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Times Literary Supplement
Sunday, October 30th, 2005


God's Advocates: Christian Thinkers in Conversation

by Rupert Shortt

Gifts and fragments

A review by John Habgood

Popular contemporary attitudes towards theology include condescending dismissal on the one hand, and conservative religious intransigence on the other. Rupert Shortt sets out to provide a more balanced and intellectually demanding assessment. The fourteen discussions in God's Advocates:
Christian Thinkers in Conversation
cover a wide range, with the emphasis mainly on the philosophical, social and ethical aspects of theology, rather than on the Bible itself. Shortt is a perceptive questioner, and has obviously read widely in the works of the eighteen theologians with whom he has talked. The result is a book with serious academic content, yet structured in such a way as to be accessible to those who are unfamiliar with the issues. His summaries of the writings of his conversationalists are consistently clear and enlightening; theology emerges as a much more exciting, vigorous and relevant subject than its contemporary image might suggest.

Strikingly absent from most of the conversations is any direct appeal to authority, whether biblical or ecclesiastical. Rowan Williams, for instance, reflects on lives which pose the problem of goodness against seemingly overwhelming odds. What does it mean to live in an environment where grace is not just a theological concept, but an experience: an environment where God does not have to be proved, but recognized as deeply involved in the process of the world, its sufferings and its possibilities? Such an appeal to experience does not, of course, bypass the traditional sources of faith. Williams was himself influenced by what he calls Karl Barth's "exuberant bloody-mindedness in stressing the sheer otherness of God in his self-revelation". But grace cannot finally be captured in conventional images and forms. It must be known at first hand, or not at all.

Others of Shortt's "advocates" also discovered God in experience. Janet Martin Soskice, a Roman Catholic theologian, describes her dramatic conversion, "a terrific sense of mystery . . ." which enabled her to see the world in a new way as "gratuitous -- a gift from a giver". Now, as a philosopher of language, her concern is not so much with the standard philosophical objections to religion, as with the bankruptcy of an intellectual tradition which simply ignores the whole spiritual dimension. She wants to say to those who do not know their poverty, "Think what we can offer you with this God business. Stare into the void, and then turn away, and maybe the answer is God" -- a challenge which is used as the epigraph of this book.

Miroslav Volf, growing up in Croatia, was shaped by his Evangelical upbringing before he became an Anglican: he is now Director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture. It is not surprising that reconciliation has been his primary concern, including reconciliation between Christians and Muslims. He is clear that justice, though necessary, is not enough. A Trinitarian faith, as he understands it, opens up the possibility of our identities being inhabited by others, thus pointing the way to a deeper kind of social reconciliation than was possible on the basis of his earlier biblical individualism. The same theme of mutual indwelling is taken up by Christoph Schwobel of Tubingen, who argues that it is the Trinitarian image of the divine which can tell us who we are, and how we relate to one another, rather than vice versa, as Feuerbach claimed.

Black and feminist theologies are, for obvious reasons, strongly influenced by personal experience. J. Kameron Carter describes the American civil rights movement as "a potent example of lived theology arising from black Christian faith". He sees it as a principle of classical dogmatic theology that "the discourse of theology is always rooted in the grammar of lives that make it intelligible". But to underline the connection is not to imply that the theology is just an offshoot of the experience of oppression. His point is that theology came first, having already declared "the nearness of God to slaves despite their abject condition", and it was this belief which eventually enabled them to find an identity no longer dependent on other people's perception of them.

For Sarah Coakley it was the experience of prayer and silence which led her to theology. As a priest, she has interesting things to say about occupying both masculine and feminine roles when celebrating the Eucharist, and how this can lead to an understanding of a mutual indwelling of the persons of the Trinity which transcends gender. Tina Beattie discusses feminism in more familiar terms, and is highly critical of the new Roman Catholic feminism, heavily dependent on Hans Urs von Balthasar, which repeats the old stereotypes about male initiative and female receptiveness.

Religious experience also played a part in the life of the philosopher Alvin Plantinga: one such experience gave him the kind of certainty about God's existence that most people have concerning the existence of other minds. Such belief does not preclude argument, but it accepts that the truth is not necessarily reached by argument, even though the reasoning which leads to it may be valid. His own somewhat eccentric proof of the existence of God rests on the claim that there is a conflict between philosophical naturalism and science. Evolution, he says, may ensure that our behaviour is adaptive, but this cannot ensure that our beliefs are true, including belief in naturalism itself. Naturalism, therefore, by excluding God, has no solid grounds for asserting the reliability of our mental faculties.

A rather different disjunction between atheistic philosophy and everyday beliefs provided the impetus for the controversial Radical Orthodoxy movement. John Milbank, its founder, claims that medieval philosophy took a wrong turning when Duns Scotus separated it from theology. This was a recipe for bad theology, and has left secular disciplines, of which the social sciences have been a prime example, unaware of their inbuilt theological or anti-theological assumptions. At the same time it has left philosophy without a language for dealing with the transcendent or the big questions of human destiny. The implications of trying to put the two together again are far-reaching, the movement claims, not least in exposing the extreme authoritarianism of the Enlightenment.

New thinking about Aquinas, described by David Burrell, demonstrates his continuing relevance, and in particular draws attention to his debt to Jewish and Muslim thinkers. A conversation between Burrell and Milbank about how and why Aquinas's careful conjunction of faith and reason did not prevail over their separation by Duns Scotus, would be interesting. Aquinas's characterization of God as "Being" comes under fire from Jean-Luc Marion, who believes that God is better described in ethical rather than metaphysical terms. A definition of God must inevitably be idolatrous. But it is possible to know God as the Good, as the final object of desire, as the One who gives and calls and loves, and as the impossible possibility who can change our lives.

The perception of human existence as a gift from God has profound ethical implications for Stanley Hauerwas. His rejection of Niebuhr's ethical realism in favour of a much more subversive and community-based approach is contradicted by David Martin who, from a sociological perspective, favours critical solidarity with those who bear political responsibility. Martin recognizes, though, that it is hard for the faith to resist secularization, except when the religious impetus comes from below, from popular feeling rather than from the patronage of the intelligentsia. Intelligent, theologically informed political understanding is regarded as a necessity, however, by Oliver and Joan O'Donovan if Christianity is to throw any light on the modern world and its problems, and to provide some concepts in terms of which these might be tackled. Not the least of the problems is the legal individualism encouraged by human rights law, despite its proper concern with black and feminist issues.

Rupert Shortt has given us a rich and complex insight into the tangled world of religious advocacy. Do its internal contradictions negate it? Oliver O'Donovan, I suspect, comes nearest the truth when speaking about Rowan Williams, for whom the recognition of our inherent fragility and of the complexities which have to be faced are central to his theology. "He makes difficulty an apologetic opportunity. He uses it to appeal to an experience of the world that is more broken and less ordered than we usually like to acknowledge. He seizes on awkward and inassimilable fragments that will open the way to the mysterious, those that defy smoothing out, just as faith itself does." The same might be said of the feast of ideas on offer here.

John Habgood was formerly Archbishop of York, and chairman of the process which for the first time included the Roman Catholic Church within the British and Northern Irish ecumenical bodies.

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