Saturday, May 28, 2022

Contemporary Theology

What, you might well ask, is contemporary theology and why does it matter? I have been reading

MacGregor, K. R., Contemporary Theology: A Introduction. Classical, Evangelical, Philosophical and Global Perspectives. Grand Rapids: Zondervan. 2020.

According to MacGregor, contemporary theology starts with Schleiermacher, or at least, I suppose, you need to know about Schleiermacher in order to know about modern theology and hence contemporary theology. Schleiermacher is presented as the start of liberal theology, a theology of emotion and experience, against which many other theologians since have reacted. This is possibly a fair assessment, but whether Schleiermacher was trying to do that is of course, moot.

The other root MacGregor identifies is Hegel. Hegel is, of course, mainly a philosopher although it can be rather hard to disentangle philosophy and theology from each other. MacGregor suggests that Hegel is very influential in contemporary theology. I confess to not being quite as convinced by that as by Schleiermacher, although there are modern theologians heavily influenced by Hegel, Rowan Williams for one, I think.

The rest of the book gives brief chapters on lots of different topics. I have already referred to Reformed Epistemology, which gets one of the longer chapters (12 pages), in an earlier post. MacGregor seems, in a way to lay the problems of modern philosophy of religion, theology, and even, possibly society firmly at the feet of Wittgenstein, asserting that whenever someone says ‘That’s true for you, but not for me’ they are arguing on the basis of language games and this sort of relativism is dangerous (p. 157).

Well, maybe, but it does rather depend on what you call a language game, of course. One model which does seem to be around is that language games are separate modes of language use that do not interact. This, it seems to me, is untrue. I can be equally at home in the language game of Christian religion and in that of physics. Further, in my mind, the two interact. Thus I can find dissonance in my thoughts about the creation according to Genesis and that according to modern physics. Finding some way of holding the two beliefs together is important for my ability to function in both language games if I am reasonably attentive to both.

The book is squarely based on North American Christianity, and hence has quite a bit about evangelical theology post World War II, in particular about the growth of serious evangelical scholarship. This then returns in chapters on complementarianism and egalitarianism, which are basically arguments within North American Evangelical constituencies about the role of women in churches and, in particular, church leadership. This chapter follows on from one of Feminist Theology (which gets a slightly shorter chapter). As with so much evangelical argument, it really seems to come down to the discussion of a handful of verses in Scripture, and their interpretation.

Roman Catholic theology gets a couple of chapters, one on Vatican I and neo-thomism and one on Vatican II and its aftermath. It is a bit of a shame that some of the figures in Roman Catholic theology do not get a bit more space; for example, Rahner’s influence is quite significant, but only gets a page or so. Again, the North American perspective is clear, assigning influence to Opus Dei and its publishing house for bringing right-wing Catholic writers (von Balthasar, de Lubac, and Edith Stein) to the American reader. Whether these three can be quite so easily classified I am not sure.

There are some efforts at a global perspective. Liberation theology gets a chapter, as do African Christology and Chinese Eschatology, both of which are quite interesting and do bring a different point of view. Perhaps there could have been more on the effects of colonialism and imperialism on these various theologies. After all, both still suffer from the effects of colonisation and, if there is such a thing as neo-imperialism, from that as well, as does South America.

Still, there is a limit to how much one can squeeze into one book, and there is a lot of it. Each chapter comes with further reading and sources, and each would be helpful to a student grappling with a new subject, or a more experienced theologian seeking basic information on a subject matter which they are less familiar with. What is, perhaps, missing, is an overview of the trajectory of theology over the last two hundred years or so. As presented, while there are links between some of the chapters, I feel a bit left with a babble of voices, although academic theology is a bit like that.

Perhaps the problem is with the academy. Zena Hitz (Lost in Thought) describes her academic career as more about hierarchy and point-scoring among her colleagues than seeking something that was true. Basil Mitchell in How to Play Theological Ping-Pong would agree. The modern academy does not really seem to favour lengthy reflection or solid synthesis. It is, perhaps, a language game of its own, spinning plates for its own amusement and rarely touching real life and real people. This is, perhaps, a problem, particularly in the arts and humanities. The sciences are seen as knowledge-making and money-making, while the arts are regarded as less useful, at least, up front.

