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Appendix I | The Empirical Theism of Professor Boyce Gibson

Those of us who are convinced of the basic validity of the cosmological approach to theism and who believe in addition that it may rightly be called empirical will feel encouraged by Professor Boyce Gibson's recent work,1 which represents in a reasoned argument the results of a lifetime's thought on the matter by a professional philosopher of the highest reputation.

On the one hand [Professor Boyce Gibson writes], I believe in God, not merely on authority, but because I think there are good reasons for believing in God:… On the other hand, my belief in God is based not on inference but on experience: and my background is one which has not been much represented in recent controversy on the philosophy of religion: that of a Christian independency which rests on the assembled testimony of believers and not on the authority of church or academy [p. 1].

Recognising that both traditional theists and traditional empiricists will declare that his hope of showing that there is no contradiction between the theistic and the empirical outlook is doomed to disillusionment, he begins his argument with a trenchant exposition of what he describes as ‘the Misadventures of Empiricism’. The first of these is the ‘epistemological misadventure’, which consisted in equating empiricism with sensationalism. Hume is the great offender here:

Hume took the only way out, by resolving the mind into constituent sensations, and thereby depriving his conclusions of any claim to truth. It is notable, however, that he found them impossible to live with.… His philosophy is not a response to environment, but the pursuit of an unempirical thesis unempirically to its logical outcome. He does not listen for contexts or overtones. He is just a Scots dominie who has got the better of the minister in argument.…

Now [Boyce Gibson continues] it is the linking of empiricism with sensationalism which, more than anything else, has made it implausible to talk about the empirical approach to God. If it is possible experientially to be aware of one's self and other people and Platonic ‘kinds’, distinguished from sensation by activity on the one hand and permanence on the other, one of the a priori objections to an alliance between theism and empiricism is removed [pp. 19f].

The second ‘misadventure’ is that of ‘Subject-object Parallelism’, the ‘standard view that ways of knowing stand in a defined one-one relation to ways of being’ (pp. 20f). The third ‘misadventure’ consists of the assumption that any claim to direct insight or intuition must lay claim to incorrigibility. On the contrary, ‘the next phase of the argument is to show that religious assertions and practices are corrigible and that if they were not they would not be properly religious’ (p. 26). For the avoidance of these and further misadventures five suggestions are made: awareness (1) is of things-in-relation, (2) is of the continuous, (3) is not a fact in its own right but is ‘intentional’ and directed to objects, (4) has to discover the objects to which it is directed and (5) is inseparable from valuations. ‘It is only if all of them are accepted that the road is clear for the empiricist approach to God’ (p. 27). In a vigorous criticism of Professor R. B. Braithwaite's famous Eddington Lecture, the assertion is made that ‘there is today a greater ignorance about religion than at any time in our history, and it is the sense of its irrelevance among the uninstructed (including graduates) which gives power to the elegant and technical attempts to discredit it’ (p. 32).

Starting, as an avowed empiricist must, with experience, Boyce Gibson insists that this must be ‘ordinary experience’. However, he asserts,

unfortunately, ordinary experience is frequently interpreted either as the experience of ordinary men (the appeal to ‘common sense’, determined by numbers), or, much more misleadingly, as the experience of a fashionable cultured clique, parading as a popular mouthpiece (e.g. Western intellectuals alienated from their religious background). Neither of these senses is here intended. In ordinary experience is included everything, however uncommon, which belongs to the scheme of nature: e.g. mystical states are not to be ruled out because most people do not have them, or are determined not to have them; nor are the normal uncorrupted expectations of the outback chapel or the suburban household, however, repugnant they may be to ‘advanced’ or ‘liberated’ persons. We use the word to denote whatever can be cited in evidence without appealing to special revelation [p. 40].

The author then proceeds to examine what he describes as ‘the most pressing candidate’, namely religious experience. ‘As a matter of phenomenological description’, he writes, ‘what is given in “religious experience” is given as unqualified reality’ (p. 40). It will not do, however, to take this without argument as an experience of God or even as experience of what we believe to be God. ‘Experience is conditioned by the worshipper's interests and convictions.… The ordinary Presbyterian in Inverness or the ordinary Catholic in Salamanca translates anything beyond his compass into the familiar religious language, just like the ordinary Moslem in Mecca or the ordinary Buddhist in Mandalay’ (p. 42). Furthermore, ‘there is experience not improperly called religious which is not directed to God at all’ (ibid.). The answer to this difficulty, Boyce Gibson replies, ‘will be that religious experience is not a separate compartment of life, but includes, amongst other things, an intellectual component’ (p. 43).

Space is now devoted to the consideration of this intellectual element. The force of the word ‘component’ is emphasised. Religion is not a purely intellectual matter; nevertheless, the place of the intellect is not to be minimised and, even when it is recognised how much religious knowledge makes use of images, ‘it is impossible to estimate the value of the images except inside a conceptual scheme’ (p. 47). Religion manifests wide variety, but, ‘in order to discuss the variations of religious discourse, we must presume that there is an intellectual component. Otherwise religion is undiscussible, that is to say, irrational’ (p. 51). The intellectual component is closely bound up with personal religion and faith, but this does not impair its scientific character. ‘Religious knowledge is empirical knowledge (imperfect, but growing) of something which is. It is an empirical knowledge of the non-empirical’ (p. 56).

