THERE is something inspired about asking two leading academics, who are also old friends, to write this book on the rationality (or not) of belief. Michael Ruse is a leading philosopher of biology, and a moderate but firm advocate of agnosticism. Raised a Quaker, he is not dismissive of religion tout court. Brian Davies is equally well-known among philosophers of religion. He is a Dominican friar, and offers a Thomism gently couched in terms of analytic philosophy.
The book unfolds as seven paired half-chapters, with a contribution first from Ruse, then Davies. In the final chapter, each reflects what the other has written. That conclusion allows the book to become a dialogue, but it also underlines the great missed opportunity, since the entire book could easily have been so much more of a dialogue than it is, had we been able to overhear responses, each to the other, as it went along.
As it is, the book concludes with Ruse’s telling us what he finds unconvincing about all that Davies has written, and Davies’s telling us (rather extensively) that Ruse has simply misunderstood, misrepresented, or ignored even quite foundational aspects of Christian belief.
Davies has a point. Ruse had written, for instance, of belief that Jesus “is himself God, whatever that means”. Any introduction to the history of Christian thought could instruct him on that front, but — better still — why not ask Davies, since the whole logic of the book is that an expert in Christian theology is to hand?
As Ruse sees it, faith is belief without evidence, even belief in the face of evidence to the contrary. That, however, is not what faith has meant to many Christians, either historically or today. Nor does it ring true to this reader to insist on calling faith an “experience” (“the faith experience”) as Ruse does. I can make sense of it, but only inasmuch as anything that features in human life might be called an experience.
On this territory of faith, Davies offers some of his most valuable writing, arguing that all knowledge, and all reason, involves accepting some things on authority or conviction. Faith is not some isolated “experience” for the religious few. The attempt that follows, however, to minimise the extent of justification needed for belief (in the style of “Reformed epistemology”) strikes me as doing Christianity no favours.
Alongside the nature of faith, the problem of evil is the other central topic. Here, Davies returns to territory that he has explored ably in volumes such as The Reality of God and the Problem of Evil, with a robust defence of the position that God is not to be judged as a morally good person, since God’s goodness is not moral (it is closer to “ontological’ goodness — the excellence of being in a certain characterful way), nor is God a “person” as we typically understand people.
The rejection of flat equivalence when it comes to calling both God and creatures “good” or a “person” is welcome, but Davies’s Thomist tradition (with ideas of analogy) would allow for more by way of an affirmation of likeness, to set aside unlikeness, than we find here. On the allied territory of ethics, Davies is clear and forthright, but offers little of the joy or splendour of Christian ethics as a life enraptured by the good, pursued in fellowship with others and in imitation of Christ.
The genius of this book is dialogue. As I have said, that is only partially realised here. Its promise might be unbottled if it were to be read in common. Members of a book group could talk about how one author might reply to the other; and a paperback edition is now available.
The Revd Dr Andrew Davison is the Starbridge Associate Professor in Theology and Natural Sciences at the University of Cambridge, and Fellow in Theology and Dean of Chapel at Corpus Christi College.
Taking God Seriously: Two different voices
Brian Davies and Michael Ruse
Cambridge University Press £74.99, £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £67.50 (hbk), £17.99 (pbk)