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A Philosophy of the Christian Religion: For the twenty-first century, by Nancey Murphy 

31 May 2019

George Pattison reads philosophical theology aware of pluralism

NANCEY MURPHY’s title is, she explains, carefully worded. As against the familiar “Philosophy of Religion” her work offers a philosophical reading of, quite specifically, Christianity, thus avoiding the minefield around definitions of “religion”. Whatever may be the case regarding religion in general, Christianity, at least, is a historically recognisable phenomenon, with a distinctive set of beliefs and practices that are amenable to philosophical investigation. At the same time, this is “A” philosophy of the Christian religion, and the indefinite article alerts us to the fact that we are today operating in a pluralistic intellectual environment, a point to which I shall return.

Murphy writes with admirable clarity and covers a huge range of material. It is central to her view of each of philosophy, science, and theology that these are not timeless or static entities, but are what they are, in and through their long and complex histories, inclusive of a range of interactions that have by no means always been hostile. Although the main focus of the work is on modernity, Chapter 1 sets up the ancient and medieval back story (in which Plato, St Augustine, and Aquinas are the main players) and Chapter 2 looks to the early-modern developments (primarily Descartes, Locke, Hume, and Reid).

A main focus of the book is on relations between theology and science, and Chapter 3 continues the story by looking at some key 20th-century developments in the philosophy of science, while Chapter 4 introduces Alasdair MacIntyre, whom Murphy sees as offering the best theoretical framework for a creative response to the crises of modern Christianity.

This is largely due to his account of all intellectual endeavours as embedded in traditions that cannot be simply opposed to one another, but must be entered into and sympathetically brought into significant dialogue. Only such a dialogue, Murphy argues, can allow us to maintain the intellectual credibility of our own tradition.

After chapters focusing on epistemology (Chapter 5), divine action (Chapter 6), and evil and suffering (Chapter 7), the last three (8-10) offer an extensive engagement with issues of science and Christianity, including her own interdisciplinary work with neuroscientist colleagues.

Murphy’s writing is clear, and she takes pains to explain the overall structure of her work as she goes. These virtues make this a book that could be useful to a (high-powered) parish study group. I find especially interesting insights in the chapter on suffering.

Yet the acknowledgement of pluralism goes only so far. Schleiermacher gets a fair exposure, but Hegel is only fleetingly mentioned and neither Kierkegaard, Heidegger, nor Habermas features at all. At least a distant wave would have been welcome. Phenomenology is conspicuous by its absence, though some phenomenological approaches do feed into the religion/science discussion. But, for those wanting to be brought up to speed on the Anglo-American debate around science and theology, this is probably an ideal work that raises and addresses deeply challenging questions, even if it doesn’t claim to have solved them.

The Revd Professor George Pattison holds the 1640 Chair of Divinity in the University of Glasgow.

A Philosophy of the Christian Religion: For the twenty-first century
Nancey Murphy
SPCK £25

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