So much for the prolegomena to an empirical theology. The investigation proper begins with ‘an enquiry into those general structures of the world with which belief in God has most commonly been associated, in the hope that there, if anywhere, the overlap, and the distance, may be brought to light’ (p. 62), and it is maintained that in this the empirical enterprise is not being abandoned. ‘We are looking for those features of the world that have the greatest persistence and constancy. We are looking; we are not inventing, or asking what we are contributing to the interpretation of things.… If this is our approach, the knowledge of God will on the one hand be as immediate as realists claim knowledge of the external world to be, and on the other opaque and discontinuous’ (p. 63). ‘The traditional way of recording these impressions’, Boyce Gibson continues, ‘is to say that we know God through his effects’, but ‘that is to sacrifice the factor of immediacy, and requires us to envisage God, not as presence, but as cause.’ Later on, he promises, the attempt to recover the cause from the effect will be studied in detail; if such recovery is possible, cause and effect must in some sense overlap. Hence he prefers to speak of a ‘presence’ rather than of a ‘cause’. More precisely, he ‘propose[s] to describe it as, from the Godward side, a prolongation, and our approach to it, from the worldward side, as a grasping for fringes’ (p. 64). And the most striking instances of this ‘presence’ or ‘prolongation’ which he finds in the world are those of order and creativity; these he sees as mutually correlated, but they are not simply opposites.

Order… is the concrete expression of the drift to unity. It cannot be similarly said that creativity is the concrete expression of the drift to multiplicity. Multiplicity is just presented to us, and in itself is not creative at all. It is, in fact, the raw material of order. It is not, however, the opposite of order, which is chaos. Creativity is not chaos; it only looks like it to minds accustomed to traditional kinds of order. It is invention, initiative, an excursion into the unforeseen. So far from being resistant to order, it depends doubly upon order. Order is the springboard from which it leaps, and order is what (in a new pattern) it creates. The relation between order and creativity is therefore asymmetrical [pp. 70f].

But why, is the obvious question, need we look to God to account for two features which already pervade the world?

To establish our case, we have to show that the constitutive structures of the world are neither mere effects on the one hand, nor wholly autonomous on the other. If they are considered as mere effects, we should have to argue (dubiously) from effect to cause. If they are understood as autonomous, the reference to God is unnecessary. If they are discerned as unfinished but demanding fulfilment, we can best make sense of them if we see in them the continuation (not simply the effect) of a divine presence, the approach to which will be more like the extension of a view than a transference of the mind from one thing to another [pp. 74f].

This notion of prolongation, continuation or extension of God into the world is quite fundamental to Boyce Gibson's argument, and we must stress that it is in no way pantheistic, any more than is St Thomas's doctrine that God is present in all things by ‘essence, presence and power’.2 For its justification it must be shown that order and creativity are in this world exhibited incompletely and that they demand a supplement. ‘Is there anything about them, at any time, in respect of which they are less than what they have to be?’ (p. 75).

Boyce Gibson rejects ‘one answer, common in many religious traditions,… that they must be less than what they have to be if they operate in time at all’, for he is going to argue later on ‘that non-temporal order and creativity are inconceivable’:

Order is of temporal things, and creativity requires time to move in. What is unsatisfying about order and creativity as they stand is not their temporality or even their particularity…, but that order and creativity are not quite what their deployment in the world nevertheless requires them to be. What we are in search of is an order and a creativity which shall be wholly what they are, and deny nothing of what they are: for example, their involvement in time [pp. 75f].

Thus, to anticipate, Boyce Gibson's God will not be timeless, or ‘above’ (or ‘outside’) time; and everything depends on his being able to argue that the ‘not-quiteness’ of order and creativity as we know them is due neither to their mutual interference nor to the alleged limitations of time, but to a ‘prolongation’ of God into the finite realm. He reasserts the primacy of creativity over order and their mutual asymmetry:

Order does not produce creativity; creativity does produce order. If we press order alone back towards its own perfection, all we shall find is more and better order. If we similarly press creativity, we shall find more creativity, and order besides. So it is at least a possible speculation that at the far end, where each merges with the other in its own perfectness, creativity brings about the order of the world, as well as giving rise to its own image in the world. In that case, creativity assumes a certain precedence, and the world would issue from the tension between its product, order, and its own continuance [p. 78].

‘Thus,’ Boyce Gibson continues,

in general terms, we have prepared the way for the view that there is an overlap of God into the world; that from the side of the world there is a grasping of fringes of God in the world; that from the side of God the overlap is a prolongation: and that there is something about the prolongation which requires to be traced back to its divine hinterland. Starting from scratch, and without religious assumptions, this is the direction in which the analysis of structures seems to call us. But that is only a beginning. It needs to be supplemented by reference to specific situations and especially the human situation; structures may pass over into attributes of God, but only situations can reveal his presence [ibid.].

Before taking this further step, however, Boyce Gibson utters two reservations. The first is that the imperfections in the world's structures need no less attention than the structures themselves. The second is that all that philosophy can provide is an increasing probability; at this point faith will take over and many things which were hitherto merely reasonable anticipations will become clearer. Faith and empiricism will then join hands.

