Reason and logic and the value of philosophy
PHILOSOPHY AND RELIGION: FROM PLATO TO POSTMODERNISM
One World, 176pp, pbk
1 85168 307 0, £12.99
Ever since the tyranny of the suspicion and cowardice of the Protestant nonconformists was lifted from religious studies syllabi in schools, the study of the Bible has been in steady, and in the case of the Old Testament terminal, decline. The old repetitious trawl through Scripture has been replaced by philosophy and ethics, which are responsible for the considerable increase in public examination candidates over the last decade. Publishers have been also quick to notice the change. Of the making of textbooks on philosophy of religion there appears to be no end. Why then have Professor Charlesworth and One World seen fit to issue an admittedly substantial revision of a book first published in 1972?
There are two reasons. One, this is a book with a distinctive and useful approach to the subject whose focus is the relationship between philosophy and theology, rather than the well-worn path of other writers. The second is the confidence and assurance with which Professor Charlesworth surveys his field, and the distinctive material he cites and discusses. He recognizes (who nowadays cannot and live?) the immense diversity of religions and theologies to stand alongside the diversity of philosophies. Confronted with this, Professor Charlesworth is clear than we cannot take the easy escape route, ‘Nor can we complacently assume that at bottom all religions say very much the same thing.’ He confines himself to the Western interactions between philosophy and theology, though Islam receives extensive coverage. He notes that a study covering eastern religions would require a very different book. He also briskly rejects the tenability of any claim that there can be a distinctive feminist philosophy of religion, so the reader is spared discussion of thinkers who attempt this foolish enterprise.
The ground thus cleared, five chapters of unequal length survey the field, adopting five versions of the relationship: from philosophy leading us to a quasi-religious view of reality and way of life as in Plato and his heirs down to Hegel; through philosophy as the preamble to faith and theology, where the main character is Aquinas; philosophy as revealing the independent sphere of faith, where the hero is Kant; then philosophy as a purely analytical or meta-logical enterprise with the Logical Positivists, which only leaves us a study of the way language is used in religious contexts; before ending with the Postmodernists led by Heidegger and Derrida. Aquinas and Kant receive most space among the individual thinkers, but most of the usual suspects at least appear briefly. The exposition is generally very good and clear. Of particular value are the comments about Spinoza and the discussion of the links between Rousseau’s Savoyard vicar and Kant’s personal confession of faith, which is (uniquely in my reading) quoted in extenso.
The only brief section which caused me concern was the rather inaccurate account of the Falsification Principle on p138. Otherwise the unenviable task of summarizing complex ideas in simple language and in a short space was admirably done. Few of the end notes contained anything other than references so their separation from the text (indefensible in these days of computerized typesetting) gave no inconvenience. Overall this is an admirable book which fills a gap in the overcrowded market.
Patrick Allsop is Chaplain of St Paul’s School.
ALBION: THE ORIGINS OF THE ENGLISH IMAGINATION
Chatto and Windus 516pp
hbk 1 85619 7212 £25.00
Is there such a thing as ‘Englishness’ in art? Niklaus Pevsner thought so, and hoped to demonstrate the fact in his ground-breaking book The Englishness of English Art (1976). Roy Strong revisited the subject (albeit less analytically) in The Spirit of Britain (2000). Now Peter Ackroyd gives us his version in Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination.
The first thing to say is that it is a towering book; one full of the insights and overviews that we have come to associate with its author. No one will come away from reading it without a pressing desire to visit again some author or work from an entirely fresh perspective.
But is it a convincing or a persuasive book? At the end of it have we learned more, not only about English art, but about ‘Englishness’? I doubt it.
With the occasional diversion into painting, music and architecture this is a book mainly concerned with literary England. It is a Cook’s Tour through the canon of the Oxford English School circa 1965, when the syllabus went from Beowulf to Bernard Shaw with a marked preference for poets over novelists. Some of its observations are mere commonplaces: that the English have a taste for mixed genres (for comedy and tragedy intermingled, for the serious and poignant in the midst of the most scurrilous and farcial); that they have never had much time for ‘the Unities’; that in the novel they go for the picaresque more frequently than the symbolic.
He remarks on the long-standing tradition of ‘dragging-up’, and what appears to be a national taste for sexual ambiguity. He adopts Pevsner’s theory of the serpentine line which extends from the Lindisfarne Gospels, through Hogarth’s ‘line of beauty’ to the sinuous curves of Lucien Freud.
More originally he sees a line of development in the lugubrious and eremitical from The Wanderer and The Seafarer to Keats’s St Agnes Eve and Eliot’s The Waste Land.
