A. THEOLOGICAL KNOWLEDGE
I. Aquinas: Theology as Science
‘Christian theology should be pronounced to be a science.’ So declares Thomas Aquinas in article 2 of question 1 of the Summa Theologiae.1 The pronouncement seems alien to an age which recognizes physics, chemistry, and biology as sciences, but which is apt to regard theology as a rationalization of personal opinions. Scientific knowledge, since the seventeenth century, has been seen primarily as knowledge of the physical world obtained by observation and experiment. It may issue in universal and mathematically formulable laws, as in Newtonian mechanics, or it may be more a matter of classification based on careful and, where possible, repeated observations, as in some parts of botany. In either sense, there is an emphasis on observation which is repeatable in principle by any competent observer, and on the formulation of general principles of classification and regularity which clarify or explain very complex data.
In this sense, it is clear that theology is not a science. It does not begin from careful and dispassionate observation of physical phenomena; it does not attempt to classify such phenomena or to bring them under laws of regular succession. Further, it is not concerned to predict or manipulate physical occurrences, so as to become an ‘applied science’. Where then does theology begin? What does it attempt to do? And what is its practical application?
For Aquinas, theology begins from Divine revelation, which is to be found in the Holy Scriptures; and, in a secondary sense, from the dogmatic definitions of the councils of the Church, which seek to unfold the sense of the Scriptures. Here is to be found a body of propositions which have the authority of God himself.
Adopting a generally Aristotelian notion of ‘science’, Aquinas holds that the premisses of any science are either evident or belong to a higher science.2 The propositions of a science are demonstrated by valid arguments from evident premisses. They give knowledge which is certain about objective reality, revealing the natures of things by the method of demonstration. In the ideal case, they give conclusive knowledge by deduction from necessary premisses; though one may speak more widely of probabilistic judgements based on contingent premisses, as scientific. This is the case, for example, in moral or political science.
Theology is the highest science of all, since it takes its first principles from God. It is ‘maxime sapientia inter omnes sapientias humanas’,3 the highest wisdom of all human wisdoms, since it is based on Divine knowledge, which cannot err, and it deals with the most important of all topics, God. Human authorities are prone to error, but God's knowledge of himself is the most certain form of knowledge.4 Aquinas does concede that, even though theological knowledge is certain, some human beings are unsure of it or believe it to be false; but this, he holds, is due to the weakness of the human intellect. Divine revelation is in itself absolutely certain.
For Aquinas, then, it seems that theology is a deductive or demonstrative science, drawing conclusions about objective reality from an organized body of certain knowledge, which is itself accepted on faith. This body is the canon of Scripture—‘Our faith rests on the revelation made to the prophets and apostles who wrote the canonical books.’5 The first principles of theology are the articles of faith which are contained either explicitly or implicitly in the canon. Aquinas’ acceptance of Scripture is unequivocal. ‘It is heretical to say that any falsehood whatsoever is contained either in the gospels or in any canonical scripture,’ he writes.6 Moreover, what Scripture says is true in a literal and not just in a metaphorical sense. Of course there are many metaphors in Scripture, and he accepts the general medieval distinction of four senses of biblical language: the literal or historical sense and three which can collectively be called the spiritual sense—the allegorical, the moral, and the anagogical or eschatalogical. He holds that ‘nothing necessary for faith is contained under the spiritual sense that is not openly conveyed through the literal sense elsewhere’.7 In the case of the spiritual sense, words literally signify things which are false—as when we say, ‘God has a mighty arm’; but then these things themselves signify something else which can be literally said—namely, that God has great power of doing and making. The literal sense is thus primary, and ‘from this alone can arguments be drawn’.8 It must further be said that this literal sense is so certain that ‘whatever is encountered in the other sciences which is incompatible with its truth should be completely condemned as false’.9
It may seem from all this that Aquinas holds a merely pro-positional view of revelation, and sees theology as a matter of deducing doctrines from the propositions of Scripture and setting them out clearly and systematically. This would be a wholly inadequate view, however. Aquinas clearly states that the reason for revelation is the ‘salus hominibus’, the salvation of human beings and their orientation to an end beyond the grasp of reason, namely, eternal beatitude.10 Further, the object of revelation is God himself: ‘Deus est subjectum hujus scientiae.’11 So theology should be seen as an intellectual activity which brings one to share in the wisdom of God; that is, in the life of Christ, the Divine Word, to whom Scripture attests. In this eternal joy consists, when reason is directed towards its proper supernatural end, in contemplating the mystery of God as revealed in Jesus Christ. That end can be attained simply by grace, without any intellectual activity. But for those who are able, the intellectual activity of theology could well be called a form of prayer, since it is an articulation of the self-revelation of God in personal form, as appreciated by that human reason which is part of the created image of the Divine in human lives.
Christian theology, for Aquinas, is a way of contemplating God which leads to eternal bliss, in response to Divine self-revelation. It is important that it is a disciplined intellectual exercise which gives knowledge of objective reality. It is not some sort of imaginative fantasizing on personal experiences, in which logic gives way to rhetoric. Nor is it the expression of some socially relative form of thought which lives alongside many others without disputing their claims to truth. The discipline of theology claims rigorous intellectual thought and it claims truth about God. Such claims should not lightly be surrendered just because theology does not fit the pattern of an empirical science. So Aquinas sees theology as a body of disciplined reasoning about Divine things based on revealed truths; and in that sense it can be called a science. In this he is, I think, importantly right.
2. The Diversity of Revelations
Yet it is hardly surprising that an account of the sources and methods of theology coming from the thirteenth century should seem hard to accept in its entirety in the twentieth century. What has become much more questionable is the sort of certainty which is claimed for the conclusions of theology, the kind of reliance placed upon the canon of Scripture and the notion that propositions can be demonstrated from Scripture in a rigorous way by the use of reason alone. It seems much too cavalier to dismiss the rejection of Christian faith by some of the most eminent philosophers as due to a disability of reason, as Aquinas suggested. It is impossible to ignore the results of scholarly research into the biblical documents, which cast doubt on that literal inerrancy which was so important to Aquinas. And it is difficult to regard the existence of so many divergent interpretations of Christianity in the modern world as due to arrogant heresy, as a thirteenth-century Catholic might have done. Any twentieth-century account of theology must take these factors seriously. And if one does that, a rather different account will emerge. Such an account will need to ask in what sense theological assertions can be certain; what the revelatory content of Scripture is, after critical enquiry has been taken into consideration; and to what extent and with what hope of success one can derive a systematic doctrine from Scripture.
Aquinas’ view would be that theological assertions are certain because they derive from biblical propositions which are given by God. There is no better reason for making claims about God than that God reveals such truths in person. God reveals truth to whomsoever God will; there need be no expectation that there will be universal agreement; and one is justified in placing complete confidence in what God reveals. This sounds a fairly convincing argument, until one reflects that it could be, and is, used with equal force by Jews, Christians, Muslims, Mormons, Hindus, and Jehovah's Witnesses. The position depends upon the basic belief that God has revealed the Divine nature to particular human beings—whether to Jesus, Muhammad, Krishna, or Joseph Smith. But can one be certain that is true, especially in view of the fact that so many diverse and conflicting claims to have received direct Divine revelation exist? The question becomes: how can we be certain that particular persons have received a revelation from God, or know what God truly is? It is not that, knowing a revelation comes from God, we are then presuming to question it; which would indeed be absurd. It is that we cannot be certain a particular revelation really does come from God. As Thomas Hobbes put it with characteristic force: (for a man) ‘to say God hath spoken to him in a dream, is no more than to say he dreamed that God spake to him’.12
It turns out that we have to begin the enquiry into the status of theology at a stage further back than article 1 of the Summa Theologiae. That article takes the inerrancy of the Christian canon of Scripture for granted. But once one clearly sees that this canon is just one of quite a number of alleged Divine revelations, one is forced to enquire into the criteria for accepting something as a Divine revelation. It is useless to say that God makes his revelation self-authenticating; for Muslims and Jews say that as well as Christians, and they cannot all be right, since their alleged revelations disagree.
This does not mean that there is no place for knowledge and certainty in religion. It does mean that such certainty cannot be a matter of simple self-evidence (available when the denial of a proposition is self-contradictory); or of immediate intuition (possible only for immediately experienced non-inferential truths); or of universally agreed and testable observation. Thus a gap begins to open between the natural sciences and theology. The sciences accept that their one agreed source of truth is experimental observation and testable hypothesis. They agree on the optimal conditions for making truth-claims of a scientific sort, even if they often disagree on specific claims. But Muslim and Christian theologians disagree on their basic source of truth, on what they accept as Divine revelation; and there seems to be no way of resolving such fundamental disagreements, at least in this life.
3. On Certainty in Religion
It is not only in religion that such fundamental disagreements exist. They exist most obviously in philosophy, where materialists, idealists, and dualists may each be certain of their views, while accepting that the others exist and are not irrational. They exist in morality, where Utilitarians, Deontologists, and Axiologists exhibit a similar range of disagreements. And they exist in the arts, where there are different notions of what counts as a great work of art. Does the acceptance that such disagreements seem to be irresolvable and that equally rational people stand on either side of them mean that the notion of certainty is inoperative in these areas? It does mean that one cannot argue for certainty in the sense of indubitable truth which any rational person must accept. But a more basic sense of certainty remains, as unhesitating commitment to a practice or way of life which is held to be of great value, even when others disagree with it. Such commitment may be termed ‘practical certainty’; and it is plausible to think that it is a good thing for humans to commit themselves to such practical certainty on at least some matters.
It is difficult to lay out the conditions under which one may be justifiably certain in such cases. One's whole outlook in philosophy, morality, art, and religion tends to be governed by some basic principles, from which more particular judgements are derived, in conjunction with particular experiential beliefs. When one gets back to such basic principles it is hard to see what they, in turn, could be derived from. Philosophers tend to argue for them in terms of such criteria as the richness, adequacy, and fruitfulness of the conceptual schemes which they generate. Such criteria are themselves disputable, however, and so it often turns out that one will accept a scheme if it is a workable framework which one has learned from an early age and if its foundational principles seem simple and persuasive, and do not raise great problems when applied to the data of experience. Such principles will be certain, in that they form the basis of a whole scheme; they are the framework within which one thinks and acts in these areas. They are not unquestionable, but if one questions them one is questioning a whole system of particular judgements, not merely some isolated particular judgement.
