A Layman’s Quest asks which (Christian) religious beliefs can be reasonably adopted in light of certain ethical considerations on action (outlined in Knox’s first series of lectures (Action) and in light of an upbringing in the Western world. Knox begins by outlining why he thinks it is reasonable to have religious belief, and concludes by examining the philosophical implications of such belief in light of the historical survey he sketches between the first and final chapters.
After a defence of religious belief in chapter 1, which sees truth, goodness and beauty in the absolute claims they make on us making faith in God reasonable, Knox begins the historical investigation (chap. 2) with an exposition of the works of Reimarus. He sees the importance of this beginning, in Reimarus’s being recognised as noteworthy in an historical challenge of the Christian religion through raising (clearly) the questions about who exactly the historical Jesus was and how Christianity originated. Chapter 3 discusses Lessing’s works—noting, in particular, his avoidance of the historical problem posed by Reimarus, and his attempt to rationalize Christianity. In chapter 4, Knox turns his attention to Kant, who is included primarily for the notable impact he had upon Hegel, who is discussed in some depth in chapters 5 and 6. Chapter 5 deals with Hegel’s early theological writings, his distinction between objective and subjective religion, the social nature of religion, the parts that compose it and Hegel’s growing historical insights, while chapter 6 sketches a journey through Hegel’s later theological writings—discussing his The Spirit of Christianity and Its Fate, Proofs of the Existence of God and Philosophy of Religion. Knox finds Hegel’s greatest defect to be ‘his refusal to see that for Christianity the vital questions are those raised by history and biblical criticism’ (p. 102). Biblical criticism and history are topics taken up in an examination of Strauss and modernism in chapter 7, where Strauss, like Reimarus, is found presenting a historical challenge to what may be reasonably believed. Knox also discusses the work of F. H. Bradley, the influence of F. C. Baur and some writings of Alfred Loisy. Chapter 8 takes up the historical phase from Schweitzer to form criticism—Knox outlines the decline and failings of modernism to a position where Christian belief is seen as not wholly dependent on historical evidence (although some historical evidence must be considered). In chapter 9, Knox turns to the question of what, for man, is reasonable to believe, which he identifies as being dependent on individuality and experiences (with a reminder that this is not to say anything of proof). Knox is at pains to show that ‘it is history (along with philosophy) [that] will have the last word, whether in support of Orthodox dogmatics or not’ (p. 166). In the final chapter (10), Knox turns his attentions to the paradox of transcendence and immanence in the Christian religion, attempting to shed some light on this curious and mysterious relationship by drawing on Hegelian considerations, Greek philosophy and the language of St Paul.