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1. God and the Gifford Lectures

God, at least the God whom Christians worship, has seldom held center stage in the Gifford Lectures. That the god of the Gifford Lectures is rarely the Trinity is not surprising, given the conditions of Lord Gifford's will and the times and circumstances in which the Gifford Lectures have been presented. The god that various Gifford lecturers have shown to exist or not to exist is a god that bears the burden of proof. In short, the god of the Gifford Lectures is usually a god with a problem. That some Gifford lecturers have actually tried to show that something like a god might exist seems enough of a challenge. For a Gifford lecturer to maintain that the God who exists is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit seems wildly ambitious, if not foolish.

Yet the heart of the argument I develop in these lectures is that natural theology divorced from a full doctrine of God cannot help but distort the character of God and, accordingly, of the world in which we find ourselves. The metaphysical and existential projects to make a “place” for such a god cannot help but “prove” the existence of a god that is not worthy of worship. The Trinity is not a further specification of a more determinative reality called god, because there is no more determinative reality than the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. From the perspective of those who think we must first “prove” the existence of god before we can say anything else about god, the claim by Christians that God is Trinity cannot help but appear a “confessional” assertion that is unintelligible for anyone who is not already a Christian.

That God is Trinity is, of course, a confession. The acknowledgment of God's trinitarian character was made necessary by the Christian insistence that the God who had redeemed the world through the cross and resurrection of Jesus was not different from the God of Abraham, Moses, and the prophets. God has never not been Trinity, but only through the struggle to render its own existence intelligible did the church discover God's trinitarian nature. Accordingly, Christians believe rightly that few claims are more rationally compelling than our confession that God is Trinity. Of course, our knowledge that God is Trinity, a knowledge rightly described as revelation, only intensifies the mystery of God's trinitarian nature.

I am acutely aware that claims about God's trinitarian nature seem to be no more than sheer assertion for those whose habit of thought has been nurtured in modernity. Surely there must be a better, or at least more polite, way to begin the Gifford Lectures? Yet I assume that a Gifford lecturer is rightly held to say what he or she takes to be true. And I am a Christian theologian. As such, I am not trying to think a new thought or to rethink an old one in a new way. Rather, I must show why Christians, even Christians who are theologians, can be no more than witnesses. And the very character of that witness is an indication not only of who God is but of why that which exists, that is, God's created order, cannot avoid witnessing to the One who is our beginning and end.

John Milbank has observed that “the pathos of modern theology is its false humility.”1 Theologians, particularly theologians who are paid by universities, too often do theology in a manner that will not offend the peace established by the secular order. Given the requirements of that order, theology cannot help but become one more opinion, one more option, to enliven the dulled imaginations of those who suffer from knowing so much that they no longer know what they know. I hope Milbank's warning about false humility explains why I cannot help but appear impolite, since I must maintain that the God who moves the sun and the stars is the same God who was incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth. Given the politics of modernity, the humility required for those who worship the God revealed in the cross and resurrection of Christ cannot help but appear as arrogance.

That Christian humility cannot avoid appearing arrogant is an indication of why the argument I develop in these lectures entails a politics and an ethics. I show that the very idea that we might know God abstracted from how God makes himself known was the result of the loss of a Christian politics called church. Put in the categories we have learned to use in modernity, I show why ethics cannot be separated from theology. In terms more appropriate to the Christian tradition, I show why the truthfulness of theological claims entails the work they do for the shaping of holy lives.

The title of these lectures, With the Grain of the Universe, is a phrase from an essay by John Howard Yoder. The passage that frames this phrase appears as the epigraph to this book, and it is worth repeating here:

The point that apocalyptic makes is not only that people who wear crowns and who claim to foster justice by the sword are not as strong as they think—true as that is: we still sing, “O where are Kings and Empires now of old that went and came?” It is that people who bear crosses are working with the grain of the universe. One does not come to that belief by reducing social process to mechanical and statistical models, nor by winning some of one's battles for the control of one's own corner of the fallen world. One comes to it by sharing the life of those who sing about Resurrection of the slain Lamb.2

The attempt to develop a natural theology prior to or as grounds for subsequent claims about God cannot help but be mistaken to the extent such a project fails to help us see that there can be no deeper reality-making claim than the one Yoder makes: those who bear crosses work with the grain of the universe. Christians betray themselves as well as their non-Christian brothers and sisters when in the interest of apologetics we say and act as if the cross of Christ is incidental to God's being. In fact, the God we worship and the world God created cannot be truthfully known without the cross, which is why the knowledge of God and ecclesiology—or the politics called church—are interdependent.