The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, in some remarks in On Certainty, written towards the end of his life, writes, ‘It may be… that all enquiry on our part is set so as to exempt certain propositions from doubt.’13 Thus, within the practice of counting hens in a farmyard it is senseless to ask whether such physical objects as hens exist. That is taken for granted in this context; ‘My life shows that I know or am certain that there is a chair over there.’14
What I take for granted, as the background of my practices, may be said to form a ‘picture of the world’ (Weltbild) which is ‘the inherited background against which I distinguish between true and false’.15 Wittgenstein is, I think, trying to move away from thinking of certainty as a peculiar sort of mental state towards thinking of it as a basic form of activity. Within such a form of life, ‘my convictions do form a system’.16 They cannot be treated as isolated beliefs; they must be seen as part of the framework for action which I learn, which is rooted in my nature as a rational agent. ‘The end is not an ungrounded presupposition: it is an ungrounded way of acting.’17
Such ways of acting are not fixed and unalterable. Wittgenstein uses the picture of a river-bed, in which some things are relatively fixed and others move along. ‘The same propositions may get treated at one time as something to test by experience, at another as a rule of testing.’18 The river-bed can shift; but ‘bit by bit there forms a system of what is believed, and in that system some things stand unshakeably fast’;19 they are ‘held fast by what lies around it’. We have a picture of the world, and ‘the whole picture which forms the starting point of belief… gives our way of looking at things… their form… perhaps, for unthinkable ages it has belonged to the scaffolding of our thoughts’.20
This may sound as if one might simply have alternative pictures of the world, rooted in diverse ways of acting. Certainly, ‘A language-game does change with time’,21 and there is no absolute bedrock which every rational being must accept. There is the possibility of fundamental disagreement in pictures and in ways of acting, which one would just have to put up with. ‘It might be that he was contradicting my fundamental attitudes, and if that were how it was, I should have to put up with it.’22 At the same time, it is not an arbitrary matter, even though it is not a matter amenable to disinterested rational analysis. Wittgenstein speaks of ‘something that lies beyond being justified or unjustified; as it were, as something animal’;23 and he locates the most significant question to ask about such practices as the question: ‘What difference does this make in their lives?’24 Ways of life are not, after all, decided at random; they are rooted in human nature, as social, developing, and temporal. ‘I want to regard man here as an animal; as a primitive being to which one grants instinct but not ratiocination… language did not emerge from some kind of ratiocination.’
One should not, Wittgenstein suggests, regard humans as intellectual beings who can decide between rational systems of belief on some purely neutral criteria, as if choosing the most elegant pattern from a set of possibilities. They are, after all, animals, and language evolved out of their social behaviour, their natural ways of acting in the world. They did not choose a language or a system of beliefs. The language emerged out of primitive forms of life, as a set of tools which helped to express and further those natural ways of behaving. ‘Why should the language-game rest on some kind of knowledge?’25 It is not based on any intellectual intuition or inner experience. ‘The language-game… is not based on grounds. It is not reasonable (or unreasonable). It is there… like our life.’26 This is not a form of conventionalism, as if language rested on some set of decisions or matters of taste. It runs deeper than that. ‘Doesn't it seem obvious that the possibility of a language-game is conditioned by certain facts?’27 Our ways of acting are lived out in the real world, as reactions to that world; they are not fantasies.
On this view, one might speak of certain framework beliefs as the scaffolding upon which a whole system of concepts is built, which articulates a practical way of life, and finds its primary use in forwarding that way—‘This game proves its worth.’28 There is a strong emphasis in these remarks on the holistic nature of our language and on its primarily practical use, as rooted in deep human needs, dispositions, and attitudes. The practice of religion could be seen as a form of life, grounded in practical interests and needs, which is sustained by a whole web of concepts, within which alone talk of God makes sense.29 The idea of God is given only by the whole system of concepts which has its proper use in framing a distinctive way of acting. Worship and prayer, for example, are natural practices by which humans relate to the world of their experience in specific ways. They do not, as such, stand in need of justification, for they are rooted in basic attitudes of awe and reverence, gratitude and dependence, which show themselves in human behaviour. They form the basis for developing sets of concepts which aim to provide illuminating descriptions of how the world is and of how humans ought to live. At that stage they become subject to rational enquiry and assessment. They then generate particular beliefs of which one may be more or less certain.30
But the general conceptual frameworks themselves are neither certain nor uncertain; they simply express our ways of acting, in so far as these ways embody attitudes towards the world, pictures of the world in which our action takes place. As Peter Winch puts it, ‘Within science or religion actions can be logical or illogical… But we cannot sensibly say that either the practice of science itself or that of religion is either illogical or logical.’31 It is a fact of life that there are different pictures, different forms of practical commitment, and this may have a great importance for theology. It means that certainty pertains to fairly central beliefs within a framework, where one wants to speak of what is unalterable or fundamental in this view of things—even though the whole view may collapse, if the worst unpredictably happens. The exact beliefs which are held to be certain, and their precise formulation, will not be decided a priori and once for all time. It is a matter of discerning the nature of the framework and the way concepts hold together or fail to hold together in mutually supportive ways within it. It is a matter of the way in which specific concepts undergird and make possible specific ways of life and the adoption and expression of very general reactive attitudes to the manifold objects of experience. The use of reason with regard to such a framework is not to trace propositions back to one set of basic propositions which are themselves either self-evident or arbitrarily chosen. It is rather to elucidate and clarify the structure of the framework itself, in a manner which John Wisdom characterized as the ‘connecting technique’32 It is a matter of drawing analogies, picking out patterns, focusing attention on key perspectives, and connecting disparate phenomena in ways believed to be fruitful for human understanding and action.
4. The Natural Diversity of Framework Beliefs
In the humanities, it is the nature of human enquiry that there are disagreements about framework beliefs. This should not be seen as some sort of aberration, but as inherent in the sort of activity in question. Many human activities assume universal agreement in the basic judgements that are made. But in morality, art, politics, and religion we know and accept that apparently fundamental disagreements will exist, for humans commit themselves to diverse ranges of values. In religion, for example, some groups see the world as continually sustained by a personal God. Other groups see it as a realm of impersonal law, though with the possibility of unlimited bliss and wisdom open to those who live in accordance with cosmic law. Yet others see it as having no such possibility. This may seem rather odd. Yet there is a plausible and natural explanation for it.
First, such views are extremely wide-ranging beliefs about the nature of things in general; they aim at unrestricted generality and comprehensiveness. One might expect that such very general and basic beliefs would be difficult to formulate, since they lie well below the surface of more particular and everyday beliefs. They will therefore be difficult to pick out and isolate accurately. Furthermore, they usually involve the integration of large and varied sets of data, which may prove impossible to sort into any obvious pattern. Thus there is much scope for trial and error and for emphasis on specific aspects of phenomena which cannot be easily reconciled with others in one harmonious system. Since different societies will probably attempt different integrating hypotheses, stress different features of their experience, and evaluate such features differently, there is a great deal of scope for conflict and dispute.
Second, although humans share the same cognitive and emotional capacities in general, they certainly do not express and develop them in the same ways. So one would expect differences to arise in the concepts and interests which characterize diverse cultures. Some people are speculative by nature, and delight in inventing systems and theoretical explanations. Others are more impressed by the fragmentary nature of experience, by its paradoxes and contradictions. Some people have an artistic approach, while others are more interested in practical projects which will change their environment. Some are aggressive and competitive, whereas others are complaisant and conciliatory. It would be very surprising if these very different types of character and interest did not issue in different approaches to religious questions, varying from militaristic religions of conquest to contemplative faiths of renunciation.
Third, it seems rather unlikely that two human beings from very different histories and cultures could ever really be in the same cognitive situation with regard to the formation and progressive shaping of their framework beliefs. Their interpretations of experience will be shaped from the first by the language they learn in their society.33 The way they approach religious issues will be governed by the social conventions and linguistic forms of activity in which they have been trained. Beginning from a different cultural heritage, people will develop their beliefs in very different ways, which may well diverge to form apparently contradictory systems of belief.
As a conceptual scheme builds up over successive generations, small divergences of initial interpretation can broaden out into major conceptual polarities. So, for example, one can see how a concern with local spirit-powers can develop into monotheism. Given a strong sense of moral obligation and a belief that social history and personal experience show the flourishing of the righteous and the destruction of the wicked, one god comes to take on the attributes of supreme moral authority and control of the course of history. From there it is a natural development to the idea of one righteous controller of all the world. But a tradition can also develop in quite a different way from a very similar initial stage into a non-theistic monism. This may happen if the rule of law is felt to be better than a rule by personal spirits, and if the unity of human and non-human existence is stressed more than their distinctiveness. In other words, moral, temperamental, environmental, and historical factors will all enter into the building-up of a conceptual scheme in which framework beliefs will be embedded as a usually tacit dimension underlying more particular beliefs.
If one views the growth of religious beliefs, in this way, as a historical phenomenon taking place over many generations and rooted in very primitive reactions to the world, then the diversity of religions is not very surprising at all. Cultures have very different sets of ideals, very different histories, and very different sets of values and priorities. Religion enters into culture in complex ways, but does not remain unaffected by it. So one would naturally expect there to be different forms of religious belief and practice, roughly corresponding to different cultures. One can explain how the world can appear differently to different people by showing that the cultural perspectives from which they see the world are different, and that such differences are natural and their existence is probable. It is perhaps only if one has a very intellectual view of religion, as consisting in the listing of propositions which correspond to objectively knowable facts, that religious differences will appear odd. When religion is rooted as a complex cultural phenomenon in human society and history the fact of religious diversity is hardly surprising.
Framework beliefs provide the most general principles of interpretation for human experience. Kant's list of categories are examples of framework beliefs, though it may seem that they artificially seek to apply logical terms to perceptual judgements, and they are by definition restricted to beliefs about physical objects.34 It would be widely agreed that Kant was too ambitious in his claim that only the twelve categories he specified were used in every perceptual judgement about objects. But his attempt shows how difficult it is to specify the principles of judgement even about ordinary beliefs, to come to consciousness of what our framework beliefs are. Such beliefs are usually tacit. Some philosophers, like Collingwood, have even held that they are presuppositions which almost inevitably remain unknown to their holder;35 but perhaps it is enough to stress the difficulty of coming to recognize them. They are expressed in our judgements and practices, our cognitive relations with our environment. They are hard to make explicit; and may be misconstrued when the attempt is made. They form part of what Polanyi calls the subsidiary awareness of the normally functioning agent; and to bring them into focal awareness is a hard and fallible task.36
Theology can be seen as the articulation of tacit framework beliefs. Since there are many justifiable religious forms of life, each will have an appropriate theology. The word ‘theology’ is often restricted in practice to the Christian faith. It is a more modern version of Aquinas’ ‘Sacra Doctrina’, and it came to be used in its modern sense only in the period between Aquinas and Duns Scotus.37 There is no intrinsic reason, however, why a ‘science of God’ should be confined to one religious tradition. Other religions have cognate modes of enquiry. Thus one may reasonably see theology not as a purely Christian discipline, but as one shared by many religions and consisting in the rational articulation of their own forms of life.