There is point to all these observations – though the sceptical reader will wonder to how many other national literatures, with which she is less than familiar, they might also apply.
It is hard, however, to swallow the repeated emphasis on continuity from Old and Middle English to the present day. Only an ardent enthusiast for the literature of our earliest forebears could claim so much for works which were virtually unavailable until the nineteenth century philologists and the Early English Text Society did their work, and have only recently (for example, Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf translation) reached the general reader.
But if Ackroyd does not entirely persuade, he certainly stimulates. In what other book does one move so rapidly from late medieval female religion – Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe (he is too soft by far on the egregious Margery in my view!) – to the culture of translation which is the glory of the English Renaissance?
How sad and belittling to the tradition it is, that Julian has been raped by the feminists; and that my generation grew up reading Latin and Greek literature in the Penguin translations edited by EV Rieu rather than the marvellous achievements of North, Wyatt, Jonson (and later Dryden and Pope).
In a chapter entitled ‘Among the ruins’ Ackroyd gives us a potted history of antiquarianism, surely one of the abiding fascinations of the English mind. Has there been any other nation (Hungary perhaps?) whose political revolutions have been so profoundly affected by historical nostalgia – the Norman Yoke and ‘The History of Tithes’ making their contribution to the Civil War, and the curious alliance between Young England and ‘Merrie England’ cementing the parliamentary reforms of the nineteenth century?
A strange omission from the book is any mention of the English love affair with the exotic, and with India in particular. If there is a line of development which takes us from Mandeville’s Travels to Johnson’s Rasselas, it surely extends to Rudyard Kipling and A Passage to India.
But ignore my caveats. Buy and read this treasury of delights. I cannot do it justice; I can only quibble with it. And that, in the end, belittles me and not the book.
Stories to help you pray
BRF, 128pp, pbk
1 84101 188 6, £5.99
Whilst many, with ideas of raves in the nave, panic about the numbers of children not attending our churches, others quietly go on producing things of lasting value. Included in this latter category is Susan Lacy’s excellent book which, if you like, is Ignatian spirituality for kids. It is so obvious in this Harry Potter age, that the presentation of the Gospel in a way that relies on imagination is a winner, but how many have succeeded like Lacy?
In her beautifully crafted stories, the child is at the centre, which immediately engages your audience. ‘Benjamin’, who has just run away from home (with five loaves and two fishes!) is the central character in the feeding of the five thousand. ‘Deborah’, who is fed up of doing more work in the home than her sister, is the one who ends up kneeling at the feet of our Lord as he tells the story of the prodigal son/proud brother. Benjamin and Deborah’s personal situations are relevant to the message they hear from the Lord, so they respond and turn to him. And as Deborah and Benjamin are swept along into the drama, so too are the children in your class or club.
The ten stories not only help the children actively to use their imaginations but also to move them into prayer, as elements of the story are retold and they close their eyes, meditate and become part of the on-going drama.
The Archbishop of York, drawing on Genesis 28, ‘How awesome is this place’, in a recent sermon spoke of the need for awe and wonder (cf ‘Harry Potter’ again) in worship as a correct ingredient alongside accessibility. This warning is, I believe, relevant in considering not only worship but catechetics. In this small book we see the opportunity for breaking open the Gospel for our young people in a way that leaves them in awe of God. It’s not trying to be too relevant to the children, but through their imaginary prayer journey they become part of Jesus’ saving plan: that is the relevance.
There are follow-up questions for reflection and activity ideas together with a closing prayer. I field-tested the stories in different contexts and they work: for example primary (Year 6) class, secondary Christian youth club (Year 7s) and a primary school assembly. Depending on your context you will adapt. For example if you use a story for an assembly, you will only have time to tell the story, and no time for the reflection, but it still works. Lacy does not appear to intend the stories to be used as dramas/role plays, but you could. Again, it worked for me. The material is aimed at 8–10s, but I think you could successfully use them with teenagers in a club or confirmation class or with adults on a parish retreat.
Weak points? Not many. The short Bible quotations are NIV; some of the language in the imaginary stories may need adapting depending on your age and ability and some of the post-prayer activities look as though they might not work too well or might need expansion or adaptation. Nevertheless, this book will become a very useful resource for those who work with children, and for all of us who work with ‘bigger children’!
The many children’s comments printed in the back of the book speak for themselves: for example, ‘I felt like Jesus was speaking to me’ and ‘I was so excited to see Jesus’. The one comment that I remember with one of my groups was a girl, in excited fashion, as I walked into the room saying, ‘Are we doing all about that Benjamin again this week, Father?’. Feeding of the five thousand, indeed. With a resource like this, you can be greatly helped to break open the bread of the gospel to feed the 5,000.