Such are the bare bones of the position that I develop in these lectures. Only in the last three lectures will I turn to these claims explicitly, but I state them at the beginning, without argument and qualification, because these are the convictions that have informed the way I have approached these lectures and that have shaped the story I tell. I realize that by stating my Views so baldly I risk losing those people who have already decided such theological claims cannot be defended. To these people, I can say only that the proof is in the pudding, and I ask them to have patience—a virtue Christians share with many traditions, but also one that we believe has been given particular form by the worship of the God who would rule all creation from Christ's cross.3

Keeping Faith with Adam Gifford

The question remains whether or not the lectures I am about to give are in fact the Gifford Lectures. In this respect, I am at least in good company. Alasdair MacIntyre begins his Gifford Lectures with the same question.4 MacIntyre observes that the Gifford lecturer is someone who should try to implement the conditions of Lord Gifford's will. Yet MacIntyre does not share Lord Gifford's presumption that a nontraditioned account of rationality is sufficient to make natural theology a subject analogous to the natural sciences. Put more accurately, MacIntyre does not think Adam Gifford's understanding of the natural sciences should be a model for natural theology because Gifford's view distorts the character of science. I suspect that MacIntyre also thinks that our knowledge of God is more certain than the knowledge secured through the natural sciences. To that extent his own views cannot help but be at odds with the assumptions that shaped the provisions of Lord Gifford's will.5

The clause from Lord Gifford's will that best indicates the distance between MacIntyre and Gifford says that “the lecturers shall be under no restraint whatever in their treatment of their theme.” MacIntyre characterizes this clause as Adam Gifford's “reckless generosity” and uses it to justify his being a Gifford lecturer.6 From MacIntyre's perspective, to “be under no restraint” is but an indication that we have lost the possibility of rational argument. Accordingly, MacIntyre traces the increasing incoherence of the modern university to the loss of religious tests for appointments to the professorate.7 MacIntyre attributes the success of the natural sciences in modern universities to their informal and unstated policy of limiting questions through exclusion. Thus the sciences continue to enjoy a confidence in their ability to tell us the way things are because scientific disciplines do not correspond to Lord Gifford's understanding of rational inquiry. In comparison to the sciences, moral and theological inquiry are now at a disadvantage because the ideological effect of Gifford-like accounts of rationality have relegated such subjects to private opinion.

However, just to the extent MacIntyre is concerned to keep faith with Gifford's will, he honors what I take to be Gifford's concern that those who give the Gifford Lectures should attempt to help us understand how any account of the moral life cannot be divorced from our understanding of the way things are. In Lord Gifford's words, the Gifford Lectures are dedicated to:

“Promoting, Advancing, Teaching, and Diffusing the Study of Natural Theology,” in the widest sense of that term, in other words, “The Knowledge of God, the Infinite, the All, the First and Only Cause, the One and the Sole Substance, the Sole Being, the Sole Reality, and the Sole Existence, the Knowledge of His Nature and Attributes, the Knowledge of the Relations which men and the whole universe bear to Him, the Knowledge of the Nature and Foundation of Ethics or Morals, and of all Obligations and Duties thence arising.”8

MacIntyre hopes that if Lord Gifford were alive today, he might be able to recognize as his own MacIntyre's attempt to provide a quite different account of moral rationality and its relation to natural theology.9 It is quite remarkable that, unlike MacIntyre, many Gifford lecturers have not thought it necessary to attend to the provisions of Gifford's bequest. I take this lack of attention to Gifford's will as a confirmation of MacIntyre's account of the philosophical developments over the century in which the Giffords have been given. In a world in which you can no longer trust your knowledge of how things are, it is unclear why you should keep trust with trusts.

I have called attention to MacIntyre's attempt to justify his Gifford Lectures as the Gifford Lectures because my arguments are even more foreign to the purpose of the Gifford Lectures than MacIntyre's. At the very least, MacIntyre shares with Gifford a profound commitment to philosophy as a master science.10 Yet I am a theologian. Even worse, I am a theologian who hay been profoundly influenced by the work of another Gifford lecturer, Karl Barth. My problem becomes even more acute because I will try to convince you that Karl Barth is the great natural theologian of the Gifford Lectures—at least he is so if you remember that natural theology is the attempt to witness to the nongodforsakenness of the world even under the conditions of sin.11

I am aware that this claim will strike many people as problematic at best, and some may even think such a claim borders on being intellectually dishonest. Indeed, I believe it might make Stanley Jaki apoplectic. In his overview of the Gifford lecturers, Jaki treats most of the lecturers with respect. He even praises antitheistic Gifford lecturers such as Dewey and Ayer for “touching off a hunger for something more solid and elevated on the part of judicious readers.”12 Jaki shows no such respect for Barth, whom he characterizes as “alone among Christian Gifford lecturers in inveighing against natural theology. He and his followers seem to be strangely myopic to a facet of the much heralded onset of a post-Christian age through the alleged complete secularization of the Western mind.”13 The only thing positive Jaki can say about Barth is that he serves as a witness “to the reluctance of most Christian theologians to cut their moorings from reason, for fear of undercutting their very credibility.”14