B. REVELATION AND REASON
5. Bank and Brunner: Revelation without Reasons
This account, however, may suggest that religion is purely a matter of human development and discovery. What has happened to the idea of revelation, which Aquinas saw primarily as the communication of information by God in Scripture and Church teaching? Perhaps this account suggests that revelation cannot be seen as the communication of theoretically certain, clearly guaranteed truths. It can, however, still be usefully defined as a communication of knowledge by God or by a suprahuman spiritual source. In most religious traditions, the basic attitudes and practices which express faith are not seen as merely natural human dispositions, though they are natural. They are also, and essentially, seen as orientations towards and responses to a suprahuman reality or realities. The idea of a ‘revelation’ or communication from such a reality is an important part of the religious form of life, which normally helps to define its practices of worship and prayer. ‘Revealed knowledge’ contrasts with ‘discovered knowledge’, so that it cannot be thought of as naturally available to human beings. Its content must be beyond normal human cognitive capacity, and it must be intentionally communicated. That is, it must be directly intended and brought about by God or a spiritual being. To say it is ‘directly intended’ means that it is not brought about by means of any other intentional act. Thus revelation in the full theistic sense occurs when God directly intends someone to know something beyond normal human cognitive capacity, and brings it about that they do know it, and they know that God has so intentionally caused it. In this basic understanding of revelation, Aquinas seems to be right.
What has to be modified, in the light of a broader understanding of the nature of religious belief in general, is the view that God communicates clear and theoretically certain truths. If religious claims arise out of diverse culturally and historically developing sets of framework beliefs, the content of revelation might be expected to be affected by the characteristics of diversity, development, and cultural rootedness. Just what this means needs to be explored in more detail. It may seem to imply some form of relativization of Christian claims, so that they stand on an equal footing with many other claims. Yet is it not the case that many of these views, whatever their history, must simply be mistaken?
It is tempting for the Christian theologian simply to assert that God has spoken in the Bible, and nowhere else, and that is that. A standard exposition of such a view can be found in H. Kraemer, The Christian Message in a Non-Christian World,38 and also in the work of Emil Brunner and Karl Barth. Barth's view, in the Church Dogmatics, is particularly blunt. ‘Religion’, he says, ‘is unbelief’.39 ‘Man's attempts to know God from his own standpoint are wholly and entirely futile… in religion, man bolts and bars himself against revelation by providing a substitute.’ Barth sees religion as a human enterprise which is really an attempt at human self-justification in the face of a God who is pictured in a capricious and arbitrary way. ‘Religion is idolatry and self-righteousness… thoroughly self-centred.’ It is idolatry because it creates a God in man's own image; human reason is not capable of attaining a true idea of God. And it is self-righteousness because it is an attempt at self-justification, at achieving a sense of righteousness by human effort.
Such statements are not based on exhaustive research into forms of religion; they are rather an a priori consequence of Barth's general view that ‘man's I-ness… is in contradiction to the divine nature’.40 Thus any religion, as a human construct, including Christianity itself, in its institutional forms and speculative explorations, can be no more than a barrier against God; and the more it thinks it attains to God, the less it is capable of doing so. The difficulty for this view is that once one has characterized all religions, including one's own, as products of pride and stupidity, how is one ever to attain to truth about God? Barth's answer is hardly satisfactory. He simply asserts that ‘Scripture is the only valid testimony to revelation’.41 But how can anyone know this, if every human judgement is sinful, including this one? Indeed, one can very easily turn the tables on Barth and insist (as it seems very plausible to do) that the belief that everyone else's revelation is incorrect and only one's own is true, is a particularly clear example of human pride and self-interest. Of course one has an interest in thinking one's own religion is the only true one; it enables one to dismiss the others as of no account and so bask in the superiority of one's own possession of truth. One may claim that this possession is by the grace of God alone—but this only makes the element of human pride more pronounced, since one is now asserting that grace is only truly possessed by oneself. One can hardly get more proud, more self-righteous, and more short-sighted than that.
Emil Brunner falls into exactly the same trap. ‘How do you know… the Word… is really God's Word?’ he asks. For a moment one is perhaps hopeful of a serious attempt to answer the question; but it is not forthcoming. All Brunner says is, ‘From God himself’.42 Naturally, all Muslims would say that of the Koran, all Mormons of the Book of Mormon, and all Sikhs of the Guru Granth Sahib. Brunner makes things even worse when he says, ‘That which can be based on rational grounds is… not revelation.’43 He is not here simply objecting to attempts to prove doctrines like the Incarnation and the Trinity by reason. He is objecting to the process of giving any reasons for accepting something as revelation. ‘Doubt is a form of sin,’ he says; it ‘springs from intellectual arrogance’.44 ‘A theology that allows itself to be drawn into producing proofs for its claim to revelation has already thrown up the sponge.’45 The position he is maintaining is that no reasons can or should be given for accepting Christian revelation. Using the same reasoning, no reasons can be given for accepting Muslim revelation. So what is one to do when faced with a choice between them, a choice which many people in our world actually do face?
What may be confusing the issue is the thought that a good reason would have to persuade everyone. Now in religion there are few good reasons in this very strong sense. Reasons are person-relative. What seems an overwhelming reason to one person may not weigh very strongly with another, because there exists some other factor which weighs more strongly with that person. A reason is a factor rationally inclining choice. One need not be able to articulate all one's reasons for belief; it would be very rare to have that ability. But there must be reasons, factors which make it reasonable to believe as one does. That is what the theologian needs to spell out—the factors which make it seem reasonable to accept something as a Divine revelation. Barth and Brunner may be right in holding that there are no neutral reasons, which all rational persons can agree upon, for assenting to Christian (or any other) revelation. But they are wrong to draw the further conclusion that there are no factors which make it reasonable to accept something as a revelation at all. They may think that thereby they are freeing God's word from the tyranny of human pride; but in fact they are making it impossible to discover where God's word is to be found, amongst the many claimants to that status.
Not only is it intellectually unsatisfactory to accept X as a revelation for no reason; the view demonstrably leads to moral insensitivity.
Brunner's discussion of other religions, which is not only misleading from a scholarly viewpoint but lacking in both charity and objectivity, is a clear example of this. He asserts that ‘all non-Biblical religion is essentially eudaemonistic and anthropocentric’.46 That is, it seeks human happiness above all things and is concerned with human well-being, not with the nature of God. ‘They are all religions of self-redemption,’ he says.47 It is impossible to see how this could be responsibly said of Islam, which enjoins complete submission to the will of God, total acceptance of the Koranic revelation, and forbids all anthropocentric representations of God to a much greater degree than Christianity has done. Nor could the Indian religions of Divine grace reasonably be described as religions of self-redemption, since in them everything depends on the grace of God alone.
When Brunner comes to discuss Islam, he dismisses it in a few pages, throwing doubt on the Prophet's character,48 writing off its content as superficial and derivative, accusing it of legalism and moralism, and seeing it, amazingly enough, as ‘a religion of the Enlightenment’, when one could hardly find a religious view more opposed to the beliefs of the European Enlightenment than Islam. Naturally, he does not admit the fact that doubt can be thrown on Jesus’ character by unsympathetic observers; and, apart from the clear injustice of his remarks, it seems obvious that he is using criteria of rationality to dismiss the alleged revelation of Islam. Among the criteria he is using are those of the moral character of the Prophet, the originality and wisdom of the content of revelation, the presence of belief in human corruption and the reality of Divine grace, and belief in an encounter with a personal and loving God. To apply these criteria one needs knowledge of history (to see if the Prophet's character is good), study of the scriptural text (to see if it is derivative), an assessment of human nature (to see if it is corrupt), and a preliminary evaluation of what the supreme moral values are (whether love or justice). Of course a Muslim and a Christian might come to differing conclusions when they use such criteria of historical, critical, anthropological, and moral study. The use of rational criteria does not dictate a particular or agreed answer. But at least if such criteria are being used, there is hope of drawing attention to the sort of prejudices and lack of knowledge Brunner exhibits, and thus hope of arriving at a more just appreciation of the character of revelation.
Barth's discussion of other faiths, though short, is rather more nuanced. But, having said that all religions are forms of unbelief, in true dialectical fashion he goes on to assert: ‘There is a true religion… we need have no hesitation in saying that the Christian religion is the true religion.’ This is apparently because it is a religion of the pure grace of God ‘which differentiates our religion, the Christian, from all others as the true religion’.49 At once Barth faces the objection that there are other religions of Divine grace, especially the Bhakti cults of India and Yodo-Shin-Shu in Japanese Buddhism. First he points out, with justice, that there remain important differences in the understanding of grace between these faiths and Christianity. They lack a doctrine of original sin, of representative satisfaction, of the gifts of the Holy Spirit and of a unique person who is truly human and truly Divine. But he takes the objection more deeply, and asks what would happen if there were another religion with elements very closely analogous to these; would it also be true? His answer is that adherents of such a religion would still be ‘heathen, poor and utterly lost’ because they would still lack the name of Jesus Christ. It is in the end the historical particularity of Jesus Christ, as the one and only incarnation of the true God, which gives Christianity ‘alone the commission and the authority to be a missionary religion i.e. to confront the world of religions as the one true religion’.