‘We have tried to show in general terms’, writes Boyce Gibson, summing up the stage which he claims now to have reached in his argument, ‘the perfections of the world are continuous with a beyond to which they are pointers, and at the same time and for that reason not complete in themselves’ (p. 80). This might suggest something like what the Transcendental Thomists3 have to tell us about the horizon of being, which Fr J. Donceel has briefly stated as follows:

Man [is] the being which possesses an infinite horizon. The horizon which we see with our eyes is finite, we share it with animals. The horizon which we see with our intellect is infinite. It is the horizon of being.4

However it is not with the intentionality of human knowledge that we are now to be confronted, but with the structure of human values, and the chapter which deals with them is headed ‘Values as Fringes’. Furthermore, ‘because it exhibits the problems most clearly, we shall’, our author tells us, ‘concentrate on the evidence from ethics’ (ibid.). ‘In human behaviour,’ he continues, ‘structure and defect are accessible to consciousness. There is a gap between performance and possibility which the best man never quite closes.…’

From one point of view, the transition from this-worldly structures to their continuation in God is easier in the case of values: easier, because it is forced upon us.… From another point of view, the transition is more complicated. Through experience of obstruction, the moral agent acquires a self-standingness which is often in tension… with the specifically religious mood of adoration.…

Thus only if we are conscious of the gap are we sufficiently disturbed to explore new shapes of God beyond our knowledge; but in endeavouring to cope with the gap we keep ourselves so consciously erect that we sometimes do not think about God at all [pp. 80f].

In developing his argument Boyce Gibson states as a general principle that ‘when any morality reaches its own peak, it moves forward into another dimension’ (p. 84), and he applies it specially to agapaistic morality. ‘One way, agapaistic morality leads up to God; the other, agapaistic morality is stranded without God. In neither case is it independent of God’ (p. 88). He denies that the excellence of morality consists of obedience to the will of God, but he also denies that morality is complete without reference to God or that it can be secured by depersonalising God. This leads him on to ‘the next open frontier: the frontier of personality’ and he tries to show ‘that at its highest point human experience reveals an incompleteness which points on to something of the same order but relieved of the limitations’ (p. 90). Divine omnipotence, he argues convincingly, is not only compatible with human freedom but positively requires and establishes it, though in this matter he is, I think, less than fair to St Thomas. ‘If men are engaged on [God's] business, even unknowingly, the more they have, the more he has’ (p. 93). Might we not also add: the more he has, the more they have too? Persons, it is insisted, are essentially incomplete: ‘If any finite existent ever called for completion in its own idiom, it is personality.’ But this involves participating in a personal existence which is more than human.

But participation is not merely a reference back to another world. It involves an overlap; God reaching down to be a constituent of the world, and the world rising to incorporate it. As Whitehead observed, alluding to one of the said constituents, ‘creativity is not separable from its creatures’. This is the picture which will be elaborated later: at present we merely reaffirm, concerning personality, the open-endedness of the finite creature, and his testimony that, if he is to be what he is, there must be somewhere something which is in greater measure what he is, with which he is somehow continuous [pp. 94f].

At this point, Boyce Gibson tells us, the drift of his argument is sufficiently clear to provoke objections. The first is that he has stressed continuity between God and man at the expense of their distance from each other. He replies that he has no intention of eliminating distance but only of putting it in its proper place. It is, however, disturbing to find that he estimates this distance purely in moral terms; some people are less distant than others and no one scores 100 per cent; furthermore humility counts for more than achievement. Little, if any, attention is paid to the metaphysical distance between the creator and the creature, a distance which is, of course, the other side of a most intimate propinquity, since the creature's existence from moment to moment is entirely due to the never failing presence within it of the creative activity of God. This defect in Boyce Gibson's exposition is not perhaps surprising since he has conducted his argument in moral, rather than metaphysical terms; that is to say, he has explored man's ethical relation to the ‘beyond’ rather than man's sheer lack of existential necessity. More than this, even when all allowance has been made for the fact that analogies are only analogies, it seems to me that there is a lack of subtlety in his handling of the concepts of prolongation and of ‘fringes’. For, in his exposition, both of these seem to me to stand for some almost spatially conceived self-insertion of God into the finite realm, rather than for his existential energising of it. This suspicion is confirmed when one looks at Boyce Gibson's answer to the second objection which he anticipates, namely that through his prolongations God will be involved in time, for he replies ‘The statement is undoubtedly true: but is it an objection?’ (p. 98). ‘If God is not in time’, he continues, ‘he cannot love, heal, listen to prayer, make differences in the world, engage in encounter, stir, soothe, create; in fact he cannot do anything whatever. The timeless God is a legacy from the Alexandrian Neo-Platonists, for whom doing anything was far too vulgar’ (ibid.). The full force of the reference to Whitehead in the passage quoted above from p. 94 is now evident, for it is notorious that Whitehead conceived God and the world as engaged in a perpetual process of mutual improvement.5 What is astonishing is Boyce Gibson's complete indifference to the way in which traditional Christian theism, as exemplified by Aquinas among many others, replaced the self-absorbed Aristotelian first unmoved mover, who was ignorant of the world's very existence, by the living and loving Creator, whose sheer goodness pours itself out in giving being to his creatures and who is the Lord of time precisely because he is not involved in time himself. The reconciliation of God's immutability with his compassion does indeed posit a problem for theology, but the consistent tradition classically expressed by St Augustine in the statement that God created the world not in tempore but cum tempore6 deserves more serious attention than Boyce Gibson gives it. He himself sees the chief challenge to his theme as voiced by the existence of evil. His provisional answer is that God has to permit evil if he is committed to freedom: ‘We have re-interpreted omnipotence as the leading of free men; the test for power is not the absence of limits, but the extent to which freedom issues from it.’

When the time comes [the author continues] this contention will be all-important: it provides some kind of answer to the question, why should God permit any evil at all? But the fact remains that he does, and we cannot accept it uncomplainingly unless he provides some way of getting rid of it. That is something for which the Christian tradition is equipped, and the Christian tradition alone [p. 105].

