Part I, ‘Whatever Happened to Natural Theology?’, consists of five lectures chronicling the shift within philosophical discourse from a theistic to an atheistic perspective. In the first lecture, ‘Personal Prejudice and Natural Theology’, Professor McInerny confesses that his philosophical view is grounded by his Christian belief. He argues that the philosophical enterprise always begins with certain presuppositions and that those foundational assumptions—namely, that God exists—of the Christian (or other person of faith) are of no more or less merit than those of the nonbeliever. He also points out that there is a great difference between arriving at some ‘truths about God’, which is the task of natural theology, and offering proofs for or insight into the ‘truths’ of the Christian mysteries.
In chapter 2, ‘Friends and Foes of Natural Theology’, he offers a quick summary of the history of Western philosophy, paying particular attention to the epistemological or subjective turn taken by Descartes, which is described as the starting point of ‘Modern philosophy [as an] Oedipal tradition of destroying one’s intellectual fathers’ (24). McInerny explains that Descartes, and Pascal after him, wishes to prove the existence of God from a subjective position, that is, without the help of the preceding centuries of theistic philosophy, but by doing so, essentially begin the process of unravelling the concept of truth, reducing it instead to something contingent and purely subjective.
McInerny argues that ‘Atheism Is Not the Default Position’ in his third lecture (chap. 3), using Anselm’s definition of theology as Fides quaerens intellectum, faith seeking understanding, as his guide. For Anselm, following the psalmist, only a fool would say ‘There is no God’, for such a statement is self-contradictory.
In chapter 4, ‘Radical Chic’, he traces the development of modern thought from Pascal through Nietzsche and to the present day, demonstrating that the nihilist position, akin to Sophistry in its Platonic and Aristotelian formulation, in untenable. McInerny figures the modern penchant for nihilism to be a form of intellectual sloth, laziness about matters of divine importance. He connects Aristotle’s notion of first principles with Thomas Reid’sCommon Sense Philosophy and asserts that natural theology can only once again become possible if the consistency between word/thought and ‘things in themselves’ is reestablished—that is, if the possibility of objective truth is reestablished.
In ‘Natural and Supernatural Theology (chap. 5), McInerny uses Kierkegaard, writing pseudonymously as Johannes Climacus, and then Thomas Aquinas to suggest that certain truths about God are knowable to natural reason, while others cannot be proven and must be accepted on faith alone.
Having challenged the nihilistic, atheistic claims of modern philosophy, in Part II, ‘The Recovery of Natural Theology’, Professor McInerny attempts to reassert the viability of natural theology by reclaiming the possibility of truth. Natural theology, which is concerned with the possibility of proving God’s existence, is a meaningful enterprise only if truth is attainable by natural reason—a prospect that requires the dismantling of Descartes’ subjective turn. In Lecture 6, ‘Aspects of Argument’, he begins by briefly reviewing the claims and conclusions of Part I, reminding us that one goal of the first five lectures was to ‘restore a basis on which theists and atheists can meaningfully disagree’ (72). For McInerny, if the question of truth is purely subjective, as modern philosophy claims, then philosophy has effectively rendered itself a useless exercise; however, if truth—that is, ‘the grasp of things as they are’—is attainable, it follows that one position must be true and the other false, and a healthy argument is worthwhile. He recalls that, for Aquinas, the same truth cannot be simultaneously known and believed; ergo, any proof for the existence of God concerns that truth about God which is knowable by human means, while any such proof does not necessarily effect moral change or contribute to the development of belief in the truthful revelation of God.
In chapter 7, ‘Intemperate Reasoning’, McInerny continues to develop this distinction between changing one’s mind via knowledge and changing one’s life via belief, which is concurrent with the distinction between theoretical (or speculative) and practical reasoning. He suggests, following St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, that there is a connection between the theoretical knowledge of God’s existence and turning that knowledge into action by virtue of moral change, but he maintains, on the basis of philosophical proofs alone, the distinction between knowledge and action, theory and practice, remains undisturbed.
Lecture 8, ‘Truth and Subjectivity’, turns to back to Kierkegaard and also to John Henry Newman, both of whom hold that objectivity presupposes subjectivity. McInerny explains that one who comes to the philosophical task with materialist presuppositions and scepticism about metaphysics and God’s existence necessarily begins in a problematic subjective position, for to deny the possibility of objective truth (e.g., God is) is, according to McInerny’s reversal of the modern epistemological turn, also to deny the possibility of any subjective truth.
In the ninth lecture, ‘That God Exists’, McInerny suggests that the premodern philosophical ‘proofs’ of God’s existence (e.g., for Aquinas, following Aristotle, God as the ‘first’ or ‘unmoved’ mover) persist, despite scientific progress, because they are grounded upon pre-scientific knowledge. Such ordinary knowledge of God is attainable by most anyone, but that such ordinary knowledge is also insufficient points us toward the realm of faith.
This prompts the final lecture in the series, ‘Faith and Reason’, which borrows its title from Pope John Paul II’s 1998 encyclical, Fides et ratio. McInerny claims that the concerns of natural theology indicate ‘the difference between the approach to God by way of natural reason, on the one hand, and by way of Revelation, on the other’ (121). He reasserts his position, stated at the outset, that the believing and non-believing philosopher both approach the task with antecedent assumptions, concluding now, however, that a fundamental difference exists between theology and philosophy. He writes: ‘The truths of faith are to theology as the common principles are to philosophy…. The] essential and abiding difference lies in their starting points. Just as the philosopher assumes, along with everybody else, the truth of the common principles and goes on from there, so the theologians assumes the truths of the faith, along with all other believers, and goes on from there’ (127). In other words, the telos of philosophy is the arrival at truths that can be known, while the goal of theology is the arrival at truths believed on faith. In the end, McInerny has not so much written a work of natural theology as indicated the possibility of its reemergence.