But now what is Barth doing but simply asserting that Jesus is the one and only revelation of God? What is in question, however, is how one can know or reasonably assert that it is true. And it is not only that rather minimal statement which is asserted to be true. In fact when one realizes just what it is that Barth takes to comprise the ‘true religion’, many may hesitate to follow him. When speaking of the ‘catastrophe’ of liberal theology, he says that one of its failings was that ‘it ceased to regard the cardinal statements of the Lutheran and Heidelberg catechisms as definite axioms’.50 In a similar way, Brunner takes it for granted that true Christianity is opposed to Roman Catholicism; so one begins to realize that what is taken—for no reason!—to be true is not just Christianity, but the doctrines of a particular, and minority, sect of Christianity, a particular form of Evangelical Protestantism (which is itself regarded as too liberal by many Evangelicals and as too conservative by many Protestants). Is grace and truth, the grace and truth of an unlimitedly loving God, to be found only in such a sect? It is well known that in later works Barth adopted a much wider view of the grace of God; but in the early volumes of the Church Dogmatics, which has become a classical text of twentieth-century theology, one has a supremely restrictive understanding of true religion, which jars considerably with Barth's own insistence on the unrestrictedly gracious love of God.
It is not the understanding of religion I am concerned with, but the question of how one can understand revelation. On this question, Barth and Brunner are not merely of no help; they are a positive hindrance. They insist that reason cannot judge revelation, though they themselves judge all revelations and decide that the Christian is alone true. They claim that religion is a work of human arrogance, though they themselves display what seems very like arrogance in claiming to know the only truth, without even studying other claims thoroughly. They claim that the revelation of God in Jesus must be accepted without rational criticism or doubt, though they refuse to give any reasons for this and reject the revelation of God through Muhammad. They reject many other revelations too, though their arguments would lead just as well to their acceptance. It seems clear that their claim that Divine revelation stands in judgement over all human reason is wholly unacceptable and expresses a notion of revelation which is indefensible.
6. The Ambiguity of Revelation
What theologians like Barth and Brunner wished to oppose was any view that revelation is confined to what can be established just as well, or even better, by human reason.51 Such a view would make revelation unnecessary, except as a short-cut to truth accessible in other ways; and it would mean that nothing could be revealed which came as a surprise to human understanding. That is quite different, however, from saying that reason has no part to play in assessing claims to revelation. Reason must play such a part, even if it is a primarily negative one of ruling out unacceptable claims and laying down minimal conditions for accepting something as a plausible candidate for revelation. It is that role which one must explore, before one can come to an adequate view of the sources and limits of the revelation on which a sound theology can be based.
It is possible that there might have been a God who gave one, and only one, clear and unequivocal revelation, which humans may either accept or reject. God could have prevented any confusion in their minds as to what Divine revelation is or as to where it is to be found. God could have provided signs, clear for all to see, to attest one and only one source of Divine revelation; and could have provided a clear interpreter of that revelation to continue for all time. John Locke, the English philosopher, thought that God had done so. ‘Such care has God taken that no pretended revelation should stand in competition with what is truly divine, that we need but open our eyes to see and be sure which came from him.’52 Unfortunately those days of innocence are gone. Islam, Bah'ai, Ramakrishna, Moon, and Joseph Smith all contend for the title of the true revelation. We might ignore them; but we cannot say that they are all quite obviously not from God. God could have given a clear and uncontested revelation, but almost the only obvious fact about revelation is that it is not what God has actually done.
God does not prevent the most fundamental arguments about what the source of revelation is—is it Moses, Jesus, or Muhammad, to name only three figures in the Semitic tradition? The only signs God provides are as highly disputed as anything in human life is; they are not clear and unequivocal. Further, there are so many alleged authoritative interpreters of revelation springing forward at every opportunity that we have to accept that God apparently does not will to prevent confusion and argument even in this most profoundly important matter.
I am not denying that God has revealed the Divine nature and purpose. I am simply saying that God has not, in the working-out of Divine providence, seen fit to do so in as clear and unequivocal way as could have been done. Therefore for any theologian to assert or pretend that God has done what God has not is to utter a dangerous misunderstanding of what God actually is and wants of us. So we must immediately ask the question: if Divine revelation, as God has actually given it, is not a clear and unequivocal matter, what is its function? It cannot be to act as a remedy for human weakness and slowness of wit, giving us clear information where we might otherwise only have had arguments and perplexity. For that is exactly what we have got, argument and perplexity, when we come to ask where Divine revelation is and what it says!
My argument has been that we cannot exempt one alleged revelation, be it Christian or any other, from the general process of human history and development, so as to leave it unquestioned, indubitable, and simply given as a whole. What must be done is to locate claims to revelation in human history, so that one may see in what way one might actually discern Divine revelation taking form amidst all the ambiguities and conflicts of human belief and practice.
Why, then, should there be a revelation, if it is of this sort? Here Aquinas seems to me right when he asserts that the purpose of revelation is to establish human beings in a way of life which will lead to the contemplation of that which is supremely real and to eternal bliss.53 All the great world religions would be able to agree on this; and Aquinas’ insight provides a helpful formulation of what is probably the central concern of revealed religion. From a Christian perspective, God desires human salvation, which consists in knowledge and love of the Divine, and provides revelation at least to begin to lead us towards it. That is the ultimate goal; but how is it to be achieved? For theologians like Aquinas and Barth (very different from each other though they are in other respects) it is enough to start with the claim of Scripture to be the definitive revelation of God, and say that God teaches us the goal and the way to it through Holy Scripture (and, for Aquinas, though not for Barth, the Roman Catholic Church as its interpreter). But honesty compels us to be cognizant of the claims of many competing Scriptures, so we need to address the prior question of deciding whether a Scripture or an alleged revelation is genuine. And that means starting with as honest a view of the religious traditions of the world as we can obtain, so that we may try to assess how Divine revelation enters into the multifarious activities of religion.
I have noted that the diversity of religious practices and beliefs is rationally explicable on natural grounds of a diversity of ideals, interests, histories, and priorities among human communities. An economically precarious nomadic group of warriors, surviving by guile and force of arms, will probably have ideals of courage and endurance, an interest in skills of combat and strength, and a history of victories and defeats; priority will be assigned to strength in battle and whatever conduces to it. It would hardly be surprising if such a society developed a cult of worship of a warrior god of battles, a god of ruthless vengeance but also of that graciousness to the weak which is characteristic of desert people. On the other hand, a rich and cultured civilization is more likely to have ideals of artistic skill and sensibility, an interest in skills of creativity and oratory, and a history of cultural invention and discovery; priority will be assigned to artistic excellence and what conduces to it. In such a society, Beauty may well be worshipped, a beauty which is expressed in nature but which also acts as an ideal attracting human contemplation and imitation of the eternal ideal in the transient forms of time.
Against such natural diversity one must try to see what a revelation which aims at human salvation seems to be. Instead of thinking of God (assuming for the moment that there is one) as breaking into a human framework, ignoring it completely, and giving direct Divine knowledge, it seems more plausible, and more in keeping with the actual history of religions, to think of God as communicating within the framework that societies have themselves developed. To the English, one might say, using a rather crude analogy, God speaks English; to the Arab God speaks Arabic; and to the Hebrew God speaks Hebrew. Not only does God use the natural language of a people; God uses their thought-forms, their characteristic modes of expression, and their penumbra of tacit connotations and resonances. If one thinks of revelation as a communication from God to humans, then this communication might be expected to take shape in forms the humans can comprehend. One might therefore expect God to set about revealing the ultimate Divine purpose in terms of the interests and goals of particular societies.
Revelation, then, we might say in a preliminary way, is a Divine communication shaped to the interests and values of a particular society at a particular time. Its ultimate content is the existence and nature of a suprasensory good, a final goal of supreme worth. This content is expressed within a culture and history which facilitate a specific form of development. This suggests two important features of Divine revelation, in general. First, not all human interests and values will be equally receptive to the sort of thing God wishes to communicate. Some sets of interests might be peculiarly obstructive to any Divine communication. For instance, an interest in military conquest and world domination, becoming paramount in a whole society, would make it very difficult for a God of self-giving love to reveal his nature. Such a revelation would go so much against the whole moral grain of that society that it would be subversive of the culture and could probably flourish only as the culture collapsed. It is arguable that this is precisely what happened at the decaying Roman Empire gave way to Christendom—but to a Christendom which became flawed by the very imperialism it replaced.
The second feature is closely related to the first, and lies in the fact that Divine communications might not be perfectly received and understood. If they are not simply dictated to purely passive human subjects, they will have to be relayed through human minds which are fallible and often mistaken. In ordinary human communications, one person can often wholly misunderstand what another says. So a natural analogy would be that a Divine communication could be given and received and yet misunderstood, either by the original recipient or by others who transmit and interpret it later.
Bearing these two features in mind, one might think that God will communicate different things to different peoples, and will in all probability be able to communicate more of the ultimate Divine purpose to some people than to others. In all such alleged communications, however, one will always be wary of human misinterpretations of the Divine communication, which may be corrected elsewhere in the tradition or perhaps outside it.
7. The Quest for Certainly
What does this do to the alleged certainty of theological knowledge? It entails that no theological doctrine will be certain in the sense that it commands the universal assent of all informed and intelligent agents. It is not certain in the sense that it is beyond reasonable doubt. But this is not a sense of certainty that religious believers are really concerned with. They all know that religious doctrines are doubted by extremely rational people. The religiously important sense of certainty is the sense in which one can unreservedly commit oneself to a way of life which presupposes the truth of some religious doctrine, however inadequately that truth may be articulated at a particular time. One can be certain in the sense that, if this goes, one's whole way of life is undermined. This may be termed a subjective certainty, though it does not follow that it is based on some merely personal whim. On the contrary, it is a commitment which necessarily entails some beliefs about the facts, on the best arguments and evidence available. But it involves an epistemic risk, since it is possible one may be mistaken. The certainty which theology has is a certainty of commitment, undertaken in response to what is perceived as a Divine disclosure. It is, to echo a Kierkegaardian phrase,54 a passionate commitment made in objective uncertainty to what is perceived as of supreme value.
Aquinas was quite right to give to theology a certainty which is based on Divine revelation. But his Aristotelian rationalism misleads him when he speaks as if this certainty is an objective matter of rational indubitability. As St Paul says, ‘I am sure that neither death nor life… will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’55 Paul did not mean that he could prove this to any intelligent person. It is rather that his experience of the love of God in Christ was so strong that he was filled with certainty that nothing could overcome it. It is clearly a statement of faith; this certainty has the character of a total trust, an unshakeable commitment, a loyalty to a transforming vision of God which he had been granted. Here is an unconditional commitment to an overwhelming experience and the beliefs which are taken to flow from it; one might call it an unconditional responsive commitment to a discernment of absolute value. This is not a matter of dispassionate theoretical certainty, or of purely intellectual assent to the authority of another. It is a matter of loyalty to a liberating disclosure, aimed at a great good.