Fr Simon Ellis was a secondary school teacher and is now Vicar of St Laurence, Long Eaton.
THE TRUTH OF CATHOLICISM
Ten Controversies Explored
Gracewing, 200pp, pbk
0 85244 572 5, £9.99
The cover of this book is a blue-toned photograph of a gothic vaulted ceiling. Dark, cold and unexpectedly sinister. That is the feel of this book. It is not pleasant, but it is interesting.
Weigel is an American Roman Catholic journalist of many years’ experience. His expressed intention is to present the truths of the Catholic faith, in response to contemporary liberal and humanist objections. Excellent. The context is North American, but it is not this which sticks in the throat, but his insensitivity. ‘Viewed from outside the Catholic Church can seem narrow-minded, crabby and pinched,’ he writes. With apologists such as him that is hardly surprising.
His first chapter is an assessment of the papal teaching document Dominus Iesus. What he says about the text is concise, clear and accurate; what he says of the non-RC reaction to its publication is gratuitously offensive. The chapter ‘Is Catholicism safe for democracy?’ has some excellent teaching, cited from Pope John Paul, on the need for a moral basis to democratic life, but the arrogant dismissal of all non-RC democratic history is frankly grotesque. If he really is that ignorant of history, he should not be writing books; if he is deliberately ignoring the past for propaganda purposes, he should be openly condemned.
Not every chapter is quite so damning, and (let me repeat) much of his teaching is excellent, but if you wanted to know whether Roman triumphalism still lives, read this. Weigel would surely protest, ‘But that was never my intention.’ In which case one must reply, ‘If that was not the intention, how did it come about?’
This is the interest of the book. If you are keen to teach and preach the Faith, and counter current liberal trends (suppose, for example, you are a contributor to New Directions), how do you avoid falling into the same trap? The value of this book is as a warning. Here is an intelligent man, whose teaching is sound and whose writing is good; and yet he leaves an outsider feeling ‘I would rather be wrong than join your club.’ It is not his intentions, nor his temper, nor his ignorance of non-RCs, it is his over-reliance on logic.
Reason is good. Logic may seem to be an easy substitute, but in the hands of someone who has not studied its subtleties or who shows no sensitivity to its limitations, it is an instrument whose effectiveness is often illusory. Faced with the great mysteries of the Gospel, it is unbecoming to suggest that logic alone will unravel their full meaning. Even if his opponents avoid reason and prefer to rely on prejudice or unthinking dogmatism, that is still no excuse.
It is an unfortunate laziness, or ignorance, of many theologians to rely too heavily upon simple methods of logic, which may in themselves be admirable (and rational) but which cannot take the weight that is put on them. We should never forget that many of the most vicious errors were deduced, by logic alone, from truths of the Gospel. Weigel would have done well to be less certain. We may mock the liberals for their in-your-face sensitivity, but they are not all wrong. NT
THE POPE & THE HERETIC
Little Brown, 220pp, hbk
0 316 85491 3, £16.99
Giordano Bruno is an interesting character of early modern Europe. Burned as a heretic in 1600 when Clement VIII was Pope, there is no question that he fell victim to the Inquisition during one of the worst periods of its Counter-Reformation resurgence. A great meddler in national politics, he was one of many victims of the late sixteenth-century turmoil of nationalism. If you want a simple tale of the good guy being done down by the bad guy, this is it; history as pantomime, it may be, but White’s diatribes against the Roman Church go far beyond the text and are deeply unpleasant.
Sixteenth-century Europe was a time of great intellectual riches, with many brilliant men propounding many brilliant theories in the arts and sciences. Bruno was one of the cleverest of men in a clever age, but was he a genius, a father of twentieth-century science, the tolerant liberal in a world of narrow, religious bigotry, the lost grandfather of the modern age? I think not.
An Italian Dominican, he left the order to avoid being excommunicated, and from then on travelled Europe, teaching and writing and staying one step ahead of those who found his ideas intolerable. Passing through Calvinist Geneva and Lutheran Germany, his greatest success seems to have been in England during the 1580s, when he hoped to enlist Queen Elizabeth as leader of a new age renaissance.