That said, of course, those educated at private schools in the UK often undertake arts degrees and land up in Parliament or running big businesses. This leads to something of a dearth of scientifically trained people in these roles, and a continuation of the gulf between science and the arts. Perhaps that is inevitable, but the academy on both sides does little to improve the situation.

In my view, the history of philosophy and theology over the last two hundred years (and more) is made up of responses to the advances of science and technology. These responses have, perhaps, come to be seen as less and less convincing, and thus the subjects have started talking to themselves, even in areas where there is a self-conscious effort to engage with science and technological subjects, such as science and faith. That is to the detriment of both science and theology and philosophy, in my view.

Saturday, May 14, 2022

Theological Philosophy and Fun

Now, there are two concepts that do not usually appear in the same sentence. Who on earth could think that something as weighty as philosophical theology (or theological philosophy: I am never sure what the difference is) could be related to fun, joy, excitement, and so on? Well, I have been reading an introduction to contemporary theology (which I have not yet finished; hopefully, there will be a bit more to say about it soon) and it has covered, in a few of its short chapters, both Reformed Epistemology and Analytic Theology. And it reminded me of why I actually liked these topics.

Most people, I think (my experience as a learner was certainly the case) consider courses in philosophy or philosophy of religion and so on with a great deal of trepidation. Indeed, I recall a number of my colleagues declining to submit essays on the topic and auditing the courses anyway, just to try to keep their average marks up. Fair enough. Philosophy of religion is not for everyone, and those who actually like it as a subject are probably even fewer. Yet it does appeal, to me at least.

I think that I like Reformed Epistemology because there is something about it I do not like. This sounds like a standard inconsistency in my mind, but there is a little more to it than that, I hope. After all, I keep encouraging people to read the things they disagree with and try to figure out why they disagree with it. That way we learn; if we only read things we agree with we will never change.

Reformed Epistemology annoys me, slightly, and I am reasonably convinced that there is something wrong with it somewhere. It is not a subject that I have studied much recently, but I did write an essay on the topic once (and it got a good mark) and I have read a little more since (before I was sidelined into Lonergan and Ramsey). The problem here is that, given the assumptions, Reformed Epistemology works, that is, the conclusions it reaches are perfectly acceptable given the premises.

As is well known, part of the assault of Reformed Epistemology on ‘ordinary’ philosophy of religion is upon foundationalism. The argument here starts from the undisputed agreement that there are some things we know in a properly basic manner. Thus, for example, we know that 1+1 equals two. Similarly, I know I had toast for breakfast even though there is no evidence for the fact. I suppose that, by examination of my digestive tract, the washing up water, and so on someone could deduce that I did, indeed, have toast for breakfast this morning, but it might be more difficult to establish my breakfast evidentially for the morning of a week ago. But I know what I had.

The question is, therefore, whether we can know of the existence of God in a properly basic way or not. Post-enlightenment thought would expect such a proposition to be argued for from basic assumptions. Hence we get, in some quarters, a focus on arguments for the existence of God; admittedly, most of them start from Aquinas, but given that Aquinas only gave the arguments one query at the beginning of the Summa Theologica he presumably thought there were more interesting things to discuss.

By denying that we have to argue for the existence of God and can know God directly, in a sunset or a flower, Reformed Epistemology probably captures how people come to faith much more accurately than the Aquinas’ five ways. Few people are, I think, argued into the Kingdom of God. While we like to think that we are entirely rational, reason-following creatures, evidence suggests that while we are often, in fact, our feelings and emotions have more to do with our beliefs and decisions than we might think. Thus I might look at a beautiful vista and decide that it is so wonderful that God must exist. This is not an argument – that might come later if and when I reflect on the scene and my feelings about it.

