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SCM Studyguide: Philosophy and Christian faith, by Ben Pugh 

13 December 2019

David Munchin looks at an introductory guide to philosophy and religion

BEN PUGH’s Philosophy and Christian Faith is in the SCM Studyguide series, and seeks to introduce the reader to the main challenges and contributions of Western philosophy to Christian faith and theology.

This is very much an introductory text and can be read with little or no prior knowledge of the subject. The “study” aspect makes the book suitable for use as a text book for a group study — there are frequent discussion questions of the topics raised. The book is arranged around seven “schools” of philosophy, in roughly chronological order from Plato to Post-modernism.

It is in the style of a Very Short Introduction, which is by no means a criticism: it is pithy, engaging, well written and accurate. One might ask why such books are needed in the days of the internet, but, whereas people are normally looking for greater depth in printed books, here it is brevity that is the key: most of the sections are a couple of pages long, and easier than scrolling though internet articles. Again, this is not a criticism, but gives an idea of where this book is aimed.

That said, it seems slightly unfair to point out what is missing. Any selections are always likely to be personal. I should have liked to see mention of Flew, Dummett, and Pannenberg. Hume is dealt with in a paragraph; Swinburne is cited a couple of times. Similarly, the chronological approach meant that some issues — notably philosophical arguments for the existence of God — were hardly mentioned.

There are a few other bones to pick. In Aquinas’s treatment of Aristotle’s virtues, there is no mention of the theological virtues. Wittgenstein’s Tractatus rather than Russell’s introduction to it is assumed to be a logical-positivist text. Post-modernism is divided into two “streams”: nihilistic and moralistic. “Aspects” might have been better, and the thesis that post-modernism has now been absorbed into modernism is rather conjectural — though I feel that it is here that the author hits his stride. Going with your enthusiasms isn’t always helpful at this level, however.

There are a couple of places in which ideas are just dropped in without explanation: the Platonic terminology of three “substances” (rather than “persons”) in the Trinity fails to explain the Greek and Latin terms behind the English translation, and therefore risks utterly perplexing the reader. Quantum indeterminacy is also introduced into a discussion question with no explanation.

One last point is that the book assumes that philosophy and theology are rather separate things, and that theologians are always having to react to whatever philosophy throws up. I realised, however, that quite cleverly this need not be a criticism. If the discussion points are taken seriously, then this is exactly what the author is trying to make the reader consider: whether there is a more nuanced interaction, and perhaps, crucially, whether there is a specifically “Christian philosophy”.

The Revd Dr David Munchin is Team Rector in the Welwyn Team Ministry.

SCM Studyguide: Philosophy and Christian faith
Ben Pugh
SCM Press £22.99
Church Times Bookshop special price £18.40

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