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
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
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
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.