At this point Boyce Gibson makes a provisional summary of his argument:

We have groped for fringes, and we have found them.… Nevertheless, we can hardly be satisfied. The power of the counter-evidence is still with us; we have kept the issue open, but it is far from settled. What we have to understand is that, groping for fringes, we can expect no more. We are lucky to have the intimations that we do [ibid.].

Anticipating later discussion, he lays stress on the element of faith, which he describes as ‘a trust displayed in the absence of certainty, a personal commitment filling the gap between reasonable evidence and unfaltering action’. Nevertheless, he adds, ‘the demand for certainty (as opposed to necessity) is not wholly unjustified.… The demand for certainty comes from the side of action. How it combines with intellectual empiricism will appear later in this essay’ (p. 106).

Having now established at least a provisional statement of his thesis, Boyce Gibson goes on to make an assessment of the traditional approaches to theism. He begins this by considering two positions, one philosophical and the other religious, according to which all proofs of God's existence are a priori self-contradictory. The philosophical position is the famous one of Kant. Boyce Gibson's judgment on it is that Kant's objection is valid, provided it is taken as a protest against claims to produce rigid demonstrations of theism, since demonstration involves extending to the world as a whole the ways of thinking suitable to natural objects. He holds, however, that ‘there are traces in [Kant] of an empirical approach to metaphysics which he rejects as inadequate, but on which others may work with profit’ (p. 113). The religious position considered is that of Kierkegaard, according to which ‘there can be no proof of the existence of God, because proof is objective and God is not an object’ (p. 114). To the first part of this objection Boyce Gibson replies: ‘To admit the importance of an objectively true conception of God is not to say that God can be clearly and distinctly known, or that his existence can be proved. But to deny the importance of an objectively true conception of God is to lend ourselves to any imposture which can stir our depths’ (p. 117). To the second part he replies: ‘If objective truth has no standing, this statement [“God is not an object”], which is objectively intended, has no standing either. If it is to register, it must rest on an objective distinction between subject and object, each of them with discernible characteristics’ (p. 118). The attitude in which he approaches the traditional ‘proofs’ is expressed thus:

We shall expect to find that they fall short of demonstration, but contain pointers and indicators which, taken together, considerably enlarge our understanding. Kant and Kierkegaard between them have established the first point, but, thanks to their all-or-nothing frame of reference, have underestimated the second. It is to this mast that a religious empiricist must nail his colours (pp. 120f).

Passing on, then, from the general to the particular, Boyce Gibson first examines the ontological argument, first as students of Anselm and Descartes have commonly understood it and then in the interpretation recently given it by Charles Hartshorne and Norman Malcolm, according to whom what it really shows is that if God is possible he is also necessary: he cannot, so to speak, merely ‘happen’ to exist. Boyce Gibson's chief objection (he has others) is that to validate the argument it would need to be shown that the concept of God is not self-contradictory. On the cosmological argument, as stated for example by St Thomas in the first three of the Five Ways, he writes:

As part of the Thomist vista, it fits perfectly. But it depends on assumptions which in the eighteenth century were becoming increasingly insecure. Its flank was no longer covered by the Aristotelian philosophy of motion. It is clearly incompatible with the revised notion of cause, either in its Humian form, which subjectivises necessity, or in its Kantian form, which restricts objective necessity to the connexion of phenomena.…

Nevertheless, no matter what scientific or confessional props are withdrawn, necessary being is something that philosophical theists are not disposed to abandon. That is why an increasing proportion of the decreasing number of philosophers concerned for religion look to Thomism for a life-line. What, it is asked, could be made of a God who might not have been, or merely happened to be? It is this question, along with less enduring matter, with which the cosmological argument is so properly concerned [p. 134].

Boyce Gibson concludes ‘that the facts justify hope but not complete assurance’ (p. 136). ‘St Thomas thought the existence of God could be proved; Kant denied it. Neither of them saw that the business of philosophers in the matter was not to prove but to provide indications’ (p. 140).

Whether the two characters (necessity and perfection) can coalesce is one of the main problems of natural theology. Suffice it to say at this stage that arguments pointing to an ens necessarium or an ens realissimum do not show that they can. The cosmological argument has therefore either to be supplemented by a moral argument or to fall back on the ontological argument. But as a constructive brain-stretcher, as a destroyer of premature absolutes, and as an insistent pointer to what it does not quite establish, the argument provides a tightly reasoned prelude to that maturer conviction which is fed by other arguments and is vindicated in practice [p. 141].

A similar judgment is passed on Descartes’ arguments from the existence of the idea of God in his own mind and from the fact of his own imperfect existence. More space is given to the argument from design, but with the same result. It is interesting to note that Boyce Gibson remarks: ‘In my considered view, the neglect of [F. R. Tennant's] great work Philosophical Theology (1929), by philosophers interested in religion figures with the neglect of Whitehead by philosophers interested in science as one of the most unfortunate and gratuitous refusals of a heritage in the history of British thought’ (p. 152). The general result of his extended review of the classical proofs is summed up by Boyce Gibson in the following words:

We conclude:

  1. 1. that they do not achieve demonstration;
  2. 2. that many arguments used against them do not hold water;
  3. 3. that they provide good reasons for believing;
  4. 4. that they are confronted with counter-evidence which must be faced without evasion [p. 158].

‘At this point’, Boyce Gibson writes, ‘we pass from the shadow of the syllogism to the analysis of faith’ (ibid.).