Brunos strange world of gnosticism and the occult has been far better described by Frances Yates. Rosicrucians, the art of memory, Freemasonry, alchemy, the Hermetic tradition, these are all part of the European tradition, strange schoolboy aberrations in the rationalist enterprise. To take the most famous example (quoted here of course), there is Isaac Newton, the genius of mathematical science, who was also a closet occultist. Pushing the envelope and breaking the boundaries or a lazy alternative to serious thought? Studies of such charismatic charlatans as Giordano are valuable if only to remind ourselves that it is generally the latter. He had charm, energy, imagination and courage, but in the end the final judgement remains ‘too clever by half’.
Like so many others, he was searching for the definitive short cut to enlightenment. The temptation is always there. We may mock the rationalists for laying too much store by human reason, but they are not all wrong. NT
TRUTH & TRUTHFULNESS
Princeton, 340pp, hbk
0 691 10276 7, [£19.95]
Williams is the most humane of mainstream Anglo-Saxon philosophers. He has a grasp of what we normally think of as real life that is exceptional for a university teacher. Above all, he has shown throughout his career a keen eye for the folly of cynics, nihilists and those he here calls ‘truth deniers’. It means that what he has to say about the use and the value of human reason is immensely helpful.
There are two aspects of the modern understanding of truth. One is an intense commitment to getting at the truth, an eagerness to dig as deep as is necessary, to push aside appearances and to hunt down the reality behind the mask. The other is an equally pervasive and unrelenting suspicion about truth itself, even a denial that there can be any such thing. How can this demand for truthfulness and the rejection of truth co-exist?
Williams proposes what he calls a genealogy of the truth, what we might call a founding story, in the same tradition as that of the Social Contract in eighteenth-century political theory. It is a surprising success, a brilliant exercise in a European tradition of philosophy. It is not myth or revelation, nor is it anthropology or science, but it does unravel the place of truth and truthfulness within human society, and its relation to such themes as sincerity, accuracy and (the old standard) belief.
Truth of itself has little moral content; it just is what it is, and needs no further elaboration, no cod-metaphysics to boost its worth. How we get there, what we do with it, how we encourage its usefulness, these are the areas where understanding is to be found. His genealogical approach convinces by the richness of the ideas he draws together, but also provides a context for the reader, of inevitably lesser philosophical ability, to develop his or her own imagination.
His later discussion of politics seemed rather dull, but what he says about truth in history (chapters 7, 8 and 10) is wonderful; if you read nothing else, as a church historian read this. His analysis of the disciplines of truthfulness, his careful dismissal of many forms of relativism and post-modernism is hugely encouraging. This is a genuine philosophy of history, entirely secular and rational, that provides a basis for our own religious requirements for making sense of who we are and whence we came. He writes passionately about Thucydides, the Greek father of history; much of what he says would also apply to the writer of the Succession Narrative, the biblical father of history.
In an age that produces books such as the two reviewed above, the value of Williams’ humane reason is immense. This is not old material revisited, but twenty-first century Grade A philosophy, and a most powerful re-affirmation of what we like to call the third leg of the Anglican stool. My trouble is that I am a working priest, and try as I might I cannot find the space and concentration for so demanding a book. It is not merely that I am stupid, it is probably too complex a book for a part-time thinker. If he could have written something half the length and left out the academic nit-picking; if in other words he had written it directly for you and me, it would be a classic. NT
Tempus, 192pp, pbk
0 7524 2606 0, £12.99
Somerset is a county rich in dragon lore and in this book Brian Wright has brought together the best of the local dragon stories with the location of many fine dragon images in the county.
As a simple guide mixing folk tale and architecture to provide visitors with a theme for their travels the book works well. With the addition of a detailed map of Somerset it can be used to track down a large number of chronologically and stylistically diverse dragon carvings, paintings etc; most of them situated either in or on Somerset churches.
For those of more sedentary habit, Mr Wright has provided good illustrations of the various dragon items so those of us who feel disinclined to travel around the county can enjoy dragon hunting from the warmth of our own firesides.
It is when Mr Wright ventures away from the factual recording of locations and known folk tales that the purpose of the book becomes less clear. His enthusiastic attempt at linking Somerset to the Beowulf story via one Saxon carving only serves to show how tenuous the link is. And the listing of churches dedicated to ‘dragon saints’ adds little to the general theme.
But if Mr Wright occasionally forces his dragon links through over-enthusiasm it does not detract from the generally high level of the practical information given. This is a good read for anyone interested in dragons or who enjoys the detailed study of church ornament and architecture.
Stephanie Gall worships at St John’s, Axbridge, in Somerset.
