Reasonable religion

Religion and Creation
January 10, 1997

Keith Ward is well known as an articulate philosopher of religion prepared to take on the scientific thought police in defence of religious belief and, more particularly, Christian faith. Recently in these pages he had the temerity to suggest that two distinguished Oxford colleagues, the biologist Richard Dawkins and the chemist Peter Atkins, were not just ignorant of the true nature of religious belief but, in opposing scientific rationality to religious irrationality, guilty of faulty reasoning at a number of levels.

Ward's new book, which continues a three-part project begun withReligion and Revelation, mentions neither Dawkins nor Atkins and is happily free of polemic. But the issue of the relationship between science and religion is never far beneath the surface. For Ward's topic is the primordial religious question - why is there anything at all? His response is a metaphysical realism which by presenting religious faith as essentially reasonable argues against the claims of scientific positivists to be able to "explain away" religion. At the same time he does not want to set theological claims against those of the scientist.

For the Christian theologian of the classical tradition the doctrine of God raises questions about the coherence of the biblical concept of God as Creator. Such a theology is played out in terms of a tension between concepts of divine immutability and human freedom. And not the least interest of this book is the meticulous way in which arguments from the classical tradition of Christian thought are painstakingly analysed against recent discussions in physics about cosmology and, particularly, about the nature of time. Ward, however, wants to modify this tradition quite radically by speaking of God in relational terms, giving more weight to the biblical concept of God's ecstatic self-giving. The classical traditional depicts God as a timeless and self sufficient reality (and therefore by implication sees God's relationship with creation as a "problem" to be solved). Ward's alternative is to stress "the effectivity, creativity, relationality, and temporality of the Divine". The question is whether he gives us a reconciliation of such views or no more than a juxtaposition.

His method is that of the analytic philosopher: to chip away at the logic - or lack of - in empiricist and nonrealist orthodoxies in favour of a theistic account of divine reality. But what makes this book richer than the standard philosophical apologia, and quite different from a postmodern nostalgia trip, is Ward's engagement with different religious traditions. This is fundamentally an exercise in comparative theology. In support of his argument Ward draws on three 20th-century theologians: the Jew Abraham Herschel, the Muslim Mohammed Iqbal and the Hindu Sri Aurobindo. It is this dialogue which makes the book both more, and strangely less, than a rethinking of the classical tradition of Christian theology.

The first of four sections takes up where his earlier book on revelation left off. Four scriptural traditions are neatly summarised before Ward turns to his 20th-century interpreters. Herschel responds to questions about the nature of God that are implicit in the prophetic tradition; Iqbal works out the implications of the Sufi doctrine of Wahdat al-Wujud, the Oneness of Being; while Sri Aurobindo develops an evolutionary perspective out of the Vedanta. But Ward's partiality has a purpose. In the four traditions he finds a certain convergence at one crucial point: even in the more "monistic" Vedanta or the "unitarian" theology of Sufi mysticism there is "a recognition of some form of diversity in unity, which makes the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, while distinctive, not wholly at odds with concepts of the Supreme in other religious traditions".

Adding the unlikely person of Karl Barth to his three chosen theologians Ward develops a thesis to which he returns at various points as the argument develops. In all four, he says, there develops a single controlling idea, that of "a being than which nothing more valuable can be imagined or conceived". After considering questions about the objective reality of God and the use of metaphor and analogy in theological discourse in part two, Ward turns in part three to the essential characteristics of God as Creator - power, wisdom, goodness, love and bliss.

The final part relates this general concept of God to questions raised by modern cosmology; here the discussion of temporality, reversing the Platonic preference of the timelessly intelligible over the time-bound flow of creative agency, turns out to be crucially important. Theological and scientific projects come together. So far from rendering God superfluous, an irrelevant deistic hypothesis "outside" the system, God is fully integrated with creation - "the supreme envisioning spiritual influence, drawing physical realities towards a goal which has been programmed as a possibility into their initial constitution". The final chapter proposes a pattern of Trinitarian convergence.

There is much to admire in this powerful book. Ward argues his case for religious rationality with an elegant consistency that is more than capable of holding its own against scientific reductionism. At times, however, it all seems too neat. He demonstrates how enormously complex is the process of reflection which would both speak of the possibility of God and avoid reducing God to something less than God. But there is little here of the darkness and doubt of religious belief - and nothing of the perplexity which, as he knows only too well, results from the serious challenges which some sometimes very diverse concepts and ideas bring to the encounter of religions.

Ward is, of course, seeking a coherence. He tells us that his aim is to "broaden theology's horizons beyond a purely Christian tradition, to promote a positive interaction between diverse traditions". Nevertheless, despite the extreme care with which the dialogue is conducted, the four theologians who punctuate the argument are there to support the cause of a Christian metanarrative. It is not obvious that this is compatible with the wider project of increasing global understanding. There are conceptual and indeed practical issues here, notably about the limits of knowledge of the other, which are not addressed. Any dialogical exercise runs certain risks. Supposedly "representative" authorities, even those like Aurobindo whose philosophy owes much to his western, especially Hegelian, inheritance, cannot be pressed into service without reducing them to a systemic totality.

The source of this ethical issue lies less with the particular Christian revelation of the God of love - for, as Ward points out, "similar considerations exist in other traditions" - than with a logic of argument that seeks always to underline the rationality of religious faith. The form, if not the content of Ward's theology takes its rise from scientific method. Yet the dialogue with scientific cosmology is not the only context which the religions must face. What of the various other contexts - historical, philosophical, social, cultural - within which that dialogue is set? Theology has to recognise these as well. What would an account of religion and creation look like which was less concerned with a rationality dictated by the canons of science and more with the modes of rationality distinctive of the religions themselves?

Reverend Michael Barnes, SJ, is completing doctoral studies in the theology of religions, University of Cambridge.

Religion and Creation

Author - Keith Ward
ISBN - 0 19 826393 5 and 826394 5
Publisher - Clarendon Press, Oxford
Price - £40.00 and £12.99
Pages - 351

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