It may help us to avoid confusion if we say at once that Boyce Gibson's use of the word ‘faith’ is not to be identified with either its use in traditional Catholic theology or its use in traditional Protestantism, though it has affinities with both. He admits the distinction between having good reasons (which is all that the philosopher can supply) and the finality of religious conviction: ‘good reasons facilitate, but do not constrain’ (p. 160). He makes the important assertion: ‘In analysing further the nature of religious assurance, we shall suggest that it belongs to an open-ended human situation, and its triumph is not that it limits open-endedness, but that it is completely at home in it’ (pp. 159f). ‘That being so’, he asks, ‘what are we to make of the assurance which leaps to a personal certainty and leaves even the good reasons trailing behind it? The answer is that this is what is meant by faith, and that the sphere of its operations is in the first instance in practice’ (p. 160).

He begins his analysis of faith with what he calls ‘faith, full stop’ or ‘first faith’ and which he sees as antecedent to both ‘faith in’ and ‘faith that’, though he insists that in a matured faith both these have their place. Its basic feature is ‘refusal to accept “the impossible”’ (p. 161). It is forward-looking; unlike fear, which keeps us behind our defences, faith takes us out from behind them. In the normal cases it is not specifically religious; it is the more difficult cases which drive us to religion. But both alike spring from a natural resilience transmitted by the creator to the creature for continuing the work of creation” (p. 163). (This last statement is presumably a reflective judgment made from the later standpoint of a matured faith.)

It is clear [Boyce Gibson continues] that faith arises in the first instance in the context of action. All the classical instances relate to something being done. This is the foundation on which the more sophisticated elaborations are created and which, in expounding them, we must never be tempted to forget. Faith as a whole relates to life as a whole, and life as a whole is a doing—even if the particular kind of doing is, in a few selected cases, thinking.…

We have set forth the simple faith which is continuous with the vitality and elasticity of nature on the one hand, and is the first movement towards God on the other. We have now to trace its development into its more complete manifestations [pp. 163–5].

Passing on from ‘first faith’ to faith in God, Boyce Gibson emphasises that ‘“faith in” a friend or a spouse is a specification of “first faith” to a particular person’ (p. 165). He condemns the tendency to think of faith as one-sided, as if we could have faith in God but God could not have faith in us; the Bible, he reminds us, shows God having ‘faith in some very bad risks indeed’ (p. 166). This is, I think, a valid point, but it emphasises the fact that ‘faith’ designates something different from what it designates in the scholastic tradition. There is an impressive argument, which it would be difficult and unjust to summarise, supporting the assertion that ‘first faith’ can legitimately become ‘faith in’, and not merely faith in something but faith in God. This leads to a discussion of the relation between ‘faith in’ and ‘faith that’:

There is room both for assensus and for fiducia.… The view here put forward is that the particles of faith ‘are empirically elaborated from the structure of faith itself, and that faith itself is not a matter of assenting to articles. The traditional view is that they are delivered to us as articles, or at any rate as a system of articles, by an authority which we absolutely trust. The intellectual component, in the first case, is a corrigible transcript of faith; in the second, it is an infallible dictate of faith. In the first case, the problem is to find an appropriate set of conceptual symbols for a total response. In the second case, the problem is how a conceptual assent shall (as Calvin put it) ‘penetrate to the heart, so as to have a fixed seat there’. The distinction is crucial for those exploring the empirical approach to religion [pp. 173f].

The piquant remark is added that, ‘paradoxically, it was the father of British empiricism, John Locke, who most unequivocally identified faith with assent: to propositions’ (p. 174).

Clearly, Boyce Gibson is here raising a question of the utmost importance, not only for natural theology but for any religion which includes a genuinely institutional element. What is the relation between dogmatic truth and the socially and culturally conditioned conceptual and verbal forms in which it expresses itself? How are we to be sure of retaining the former if and when we find it necessary to change or modify the latter? It is no criticism of Boyce Gibson to point out that he does not deal with this problem, for it lies outside the scope of his discussion; it is nevertheless well to recognise it. And Boyce Gibson does in fact avoid any facile anti-intellectualism. In an able discussion of Newman's work on the notion of ‘assent’, he writes:

We are driven to the conclusion that, ‘faith in’ being anchored to an object, ‘faith that’ is already implicit in it. Therefore, to retreat from the intellectual complexities of ‘that’ to the religious simplicities of ‘in’ is a mistake, both religious and philosophical. It is a religious mistake because all retreating is a religious mistake; it displays a failure of original faith. It is a philosophical mistake, because what is denied reappears in what is affirmed. What has rendered it plausible is that ‘faith that’ may exist without ‘faith in’ [p. 177].

The telling point is made that ‘the objection to “faith that” as prejudicial to “faith in” stems from a view about thinking which would be misleading in contexts other than of religion: and this is an opportunity for considering it in general terms’ (p. 178).