William James famously attempted to define the conditions under which one could be justified in commitment to a belief in the absence of sufficient theoretical evidence.56 He suggested that if an option for belief is forced, vital, and living, then one is justified in committing oneself to believe. There must be no avoiding a decision; it must make a vital difference to one's life; and it must present itself as a plausible or realistic option. With some qualification, this is reflected in the account given here. Thus one could say that a ‘living option’ must be not just one that seems, psychologically, to be attractive. It must be a commanding, challenging disclosure of value which actually presents one with a morally significant decision of whether to respond to it positively or not. If such a challenge puts one's whole way of life in question, asking one to give up ambition for the sake of a greater good, for example, then it is certainly a ‘vital option’. And if one cannot avoid the choice to respond or not—if pretending to agnosticism is, in such a case, a form of refusal to respond—then it would be a ‘forced option’. What I think is needed to tighten James's account, at least in the case of religious belief, is a stress on the moral or evaluative nature of the demand which is encountered. This removes any suggestion of arbitrariness about the choice or about the alternatives between which the choice is made. It also mitigates any feeling that such beliefs are purely personal options for living well, which some might think is an implication of James's general pragmatist view. For the moral challenge comes, as it were, from outside oneself. In one sense it leaves no choice. The element of evaluative constraint is an important one in most traditions, and certainly in Christian tradition. Encountering a supreme demand which questions one's whole way of life and calls for a commitment to values of whose realization there is no theoretical; certainty is a possibility which the Christian tradition carries within itself, at its very heart.
The idea of faith as a commitment made in objective uncertainty is also enshrined in Blaise Pascal's comparison of religious faith to a wager.57 One is invited to bet on the possibility of eternal life by going to church, taking holy water, and so on; or to bet that there is no eternal life and so opt for enjoying oneself in this earthly life by not going to church. He claims that going to church is not really so bad, and even offers certain earthly rewards (in terms of moral encouragement and companionship), while a hedonistic life is not really very satisfying. Eternal life, however, is of infinite value; while the alternatives are either of no value at all (if there is no afterlife) or of infinite disvalue (if there is a hell). In this situation, he argues, any reasonable person will be religious on the merest chance of eternal life; so faith is supremely rational, even though objectively uncertain.
There are a number of uncomfortable features of this fascinating argument, as Pascal presents it. Perhaps ‘going to church in order to win the lottery of eternal life’ is not a good qualification for eternal life, after all. It could be seen as hypocritical long-term egoism; and it is surely better to be an honest agnostic than a fearful and egotistical believer. Moreover, if one thinks of all the alternative religious hypotheses there are, one may have to join church, synagogue, mosque, and temple all at the same time, in order to maximize one's chances!58 So Pascal's wager will not do. Yet there is something important in it. One ought to take seriously claims that there is an infinitely worthwhile goal of human existence, especially if there are those who claim to have achieved it or have at least moved a good way towards it. And it is rational to devote one's life to aiming at such a goal in the absence of overwhelming evidence that it exists. The greatness of the goal and the morally good consequences of devoting oneself to it are sufficient to undermine any demand for theoretical certainty or even very high probability of its existence.
Pascal's wager may seem too prudential, when formulated as betting on a way of life which might lead to infinite happiness. Yet it is transformed when one thinks, not only of infinite happiness for oneself, but of the realization of a supreme good for many. It is worth hazarding all that this life can offer—little enough, if truth be told—on the chance of the realization of supreme goodness, not for oneself but for many. Naturally, one must have some rational hope that the realization of such goodness is possible. However, even a small chance of such a great good is worth a risk that, even if it fails, brings some measure of fulfilment to many. The religious believer founds such a hope on a disclosure of goodness which has already to some extent transformed lives for good. That disclosure is enshrined in a set of practices which support a disciplined process of self-transformation leading towards the realization of goodness.
This is not a matter of having theoretically evident premisses, which might be known in quite a dispassionate way. It is rather a matter of making fundamental commitments to a practical way of life. This way of life expresses certain basic interests or values; and in the case of a religion like Christianity it primarily expresses, as Aquinas saw, a desire for the knowledge and realization of an ultimate good. This form of life is aimed at salvation, at the realization of a supreme value for human life. It is the practice which is primary; it involves a resolution to seek release or liberation from the constraints of everyday human existence; a trusting response to discernments of a way to realize value which are enshrined in a particular communal tradition and its characteristic language; and a commitment, through discipline and obedience, to hope for a self-transforming fulfilment of human life in relation to the discerned value. The fundamental premisses are not theoretical, concerned with factual information and dispassionate. They are practical, axiological—being concerned with the search for and realization of fundamental values—and essentially involve commitment and trust. They are thus essentially tied to particular communities, with their own norms, practices, and focal objects of trust. One does not have an intellectual acceptance of universal and rationally compelling premisses. One has communal commitments to disclosures of supreme value.
When theoretical conclusions are drawn from such practical commitments, they are drawn by a difficult process of making explicit what is normally presupposed to a practice. This is a matter of imaginative insight and articulation rather than of linear deduction. While propositional beliefs are essentially implied in religious practice, they usually have a provisional character, a diffuseness of content and an openness of texture, which allows and invites new possibilities of interpretation and of unpredictable interaction with other concepts. Theology cannot easily be regarded as the deduction of precise and definitive conclusions from a set of certain and literal propositions. Religious certainty is a practical commitment evoked by particular disclosures of value, aimed at salvation, the supreme human good. The propositions of theology are concerned to articulate and express, always provisionally and indirectly, such disclosures and forms of commitment, rather than to define a set of truths which are directly and precisely descriptive of suprasensory reality. If theology is based on disclosure rather than on doctrine, that may give it a more imaginative and exploratory nature than the Thomist account suggests. But it will not relinquish its claim to express important truths about the nature of reality and the ultimate goal of human endeavour.
One can rationally take propositions as certain which underlie a whole framework of beliefs about the world, even though one knows others do not accept them. They express or flow from fundamental commitments, and one can rationally make such a commitment to a Divine revelation. But a revelation which can call forth such a passionate commitment must be more than a set of theoretical truths proposed for our assent. It must enshrine a disclosure of a value which can override all selfish desires and all competing values. If so, the content of revelation will primarily be the disclosure of a supreme objective value—that is, a state which is worth while for its own sake, whose worthwhile-ness does not depend solely upon some human judgement about it, and which, taken as a whole, is of more value than any other conceivable state. Revelation will set before humans a spiritual goal which is perceived in close relation to this supreme value, and it will claim to show thereby the way to true human fulfilment. The proper content of revelation is the nature of an object of supreme value, of a final goal for human life, and of the way to achieve this goal.
This account will hold of any religious tradition, though such terms as ‘Divine disclosure’ and ‘demand’ will be replaced by cognate terms in, for example, Buddhism. There, too, however one can properly speak of a disclosure of supreme value (the value of compassion and wisdom); of a notion of salvation (nirvana); and of the authoritative call of a teacher, the Enlightened One in whom the believer takes refuge. Thus, in a well-known parable from the Lotus Sutra,59 the world is compared to a burning house. All must be delivered from affection, hatred, and delusion. The Buddha cat deliver all from danger, and will use the most appropriate teaching to do so. In the end, however, the supreme value is ‘inconceivable bliss’. That is what the Buddha teaches; but it is primarily a matter of liberation from critical danger, not of theoretical analysis.
8. Theological Reasoning
If this is the fundamental nature of revelation, then though there will be truths about what is of supreme value and how one can attain it, they may not be simply equatable with a set of infallibly true propositions enshrined in a canonical Scripture. Theology will not be a science which draws deductive conclusions from the rationally evident propositions of such a Scripture. Yet it may be a science, in the sense of being a systematic articulation of beliefs whose ultimate foundation lies in disclosures of a supreme value, goal, and way of life within a specific cultural/conceptual community, disclosures which have occurred at a specific point in history. The discipline of theology can be properly exercised in a number of religious traditions, not only the Christian. In no case will it be a primarily deductive enterprise. It will be explicative, imaginative, and dialectical—it will constantly stand in need of new formulations which can explicate its basic commitments, and of internal critical enquiry which can penetrate more deeply into the values which are expressed in its basic practices. It will attempt, in many differing ways suggested by differing situations, to spell out what is involved in the primal disclosure, seen in an ever-expanding world-historical context. It will provide reasons for faith, in becoming aware of and responding to alternatives and criticisms; in articulating basic beliefs and recontextualizing them in relation to developing knowledge.
Without wishing to impose any neat formula on what is to count as theological method, one might pick out three important intellectual processes which are involved in the theological task. One is the practice of dialectic; or, more simply, of conversation. Such a conversation is both synchronic, being conducted with many diverse viewpoints existing at the present time; and diachronic, being conducted with the many voices and perspectives from one's own past history. Since the theologian is concerned to discern the meaning and value of all experienced reality, it is important to be aware of the many facets which reality seems to present to diverse experients. Religion can sometimes act as a blinker, restricting one's vision of truth by confining attention to a very selective structuring of experience. It is important to remember that religion is concerned with the truth of the whole, and that no form of experience is beyond its purview, even though obviously some interpretations of experience will have to be regarded as grossly inadequate. The conversation in which the theologian must engage is a conversation with the many differing perspectives and forms of thought which characterize human life. Since this conversation continues as the participants adjust their own views by reaction to the other, theological views will always stand in need of restatement. The thought-forms of the fifth or thirteenth centuries cannot be adequate to twentieth-century thought. Thus again it becomes clear that all theological thought is provisional. It is nevertheless also important to be clear that it aims at truth and greater understanding. It is not a form of relativistic change which merely goes on changing without increasing in understanding.
The implication of such a view is that the earliest theological statements, in patristic authors for example, cannot remain conceptually definitive for the future even of Christian theology. For some people this seems worrying, for it suggests that theology may change out of all recognition; and in that case, what happens to the one unchanging truth committed to the apostles by Christ? However, as Gadamer has pointed out, our conversation with the past is not simply a repetition of it. Such repetition is extremely difficult, because our concepts and viewpoints have probably changed so much over time. In a different context, to repeat the same words can give them a wholly different meaning from the one they originally had. Gadamer felt that even the most traditionalist conversation with the past is in fact a continuing search for a fusion of diverse perspectives, our own and that which comes to us from what is, if truth be told, a largely unknown culture.60 Our knowledge of the world is vastly different from that of the apostles, and this must make a difference to how one sees religious faith.
