Peter Byrne

Throughout its history Christian theology has displayed an equivocal attitude to philosophical reflection. It has been viewed from the earliest beginnings of theology as a hostile source of rival ideas to the Gospel. Christianity played a part in the closure of the philosophical academies of the ancient world. St Augustine, in The City of God, saves some of his harshest polemics for the follies and pretensions of pagan philosophy. There has hardly ever been a time in the history of theology when the call to escape the false snares of philosophy in order to return to the purity of the Gospel has not been powerful.

Yet, also from the earliest times, Christian theology has felt the need to draw upon philosophical ideas to support and articulate its claims. Augustine, and other Fathers before him, employed Platonic ideas in their accounts of the nature of the soul and of God. In the medieval period, Aristotelian ideas formed the basis for a number of grand theological syntheses, the most famous being that of Aquinas. The Reformers were not free of philosophical influences. Subsequently, phases of theological construction reflected the passing dominance of natural law, Kantian and Hegelian and other schemes of thought.

This mixture of hostility and dependence towards philosophy is natural once we reflect that Christianity cannot be a philosophy and yet must be dependent on one. It cannot be a philosophy pure and simple, because it is a Gospel. A Gospel is something with a unique starting point and disclosure; a proclamation which cannot be separated from its proclaimer; a message irredeemably bound up with a particular origin in history and geography. A philosophy is not so bound up with its origins. Its content and basis are separate from whomever happened to first proclaim it. In these respects it aims to be universal and timeless, as opposed to particular and historical. Turn Christianity into a philosophy and the connection between Christianity and its founder becomes contingent: it ceases to be a message about Jesus but only one that happens to have been taught by him.

Yet a Gospel can make little headway without a philosophy. For folk to be persuaded that a Gospel offers news that is genuinely liberating, they must be convinced that it contains a real wisdom. But that requires showing that it confirms and extends truths already taught and known. Moreover, if a Gospel contains genuine insight, general conclusions about the nature of reality and human nature should flow from it. So it will require philosophical support to establish its credentials and to work out its implications. Hence the reason why, virtually from the beginning, patristic apologists and theologians drew upon pagan wisdom even as they attacked its pretensions.

What theology ideally requires is live and fruitful sources of philosophical reflection which are not at the same time autonomous of theological presuppositions and control. Ever since the end of the Christian centuries and the emergence of the modern secularization of learning, that ideal has been unattainable. Philosophy as regained the autonomy it had in pagan times. So the modern period has exhibited the natural consequence—rough relations between theology and philosophy. These rough relations have, at various times since the Enlightenment, exhibited philosophy pretending to act as the gatekeeper to faith and its contents. That is to say, philosophy has seen its job in relation to theology as consisting in acting as the custodian of a set of criteria of rationality to which theology must conform if it is to be acceptable as a branch of reflection.

In English-speaking philosophy since the Second World War, the gatekeeper role of philosophy in relation to theology has been paramount. This philosophy has been dominated by empiricist ways of thinking. Empiricism has made the relations with theology rougher still. First it brought puritanical conceptions of reason with it—making the gate through which theology had to pass narrower still. Second it lacked, necessarily, any grand, synthetic metaphysical vision which might have been apt as a framework for the articulating of theological insights. Up and till the 1970s, the result of the forces which shaped dominant trends in analytical philosophy was that philosophy of religion was left with a narrow syllabus, leaving it with little input into theology. The 'rationality of religious belief' was its dominant topic. Such positive case as could be mustered in favour of that rationality was the business of natural theology. In this, prominence tended to be given to arguments from world to God with some kind of empirical starting point—a priori proofs like the ontological being treated primarily as exercises to show undergraduates the folly of trying to argue from concepts to reality. The negative case, against theology's rationality, was in part dependent on treatment of such age-old pieces of natural atheology as the problem of evil. More direct critiques of theology's pretensions and faith's rational acceptability were concentrated on debates about the meaningfulness of religious language. Particularly as these were reflected in matters to do with verifiability and falsifiability, they provided the occasion of bringing empiricist ideas directly to bear on theology. The character of this empiricist critique is clearly displayed in Mark Wynn's chapter.

It was unlikely that this puritanical conception of philosophy and philosophy's role in relation to religion would enable much positive dialogue between philosophy and theology to take place. The details of theological enquiry did not matter to philosophy, and theology was suspiciously 'metaphysical' in any event. Theologians could find little in philosophy that was constructive or ambitious enough to help in the development of theological ideas—though some attempts were made to unite 'religionless' and 'demythologized' Christianity with the practice-oriented redescriptions of religious beliefs by the empiricists described by Wynn.

In the last two decades of the century there has been nothing less than a sea change in the stance analytic philosophy has taken towards religion, and with that the engagement with theology has been transformed. The key to this change has been the collapse of narrow empiricist paradigms and, with them, both the suspicion of metaphysics and narrow notions of the rational.