Of course, not everyone who looks at a beautiful sunset will agree that because of it they know God exists. This runs the risk, I suppose, of making God, or at least belief in God, thoroughly subjective. The Reformed Epistemologists suggest that how we respond to such an experience depends on our presuppositions. If we are open to God, then we may believe that he exists after such an experience. If we are not, then no such experience is going to change our minds (or is unlikely to, anyway). On the other hand arguments for the existence of God are unlikely to make much of a difference either.

It is here that the theological assumptions of Reformed Epistemology kick in. According to this we are all fallen, steeped in sin (that is, after all, Biblical). The sin affects our ability to perceive God: some of us, more open to the grace God offers us, might manage it, but some of us will not. And with a single bound, not only are the divergences of belief in God explained but key theological points of Calvinism are established.

How you might ask, is this fun? Well, I doubt that I am alone in thinking that it is a bit annoying. Reformed Epistemology is not alone in this sort of thing of course. Lonergan, about halfway through Insight does a similar thing by suddenly introducing categories from Thomism into his argument. As a reader, you might feel ambushed (I did). But you cannot deny that as an argument it is intriguing and hard to initially see the flaws. This is where the interest and fun lie, as well as the learning. ‘Why do I not like this argument?’ is the question that must be poised on many lips as Reformed Epistemology is read and pondered.

The fact is that these sorts of questions are the sorts of questions that make us think and enable us to see across our own divides. It took a while for philosophers to recognise that Reformed Epistemology and Aquinas were not far apart, and the Aquinas / Calvin model was formulated. Given the starting assumptions of both, this might be a bit startling. And that, in any intellectual pursuit, is fun.

Saturday, April 30, 2022


Is there a relationship between technology and theology. Technology has come to dominate some aspects of life, after all. Social media creates and destroys reputations, for example. The Internet allows many windows for their ideas (including me) but the ideas which can be shared are, in some cases, extreme and dangerous to the functioning of society and democracy. It could be suggested that in the Twentieth Century the God of traditional monotheism was abandoned and replaced by the gods of science and technology. Theology, on this view, would be totally squeezed out.

There are further views around as well. Technology, in the form of artificial intelligence is predicted to become more intelligent than humans in the next decade, or fifty years, or century, or whenever, depending on how optimistic the commentator is. Furthermore, being the intelligent species we are we can use our technology to enhance ourselves, becoming computer – human hybrids with some sorts of superpowers, such as amazing sight, memory and reasoning skills.

Maybe, and then again, maybe not. Sometimes it seems that such commentators have rather forgotten themselves in their excitement. Some of the claims, after all, are a bit contradictory and, as we all know, predicting the future is rather tricky. It may also be that, given a lot of the authors of these sorts of ideas refer a lot to science fiction, they have rather blurred the line between what is possible and what is simply a good story.

Technology has changed aspects of the world beyond recognition in, say, the last thirty years, since the advent of the Internet and World Wide Web. That does not mean the world has changed out of all recognition, nor, in fact, that computers are taking over the world. After all, computers can and will only do what they are programmed to do, and ultimately that is a question of human decision. This is where theology might sneak back into the picture. How do humans decide?

This is at heart an ethical and metaphysical decision. What do I, or we as a society, want from our computing networks, from artificial intelligence and other sorts of technology (for example, cloning)? There is a debate here. Two sides are frequently drawn in rather stark contrast to each other. Firstly those who argue that, essentially, if we can do something we should. These writers often seem to relish the idea that we can create technology that will make us superfluous. This is a bit odd, perhaps, but it is a point of view.

The other side of the conversation is among those who are skeptical of the claims that technology is going to do a great deal more than it already has, and, probably, that technology has already done significant harm. This side point to, for example, cyberbullying, people’s addiction to their mobile phones, the widespread availability of internet pornography, the spread of extremist ideas and the control of news by authoritarian regimes, among other issues. Technology has already advanced beyond our capability to control it, they suggest, and perhaps we need to adjust our societies and expectations to make due regard for that.