Boyce Gibson admits the contention that the inner preserves of the spirit must not be subjected to an over-simplifying intellectualism, but he replies that ‘in thinking about our experiencing, we do not eliminate the experience: we find for it proper symbolic forms which communicate it to others and make it available for them’, and he adds that ‘herein lies the peculiar value of Newman's distinction between notional and real assent’. He denies ‘that “faith that”, which retrieves the implications, is false to “faith in”, which exhibits but does not explore them.’ Nevertheless, ‘it remains true that “faith that” disengages them and does not justify them.’ In line with his basic empiricism he asserts that ‘faith does not need to be justified by anything other than practice, or, if practice already embodies it, it does not need to be justified at all’ (pp. 179f). The proper task of theology, in the narrow sense of the word, is to disengage and set in order the presuppositions of our profoundest experiences, with their concealed intellectual content. The difficulty of the task is emphasised, and not least the extent to which the theological expressions will vary both with the degree of faith and with the secular assumptions and personal idiosyncrasies of the theologian. Furthermore the acceptance of any infallible authority is disowned as cramping and curtailing the free development of faith: ‘a continuous revelation finds room, as a fixed revelation does not, for the exploratory genius of faith’ (p. 182). Once again we are on the fringe of the problem of the relation between the revelation and its developing expressions and, indeed, of the problem of the sense in which revelation can be said to be complete in Christ and of the distinction, if there is one, between revealed and natural knowledge of God and his acts. I shall not attempt to deal with them here. It is, however, important to notice that Boyce Gibson distinguishes between ‘faith that’ and general philosophy: ‘They move in the same area: they deal with the general characters of things; and both are concerned with problems about God. But they are directed to them at different levels of a spiritual dialectic’ (pp. 182f). ‘Without philosophy faith would lack rational antecedents. Without theology it would lack rational formulation’ (p. 183). Nevertheless, we are told that both faith and philosophy ‘are exhibitions of empirical reasoning and neither can lay claim to necessity’ (p. 182), and this might cause us to qualify the statement ‘We shall find ourselves nearer to the Thomist model than at first appeared: the distinction between natural and revealed theology will be retained, together with the hierarchical relation between them. But faith will not be identified with any assent to propositions, however supernatural; it is the initial and sustaining activity which carries the propositions on its shoulders’ (p. 183). It is in accordance with this point of view that Boyce Gibson goes on to draw a firm distinction between ‘faith’ and ‘belief.

What, we might wonder, is the point of this analysis of faith? It is to enable us to have a rational answer to the counter-affirmations, the obstacles to theism, which philosophical enquiry alone cannot rebut; and of these the most serious is, of course, posed by the problem of evil, in the forms both of suffering and of wickedness. And here the specifically Christian answer is given. In a discussion to which a summary could hardly do justice it is argued that, if God is what Christ is, the promise of faith—the promise that evil can be overcome and dissipated—not only can, but will, be fulfilled. It is not easy to see what kind of Christology is implied in this discussion. We are told that

the doctrine of Incarnation [not, we observe, the Incarnation] changes the whole face of the problem of evil. But the failure to press the point home lies with those of its exponents who do not actualise it in psychological terms, who do not relate it to the human dealings of Jesus Christ. To reverse the normal order: he did not do what he did because he was God: he was God because he did what he did [p. 201].

It is difficult to know what is the precise force of the words ‘because’ in the last sentence. Does it mean that ‘doing what he did’ is the meaning of ‘being God’, or that doing what he did is evidence for his being God?7 Boyce Gibson is too proficient a philosopher to fall easily into a logical confusion, but he does seem here to come close to doing so and to saying ‘Jesus must have been God, because what I mean by God is Jesus’. Thus he continues:

It is useful to over-simplify in this sense, because it brings out a fundamental ambiguity. If it is part of the definition of God to be up-there and not down-here, then of course Incarnation is impossible, a priori. But that definition of God, like all definitions, has to run the gauntlet of experience, and the time came when it wore out. That was when people found out that God was amongst them and could not make God real to themselves in any other way: those ‘who through him do believe in God, who raised him up from the dead and gave him glory’ (I Peter 1.21). The concept of God, at that moment, turned a sharp corner.

Nevertheless, Boyce Gibson immediately adds: ‘And once it was turned, it was realised that what had been revealed had always been there. “Before Abraham was, I am.”’ (p. 201). I think therefore that he is in fact innocent of reducing the divinity of Jesus to a mere tautology, though, as I shall assert later on, I think he has, on philosophical as well as theological grounds, an inadequate understanding of God.

Summarising this very crucial stage in his argument, Boyce Gibson writes:

We have spoken of faith as if its function were to break down a theoretical objection. So it is, amongst others: but faith is not primarily a theoretical activity. It is, in the widest sense of the word, a practical activity: in the sense, that is, in which practice includes theory but surpasses it [p. 202].

‘All through,’ he writes, ‘the reference is to a practice which outruns theory. And therefore, he continues ‘with this is combined a demand for verification’ (ibid.). And his complaint about the ‘verificationist’ school is that their notion of verification is too narrow.

The trouble about the so-called verification principle, like the trouble about empiricism in general, lies in its limitation to the area of sense-perception. In itself, it is not only unobjectionable, but, as a sequel to empirical philosophy and religious faith, indispensable. It is in the moment of practice that the philosophy is vindicated and the faith receives embodiment.… What is now required of us is a re-interpretation of the verification principle which its usual exponents would energetically repudiate [pp. 202f].

Boyce Gibson thus passes on from his Analysis of Faith to a consideration of Faith and Practice. In spite of his emphasis upon experience and verification, he refuses to accept without qualification the comparison which is sometimes made between religious dogmas and experience on the one hand and scientific theories and experiments on the other; and this for two reasons. In the first place, in the case of religion it is extremely difficult, and indeed undesirable, to exclude ‘complicating factors’; in the second, in the case of religion it is impossible to send an action back for modification and the agent has had to commit himself with his experiment. Nevertheless, ‘the risks being so much greater, verification is not less, but more, indispensable’ (p. 212). But what kind of verification?