To take the Christian faith as an example, there are certain truths which are not going to be changed by a dialogue of perspectives. That Jesus lived in Judaea, that he proclaimed the Kingdom, forgave and healed, was crucified and appeared in glory to the apostles—these things are unchangeably true, if they are ever true. They belong to a past which is fixed and unchangeable. It is also unrevisably true that the Christian Church arose as a group of communities which found themselves empowered by the Spirit of one creator God, enlivened by the risen Lord, bound together in the worship of Jesus as the Christ and filled with the hope of eternal life through Christ. An emphasis on dialectic does not render all truths relative. What it does is continually to extend the process of reflection by which one comes to appropriate these truths as determining one's present total perspective on reality. How exactly is one to think of God and creation? What is the relation of Christ and the Spirit to God? How is one to think of the reconciliation with God which is brought about by Christ? How may one think of eternal life? These questions are not resolved by the New Testament witness to Christ, which is in fact remarkable precisely for its lack of doctrinal specificity. The process of reflective exploration is a task committed to the Church to work out in dialogue with the whole range of human reflections on the mystery of existence. Without such a dialogue, the basis for reflection on the mystery of Christ is more limited and restricted than it should be; for believers regard Christ as the clue to the mystery of all human existence. And if that is so, is it not possible that Christians shall only truly understand Christ when they can see him in the context of that totality? A similar process will take place in other traditions, as they articulate their own primary beliefs.
The theological task cannot, of course, consist only in interaction with diverging or opposing views. A second element in theological thinking is the element of patterning of the data of faith themselves. If one has a model of theological truth as a deductive explication from a specific set of basic doctrines, such patterning will not be necessary. But if one thinks instead of a living tradition carrying a web of symbols, images, and contrasting perspectives rooted in one or more primal disclosures, there remains much room for a redrawing of connections and an adjustment of hierarchies of importance within the system. Thus for one age it may seem that a stress on sin and the importance of redemption is of primary importance; while for another a stress on hope for the future and progressive sanctification may assume a dominant role. In the history of Christianity there have been many paradigm shifts of this sort. Hans Kung briefly traces changes from an early apocalyptic paradigm to a Hellenistic paradigm, and thence to medieval Catholicism, Reformation scholasticism, and the liberal Christianity of Harnack and Ritschl.61 This is only a schematic presentation of a much more complex and diverse picture. But it makes the point that the system of Christian doctrine (and it is the same in other religious traditions) is not linear but rather contains many oblique ways of approach to what remains essentially a mystery to be contemplated and participated in. Thus there will always be scope for a re-presentation of faith which expresses the characteristic concerns and interests of one's own culture.
Thirdly, there is an essential element of contextualization, as new knowledge from other areas—in the sciences, in philosophy, or in social and political relationships—changes the relationship of religion to those areas. After the rise of the natural sciences, of historical method, and of the new stress on human responsibility and autonomy which characterized the European Enlightenment, one must think of the place of Christ in a universe vastly expanded in size and vastly different in character from that envisaged by the biblical writers. Since the European Enlightenment itself becomes subject to criticism on grounds of unfounded optimism about human rationality and progress, this process of contextualization also needs to be continually renewed.
9. Theology as Reflection on Mystery
In all these ways theology is an intensely imaginative discipline, requiring a continual reappropriation of the past which is most true to tradition precisely when it is most prepared to rethink its own basis. This patterning, contextualizing, and dialectical mode of procedure is more akin to that familiar in historical and literary studies than that in the natural or experimental sciences. In this sense, as Andrew Louth remarks, ‘Theology has more in common with the humanities than it has with the sciences.’62 It is more like the contemplation of a mystery initially given to the religious community at a particular point of space and time but still a living and developing reality, than it is like the exposition of a settled and completed set of ‘correct’ beliefs.
With regard to Christianity, it might be said that the central temptation of Christian faith is the reduction of the mystery of Christ to a set of propositional beliefs; so that faith becomes more a matter of the defence of ancient formulas than a matter of growth into the mystery of the Divine Being. Louth effectively argues that, for the patristic tradition itself, ‘All knowledge of God in Christ is either the tacit knowledge of tradition or rooted in such tacit knowledge.’63 In the thought of the Fathers, he says, ‘The tacit is interpreted as silence, the silence of presence.’ One needs to turn from an over-intellectual view of faith as assent to clear and precise propositions to a view of faith as participation in the Divine mystery, made available and present in Christ and through the Spirit. Of course there are propositional truths which present and preserve the mystery; but it is important that they define the aporeia of faith rather than attempt to encapsulate it in clear and precise definitions. The tradition with which Christian theology is concerned is ‘not belief, intellectual assent, but fellowship’.64 That does not mean that there are no beliefs in Christian faith at all—that would be an absurd idea. It does mean, however, that to interpret what the Church offers so narrowly as only to be teaching would be to miss the vital element of ‘culture’. This is a culture ‘in which the soul prepares itself for knowledge of, union with God’.65 So one is thinking not of a message, but of a practice. As Louth puts it, ‘Christianity is not a body of doctrine… but a way of life… the tacit dimension of the life of the Christian… part of the church's reflection on the mystery of her life with God.’66 When the theologian attempts to articulate conceptually some elements of this mystery, it should be done tentatively, provisionally, and only as a probing of the Divine hidden-ness with the bluntest and crudest of intelligences. Similar, but of course not identical, things can be said of other religious traditions.
If, holding such a view of theology as this, one speaks of providing reasons for the acceptance of a particular revelation, there can be no question of attempting a neutral grading of all religions against absolute agreed criteria. But there can be a rational articulation of one developing tradition of disclosure and spiritual endeavour which is able to place it in an overall historical context. Such an articulation will seek to bring out the ways in which the tradition offers particular disclosures of value and purpose which are seen as important to a comprehensive perception of human existence. It will always seek to be careful to preserve the core of mystery and the dimension of the tacit which is essential to concepts of ultimate values and goals. Theology will be, not the derivation of propositional conclusions from inerrant statements of Scripture; but an exploratory reflection upon the practices of a historical community of worship, in its widest possible historical context. These practices are directed to articulating the disclosures of a supreme value for and goal of human life which have arisen in this tradition. On such a view, there may not be infallible truths directly dictated by God. But one may still speak, however guardedly, of a revelation of the supreme reality and goal of human existence to a particular, historically developing, human community.
One may thus see theology as the rational articulation of the beliefs which are either contained in or implied by a Divine revelation. In this respect Aquinas and Barth are right. Yet the ground that has been traversed has not left things as they were. Fundamental queries have emerged about the nature and source of revelation. Reasons have appeared, for example, to think that there may be different forms of revelation in differing societies; and to think that human misinterpretations may be involved in revelatory claims. It is not enough to accept the canon of Scripture just as it stands as the starting-point of theology. For we will not know just what is authoritatively contained in Divine revelation until we have first decided what the character and authority of that revelation is. The theologian must therefore go behind Scripture to its sources in history and culture, and must attempt to see these sources in the wider context of a more general history of religious traditions. Only then can one say what sort of authority properly belongs to the assertions of theology and what its sources and limits are.
C. THEOLOGY AS A COMPARATIVE DISCIPLINE
10. Confessional and Comparative Theology
The proposal that the theologian should begin by studying the religious phenomena of the world before moving on to say what the characteristics of revelation are and what sort of certainty is obtainable in religion may seem to be both impossible and undesirable. It seems impossible, for it takes a lifetime to understand even one religious tradition properly. How can one begin by trying to study the huge number of religious traditions that exist throughout the world? Would one ever finish this preamble to faith? And if one did, would it not be bound to remain superficial?
I understand this objection, and have no wish to turn the systematic theologian into an amateur collector of religious curiosities. Nevertheless, I think the time has come when it is positively misleading to consider religious traditions in isolation. Theologians have in fact always taken their interpretative clues from philosophical or cultural factors not confined to Christianity. Aquinas, for example, took Aristotelian philosophy, well seasoned with Platonism, and used it to rethink Christian doctrine in the thirteenth century. For a short time, his works were even banned from the University of Paris as dangerously subversive; but it was not long before they became definitive for the Roman Catholic Church. Does it make sense to treat the content of a religion as a self-contained corpus, as though it at least was immune from external influence, and as though light could not be thrown upon it by a consideration of claims made by other faiths?
One cannot understand the person of Jesus unless one knows something about the Judaism of his time. That in turn requires some knowledge of earlier Judaism; and then one needs to know about Canaanite religion and other Middle Eastern cults. So one is already involved in the study of religious traditions in general. Such a study is essential if one is to set the development of Judaism and Christianity in its historical context. It is reasonable to think that a wider study of other traditions will also throw light on the way in which Christian faith has developed as a vehicle of Divine revelation.
I am inclined to say that one cannot properly understand the mode of Divine revelation within Christianity unless one can set it in the context of human religious activity in general, for only in its widest context can one discern the true meaning of such revelation. It may be that this is too difficult a task to be performed properly by one person. Yet we now have much greater access to a mass of scholarly work on various religions, and it would be myopic simply to ignore it. One must, therefore, use such scholarly results in trying to obtain a general view of the nature of religion, within which one can set one's own understanding. Scholars must continue to work on painstaking details. But the systematic theologian must make some attempt to understand the broad sweep of religious life, before being ready to make an informed judgement about the sources and methods of Christian theology. Christian revelation is not a self-contained whole, uninfluenced by other contexts and perspectives. Further, the wider one's perspective, the more reliable one's religious judgements might be.
Even if starting from as general a view as possible of claims to religious revelation is possible, is it desirable? It may be seen as an attempt to study religion neutrally, as if from some superior standpoint; whereas, it may be said, theology must be rooted in a particular faith. The view I have so far outlined moves away from seeing theology as an exclusively Christian discipline, founded on an inerrant and exclusive scriptural revelation. But it still sees theology as a confessional discipline, existing in diverse traditions and seeking to articulate their tacit culture of faith from within those traditions. I have noted that this already requires attention to and conversation with other traditions. Perhaps a bolder move can be made, to disconnect the practice of theology, at least in part, from a necessary internal relation to a particular tradition. This view is strongly opposed by Aidan Nichols. ‘Theology,’ he says, ‘presupposes the truth of the Christian faith.’67 ‘To be a theologian, one must share the common fides quae, the faith of the people of God.’68 Its source is Divinely given faith in the revelation of God, and supposes, at least for him, that the Catholic revelation is authentic.