Creating computer software, say, an application (‘app’) for a mobile device is an application of the human mind to a perceived problem. The human mind identifies it and creates a solution using tools which are around, say, a programming language, a platform and a few other tools. In some senses, then, this is little different than a caveman chipping bits of flint to butcher the antelope he has just killed to feed his family. Humanity has been, historically, quite good a creating tools to solve problems.

In a post-industrial society we have a few other problems than the cave dwellers had. Mostly, these relate to relative boredom. We do not have to spend our days hunting and gathering, so we find other amusements and distractions, many of which are, these days, on the internet. We have more leisure time, on average, than we used to. We can suggest that perhaps we do not make the best use of it, but that, again, comes back to human choice.

There are limits to what computers can do for us. They might be able to amuse us, but we have to engage with them (even if it is a mindless game) to allow them. These sorts of things have probably been moral panics since newspaper crosswords were invented, if not before. I recall a television program called ‘Why don’t you just switch off your television set and do something more interesting instead?’, latter abbreviated to ‘Why don’t you?’.

Could computers become more intelligent than us? Well, there are artificial intelligence experiments where the AI can learn. Famously, Microsoft launched an internet ‘chatbot’ called Tay which could add things said to it to its memory and use them in future responses. It had to be removed after a few hours as it had been taught to use racist and antisemitic language.

Perhaps here is the lesson for both technology and theology. Yes, we can create technology to do all sorts of things, both good and evil. Technology itself is neutral. The same person can code, and the same computer can run, an application which enables disabled people to communicate easily, and one which encourages people to commit suicide. Which is deployed is a matter of human choice.

It is at this point that a technologically informed theology can help. Theology is concerned about transcendence and what it means to be human, after all. Being human is not just about the mechanical and physical sides of life. Most humans have dreams and aspirations which are not simply about money and stuff (although increasingly it does not seem like it, admittedly). Theology can inform the sorts of decisions which go into writing software: is this a good idea? Should this be done? What impact will this have on people’s lives. A knowledge of how software (for example) is created can inform how theology responds to technology. A knowledge of theological themes, such as the meanings of being human, can inform the inputs to creating applications.

Saturday, April 16, 2022

Control of Religious Printing

I suppose we have all got alarmingly used to governments and other organisations attempting to control the media. A while ago this was concealed under the rather innocuous sounding term ‘spin-doctor’, with the advent of social media and 24 hours news coverage, the control of media has become a bit more complicated and rather more threatening to freedoms and democracy.

This is not a new idea, of course. George Orwell, after all, predicting something which looks alarmingly similar in 1984. With the extensive use of mobile phones for surveillance of people of interest to the authorities, the present world has gone a step beyond Orwell’s dystopia.

Even longer ago, the authorities were concerned to control the output of the presses. A case in point is that of early Stuart England, that is, from around 1603 – 1640. I have been reading:

Mutchow Towers, S., (2003), Control of Printing in Early Stuart England, Boydell: Woodbridge.

I confess to being a bit concerned about picking this work up. It does look a bit dull on the face of it after all. However, it turned out to be a surprisingly good read. The subject turns into one which touches on the nature of Anglicanism and how it works.

In brief, the Elizabethan Church was, mostly, Calvinist in theology. Thus most religious publication before James I came to the throne was Calvinist and hence included double predestination as a doctrine. This was more or less uncontroversial in the first year the study covers in detail, 1607. There was some control of religious printing, inherited from the Elizabethan period, and titles were entered in the register of the stationer’s company. As this this entry ensured that the ownership of the work was established by the stationer who printed it, it was generally in their best interests to register it.

The other characteristic of religious publishing at the time was anti-Catholicism. This was particularly true of the period just after the Gunpowder Plot. We perhaps underestimate the potency of the plot in the period; it was not just a failed attempt to murder the body politic, but was, or at least was perceived as, an existential threat to the protestant nation and people.

The licencers of publications were the Archbishop of Canterbury and Bishop of London, who usually deputed the responsibility to their chaplains. This list is not exhaustive, because Ireland and Scotland had their own arrangements, as did the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. However, as most printing was done in London, much of it came under the jurisdiction of the Bishop. While the bishops were, on the whole, Calvinist in theology and the titles submitted were similar, there was not much difficulty in publishing popular religious works, or works of predestinarian theology and anti-Catholic polemic.

