arguments in support of his own, or exposing their fallacies carefully and without rancour. The plausibility, or even the necessity, of theism in opposition to materialistic rhetoric is established with confidence and clarity — and due deference to the findings of modern science.
Idealism has a pedigree going back, in its various guises, at least to the philosophy of Plato. In Ward’s hands it proves to be thoroughly convincing as a rational and morally sustainable interpretative tool for Christian faith and practice today.
Ward does not shrink from the big issues, and his engagement with the problem of suffering is especially challenging. He maintains that the universe as a product of mind exists for a purpose, and the purpose will be good “because minds choose things because they think those things are good or worthwhile”. If so, then the problem of evil and suffering is solved in part by appeal to the part that they play in fulfilling God’s will and purpose, while respecting human free will.
But do minds always choose things because they think them good or worth while? Also, can one child’s innocent suffering be justified by an outcome, however good that outcome may be? Perhaps; but Ward is clearly aware of having to tread carefully at this point. Given, however, the formidable challenges to religious belief posed by innocent suffering, his theodicy is probably as good as it gets.
Part three is, on his own admission, rather more speculative, as it seeks to show how Christian beliefs about God, incarnation, revelation, morality, and the afterlife have a natural affinity to personal idealism — and vice versa.
Ward wished “to write a book that was not too long and that was readable and accessible, while dealing with topics that are both philosophically profound and practically important”.
He has, even if the denizens of the SCR will remain to be convinced.
The Rt Revd Dr John Saxbee is a former Bishop of Lincoln.
The Christian Idea of God: A philosophical foundation for faith
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