For such a view, theology is essentially a confessional discipline, a working-out of the faith of a particular community, of which the theologian is the servant. Of course, the Roman Catholic Church has the right to appoint a certain class of people to do this. The implication is, however, that other Christian Churches should have their own theologians, all exploring the faiths of their own communities. Even Louth, with whose account I am generally in sympathy, concludes by saying that ‘theology is the apprehension of the believing mind combined with a right state of the heart’.69 Theology becomes very much an activity from within the believing community. One cannot be a theologian who happens to be a Roman Catholic, or a Presbyterian, or nothing at all; one must be a Catholic theologian or a Presbyterian theologian, appointed by the Church to explore its own understanding of revelation. One finds what almost amounts to a reductio ad absurdum of this view in Schleiermacher, who holds that ‘Dogmatic theology is the science which systematizes the doctrine prevalent in a Christian Church at a given time.’70 Not only are theologians confined to one Christian sect; they are confined to a particular time and cultural group. It seems that on such a view there would be as many theology faculties as there are religious buildings and societies.
This seems to me an unduly restrictive understanding of theology. There is a proper intellectual study which tries to explore religious beliefs and practices, enquiring as to their truth and rationality, which is not as such committed to the views of one faith-community. Nichols offers a working definition of theology as ‘the disciplined exploration of what is contained in revelation’.71 But revelation is here taken as a given, as something settled, definitive, and complete. Moreover, as a Roman Catholic, he takes revelation to be authoritatively interpreted by the magisterium of that Church, so that certain questions can be closed to critical enquiry by the magisterium. A Roman Catholic cannot query the Chalcedonian definition of the incarnation or the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, though a theologian might explore their meaning further.
Nichols does not, however, accept the view that the theologian only comments on the pronouncements of bishops and popes. New questions can be raised and explored, so that the theologian can even make it possible for the magisterium to see what the sources of revelation contain,72 on many matters which have not been defined or which may not interest the present group of bishops. But if, as he says, theology is something wider than a commentary on what popes and bishops have said, may one not suspect that it is something wider than a commentary on what some settled revelation contains?
What is this wider thing? It is the whole range of Divine manifestations in the world, the whole phenomenon of religion in human line, in its many varied forms, the whole array of human speculations about and alleged experiences of the Divine. If theology is indeed an intellectual enquiry into God, it cannot be confined to reflection on just one tradition of revelation, regarded from the first as being complete and final. For that understanding of revelation is itself one of the matters set before one for critical reflection. When the theologian considers the question of what revelation is, this is not a mere preamble to faith, setting out a defence of what has already been decided in advance (that this revelation, and this understanding of it, is the best and truest there can ever be). It is a part of religious enquiry itself, which must affect in the most fundamental way everything that follows.
One can therefore distinguish two types of theology. One is confessional theology; the exploration of a given revelation by one who wholly accepts that revelation and lives by it. The other may be termed ‘comparative theology’—theology not as a form of apologetics for a particular faith but as an intellectual discipline which enquires into ideas of the ultimate value and goal of human life, as they have been perceived and expressed in a variety of religious traditions. It is therefore naturally, though not exclusively, concerned with the concept of ‘God’ as it arises within many such traditions. Comparative theology differs from what is often called ‘religious studies’, in being primarily concerned with the meaning, truth, and rationality of religious beliefs, rather than with the psychological, sociological, or historical elements of religious life and institutions.
There are those who hold that the only true theology is confessional. Aidan Nichols says that any study of religion which is not rooted in Catholic faith is bound to be ‘epistemologically defective’.73 John Macquarrie, an Anglican, begins his principles of Christian Theology by saying, ‘Theology may be defined as the study which, through participation in and reflection upon a religious faith, seeks to express the content of this faith.’74 This entails that theologians must be participants in a religious community and should aim to express the faith of their own community. But at this point one may begin to perceive a danger that the theologian will become merely a propagandist on behalf of one religious organization, bound to defend its views in public whatever his or her own personal opinions may be, bound to submit to the authority of that community even if critical enquiry begins to question its assertions.
Many great theologians have taken exactly this view. Calvin certainly thought that Protestant Christians should submit unreservedly to Scripture, and Karl Barth has held that any attempt to subject the Word of God to human judgement is a form of sinful pride. One immediate problem is that Roman Catholic theologians would have to submit to a different authority—for Scripture must be interpreted by a magisterium which disagrees with Calvin at many points. Each theologian will have a set of protected propositions—different in detail in different confessions—which are exempt from questioning. So how does one decide which set of propositions is to be so exempt? Presumably by seeing that this is the set authoritatively defined by a specific community. But that pushes the question a stage farther back: why should one accept this community's authority? And to what extent should one accept it? If this is not merely to be decided by something like an accident of birth, it seems that there must be a proper reflective discipline which investigates precisely the doctrine of proper religious authority, its sources and limits.
The traditional discipline of natural theology belongs here, as the attempt to show that there is a God and that God has been truly revealed in a specific tradition. The project of traditional natural theology is to demonstrate by appeal to reason alone that God exists and then to show that the evidence of miracles and fulfilled prophecies demonstrates that the Church has been founded by Christ as God's authorized teacher of dogmatic truths. Once the Church has been shown to be the properly authorized teacher, in this way, it only remains for the theologian to articulate the truths authoritatively taught by that institution. Even on this model, if natural theology is a proper subject, then the definition of theology per se as the disciplined exploration of what is contained in revelation is too restricted. Theology must also explore what revelation is and what the criteria are for accepting one revelation. Theology cannot simply presuppose the truth of a particular faith, for it must investigate the grounds for supposing that faith is true. But for traditional natural theology, this could be accomplished successfully by reason alone.
There are very few competent theologians who would now be able to accept this model. Philosophers and historians are now much more critical and sceptical than they used to be. Philosophers would have to agree that purely rational arguments will leave many people far from convinced of the existence of God. Historians would accept that the evidence for the sort of miracles recorded in the Bible is too poor to be acceptable for establishing any particular belief beyond reasonable doubt. And theologians would doubt whether the New Testament documents license one in supposing that Jesus actually founded anything like any present Church at all. The point is not that these traditional beliefs are false; on the contrary, they may all be true. The point is that none of them can be accepted on purely rational grounds of argument and evidence. So the traditional model of natural theology can no longer serve as the foundation for the acceptance of a particular ecclesiastical authority.
One now seems to be impaled on the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand, one cannot presuppose the truth of a specific alleged revelation, since its claims must be investigated; and where competing claims are made, some judgement must be made between them. On the other hand, there is no neutral vantage-point, without any beliefs at all, from which a dispassionate judgement might be made on this subject. So it might be more honest, after all, to accept that one just stands within a given tradition and admit that all one's judgements will be made from that standpoint; a rational investigation of such basic claims is impossible. If the confessional theologian can be seen as a prejudiced propagandist for one view among many, the comparative theologian can be seen as a self-deceiving claimant to perfectly neutral rationality, who is bound to be divorced from any specific religious commitment. Neither position is acceptable; but is there any alternative?
11. Criticism and Commitment
It is clear that we do not start with a tabula rasa and choose all our beliefs with impartial rationality. We learn our basic interpretative concepts from others and as we begin to reflect we do so from a specific cultural and historical position. It would be quite false, however, to say that because of this one can find no universal and certain truths at all. That chairs and tables exist, that the world has existed for many years before we were born, that we were born and will die—these things are unequivocally true. Many truths of this sort are very hard to discover or be sure about; and that includes truths about the existence, acts, and words of Jesus or Buddha. There are many truths of which we will remain in various degrees uncertain. Other truths are such that they involve large-scale matters of interpretation which are unlikely to be resolved by any process of empirical investigation. These would include matters like the existence of God, or life after death, or of the law of karma. It is likely that we will have initial beliefs about these matters, which we receive in the first place from our culture.
Whether it can be said that this makes us members of ‘a tradition’ is not clear. Beliefs may be picked up in many ways from many different sources; and the set of beliefs we have may neither be coherent nor match with any one set of beliefs which is identifiable with a specific social institution. People speak rather loosely about a ‘spirit of the age’, or about our ‘cultural inheritance’; but such things are very difficult to specify and probably consist of a large collection of beliefs from different sources which we have formed as a result of many different social interactions. Only a few people consciously align themselves with political, religious, or social interest groups, whose aims may be explicitly stated or whose attitudes are pretty clear in practice. Thus if I am a Jew living in Britain in the twentieth century, I may (or may not) feel some need to support the state of Israel; I may (or may not) attend synagogue; and my ‘Jewishness’ may be defined more by what other people ascribe to me than by what I am myself inclined to believe. In fact, it is not uncommon for a tradition to be defined by those who wish to identify something they are opposed to rather than by those who wish to belong to an identifiable group. To be Jewish may be to conform to an image other people have of me rather than being anything like an explicit choice. Much the same sort of thing could be said of large numbers of Catholic and Protestant Christians, and of members of most religious traditions.
It is not at all clear, then, that the beliefs of a given person will conform to a set of beliefs taken to characterize a particular institution, even if—by birth or by some ceremony undergone in youth—one is taken to be a member of that institution. Typically, some people will find security in identifying with a social institution and being loyal to its declared aims and beliefs. Others, however, may well find many of the declared beliefs to be badly evidenced or results of intellectual lethargy, even though membership of the institution offers sufficient benefits to make it attractive. So it is a distortion to think that everyone belongs to some tradition, if this is thought to involve sincere and complete adherence to some declared set of beliefs in a particular institution. Especially in the case of religious institutions, the reality of social membership is so complex and the reasons for membership so diverse that it would be quite false to think it was a matter of intellectual assent to all the declarations of the institution.
Seen against this background, the confessional theologian might be seen as a sort of systematizer who tries to establish or defend an official set of beliefs which includes elements which are widely disregarded by many members of the institution. Such a person will conscientiously have come to accept that the institution has a formal teaching authority which can be rationally defended. But many other options are possible. If a given institution cannot be established as authoritative by some universally convincing rational argument, then those who reflect on the nature of revelation may conscientiously dispute its authority; or they may feel able to be members of the institution, while disputing many elements of its self-interpretation. One may feel, for example, that a Christian Church truly mediates the mystery of Christ and sustains faith and hope in God, while it is yet mistaken in some of the claims it makes, including some of the claims it makes authoritatively about itself. I take it that all non-Roman Catholics, as well as many Roman Catholics, believe this to be true of the Roman Church. There is, after all, no entailment between a Church being a true mediator of the Divine Life and its being correct in all its official beliefs. To get to that position one needs a strong argument that one cannot be a true mediator without being correct in all one's official beliefs; and it is hard to see any such argument succeeding, since the Gospels themselves contain errors, however unimportant, while mediating the Divine Life pre-eminently.
