The Analytic Tradition

The question may well arise why attention is restricted, in this book, almost entirely to the analytic tradition of Anglo-American philosophy and the contribution it has made, and is making, to the critical study of Christian doctrine. In part this reflects my own interests and experience. I regard the Anglo-American analytic tradition as by far and away the most important strand in contemporary philosophy of religion. I admire it for its clarity and logical acumen and for the help it gives to anyone interested in pursuing, in depth but without obfuscation, the search for meaning and truth in the world of religion. It does not subordinate religion to philosophy, as do the traditions stemming from Kant, Hegel or Whitehead. The views of these philosophers on religion and on Christian theology are wide-ranging and profound, and time is well spent studying them. As mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, such study is part of the staple diet of the philosophy of religion. But the philosophical theologian, certainly if he or she is operating from within the Christian tradition, is likely to spend more time arguing with them than using them for clarification and progress. A good example of such argument is Alvin Plantinga's criticism of Kant in his Warranted Christian Belief . An earlier example was Austin Farrer's criticism of Whitehead in his Faith and Speculation.29

Nor does the analytic tradition restrict its attention to the sphere of authentic human — or Christian — existence, as Kierkegaard and Bultmann did. Existentialism too is well worth study by Christian philosophers and theologians, as the work of John Macquarrie has shown. But concentration on the human individual and on human authenticity fails to satisfy for long. Existentialism's inability to give an account of nature and history or even ofhuman community, to say nothing ofits obfuscatory style, at least in its twentieth-century philosophical forms (e.g. Heidegger and Sartre), renders it less than ideal as a vehicle for philosophical theology.

The continental tradition has itself moved on, through structuralism, into post-structuralism and postmodernism, schools whose bearing on philosophy of religion has been found curiously attractive to some, but of which I remain deeply suspicious. For one thing, such writing suffers from an even greater degree of wilful obscurity than was the case with Heidegger. This is bound to offend anyone schooled to think and to write clearly and precisely on important topics. For another, the post-structuralists and deconstruction-ists, as they are sometimes called, betray a tendency to impose wildly implausible generalizations on the history of ideas that make serious engagement with particular problems and issues raised by religion and theology very difficult to pursue. Let me cite a few examples. The first goes back to Heidegger, who proclaimed the death of metaphysics. Metaphysics is the study of the ultimate nature of things, but, according to Heidegger, the whole western tradition of metaphysical thinking, from Plato to the twentieth century, is held to have run into the sand. Philosophy requires an entirely new start. Another example is the view of Michel Foucault that western thought invariably betrays a hidden agenda, the rationalization of interest and power. Such generalizations become a kind of device for inhibiting serious reflection on the metaphysical implications of theism and of Christian doctrine, thus preventing us from learning anything from the philosophers and traditions so easily dismissed.

Or consider the question of postmodernism itself. What does this term really mean? To speak of postmodernism, we have to give the term 'modernity' a restricted range of meaning. Instead of using it in its natural sense of the relatively recent past, say, since the scientific revolution up to the present day, historians of ideas take 'modernity' to mean the eighteenth-century Enlightenment and its impact. This allows them to suggest that the Enlightenment project has run its course, broken down, even collapsed, leaving us in the condition known as postmodernism. What was 'the Enlightenment project'? What is it that is supposed to have broken down? Allegedly, it was a question of the human race having reached maturity and put its confidence in unaided human reason, and having achieved autonomy in all the spheres of life, ethics and religion included. What we are supposed to be witnessing in the twentieth, and now the twenty-first, century is the collapse of this universal idea, and the recognition of many different 'rationalities', incommensurable worldviews, different forms of life, different moralities, with no way of arbitrating between them. I have already mentioned Alasdair Maclntyre's version of this thesis. Maclntyre, unlike the continentals, writes lucidly and almost persuasively, as he paints a dark picture of the loss of a common framework within which moral disputes can be settled. But, as I say, he exaggerates and overgeneralizes, and fails to do justice to elements in the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, and in nineteenth-century liberalism, from which we can still learn.

I remain suspicious of the 'masters of suspicion' and their followers, who see a hidden, often political, agenda behind the clear, perspicuous, professional work of the analytic philosophers. All the latter are doing, I would claim, is critically examining (ideally in cooperation, not conflict, with the theologians) the central themes of Christian belief for their meaning, grounds and truth. And I hope that the quantity and quality of the work surveyed in this book will demonstrate the wisdom and benefit of staying with this main strand in philosophy of religion and philosophical theology today.

The vice of implausible and unjustified historical generalization has infected some theologians too, in both the continental and the Anglo-American traditions. It is sometimes urged33 that modern atheism is a reaction not to the God of the classical Christian tradition, but to a post-eighteenth-century philosophical idol that has nothing to do with the true and living God. They even hijack the term 'theism' to refer to this construct or projection, and then suppose that they have warded off the atheistic critique. I hold that to be no way at all of arguing with atheism. Atheism means the rejection of any belief in God, ancient, medieval or modern.

Arguing with atheism is not the subject of this book, however. But the same point holds concerning the alleged irrelevance of 'the god of the philosophers' to which reference was made earlier on. In my view, there is no such thing as the god of the philosophers. Philosophers of religion in the analytic tradition are doing no more than singling out, for close scrutiny and analysis, aspects of, and implications of, the concept of God to be found in the great theistic traditions, some of these being common to all those traditions, others — the ones of special concern to us here—being peculiar to the Christian religion, shaped as it has been by the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Trinity.

One final word in defence of the analytic tradition — this time addressed to the modern theologians — is perhaps required, if further suspicions are to be allayed. I mentioned at the beginning of this chapter the legacy of logical positivism's aggressive rejection of all theology as meaningless. Theology was put on the defensive. Theologians retreated into their own shells, and ceased to think ofphilosophers as allies. This was quite understandable at the time; but it is a great mistake to tar the analytic tradition with the same brush as logical positivism. Sometimes theologians give the impression that Anglo-American analytic philosophy is simply an extension of logical positivism. Nothing could be further from the truth. Of course there are still many philosophers in this tradition who remain hostile to theology and metaphysics. One of the tasks of the philosophy of religion remains that of arguing with such folk. But there are also many philosophers, schooled in the techniques of philosophical logic and analysis, who, as we shall see, are now applying those techniques, in a thoroughly constructive fashion, to the clarification, articulation and defence of mainstream Christian doctrine. And if there are points at which they find themselves driven to challenge certain long-standing elements in classical theism, for example, over God's absolute timelessness, this is usually done in the interests again of constructive and helpful revision. So modern theologians have nothing to fear from these philosophers. Of course, there will be disagreements between philosophers and theologians, just as there are between different theologians and between different philosophers. We shall see many examples of such disagreements in the course of this book. But the scope for fruitful dialogue and mutual enrichment between philosophers and theologians is very great. No one should be afraid of reflection on Christian doctrine 'in the context of critical rationality'.

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