Jaki was equally unimpressed by the lectures given by Reinhold Niebuhr. He notes that from the “viewpoint of philosophy” there is little significance to be gathered from Niebuhr's lectures. “The ‘Christian’ interpretation which Niebuhr tried to give to the nature and destiny of man was deprived of philosophical foundations and breadth by the short shrift given in his Barthian neo-orthodoxy to metaphysics and epistemology.”15 However much it may seem from the “viewpoint of philosophy” that Niebuhr is a Barthian, it will be the burden of my lectures to show that the difference between Niebuhr and Barth is exactly the difference between a theology that has given up on its ability to tell us the way the world is and a theology that confidently and unapologetically proclaims the way things are—a distinction that is unintelligible if the God Christians worship does not exist.

Like MacIntyre, I hope that in spite of my distance from Lord Gifford's theological convictions, he might recognize what I try to do in these lectures as a trustworthy attempt to keep faith with the provisions of his will.16 Although I lack MacIntyre's brilliance and learning, I am going to try to do in these lectures something like what he did in Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry. In those lectures, MacIntyre told the philosophical story since the endowment of the Gifford Lectures. I am going to try to tell the theological story. By so doing, I hope to show, like MacIntyre, that Lord Gifford was right to think that the truthfulness of our theological convictions is inseparable from questions of how we are to live.

I hope it will be evident not only from the form but from the substance of these lectures that I have learned much from MacIntyre. I should make clear, however, that as much as I would like to use MacIntyre to support the position I develop, to do so would be unfair. MacIntyre and I differ, and not simply due to my pacifism (though that is not unrelated). Rather, we differ in our understandings of the relationship between philosophy and theology. For example, in response to the suggestion that his most recent philosophical positions conceal a reassertion of Christianity, MacIntyre declares:

It is false, both biographically and with respect to the structure of my belief's. What I now believe philosophically I came to believe very largely before I reacknowledged the truth of Catholic Christianity. And I was only able to respond to the teachings of the Church because I had already learned from Aristotelianism both the nature of the mistakes involved in my earlier rejection of Christianity, and how to understand aright the relation of philosophical argument to theological inquiry. My philosophy, like that of many other Aristotelians, is theistic; but it is as secular in its content as any other.17

I have no stake in denying that philosophy has a history that can be told in a manner that separates the work of philosophy from theology, or that philosophy as a discipline, particularly in the modern university, has its own canons of excellence. Nor do I think that philosophy has no other purpose than to be a handmaid to theology. Yet the strong distinction MacIntyre maintains between philosophy and theology—such that philosophy represents a secular discipline—does justice neither to the complex relationship between philosophy and theology in Aquinas, the thinker MacIntyre most admires, nor to MacIntyre's own historicist commitments.18

I do not think that to be valid, philosophy—or any other science—must be shown to “depend” on our knowledge of God. Aquinas certainly did not construe the relationship between theology and the other sciences in this way:

The principles of other sciences either are evident and cannot be proved, or are proved by natural reason through same other science. But the knowledge proper to this science comes through revelation, and not through natural reason. Therefore it has no concern to prove the principles of the other sciences, but only to judge them. Whatsoever is found in other sciences contrary to any truth of this science, must be condemned as false: “Destroying counsels and every height that exalted itself against the knowledge of God.” (2 Cor. 10:4–5)19

Bruce Marshall observes that Aquinas did not think that we can or should deduce what we ought to believe about medicine or architecture from the articles of faith. The reasons we have for holding the vast majority of our beliefs need not be derived from the basic principles of the faith. Yet, according to Marshall, exactly because Aquinas presupposes Aristotle's understanding of science “as a set of interpreted sentences tied in logically tight ways to other interpreted sentences which are themselves either proven or beyond proof and doubt alike,” Aquinas rightly maintained that sacra doctrina could and must stand in judgment on the other sciences.20

I am not suggesting that MacIntyre disagrees with Aquinas's claim that sacra doctrina can and must judge the other sciences, including philosophy. Indeed, I assume that MacIntyre believes his statements about the secular character of philosophy are but restatements of Aquinas’ own views. Yet if theology (which is not the same as sacra doctrina) can stand in judgment of philosophy, then the relation between philosophy and theology is at least more complex than MacIntyre's stated views suggest.21 My disagreements with MacIntyre may appear to be simply a quibble, but at stake is the very status of theological knowledge. The strong distinction MacIntyre seems to make between philosophy and theology threatens to underwrite the modern presumption that in comparison to our other beliefs about the way things are, theology cannot help but be question-begging.22

