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Adventures in Belief: How I Discovered, by Keith Ward

by
21 April 2023

John Saxbee considers an academic champion of Christian belief

THIS is a book nobody has been waiting for — except, perhaps, Richard Dawkins!

Keith Ward has been a voice to be reckoned with in making the case for Christian theism since the 1970s, and this is, sadly, his last book. A beguiling autobiography, as well as a succinct summary of his theological odyssey, this captures the breadth and depth of his learning, lightly worn, but profoundly felt.

The story begins in rural Northumbria, where, during the war, he was raised by his mother and five aunts while his father was away. He displayed a precocious interest in religion, from Methodist Chapel to Hexham Abbey Choir, dabbling in Rosicrucianism on the way. During his National Service in the RAF, a “vivid experience of Jesus” gave him a lifelong sense of being invaded by goodness and love.

An accomplished pianist, he flirted with music studies in Cardiff, but transferred to a course that included philosophy, and he was hooked. Ordination beckoned, and, after spells as a bus conductor and railway porter, he enrolled at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, with a first-class degree in philosophy under his belt. His postgraduate thesis on Bultmann and Heidegger raised doubts about his “soundness” for ordination, and so he turned to teaching philosophy as a career, first at Glasgow University and then Aberdeen.

Kant had already stimulated Ward’s enduring interest in Idealism — a non-materialist approach to ultimate reality — but his first book was Ethics and Christianity, in 1970, which arose out of his being drawn to the relation of morality to religion.

He averaged a book a year for the next fifty years, covering the nature of religion, science and religion, the Bible, and Christianity in relation to his own philosophy of personal Idealism.

Between 1971 and 1991, he taught at King’s College, London, interrupted only by a stint as Dean of Trinity Hall, Cambridge, where he honed his view of God as “a dynamic, creative, power realising the divine nature as love by the creation of other persons, relating to them in new responsive ways, and aiming to bring them to fulfilment by union with the divine life”.

He provides a moving account of how “the simple faith” of parishioners attending church near his home in north London offered to make some sort of sense of perplexing and often troubled lives. Ordination by the Bishop of London soon followed.

Time spent in India stimulated his interest in world religions, and especially Vedanta Hinduism. His A Vision to Pursue (1991) and Religion in the Modern World (2019) share the fruits of this seminal adventure in belief.

Twelve years as Regius Professor of Divinity, at Christ Church, Oxford, established him as “a genuine theologian” with opportunities to engage in public debates, especially with Professor Dawkins, and to teach theology in the United States, promoting “a scientifically informed, morally sensitive, and tolerant Christianity”.

After his retirement in 2003, he taught at Gresham College, Heythrop, and Roehampton. He says that “The general reaction was that I was too religious to be a real philosopher and too unorthodox to be a real theologian. I think that means I just about got it right.” Admitting that so many key moments in his life occurred more by accident than by design, his style is light-hearted, self-deprecating, and charitable, although, at times, his impatience with closed ethical and theological minds is very clear.

Ward has crafted a philosophy of religion with truth, beauty, and goodness as contributing to an understanding of God which is liberal, liberating, and expansive in its embrace of evolving truths in changing times.

His concluding “My Philosophy in a nutshell” is exemplary in its concision and clarity.
 

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

 

Adventures in Belief: How I Discovered the meaning of life, the universe, and everything (possibly)
Keith Ward
Cascade Books £18
(978-1-66675-623-4)
Church Times Bookshop £16.20

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