The Changing Scene in the Philosophy of Religion

When I began the study of the philosophy of religion in the 1960s, the subject had two main emphases: a historical element, largely devoted to the interaction, sometimes positive, sometimes negative, between western philosophy and the Christian religion, certainly from Plato to Kant, but then very much in the British and later Anglo-American, empiricist tradition; and a topic-oriented element, where we learned to wrestle with the standard problems of the philosophy of religion: arguments for the existence of God, the concept of God, miracle and providence, the problem of evil, the soul and immortality and the relation between faith and reason. At that time, the subject was dominated by the need to respond to the logical positivist critique of metaphysics and theology as basically meaningless. Inevitably, much of the work was defensive in character, typified by attempts to counter Antony Flew's challenge, in his article 'Theology and Falsification', to show what detectable difference religious language made. Did not talk about God 'die the death of a thousand qualifications'? The meaningfulness of religious language was one of our principal concerns.

But already the whole subject was beginning to be lifted out ofthis rather narrow, dry, empiricist context, not least through the influence of the later Wittgenstein.2 Wittgenstein is very to hard interpret aright. But his insistence that we should look not for the meaning but for the use of key words and phrases in fields we are interested in, and his insistence on taking account of the contexts in life and practice of what we say, have been enormously influential on the philosophy of religion as on many other areas of philosophical concern. One way in which this has been applied is typified by the work of D. Z. Phillips,3 who has urged a complete break with empiricism and an exploration, rather, of the forms of life in which religious language is embedded. But Phillips has done this in a way which has led him to be accused of fideism and of a basically non-cognitivist analysis of religious language that refuses to face up to the old questions of sense and reference, certainly where the reality of God is concerned. And whether Phillips himself is to be understood this way or not, there has unquestionably been a marked growth in what has come to be called anti-realist or nonrealist approaches within religion itself. This is typified by the work of my former colleague in Cambridge, Don Cupitt, and his Sea of Faith network.4 The realism/anti-realism debate, itself of great importance in contemporary Anglo-American philosophy, is one of the key issues in the philosophy of religion today.

A second major development, stemming from the late 1960s and early '70s, has been the way in which philosophy of religion has come to be pursued in the context of the comparative study of religions. This development, associated with figures such as Ninian Smart5 and John Hick,6 has made it impossible to restrict one's interest to the debate between western philosophy and the Christian religion. The data for philosophical scrutiny and analysis now come from the study of religion worldwide. And issues such as the conflicting truth-claims of the religions and the possibility of developing a philosophy of religious pluralism, and critiques of this, have also become central topics in the discipline today.

But at the same time a third major development has been the huge increase in the application of the techniques of philosophical analysis to the central doctrines of the Christian faith. This may perhaps be called, in a stricter sense than was customary earlier, philosophical theology. It was already exemplified in the 1960s by the later work of Austin Farrer in Oxford;7 but one of the most striking features of the discipline in more recent decades has been the quantity and quality of this kind of work on both sides of the Atlantic. In England this is most prominent in the work of Richard Swinburne, who has moved on from his well-known philosophy of religion books, via his Gifford Lectures on the soul, to a series of four major books on philosophical theology.10 Swinburne's work has raised the level of sheer philosophical professionalism in handling theological themes. But there has been a comparable and much more extensive development in the United States through the extraordinary growth industry of the Society of Christian Philosophers, with their numerous regional meetings, often held in conjunction with the American Philosophical Association, and their first-rate journal, Faith and Philosophy, where much of their best work is to be found. Senior figures there include William Alston, Alvin Plantinga, Nicholas Wolterstorff and George Mavrodes; and a younger group includes T. V. Morris, William Wainwright, William Hasker and many others.

It is the third of these recent developments in the philosophy of religion that forms the subject matter of this book. I intend to offer a survey of the contributions being made by Anglo-American philosophers of religion to the analysis and explanation of the central doctrines of the Christian creed. The survey is bound to be selective, but I hope that it will demonstrate the continuing usefulness of philosophy for theology today. I shall also, of course, be attempting some evaluation of the diverse material surveyed here. My own understanding of the doctrines of the creed will inevitably emerge.

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