For example, Aquinas's characterization of the knowledge that is proper to theology—that is, knowledge that “comes through revelation”—seems to name for many today a knowledge that is incapable of rational defense. Yet Aquinas assumes the opposite. For Aquinas, knowledge attained by “natural reason” is not more certain than that attained by revelation; “natural” and “revelation” do not name epistemological alternatives.23 Thus, those who attempt in the name of Aquinas to develop a “natural theology”—that is, a philosophical defense of “thesis” as a propaedeutic for any further “confessional” claims one might want to make—are engaged in an enterprise that Aquinas would not recognize. I do not assume that MacIntyre's understanding of the relationship between theology and philosophy is implicated in such a mis-understanding of Aquinas, but I fear that his views may give aid and comfort to those who assume that theology is beyond reason.

On the Unnatural Nature of Natural Theology

Lord Gifford expressed the wish for “the lectures to treat their subject as a strictly natural science, the greatest of all possible sciences, indeed, in one sense, the only science, that of Infinite Being, without reference to or reliance upon any supposed special exceptional or so-called miraculous revelation.”24 Given what I have said so far, it should be clear that I do not agree with Lord Gifford's understanding of natural theology. Lord Gifford had every reason to think that his understanding of natural theology was unexceptional; but in fact his understanding of natural theology as a necessary prolegomenon to test the rationality of theology proper was a rather recent development.

For example, though Aquinas's Prima Pars of the Summa is often identified as “natural theology,” Aquinas never so described his work. George Hendry observes that it is seldom noticed that the so-called proofs for the existence of God were perfected at a time when the existence of God was barely questioned. Calling attention to what he calls Aquinas's “little coda” that ends each of the five ways—“and this everyone understands to be God”—Hendry notes that the problem in the time of Aquinas “was not really to persuade people to believe in God, but to help them to relate their belief in God to the nature and conditions of the world and to see that their belief in God and their understanding of the world mutually illumine each other.”25

In a similar fashion Nicholas Wolterstorff argues that

the medieval project of natural theology was profoundly different from the Enlightenment project of evidentialist apologetics. It had different goals, presupposed different convictions, and was evoked by a different situation. It is true that some of the same arguments occur in both projects; they migrate from the one to the other. But our recognition of the identity of the émigré must not blind us to the fact that he has migrated from one “world” to another.26

Wolterstorff characterizes “evidentialist apologetics” as the frame of mind that assumes that unless one has good reasons for one's theistic beliefs, one ought to give them up. According to Wolterstorff, evidentialists hold that “belief is assumed guilty until it proves its innocence by evidence.”27 Locke, according to Wolterstorff, is the great representative of the evidentialist perspective just to the extent that Locke sought to defeat Enthusiasm by shifting the burden of proof to those who claimed certainty. Locke thought it important to defeat Enthusiasm because from his perspective the Enthusiasts were socially pernicious. According to Locke, not only did the Enthusiasts threaten social disruption, but they put forward an account of religion that violated one's dignity as a human being.28 Locke sought to defeat the Enthusiasts by developing what Wolterstorff characterizes as a foundationalist theory of justified belief, that is, the theory that a belief can be a rational belief only if it is grounded in certitude, whether immediately or mediately.

Wolterstorff argues that this kind of foundationalist project makes sense only in our modern situation. Without religious and moral pluralism, foundationalism would lack social urgency or relevance. The secularization of society is therefore the breeding ground for the attempt to develop foundationalist epistemologies and for the correlative fear that if we surrender the assumption that our beliefs can be grounded, then “anything goes.” As Wolterstorff puts it: “Foundationalism or antinomianism: that gaunt either/or has seemed obviously true to most reflective modern intellectuals. The alternative to grounding is thought to be arbitrary dogmatism.”29

The alternative between foundationalism or antinomianism simply did not exist for Aquinas. In MacIntyre's terms, Aquinas was not an “epistemologist.”30 Rather, what we now call Aquinas's natural theology was intrinsic to his understanding of Aristotelian science and how such a science must proceed if we are to avoid making God but another item among the things in the world.31 God, the creator of all that is, cannot be—as the evidentialist enterprise assumes—part of the metaphysical furniture of the universe. In the words of John of Damascus: “God does not belong to the class of existing things, not that God has not existence but that God is above all things, no even above existence itself.”32