Verification can only take the form of a gradually widening conviction, spread over the years from the hopes of youth to the meditations of age, and over situations swinging between crisis and routine, that the way of faith is the sufficient way, and one in which each of its phases promotes its own perpetuation. The verification of faith is not, like the verifications of science, particular verification, though it is shown forth in particulars, even in ‘minute particulars’, but an overall verification, broadening as it goes along, starting as an unforgettable firing of the imagination, and validating itself in every actual situation, both through its own successes and through the manifest failure of the recognised alternatives. This does not make it any the less a verification. It means that verification in science, which is often taken as a universal model, is only one kind of verification [p. 213].

This contention is developed at considerable length and it takes the author into the field of ethics:

The principle that there is a carry-over from God to practice does not settle the matter, for there are many ideas of God and many more or less consequential kinds of practice. Admitting that faith in God completes itself in practice, which God and what practice? [p. 221].

The principle which Boyce Gibson invokes is (1) that there must be no collision between religion and other excellences and (2) that there must be no limit to the field in which religion operates. These, it is recognised, while they are necessary, are not sufficient to exclude all religions but one; they embrace most of the major religions. It is, however, argued that the specifically Christian ethic of charity provides a strong case for Christianity, and R. B. Braithwaite's attempt to detach an agapaistic way of life from factual belief is dismissed as ineffectual:

[The ethic of charity] certainly finds a response in human experience, but it needs a great deal of sustaining, and it is noteworthy that Braithwaite finds it necessary to keep nourishing the imagination with ritual and stories. Would ritual and stories serve the purpose if the ritual were merely an artistic performance and the stories merely untrue? [p. 230].

Finally, Kant's doctrine that God is a postulate of morality and not an object of contemplation is alleged to be insufficient: ‘Because we have accepted provisionally metaphysical theses which Kant thought inadmissible, and have been verifying faith rather than erecting postulates, we can appeal directly to practice for our sanction, instead of finding, indirectly, a sanction for our practice’ (p. 236).

At this point Boyce Gibson's argument is substantially complete, but he adds a further chapter entitled ‘Return to Metaphysics’, in which he raises the question: ‘Assuming that a faith verified in practice can take care of the counter-evidence, how can we elaborate the concept of God?’ (p. 238). He adds two cautions: first, we can make no more than a penultimate approach to an ultimate mystery, and, secondly, we must not read the assurance of faith back into the tentative recognitions of empirical metaphysics. ‘In the renewal of metaphysics, faith must remain faith: otherwise there would be no renewal of metaphysics; and metaphysics must remain empirical, otherwise there would be no room for faith’ (p. 239).

In this renewal our author first considers the notion of God as necessary being, ens necessarium. While admitting that it is repugnant to suppose that God just happens, he holds that the application of ‘necessary’ and ‘contingent’ to God is a category mistake; these words belong only to the world. We might note in passing that Fr W. Norris Clarke has pointed out that St Thomas himself never uses ‘necessary’ as an attribute proper to God:

This came in only through the Augustinian tradition stemming from Anselm. It became fixed as a primary attribute of God only in modern scholasticism through which it spread to other modern philosophers in the rationalist tradition which tended to deduce or at least explain the existence of God as somehow flowing from his essence. Duns Scotus is a prime example of this procedure, even though he stays clear of the ontological argument in its pure form.8

Boyce Gibson repeats his previous assertion that God is himself subject to time and change; this he holds to follow from the fact that God is the principle not only of order but also of creativity:

God, then, is not timeless. He is coeval with all possible time and he is expressed in the world in some structures admitted to be changeless. But changelessness is not timelessness: it could just as well be indefinite continuance. And as the changeless structures of the world reappear in different contexts in different individual cases, being integral elements in the most variable situations, this would appear to be the more appropriate form of expression. God, then, as shown by his prolongations, has his continuances and his mobilities; in our picture, the latter predominate, and even the former do not suggest timelessness [pp. 2421].

From this Boyce Gibson passes on to a discussion of God and Body. It is not easy to discover the precise sense in which ‘body’ and ‘matter’ are understood here, but it is quite clear that God is himself bodily. This leads on to some very original reflections upon the Incarnation: ‘If God has no body,’ we are told, ‘there is an unbreakable dilemma between universal Idealism and universal materialism, under both of which dispensations God disappears. All this follows without any reference to the specific features of Christian revelation’ (p. 244). Nevertheless, the Christian revelation is held to throw light upon it.

Boyce Gibson rightly remarks that God has a body in the sense that he became incarnate in Jesus Christ, and he laudably ignores the view implicitly held by many people that, while God was in some sense incarnate in Jesus during the period of his earthly life, he ceased to be incarnate at the end of it. He goes on, however, to assert that, if God was incarnate in human nature during the earthly life of Jesus, this can only have been possible if he was, in some sense, incarnate before:

How can what is wholly immaterial become body at any time?… It is better [presumably this also means ‘truer’] to say that incarnation is perpetual, and what is unique about the Incarnation of God in Christ is its definitive form and direction: it perfects a long-standing process, and provides for its perpetuation in the perfected form.… The divine body pre-dates the Incarnation, though it is only in the Incarnation that it achieved perfection and was backed into a point of time [pp. 245f].