THE NEW FLATLANDERS
Highland, 176pp, pbk
1 897913 65 6, [£6.99]
Like a picture of the heavens, this book is a crazy confusion of beauty and chaos, science and Evangelical spirituality. Very slightly barking mad, it is a manic journey through most of the contemporary headline discoveries of science, with the nervous young Christian in mind, much of it in dialogue form, which makes it entertaining, quirky and as full of non sequiturs as any talk with teenagers. His aim is to ‘give Christian apologists greater confidence to debate with scientists.’ Whether those scientists will make head or tail of a word they say, I am unsure, but it will instil confidence.
P-branes, multiple dimensions, fractals, superstrings, homo habilis, DNA, and much, much more; it is mostly physics but an eclectic blend, a whole library of popular science crammed into a single paperback. If you shy away from such discussion for fear that it will undermine your faith, this has much to offer: not an overall coherent picture, but a strong sense that spiritual questions can and should be posed even of modern science, that it is not wrong to ask the deeper questions, that you do not have to be over-awed by the crude reductionism of the Neo-Darwinians.
For an intelligent 18-year old, it offers an extended and friendly dialogue, and a wealth of material for the imagination. To an older reader, it may be manic, but he is clearly a good teacher, well versed in his subject, and even has an endorsement from John Hapgood, and it is definitely not how-to-be-nice spirituality. We like it. AS
VICAR TO DAD’S ARMY
Canterbury, 246pp, hbk
1 85311 494 4, £16.99
An undemanding recitation of an actor’s life, up to and beyond the pinnacle of his career as the much put-upon Vicar of Walmington-on-Sea in television’s great comedy series, Dad’s Army. He has attempted, properly, to marry this with his growth in his spiritual life but somehow fails in conveying to the reader just what Christianity means to him; rather it seems to be a list of the churches he has attended and which of those he has enjoyed the most. I daresay that I am doing him a disservice for unless there is more depth to the man than is portrayed I cannot imagine him spending so many hours sitting on General Synod and joining in debate.
A member of the Catholic Group on Synod, he agonized long and hard over the decision to ordain women to the priesthood but remained on the side of the traditionalist whilst appreciating women’s ministry in its wider form. He also raised many questions on the need of Common Worship to alter all things and defended the traditional texts. As a member of the Crown Appointments Commission, on which he served for five years, he found the secrecy surrounding the meetings and the appointments served well, but does not say why.
The churchy bits do not dominate and many a Dad’s Army fan will be able to read it and hardly notice that they were there. It is a pity that a faithful layman, who gave so much service, should in the end have so little to say about the Church he clearly loves, or that he should so easily have abandoned the fight once the vote was lost ten years ago. PT
THE WYCLIFFE NEW TESTAMENT
Transcribed by WR Cooper
British Library, 550pp, hbk
0 7123 4728 3, [£13.99]
Some years ago, around the 500th anniversary of his birth, William Tyndale’s translation of the New Testament was published, and as far as he had got with the Old Testament before he was martyred; it came out in a number of different editions at various prices, including a neat and simple one from the British Library. Happily that publishing enterprising was a success, for we now have a still earlier English version, the Lollard translation of the fourteenth century.
A translation from the Latin Vulgate, from before the invention of printing and at a time when the Church to a greater or lesser degree persecuted biblical translators, this is perhaps as far back as we can go, before the early English translation would itself need to be translated. This book offers the ‘Later Version’ of 1388, four years after John Wycliffe’s death, presented in modern spelling and punctuation.
Do you really want yet another translation of the New Testament? Absolutely. What this offers is both an extraordinary freshness (some of the phrasing is almost childlike in its simplicity) and a realization of just how difficult it has been to grasp deep theological truths in our own language. Men died in order to write these words, and their faith shows through. This is a well-produced and readable edition, complete with the short Prologues to each book, and the non-canonical Epistle to the Laodiceans.
One complaint: there is a wide margin in which translations of some of the more obscure and obsolete words have been inserted, which would be invaluable were it not for the fact that the clarification is only offered the first time the word appears. This, so Dr Cooper tells us, is to encourage us to read ‘the text from start to finish’. What idiosyncratic nonsense! He also proposes to produce the entire Bible from the 1388 text, which is excellent, but an editor needs to take him in hand. Some more notes and glosses and elucidation is needed: we want to know that we can touch the original; we do not need to be sheltered from it by a kindly modern academic.
Versions are usually compared through I Corinthians 13, so here are a few verses:
Charity is patient. It is benign. Charity envies not. It does not wickedly. It is not blown. It is not covetous. It seeks not those things that are its own. It is not stirred to wrath. It thinks not evil. It joys not on wickedness, but it joys together to truth. It suffers all things. It believes all things. It hopes all things. It sustains all things. Charity falls never down. AS