Aquinas's account of our natural knowledge of God is an exploration of the implication that the divine essence cannot be a genus because of the very way in which essence is found in God. As Joseph Bobik puts the matter, for Aquinas “what God is is Existence, i.e., the Divine Essence is Existence.”33 Accordingly God can be known only through effects, which means that our knowledge of God is not just accidentally analogical but necessarily so. As Aquinas puts it: “Although we cannot know in what consists the essence of God, nevertheless in this science we make use of His effects, either of nature or of grace, in place of a definition, in regard to whatever is treated of in this science concerning God; even as in some philosophical sciences we demonstrate something about a cause from its effect, by taking the effect in place of a definition of the cause.”34

From Aquinas's perspective, if we could have the kind of evidence of God the evedentialist desires, then we would have evidence that the God Christians worship does not exist. But one may well ask: If this account of Aquinas is right, what are we to make of the arguments for the existence of God in Question Two of the Prima Pars? The answer is simple, given Aquinas's understanding of science and how such science contributes to our happiness as creatures of a good God.35

For Aquinas, the best order of human learning is the order of existence. But this does not mean, as is often presumed this side of modernity, that Aquinas begins with as minimal account of God as possible in order to then “add” thicker theological descriptions. The Summa is, as Timothy L. Smith argues, trinitarian from beginning to end. Aquinas's ordering principle, ordo rerum, does not require that he must first establish God's existence by philosophical argument in order then to make claims about God's trinitarian nature. Rather,

the unity of this science, sacra doctrina, demands that all remain under or within the ratio of being divinely “revealable.” As Thomas attempts to find a rational basis for some of those beliefs, he is pursuing a deeper understanding with the belief that the object of faith is intelligible in itself if not to us in this life. The reasoning upon the faith will typically but not exclusively involve the manifestation of that faith where reason cannot attain of its own accord. Revelation, however, provides the more certain and complete knowledge. The argument from authority never gives up its place to rational argument, though rational argument may be employed where the authority of revelation is retained. As one commentator puts it, the whole of the first 43 questions of ST 1 are “a single and unified treatise of revealed theology called ‘De Deo.’” The argument from authority, that is, from the authority of revelation, always reigns as the more certain and complete.36

For Aquinas, arguments from revelation carry more authority, but we are creatures created to desire God, which means that God is implicated in desires as fundamental as satisfying hunger and as complex as the longing for friendship. Thus, even without revelation, we all have some intimations of God. But Aquinas says that to pursue these intimations solely through reason is not sufficient:

The truth about God such as reason could discover would only be known by a few, and that after a long time, and with the admixture of many errors. Whereas man's whole salvation, which is in God, depends upon the knowledge of the truth. Therefore, in order that the salvation of men might be brought about more fitly and more surely, it was necessary that they should be taught divine truths by divine revelation. It was therefore necessary that, besides philosophical science built up by reason there should be a sacred science learned through revelation.37

The existence of God, then, which can be known by natural reason, is rightly understood as a preamble to the articles of faith, but “preamble” does not mean that the truthfulness of the articles of faith must await for such preambles to be established before their truth can be known.38 Indeed, Aquinas even doubts whether unbelievers can be said to believe in “a God,” since Christians understand such belief in relation to the act of faith. “For they do not believe that God exists under the conditions that faith determines; hence they do not truly believe in a God, since, as the Philosopher observes (Metaphysics, 9, 22) ‘to know simple things defectively is not to know them at all.’”39

This brief account of Aquinas's understanding of the status of our natural knowledge of God does not do justice to the complexity of his understanding of the status such knowledge has for Christian theology. I will take up these matters in much greater detail when I turn to Barth. I have sought at this stage simply to raise some questions about Lord Gifford's assumption, an assumption widely shared, that something called “natural theology” is a given that can clearly be distinguished from theology proper. I intend to show that Christian theologians’ acceptance of Lord Gifford's account of natural theology is one of the reasons that Christian theology in our time suffers from the pathos of false humility.

What Happened to Make Natural Theology Seem So Natural?

If I am right that Lord Gifford's understanding of natural theology is anything but natural, the question remains: What happened so that anyone who thinks otherwise now seems to bear the burden of proof? The shorthand answer is something called “modernity,” whose agent is identified as “The Enlightenment.” Behind these developments lies (what Protestants call) the Reformation—which is often credited with creating, at least for Europe, the “problem of pluralism.” That problem, as Wolterstorff notes, set the agenda for Locke and the many followers of Locke who try to secure a peace between the warring religions, insuring that we share something in common more determinative than our particularistic convictions about God. Equally important, if not more so for the development of natural theology, has been the rise of science and, in particular, the social sciences correlative to the development of capitalist political economies, for which God can appear only as an “externality.”40

I do not pretend to have the erudition or insight to make the connections necessar to tell the full story that has made natural theology seem so natural for us. The argument I develop in these lectures will betray the influence of those like MacIntyre, Milbank, and Funkenstein, who have helped us understand better the world that inhabits us.41 In what ways I get the history of these developments right is best tested in the light of the overall story I tell. It is important, however, that I make clear that I do not assume my account of modernity is necessarily one of declension. Though I admire and am attracted to many of the movements and figures we associate with what we call the Middle Ages, I do not assume the latter to be some golden age from which modernity names a fall.