It must, I think, be recognised at this point that there is a very close connection between this highly idiosyncratic view of the Incarnation and the special type of empiricism that Boyce Gibson has adopted from the start. It is, I think, implicit in his view of the ‘prolongations’ of God in the world and our apprehension in it of his ‘fringes’ that, for him, God, however much he may differ from us in certain respects, is essentially finite and therefore mutable. It is not surprising therefore to find Boyce Gibson speaking so sympathetically about Whitehead and Hartshorne. It is very significant that, although there are five references to ‘analogy’ in the Index, there is no serious discussion of the principle of analogy itself. In consequence, such words as ‘prolongation’ and ‘fringes’ are applied to God in a purely univocal way; there is no adequate discussion of the unique relation of the Creator to his creatures. Nor, in spite of the author's obvious desire to be in line with contemporary thought, is there any attention to the view that time is not a medium in which God and creatures are alike immersed but is an inherent property of creatures, arising from their fundamental finitude and their mutual relations. I think there is real force in Karl Rahner's insistence, in his recent book The Trinity, that there is an essential conformity of human nature to the Second Person of the Godhead, that the Son is the only one of the Persons that could become incarnate, and that human nature is the only nature that God, if he was to become incarnate, could hypo-statically assume. But this is very different from Boyce Gibson's view that, if the Incarnation in Jesus was to be possible, God must have been, in some diffused way, incarnate all the time: Boyce Gibson does indeed assert that the Incarnation, while it is not ‘rationally incredible’, does, ‘rationally speaking, eclipse all possible expectations’ (p. 248), but he does not seem to me to have reached that point of wondering awe which led St Thomas to write:

We must now speak of the mystery of the Incarnation, which of all the works of God most greatly surpasses our reason; for nothing more wonderful could be thought of that God could do than that very God, the Son of God, should become very man.9

There is, I would suggest, behind Boyce Gibson's unreflectively unanalogical use of the notions of ‘prolongation’ and ‘fringes’, a slightly but significantly mistaken understanding of the nature of the datum of a satisfactorily empirical theology. ‘Prolongations’ and ‘fringes’ suggest that God, as it were, extends himself or lowers himself into the world, so that we apprehend immediately the periphery of his own substance. (If it is retorted that one need not understand the notions in question is so ham-fisted a way, my reply is that Boyce Gibson fails to make the necessary qualifications.) It is not surprising, therefore that God does not appear to differ qualitatively from finite beings, since we can apprehend him as directly as we apprehend them. This is very far removed from that apprehension of creatures as dependent upon their transcendent ground—that apprehension of ‘God-and-the-creature-in-the-cosmological-relation’—which is the starting-point of the natural theology of such scholars as the late Austin Farrer, Dom Mark Pontifex, Dom Illtyd Trethowan and the present writer. This is, I think, a serious criticism and it seems to me to be borne out by Boyce Gibson's subsequent remarks on Transcendence, Tension, Goodness and the Divine Concern. I do not wish in any way to minimise the problem that there is on the traditional view in reconciling the divine compassion with the divine immutability, though I am sure that the heart of the solution lies in the divine infinity and the relation of infinite to finite being. And it is because the God of Whitehead, Hartshorne and Boyce Gibson is not strictly infinite that their solutions are, as I believe, unsatisfactory. Boyce Gibson tells us that in 1968 an article by Arthur Koestler imaginatively depicting the human feelings of Christ on the cross was ‘denounced as blasphemous by several sincerely Christian correspondents who forgot… that he would not have gone through with the humanly speaking (and divinely speaking) ghastly business if he had not had to be man to the last limit of suffering and humiliation’ (p. 253). I am led to comment that in the very animated discussions that took place some years ago about the authenticity of the Holy Shroud of Turin it was taken for granted without reservation by all concerned (many of whom were certainly ‘traditional’ in their theology) that, until the moment of his resurrection, the body of Jesus was, in all its reactions, physiological, physical and chemical, exactly the same as any other human body would have been. No doubt there have always been adherents of a docetic Christology, but they are not specially to be found among traditional theologians. I am reminded, too, of a remark made by a tourist after contemplating for some time the mosaic of the Pantocrator in the dome of the church at Delphi, a representation which many have criticised as barbaric, severe and even menacing, ‘My word’, he said, ‘what he had been through before he rose from the dead!’

This has been a long discussion, but Boyce Gibson's book is so carefully constructed and so closely knit together that only a long discussion could do it justice; this must be my excuse for the very extensive quotations from it which I have found it necessary to make in the course of my critique. If I have felt obliged to express disagreement on several points, and in particular on one that is fundamental to its approach, this does not mean that I am blind to its merits or unappreciative of the combination of religious concern and philosophical integrity which characterises its author. It is, I venture to say, one of the most interesting and instructive works on natural theology that we have seen in recent years.

  • 1.

    Theism and Empiricism, by A. Boyce Gibson (1970) New York: Schooken Books, London: S.G.M. Press.

  • 2.

    S. Th., I, viii, 3.

  • 3.

    Cf., e.g., Karl Rahner, Spirit in the World; Emerich Coreth, Metaphysics, Also chh. IV and V supra.

  • 4.

    Preface to E. Coreth, Metaphysics, p. 11.

  • 5.

    Cf. A. N. Whitehead, Process and Reality, pp. 492f. discussed in my He Who Is, ch. xi.

  • 6.

    De Civitate Dei, XI, vi.

  • 7.

    The use of quotation marks in this sentence is deliberate. In the first alternative we are concerned with concepts, in the latter with events.

  • 8.

    ‘Analytic Philosophy and Language about God’, in Christian Philosophy and Religious Renewal, edited by George F. McLean, O.M.I., p. 55.

  • 9.

    S.c.G., IV, xxvii.