From Mount Olympus to eternity

December 13, 2002

Twenty-five years ago, the New Testament theologian D. E. Nineham, in the introduction to a collection of his essays, wrote this: "Where men seem to need help above all is at the level of the imagination; they need some way of envisaging realities such as God. They need to be able to mesh-in their religious symbols with the rest of their sensibility in the sort of way supranaturalist and messianic imagery meshed-in with the sensibility of 1st-century people." The enormous merit of Keith Ward's book is that it satisfies, or prepares the way to satisfying, this need. We live in a post-Newtonian and post-Darwinian age. The symbols that were natural to Greeks and to 1st-century Jews are not what we need, even though they may have collected resonances through the centuries. We cannot try to go back in time, and it is insulting to the intelligence to be asked to do so. This is what turns so many people against religion.

If I were in charge of teaching religious education to a class of adolescents who had, for the most part, neither acquaintance with nor interest in religion, Ward's God is the text I would use. It is luminously clear, would provide numerous occasions for amplification and debate, and is written in a racy, indeed jokey, style. Some purist adults may be offended by the jolly way that philosophers are stripped of their pretensions and reduced to a few sentences. I certainly felt glad to have read Kant, for example, or Hume or Descartes, rather than being dependent on the epitomes of their views supplied by Ward. In the same way, I suppose, some orthodox theologians might be offended by his derogatory remarks about the doctrine of the Trinity. But he is generous with bibliographies, and in my putative teenage class, his way of presenting the great philosophers and the contents of the creeds might do very well, whetting the appetite of the minority, intelligible to the rest, and never misleading.

The first chapter starts with Homer's Iliad , where the gods are constantly referred to as helping or hindering, protecting or abandoning in battle the human protagonists and needing to be propitiated by prayers and sacrifices. Ward argues, persuasively, that neither Homer nor his audiences believed that the gods literally inhabited Mount Olympus with their wives and mistresses or their frequent quarrels and their favourites among human beings. Rather, they were, and were understood to be, symbolic expressions of the contrast between permanence, power and continuity on the one hand and, on the other, the vulnerability and fragility of human life, subject apparently to forces of nature, chance and fortune that were super-human. The way of the world demanded gods to explain it. Homer's poetic imagination supplied them in a manner naturally intelligible to his audience.

We move on to the mechanistic universe first introduced by Descartes, who, although a professed believer in God, left God, in Ward's words, very little to do. Descartes's world, having been created, went on according to mechanical laws, which we could discover if we took enough care and accepted nothing of which we could not be certain.

By now, the gods had been thoroughly expelled from nature. But in between had come Plato, whose universe was dominated by the "Ideas" of which it was a shadow, and whose "Idea of the Good" was something to which those human beings whose education and intellect had revealed it, directed their aspirations and even their love. Ward's account of the connections between Platonism and Christianity, especially the Christianity of the Greek Orthodox Church, is excellent. I could not help thinking of Iris Murdoch who, in her later philosophical work, became preoccupied with the idea that we need religion, but a religion within which Good takes the place of God.

My teenage class would benefit most of all from the second chapter of the book, which introduces monotheism and the prophets of Israel. When I was at school we had two scripture lessons a week, Old Testament (OT) and New Testament (NT). In the early years, OT was a matter of stories and the layout of Solomon's temple; in later years it was the prophets. At no stage were we ever taught about the relation between Judaism and Christianity. It remained a complete mystery to me why we had to sing hymns about "Jerusalem My Happy Home". I knew quite well that, though my family was half-Jewish, I had no desire whatever to go to Jerusalem, let alone regard it as home. The lack of historical perspective in the teaching of religious ideas was astonishing.

There are other aspects of this book from which my class would derive benefit. There is an excellent discussion of the relation between religion and morality, which concludes that, although morality can exist without religion, religion cannot exist without morality; and the subject is reopened in chapter six (which I found extremely moving), "The darkness between the stars". And perhaps the greatest benefit to the class would be learning that the essence of religion is the idea beloved of the Romantic movement that through the shaping power of human imagination the ordinary transient world can give glimpses of eternity, glimpses that can never be wholly articulated. All the best efforts of poetry and art can be no more than metaphors. At least some of my teenagers will acknowledge that this is true from their own experience.

Let no one think that by recommending this book as a school textbook I am seeking to diminish its importance. Far from it. A lesson that needs to be taught, retained and reiterated all through life is the main lesson that Ward teaches: there are more ways of approaching truth than through science alone; and that to take the words of religion literally, as though they were scientific, is to deny their essential significance.

Baroness Warnock was formerly mistress of Girton College, Cambridge.

God: A Guide for the Perplexed

Author - Keith Ward
ISBN - 1 85168 284 8
Publisher - Oneworld
Price - £15.99
Pages - 2654

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