My reasons for not making the story of our time the story of “the fall” are theological. The gospel, the good news Christians have been given, the good news that we believe is embodied in the church, is not “at home” in this world. The assumption that the Middle Ages represents a time when Christians “got it right” not only does an injustice to the complexity of the times and places so named, but also betrays the gospel requirement that even in a world that understands itself to be Christian, faithful witness is no less required for the truth that is Christ to be known. When Christianity is tempted to become a civilizational religion in a manner that makes witness secondary to knowing the truth about God, Christians lose the skills necessary to make known to themselves and others how what we believe is true to the way things are. The very attempt to tell the story of modernity as one of decline from a genuinely Christian world ironically underwrites the assumption that the story that Christianity is is inseparable from the story of Western culture.

I have earned what I hope is a well deserved reputation for attacking modernity, but in some ways modernity is an appropriate protest against Christian presumption.42 The protest against God in the name of humanity was and continues to be a tragic and misguided, but perhaps necessary, attempt to humble Christians whose lives have been constituted by a pride incompatible with the humility that should come from the worship of a crucified God. One of the forms of the price we pay for that protest is called natural theology.

A detailed account of how natural theology came to seem so natural certainly include the story Michael Buckley tells in his magisterial book At the Origins of Modern Atheism.43 Just as Milbank rightly reminds us at the beginning of Theology and Social Theory that once there was no “secular,” so Buckley reminds us that once there was no atheism with the correlative demand to develop a response called natural theology.44 Buckley is surely right that the great curiosity of our time is how the issue of Christianity versus atheism became a purely philosophical onw. I think he is also right to suggest that this curiosity has everything to do with developments in Christian theology in which it was assumed that the reality of God must be secured on grounds separate from Christology.45 According to Buckley, Leonard Lessius and Marin Efersenne prepared the way for deism (and the atheism only deism would produce) in an attempt to develop an apologetic strategy that assumed a Stoic conception of a mechanistic universe in which a god was still necessary to the extent some comprehensive principle is necessary for such a world.46

There is a great dispute about how to explain this development of an account of the universe in which God has no place, as well as about who is to be blamed for it. If what I have argued concerning Aquinas's understanding of our natural knowledge of God is correct, then I think Buckley is wrong to suggest that Aquinas is the culprit. Buckley alleges that Aquinas began the Summa assuming he must develop philosophically a doctrine of the one God.47 Following David Burrell, Milbank rightly argues that Aquinas's understanding of analogy and his correlative understanding of the creature's participation in God mean that Aquinas's philosophical analysis is always in service to his theology.48 According to Milbank, it was John Duns Scotus, not Aquinas, who set theology on the path that culminated in Lessius, just to the extent that Scotus distinguished metaphysics as a philosophical science concerning being from theology as a science concerning God. As a result, being was understood univocally because Scotus argued that to insure our knowledge of God, existence must be an attribute of God as well as of God's creatures. Milbank argues that to understand existence in this way leaves no room for an analogical relationship between God and God's creation, nor between one creature and another, and thus fails to account for the only difference that matters, namely, that between God and God's creation. On Milbank's reading, Scotus prepared the way for the nihilism that comes to full flower in modernity.49

Others, following the trail that led to Descartes, think the problems that currently confront us began with Cardinal Cajetan's assumption that the doctrine of analogy was just that, a doctrine, which required something like Scotus's account of being.50 It is then Francisco Suarez who is usually blamed for compounding Cajetan's error by attempting to depend an attributive account of analogy to insure our knowledge of God.51 MacIntyre thinks Suarez's distortion of Aquinas is even more fundamental to the extent that Suarez presents Aquinas's work as a finished system that makes Aquinas's indebtedness to his sources an accidental feature of his position. As a result, Suarez makes possible an interpretation of Aquinas as an epistemologist, so that it appears that Aquinas is trying to prevent a finished “system.” Joseph Kleutgen's Kantian recovery of Aquinas made this interpretation of Aquinas all the more persuasive, just in the extent that Suarez thinks “the mind in apprehending necessary truths about possible essences apprehends what may, but need not, exist.” This cannot help, according to MacIntyre, but lead to Descartes’ assumptions that some foundation is necessary to secure the transition from our comprehensions of essence to judgments of particular existence.52