Things started to shift slowly during the reign of James I and more quickly under Charles I. The arguments over Arminianism quickly stirred the presses, and the Synod of Dort did little, in England at least, to quell the controversy. The appointment of bishops sympathetic to Arminianism meant that anti-Calvinist, or at least non-Calvinist works were occasionally permitted. This trend accelerated in the later 1620s and 1630s as William Laud was promoted, first to London and the to Canterbury.

By 1637, the last year examined in the book, Arminian works, properly licenced and approved predominated. Not just predominated, it should be said, but among authorised works Arminian works were exclusive. Not every work was theological, of course, but the others were non-controversial, such as works of prayer and spirituality.

As Mutchow Towers notes, it was very hard, at the time, to separate religion and politics. The authorised works represented the religious policy of the government, which is usually summarised as ‘the beauty of holiness’ – conformity, reverence and the dignity of worship. The opposition to this, with its perceived Romish overtones, was forced underground.

Anti-Catholicism was at least partly, frowned upon. The policy of the government, with respect to the Thirty Years War raging in Europe, was to negotiate and form alliances with the Catholic powers, mostly Spain (which needed to cooperation of England to keep the sea route to the Low Countries open, particularly after the early 1630s when the overland route from Italy was partially blocked). This was highly unpopular with the Protestant Puritan end of the political spectrum and those (often the same people) who looked back to the ‘golden age’ of Elizabeth and the Armada.

Thus by 1637 the government was getting its religious policy into print, while the opposition was largely, officially anyway, suppressed. Other issues also drove a wedge between the Laudian Church and the Puritans. Charles I in 1633 re-issued and enforced the Book of Sports. Clergy were supposed to read it in church and those who did not could be disciplined. The Book outlined activities which were permitted on a Sunday; more Puritan opinion argued that only worship was permitted. There was also the controversy over the position of the altar: at the east end (with rails) or table wise in the chancel. The former was the Laudian position aiming at decorum (so people did not place their hats on it during the rest of the service, for example), the latter the more Puritan position, as people gathered around the table for communion.

None of these things, of course, in and of themselves, caused the civil wars. Charles I’s religious policy certainly had a bearing, and the attempted enforcement of a new Prayer Book on Scotland in 1637 was the proximate cause of the political breakdown there and outbreak of the Bishop’s Wars. But if Charles and his advisors had been a bit more subtle and less sure of their power, as James had been, the breakdowns might have been avoided.

Modern historical opinion suggests that much more of the blame for the civil wars rests on Charles than has hitherto been assigned. Religious policy, it is suggested, originated from the King and Laud was the implementer, not the author of it. It probably cannot be finally established whether this is the case. The flood of Arminian publishing in the late 1630s did little to change opinion. Puritan printing was simply done surreptitiously until censorship collapsed in1641.

As Mutchow Towers notes, what was published does not reflect what people believed. It does reflect what the authorities permitted, and that changed, particularly in the 1630s. That there was a reaction against this policy should perhaps not surprise us. That is was a violent one indicates the importance of religious opinion at the time.

Saturday, February 12, 2022

Multiple Universes and Alternate Realities

As readers of the blog might recall, there is a bit of thinking around at the moment at the nexus between theoretical physics and philosophy regarding multiple universes. I have read a bit about this so far, and my fundamental question remains: where does the energy come from?

The practical question I pose does not seem to have been addressed. If universes are popping into existence all the time, or much of it, or even occasionally, then the energy for their creation must come from somewhere. If the universe which comes into existence is an almost exact copy of this one, then it must have the same quantity of energy in it. We cannot abstract that energy from this universe, and it seems a bit of a stretch to claim that the energy could come from the same quantum fluctuation which create the universe in at the same time. After all, the Heisenberg principle argues that while we can borrow energy, it must be paid back

The more energy you borrow, the faster it has to be paid back. In terms of our universe, these universes cannot last that long if this route is followed.