Wynn's commentary on the objections to verificationist criteria of meaning illustrates some of the difficulties which forced the abandonment of the empiricist paradigms. The re-emergence of metaphysics as respectable was also helped by developments elsewhere in philosophy. One upshot of this reemergence has been a renewed interest in the concept of God, with philosophers of the last two decades adding to the age-old concern of philosophy to shape the key concept of theistic belief. Philosophy has in this respect returned to a path trodden by earlier metaphysicians. In this way, a new interest has been awakened in, for example, medieval philosophy and theology as relevant to contemporary enquiry in the philosophy of religion. So a greater sense of continuity between present and past philosophy of religion has arisen. Twentieth-century metaphysical systems, such as process thought, have likewise received greater attention and respectability in this revival of metaphysics. The grand sweep of Keith Ward's survey of philosophical thinking on the concept of God brings all these points home clearly.

A nodal point in the demise of puritanical empiricism is the collapse of its evidentialist view of reason and justification. It is this view which allowed religious assent and theological claim to be permissible only if they were backed by evidences matching the putative universal standards of adequacy whose purity it was the job of philosophy to preserve. Terence Penelhum's chapter on the idea of reason gives a penetrating survey of the rise and fall of philosophical evidentialism. As he explains, it currently faces the challenge of epistemologies which contend that a substantive belief system, such as Christianity, can be justifiably embraced and held without resting upon supposedly more fundamental starting points for reason. In other words, Christian beliefs could be properly basic. If rational belief in a world-view does not wait on evidence independent of it, it does not wait upon philosophy to adjudicate upon it. The questioning of the ideas of a universal reason and a universal rationality has led to the demise of philosophy's role as gatekeeper to faith. The persuasiveness of these trends, while it complicates, to say the least, epistemology and its application to religious belief, still leaves open the question of whether there are any universal, theory-neutral elements to rationality at all. If there are none, then relativism of course threatens. Penelhum's argument will be seen to suggest the conclusion that the abandonment of all universality and neutrality leads to a disquieting conclusion for religious belief and theology in what is after all a religiously ambiguous universe.

With the arrival of doubts about philosophy's role as the adjudicator of the permissibility of faith, the interest in natural theology changes. It need not be seen as of importance merely to philosophical apologetics. David Pailin's chapter brings out not only the history of natural theology, but also renewed interest in it as a source of a range of widely shared experiences which has informed faith down the centuries. In this light, it complements sources of faith in revelation and spirituality. Indeed, Pailin's chapter makes a case for regarding these distinctions as not hard and fast, but rather as ways of dividing up a continuum.

The lesser role given to the business of philosophical apologetics can also help to shift the tone and focus of discussions of the problem of evil. Stewart Sutherland's chapter shows plainly how the problem of evil has functioned as a piece—the chief piece—of natural a-theology through many centuries, yet his main emphasis falls in the end upon the means that possible theological responses to evil provide for reflection on the moral bearings of theology. Seen in this light, the problem of evil is not so much the first stage in an attempted decisive disproof of the existence of God. It is more a way of asking theology to articulate to an audience of the faithful and non-faithful alike how its vision of the economy of good and evil remains morally worthy of respect in the light of the actual state of the world.

The re-emergence of the respectability of metaphysics has not only had implications for the new, constructive attempts to explore the concept of God. It has also made it possible to discuss in detail the relations between religion and science. In the days of the dominance of the radical empiricist paradigm, it was rather taken for granted that theological construction had nothing to contribute to the character of thinking about the foundations of science. The history of the relations between science and religion was viewed as a simple matter of science gaining its liberty from the shackles of dogma. Now, both the present and the past of theology's relation to science are debated afresh. Peter Byrne's chapter shows the variety of models for understanding this relation which is now actively discussed. It explores in detail the bold attempts now made to argue that theological understanding is in fact a necessary underpinning of the scientific enterprise. The relation between theological understanding and the social and human sciences is the concern of Roger Trigg's chapter. He brings out the extent to which dominant determinist and relativist accounts of human nature challenge and are challenged by the legacy of religious teaching on human responsibility and immortality.

The empiricist paradigm of reason and clarity which once dominated English-speaking philosophy of religion was one evident legacy of the Enlightenment. Its challenge by fresh ideas about justification, meaning and the like marks ways in which the Enlightenment's legacy has come to be questioned in philosophy of religion. A yet more radical challenge and questioning of that legacy has arisen with varieties of post-modernist thought. Grace Jantzen's essay on feminism and the philosophy of religion brings out with clarity and force the character and attractiveness of aspects of postmodernism. Her chapter, read as the conclusion to this Part, will bring home the extent to which philosophy promises in the next decades to offer a variety of developing lines of enquiry for the construction of theological insight.

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