For the argument I make in these lectures, it is not necessary for me to take sides in these debates about “when it was done and who did it.” Although I am sure that ideas matter and that it may take centuries for the results of a mistaken idea to bear fruit, I remain suspicious of attempts to lay the birth of modernity at the door of Scotus or Suarez. That we live in an age in which the church is but another voluntary theory and theology, at best, one subject among others in the curriculm of universities is the result not just of mistakes in the thirteenth century but of the effect of innovations such as the clock that intellectual (exactly because we are intellectuals) are prone to discount. (Of course, I am aware that clocks are also the result of ideas.)53

What interests me about these debates is what they suggest about how certain metaphysical developments led to what I can call only the epistemological overcoming of theology.54 That “overcoming” I take to be a correlative of the temptation to cast Christianity as a truth separable from truthful witness—a temptation always present in attempts to make Christianity at home in the world. At least one name for this temptation is “Constantinianism.” As a result of the attempt to make Christianity anyone's fate, the truth that is God is assumed to be available to anyone, without moral transformation and spiritual guidance.

Such a view stands in marked contrast to Aquinas's contention that the truth about God that reason can discover comes mixed with many errors. Aquinas says the same thing about our knowledge of the natural law, because some propositions are evident only to the wise. That is why in matters of our knowledge of God and our knowledge of God's law, we need training from one another. The Summa was Aquinas's attempt to provide an aid for such training, but for it properly to do its work we must submit to schooling by all of it, which means the Summa must be read as a theological, not a philosophical, text.55

I am not suggesting that metaphysical questions are irrelevant for the display of the truthfulness of theological claims. Indeed I am quite sympathetic to Étienne Gilson's account of the transformation in metaphysis occasioned by by Aquinas. Gilson notes that the supreme thought of Aristotle could not be “He who is,” that is, it could not give existence because the world of Aristotle was not a created world. I think Gilson is right to suggest that the true metaphysical revolution was achieved by Aquinas, who understood that all the problems concerning being had to be translated from the language of essences into that of existences.56 The problem is not that kind of metaphysical testing but is, rather, when metaphysics becomes an attempt to secure the truth of Christian conviction in a manner that makes the content of those convictions seconder. Such a project, I fear, has been legitimated for some time in the cause of natural theology and, accordingly, has found its natural home in the Gifford Lectures.

Varieties of Theological Work

The suggestion that the Gifford Lectures represent a metaphysical or, more exactly, an epistemological overcoming of theology may seem an old way to characterize them. Many of the scholars that have given the lectures have thought metaphysics to be at least as doubtful an enterance as theology. Buckley identifies the source of this suspicion of metaphysics:

Diderotes had begun with ideas and established god as a guarantor of nature. Newton had begun with the phenomena of nature and established god as a force by which the phenomena were structured so that they could interact. In both systems, god entered as a causal necessity. In both physics, god gave assessment or design to nature. Diderot had eliminated this inferred necessity by positing movement not as an effect upon matter, but as an effect of matter. Matter was reflexively responsible for its own movement.57

After Diderot, any theistic affirmation required an inversion in the understanding of everything in the universe: Nature was now a self-enclosed causal nexus requiring no explanation beyond itself. Such a view of nature was Kant's inheritance, and his response became the mode for most Christian theology after him. Under Kant's influence, Christian theologians simply left the natural world to science and turned to the holy place left in which language about God might make sense, that is, to the human—and not just to the human, but to what makes the human “moral.” Kant became the exemplary Protestant theologian, and Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone became the great text in Protestant moral theology.58 In the words of George Hendry: “When Kant gave priority to the ethical over the natural as the gateway to God, he provided a city of refuge to which harassed theologians fled from their philosophical and scientific pursuers in increasing numbers in the nineteenth century.”59

That city of refuge took many forms inhabited by names such as Ritschl, Schleiermacher, and Troeltsch; but each in his own way under-wrote the presumption that there is no alternative to Kant's “solution.” That is the story I tell in these Gifford Lectures. In short, I want to show that the very social and intellectual habits that shaped Lord Gifford's understanding of natural theology left Christian theologians devoid of the resources needed to demonstrate that theological claims are necessary for our knowledge of the way things are and for the kind of life we must live to acquire such knowledge.

No Gifford lecturer better exemplifies this conundrum than that figure who for many people continues to represent the greatest, or at least the most famous, Gifford lecturer: William James. In a world in which theology could no longer pretend to tell us anything significant about the way things are, James attempted, without leaving the world of science, to show how religious experience might at least tell us something about ourselves.