There is also a trend at the moment to get excited about alternate realities. This sort of thing is the computer-generated version of the world. We even see it in advertisements for new kitchens these days, where the people buying a new kitchen get to see what it would look like by donning a headset with some sort of ‘immersive’ experience, so they can look this way and that and ‘see’ the new cooker and so on.

This is, perhaps, just fun, and is certainly marketing puff. But there is a serious point here: the information we take in does sort of define the universe we construct. That universe does have its limits, of course. We cannot construct a universe in which we can defy gravity. But, as we see depressingly often on the (serious) media, people are developing habits of constructing reality, or some parts of it, according to their taste, or the taste and expectations of some social media company, or marketing company attempting to sell them stuff. This leads to the plethora of conspiracy theories, anti-vaccine protesters and other denizens of alternate realities who increasingly clog our screens and cities.

The existence of increasingly fast computers and distributed systems, and the capacities of the Internet have sparked people’s imaginations. We have started to think of these networks of computers as an alternate world, a different reality where things are, perhaps, less mundane, less safe or less worrying than our ordinary lives. Advances in technology will, some hope, or expect, mean our virtual lives will be more interesting and fulfilling than our real ones.

Beyond that, it seems that some argue that our ordinary lives are as sort of virtual reality. Of course, this is an argument as old as the hills, or at least as old as Plato. Is what we perceive reality? How can I tell if what I am seeing, smelling, hearing and so on bears any resemblance to what is ‘out there’?

Various responses have been suggested over the centuries. Descartes thought that the truth of his perceptions was guaranteed by God. Hume thought it was just a habit of ours to think that effect followed cause. Kant thought we constructed phenomena and could not know the noumena. In a sense, virtual reality is a technology enabled version of Kant’s thought: we fill our senses with generated phenomena and have no idea as to whether there is an underlying ‘thing’ there at all.

Is virtual reality a real reality? There are some obvious tests. Firstly, we can see what remains when all the technology is switched off. Anything we cannot switch off is clearly outside the domain of any human generated technology, and so we had better perceive that as being real. Secondly, reality is that to which we have to return on order to eat and breathe. Failure to do so will, presumably, result in the end of any sort of perceived reality, virtual or real. We can attempt to live in a fantasy world all the time: we can, if we choose, decide that the world is run by a group of disguised alien reptile-rabbits, and act accordingly. Sometimes, however, we might run into reality, as defined by the rest of the human race, and be labelled insane, or get arrested for attempting to expose the alien conspiracy. This may not matter much to us, of course, if we are so committed to our ‘reality’ that any and every piece of evidence to the contrary gets ignored or re-interpreted to accord with it.

Underlying all this is the motives of the technology companies. They are hard nosed businesses, who aim to make money. The question is then ‘who owns these virtual realities’ and how are the people who enter them exploited. We all know that apparently free internet services make their money by mining the user’s data for targeting advertising and selling the information. The advertisers then use that information to extract money from the user, and feed that user information that accords with their world view. Nothing happens, necessarily, to disturb the world view, so long as the user responds to the advertising and stimuli.

There might be doomsday scenarios here. The zombie apocalypse might be around the corner, consisting not of the dead rising the consume the living but of living humans unable to resist clicking on tempting links dangled before them by a company to make even more money. The failure here is not the dead outnumbering the living but of the living being unable to think critically and coherently as to why something some other human is in control of is happening. Constant stimulation provokes constant lack of critical reflection. The real threat of virtual reality might not be a failure to distinguish reality from fantasy, but a failure to think at all, just to react.

Saturday, January 8, 2022

The Fine-Tuning God

There is no doubt about it, when you think about the fact that we exist in a universe that is adapted for life, that the fact that we do is a bit strange, unlikely, even. In terms of physics, which is where more of this sort of thinking springs from, the basic strengths of the forces need only have been a little different and the universe as we know it, and hence, presumably, life, could not have come into existence.

There is a need for considerable caution here, of course. We do not know why the physical constants which determine the strength of the forces in the universe have the values they do. Nor do we know whether there are a huge number of universes, and we just happen to be in one with this set of values for the forces and hence life can come into existence and observe them. It gets, in short, complicated.

A simple response is to say that if the universe is such a finely tuned machine, it must have a tuner; if the universe is such a well-designed machine, it must have a designer, and hence determine that the simple existence of the universe is evidence for the existence of God. Some people accept this, of course, and some people do not. In a sceptical age we perhaps need rather more.

A God of traditional theism is eternal, omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent, perfectly free and perfectly good. This God is, therefore, unlike anything we know about through any other means. God is not a human agent, or a human like agent. The designer God, the God of the fine-tuned universe is known by analogy with human designers. This God is inscrutable. We have no reason to suppose that this God will favour creating humans, or a human-friendly universe, over any other universe. Why should such a God care about humans or indeed, life? Indeed, what would ‘caring’ look like to such a being?

An alternative would be to propose a god like those of ancient Rome, where the deities have human attributes. You could argue that some aspects of the Christian God, particularly in the Hebrew Bible and be partially characterized in this way. Such gods seem to be ruled out by modern science, however. The God of Christian faith is not a human-like ‘superagent’ able to create a universe but with otherwise human-like attributes.

A modification of these views is to hypothesise that the designer God is defined as the God that designs the current universe. If the other ideas are a response to the facts of the existence of the universe and life within it, this one seems an even more desperate attempt to rescue some sort of God of the philosophers by special pleading.

The problem here seems to be, in fact, specifically about the ‘God of the philosophers’. That is, the discussion centres around what, exactly, a human (or set of humans who ponder these sorts of things) can say about God. Philosophers, when thinking about God, specifically rule out revelation and incarnation; that is they discard anything related to the Bible and its evidence for God, and about the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus. This may well be true of philosophers working in the realms of other faith traditions as well, but I have no idea.

The problem with the God of the philosophers, from the position of someone with faith, is that their god is a fairly bloodless and rather pointless individual. The criticisms of this god are valid: and omniscient, omnipotent and so on god would be totally alien to a human. How and why should a human worship, or even care about such a god, unless that god was malevolent and would strike the human down for not doing so?

Even if such a deity existed and demanded worship with menaces, they would not approach the deity of Christian faith. It is a rather strange fact of life that, often it seems, non-believers and even the odd philosopher seem to prefer the God of the Old Testament (broadly read as a God of vengeance and awesome power) to the God of the New Testament of love and humility.

Reformed Epistemology attempts to read the world from the other end of the telescope. If we can intuitively know of God, then we do not need to prove the existence of God and all these other considerations fall away. We can, according to this account, suddenly ‘see’ or ‘know’ God through a flash of insight. We do not need to argue our way towards the existence of God. In philosophical language knowledge of the existence of God is properly basic, in the same way that ‘2+2 = 4’ is properly basic – it is not something that you really need to prove. The God of the philosophers is a deity you argue to, and you can argue about the foundations of your argument.

We have little or no experience of super-beings, a God who can create the universe and life is certainly one of them. But what if that God decided to reveal themselves to us? After all, by hypothesis, God is free. That does rather beg the question as to why this otherwise inscrutable God should choose so to do, and that is a question which we cannot answer. Why God should choose to create a universe, life and humans whom He loves is not a question we can answer. After all, we might think we can answer the question as to why the cat chooses to sleep at my feet for an hour or two a day, but I doubt if we really can. Her choices are alien even though I can observe them directly.

The point here, of course, is that the God of the philosophers is a lop-sided God. If God is the God of traditional theism, then He is inscrutable, unless He chooses not to be. In which case we need to take the evidence of the Bible, of revelation and incarnation seriously, even though it cannot be subject to the same sort of scientific enquiry that the universe can be subjected to.


Saturday, December 25, 2021

The Ground of Morality

The English philosopher John Locke is well known for arguing that we have no innate ideas. That is, we are not born with any ideas of our own, we develop them as we develop. This yields a problem for morality, in that society needs a population with a moral outlook and behaviour, but there is no innate understanding of what that might be.