I begin these lectures with James partly because he has such interesting things to say that help us understand the challenges facing Christian theology. Indeed, his pragmatism is not entirely without interest for helping Christians understand how they must live if they are to make clear for Christians and non-Christians alike the way things are. Yet I also begin with James because he provides the necessary background for my account of Reinhold Niebuhr. Next to James, Niebuh is the Gifford lecturer (at least in the United States), and he is often thought to stand in marked contrast to James. Niebuhr allegedly challenged the humanism James represented. I will argue, however, that Niebuhr's account of Christianity stands in continuity with James's understanding of religion, and that this continuity indicates why Niebuhr's way of trying to do Christian theology cannot help but be misguided.

Niebuhr provides an opportunity to develop more fully a theme I can only suggest with James, namely, how the truth-fulfilling conditions of Christian speech have been compromised in the interest of developing an ethic for Christians in liberal social orders. Niebuhr had no use for the kind of metaphysics attributed to Scotus and Suarez, but Niebuhr assumed that the truth of Christianity consisted in the confirmation of universal and timeless myths about the human condition that made Christianity available to anyone without witness. So conceived, Christianity become a “truth” for the sustaining of social orders in the West. In an odd way, James, and Niebuhr offer accounts of religion and Christianity, regressively, that make the existence of the church accidental to Christianity. My criticism of Niebuhr will allow me to begin to develop the argument that any attempt to provide an account of how Christian theological terms can tell us the way things are requires a correlative politics. In theological terms, such a politics is called “church.”

Often when you are telling a story it is wise to keep your audience in suspense about how the story will end. However, my ending is so counterpart that I should at least warn you how the story will come out. So, I have intimated, I will argue that the great natural theologian of the Gifford Lectures is Karl Barth, for Barth, in contrast to James and Niebuhr provides a robust theological description of existence. The Church Dogmatics, as I read it, is a massive theological metaphysics that provides an alternative to the world in which Lord Gifford's understanding of natural theology seems reasonable.

Moreover, I will argue that Barth—in a way not unlike Aquinas—Grady assumes that the vindication of such a theological program is to be found in the way Christians much and should live. Barth's language to how we “must live” is witness. For Barth, witness is intrinsic for any understanding of what it means to hold that Christian convictions are true to the way things are. Accordingly, Barth kept faith with Lord Gifford's trust just to the extent that he provided the account necessary to understand how our knowledge of God and the way we should live are inextricably bound together. It remains an open question whether or not Barth's ecclesiology is sufficient to sustain the witness that he thought was intrinsic to Christianity.

As I tell this story, I hope it will become clear that it is an argument. There is a presumption in modernity that an argument is something different than a story. Thus, I must show why my argument—that is, why any Christian account of the way things are requires a full doctrine of God—cannot help but take the form of a narrative. Of course, James, Niebuhr and Barth represent lives and positions so large that no single set of lectures could hope to do justice to any one of them. That I propose togive an account of each of them as well as how they need to be understand in relation to one another not only indicates that my account of their lives and work is selective, but also illuminates how and why the truth of theological claims is inseparable from lives well lived.60

Each of these figures needs to be understood in light of the other because, for example, Barth's quite extraordinary accomplishment can be appreciated more fully in the light of James's work. I am certainly not suggesting that Barth was a closet pragmatist. Such a claim not only would be unfair to Barth, but would be, as I hope to show, a mistaken account of pragmatism. If pragmatism names a theory that must be applied, then clearly it is not the pragmatism James thought worthy of defense.61 Rather, I hope to show that James's understanding of truth helps us appreciate why Barth's way of doing theology should command the attention even of those who may think the entrance fee to Barth's world is too high.

I decided to deal not only with the works of James, Niebuhr, and Barth but also with their lives because in lectures that argue that lives matter, I could hardly afford to ignore the lives of William James, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Karl Barth. The lives of each of these larger-than-life figure are intrinsic to my argument because I think they represent, for all their individuality, admirable alternatives that cannot help but be in tension.

Overly simple though my portrait may be, William James represents for me the paradigmatic philosophical life to the extent that philosophy for James was not just another subject in the university but a passion, a way of life; James was committed to the criticism of criticism for the sake of living well.62 Alternatively, Reinhold Niebuhr's life was a political life in which all convictions were tested in terms of their significance for sustaining the democratic enterprise. In contrast, Barth's convictions were tested by their ability to sustain service to God. For Barth, all that is—what we know and what we do—was finally determined by this service. Few people could better represent the demands of a life committed to theology than Karl Barth.

Of course the lives of James, Niebuhr, and Barth are “messier” and more ambiguous than these characterizations.63 Yet I think my description of their lives are useful insofar as they help us see that the issues at stake in the Gifford Lectures are not just “intellectual” but are about the very character of our lives. To the extent I am able to sustain that claim, I trust that Lord Gifford would find that my lectures fulfill the purpose of his endowment.