Locke, thus, needs morality, in the form of laws and ideas about duty and good, to come from somewhere. For him, that somewhere is God. Duty cannot be understood without a law, and a law must have a lawgiver. Since the human race is not born with laws, the lawgiver must be outside the human race and must, therefore be God (Locke, 2014 [1690], pp. I, 3, 12).

This of course leads to another problem, in that to ground morality we need to prove the existence of God. This was not too much of a difficulty to Locke, given the society he was living in, but is more of a problem for us. According to Locke we are intelligent dependent beings under the direction of God. We cannot be independent because then we would have no law.

There is a gulf here between Locke and more recent ideas of morality. Recent accounts of humans argue that we are independent individuals, and our moral standards are those which we have chosen. Locke would argue that such a project, to choose our morality and live by it, is doomed from the start. We are politically autonomous, in that we cannot be governed without our consent, but not morally autonomous, and nor would it be desirable for us to believe we were (Locke, 2006, p. 45).

Atheism, therefore, is a problem for Locke, but is, of course, rife in society today. According to Locke there cannot be any grounds for morality as a consequence of this. We simply act as we see fit, having chosen our moral rules. If we look around the world today, we can perhaps see the consequences of this in, perhaps, senior politicians imposing rules on the population while ignoring them themselves. This makes perfect sense if you have chosen a morality that exempts you from obeying rules and if you are in a position not to be caught breaking the ones you have imposed on other.

The problem is that this approach can say nothing about anything being actually right or wrong. An action only fits or does not fit with my chosen set of moral rules, and given that they are my set of rules, I can change them as I wish. The fact that others are forced to obey some rules other than their own is due to the coercive power of the state. If I am in a position to avoid detection and punishment by the state then I can ignore the rules which others cannot.

The philosophical problem here is the objectivity of morality. By this we mean that if behaving in a certain way is right, then that way must be findable by everyone. That is morality, being good, goodness itself must be ‘out there’. Otherwise, our morality is just that, ours, and it is ‘in here’ that is, a matter of my choice as to what I think is right or good to do.

Philosophers have a hard time proving anything is objective. Everything passes though our minds before we perceive it, and so there is no good reason to believe that anything exists. This is the sort of problem that gets philosophy a bad name, admittedly, but it does throw up a problem which is usually ignored in everyday life. I walk around the furniture because it is there, but my perception of the chair is not that simple.

If we have a problem with material objects in the world, we are clearly going to have an even worse problem with non-material objects. So, things like God and morality, being, by definition, not things in the world, are going to have a hard time being proved to exist. I cannot prove the chair I am sitting on exists or continues to exist if I leave the room. How on earth am I to prove that the good exists?

Critical realism can come to our help here, at least partially. We do not have reasons to doubt the existence of the chair, or its continued existence when I am not in the room. There might be some unusual circumstances which might cause the chair to no longer exist when I return, but these would be exactly that – unusual circumstances. Perhaps the chair was destroyed because I left it too close to the fire. There are explanations as to why the chair might not be there, but they suggest unusual occurrences.

Many people would say that morality exists and that they follow it, at least most of the time. Most people would claim that they seek the good for everyone, at least most of the time, while admitting that often there are conflicting claims about what the good is, exactly. That does not make morality objective, admittedly, but it might at least suggest that morality and the good are available to most people if they seek it. We live among real people in real situations, making real decision about what is right or best to do.

The problem is, as Irish Murdoch seems to have noted, is that to make decisions about what to do for the good, we must see things clearly. By things I mean other people as well as objects in the world and (in these days of climate crisis) the world in its fullness. We have to navigate the world by seeing clearly, even if we see the world through pictures or metaphors. Otherwise, we live in a fantasy world of our own creation, in which case we can choose our morality to suit us and ignore the reality of other people and their lives.




Locke, J. (2006). An Essay Concerning Toleration and Other Writings on Law and Politics 1667-1683. Oxford: OUP.

Locke, J. (2014 [1690]). Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Ware: Wordsworth.


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