If Churches can err, it may be important for theologians to be free to challenge the official statements of those Churches, while yet remaining members of those Churches as long as conscience allows. On the other hand, the most piercing criticisms of a Church may come from those who are not its members; and such people may even articulate the logically basic beliefs of such a Church more clearly than members of it who are unable to discern their own hidden presuppositions.75 I therefore see no reason why theologians should necessarily be participants in a religious community; and I see good reason why theologians who are such participants should not be taken to be official spokespersons for that community. Their office may often be that of critic rather than of advocate, and it is in that function that they may best serve a Church in the long run.
One may properly be described as concerned with questions of the meaning and justification of the concepts of God and revelation, even though one concludes, whether gladly or regretfully, that no justification can be found. Scholars of any religious persuasion or none may engage in questions of comparative theology, the analysis of the concepts of God and of revelation. I doubt, despite what Fr. Nicholls says, if their adherence to a particular faith or their devotion to prayer will give them greater epistemological adequacy; though naturally believers will tend to follow theologians of their own persuasion wherever possible.
12. Pluralism in Theology
I am not suggesting that theologians should have no personal beliefs; that is scarcely possible. I am suggesting that theology is a pluralistic discipline. In it, people of differing beliefs can co-operate, discuss, argue, and converse. Even within one Church, discussion and argument is an obvious feature of a lively religious practice. Understanding grows by debate, by hearing others and by hearing how others hear one's own views; by opposition as well as by consensus. Different religious groups will have different ways of seeing their own authority in such matters. But one cannot fail to note how in the last 150 years those theologians who have said things quite unpalatable to Church authorities have made lasting advances in theological understanding. One can think of Strauss, of (Schweitzer, of Kung; and there are many others. There is a real intellectual danger in seeking to prevent radical theological thinking and enforce assent to received opinion. While religious groups are entitled to employ their own apologists, truth is best served by the advocacy of free intellectual enquiry. So it is important even for such groups that they should be in active conversation with apologists of other groups. Unless one characterizes others as irredeemably sinful, ignorant or stupid, there may always be something to learn from them. Unless one is sure that one's own view is irrevisably correct, there is always a possibility of error or at least of restricted vision. There is a danger in unrestrictedly free thinking; but it is a lesser and preferable danger to that of compulsory intellectual conformity.
To try to avoid misunderstanding here, I am not saying it is a bad thing for believers to do theology; on the contrary, all theologians believe something. Nor am I saying that it is not intellectually respectable to advocate the beliefs of one's own group; on the contrary, it is better to do that openly than to pretend that one is wholly neutral in matters of belief. I am suggesting that it is wrong to limit theology proper to one's own group and make it simply an exploration of what is officially believed by that group or even of what is contained in the Scripture and tradition of that group. I would go further and suggest that to advocate a ‘Catholic theology’ or an ‘Anglican theology’ or even a ‘Christian theology’ is unduly restrictive. For it suggests that there is a specific intellectual discipline which can only be undertaken by Catholics or Anglicans or Christians. It seems preferable to say that theology is the discipline of reflection upon ideas of the ultimate reality and goal of human life, of God, and of revelation. It can be undertaken by people of many diverse beliefs. It is better undertaken in knowledge of and in conversation with those of beliefs other than one's own. In it one may well find oneself defending a particular view of God and of revelation, which may involve one in obedience to the authority of some religious group, but one can pursue the discipline without advocating the views of such a group. One may even wish to ally oneself with a group while actively disputing some of its beliefs, even those which some members of the group hold to be essential.
I am not arguing that everyone should be like that; only that people who do this are full and proper theologians. And in fact most of the creative theologians in Europe since the seventeenth century have been in such a partly revisionist position within then-own faiths. There is revisionist theology as well as confessional theology, and if the strength of the latter lies in its loyalty to a body of doctrine believed to give true insight into the nature of God, the strength of the former is its refusal to bow to the pressures of conformity and authority as an answer to real intellectual problems.
To put a view at the opposite pole from that which I have called confessional theology, we can turn to none better than Schleiermacher, who says,
Belief… usually so called, which is to accept what another has said or done, or to wish to think and feel as another has thought and felt, is a hard and base service… it must be rejected by all who would force their way into the sanctuary of religion. To wish to have and hold a faith that is an echo, proves that a man is incapable of religion.76
Schleiermacher's protest is against accepting a belief simply because another believes it; and in that protest one can hear the voice of the Enlightenment crying out for autonomy, for personal choice and freedom of individual belief against the authorities, religious and political, which had restricted free scientific and historical enquiry. Such a protest will hardly be effective against a considered and free submission to some authority that is taken to be in the best position to know certain things. But deep underlying questions are raised here about the proper extent of authority and autonomy in belief, and about the nature of belief itself. Is it primarily a matter of assent to a set of doctrines, or commitment to a range of images and symbols or to a way of life? These themes precisely belong to comparative theology.
The picture I am presenting is not one of some tradition-neutral investigator, free from all prejudice, able to judge with supreme rationality between an array of differing beliefs, a rationalist theologian of straw indeed. If I have any picture in mind, it is of someone whose mind has been formed by overlapping traditions of thought which are themselves in a state of rather confusing change. That person is aware of other traditions which the modern world has made present and living options for belief, and of the way in which changes in scientific and moral understanding have placed all traditions in a rather different light. To be a theologian at such a time is not to pretend to some ahistorical rationality, but to accept one's place in a continuum of historical change and to accept one's role as a vehicle of continuing change, as all traditions interweave in complex and novel ways. One is not trying to sit loose to all traditions; but one cannot be satisfied with seeing a tradition as an unchanging, fixed set of irreformable beliefs. Rather, one seeks to extend one's tradition as it encounters new understandings and situations, both continually going back to its resources and looking forward to its applications in very different contexts. Pluralism (in the sense of a conversation of differing viewpoints) and revision (in the sense of imaginative rethinking in new contexts) become part of the intellectual framework of such a theologian; and this must be in tension with acceptance of one final truth, contained in one religious group. One may come to the conclusion that there is such a final truth, maintained in its wholeness by just one group; one may have that view both as one's starting-point and as one's final conclusion. But one must accept that theology, as the disciplined enquiry into God, contains other possibilities and has a place for serious enquirers with rather different starting-points. And if the intellectual enquiry is to be extensive in its range and thorough in its discipline, it will need to meet in conversation with them and not be closed to any increase in understanding which may result.
In seeking to characterize what theology is, it is much too restrictive to limit it to the exposition and defence of one settled body of truths about God. The world of theology is, for many, a world in which everything is put in question, not one in which doubts can be comfortably resolved. It should offer resources for coming to informed decisions about religious belief; but it should also expose the difficulty and profundity of ultimate questions, and therefore perhaps cause one to be more uncertain about some previously unconsidered matters. I have no wish to expel the confessional theologian from the academic community; but such a person must accept that a more pluralist and revisionist form of theology also exists; and should, I think, accept that it is a positively good thing to engage in this wider theological enterprise, even for those whose own commitment is settled.
Seen from this perspective, comparative theology must be a self-critical discipline, aware of the historical roots of its own beliefs; a pluralistic discipline, prepared to engage in conversation with a number of living traditions; and an open-ended discipline, being prepared to revise beliefs if and when it comes to seem necessary. There is nothing to prevent a comparative theologian from being committed to one religious tradition, even a very authoritarian one, unless that authority prohibits such a study. Then the area of revisability may be restricted to some extent, though even then new forms of understanding ancient formulations may be possible and desirable. For some, it will be possible to assert that commitment to the unrevisable authority itself is in principle revisable, even if one cannot foresee any real possibility of revising it without loss of faith. One must—as one does, anyway—live alongside others who see revision as a continual necessity in a changing world. But one is not at all constrained to be always looking for revisions; a comparative theologian may properly feel that a self-critical, pluralistic, and open-ended discipline is likely to corroborate the beliefs of one group. Thus apologists and revisionists can converse together in the wider community of theological discourse.
I have noted that the project of traditional natural theology seems unacceptable. So the basic problem remains of how one can construct a rational account of revelation, in a context of many diverse authoritative traditions which stress diverse primal disclosures of reality and value. One natural place for such construction to begin is with a study of the phenomena of religion in history and with the places in human experience where religious beliefs arise. In this way theologians can test the adequacy of their own initial view of religion against a wider range of human experiences and perhaps come to form new views in the light of perspectives they had not previously considered. Comparative theology can thereby help to form a view of the sources, nature, and limits of authoritative claims to revelation, a view which will naturally determine subsequent theological reflection on particular religious traditions.
I am writing from within one (Anglican) strand of the Christian tradition. What I say is an attempt to articulate that tradition in a global context; so it is in a sense a confessional theology. But it is also a contribution to a comparative theology of revelation from a particular perspective. It tries to take many traditions, and the history of human religious thought, seriously; and explore what can be said of them in the light of central Christian beliefs, and what light they in turn shed on those beliefs. Confessional and comparative theology need not, in all their forms, exclude each other.
If no one person can hope to provide an adequate account of such matters, one can at least begin the attempt to enter into discussion with others and invite them to respond. One may then together begin to attain a wider perspective in which initial views and commitments may be better understood. As one of the great pioneers in this field, Wilfred Cantwell Smith, has put it: ‘To perceive oneself as in principle heir to the whole religious history of the race thus far, and the community of which one is a member as in principle the human community… is not to dissolve the question of religious truth but for our day to bring it into focus.’77
Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae 1 (London: Blackfriars, 1964): ‘Sacra Doctrina ist Scientia’: 1a. 1. 2.
Ibid. 1a. 1. 6.
Ibid. 1a. 1. 2: ‘divinae scientiae, quae est una et simplex omnium’.
Ibid. 1a. 1. 8.
In Job, 13, lect. 1.
Aquinas, Summa Theologiae 1a. 1. 10.
Ibid. 1a. 1. 6.
Ibid. 1a. 1. 1.
Ibid. 1a. 1. 7.
Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (1651), part 3, ch. 32.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1969), 88.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, 359.
Fergus Kerr rightly warns, however, against thinking that Wittgenstein would have been happy to see religions as ‘language-games’, where this is itself used as the basis for a metaphysical programme, perhaps of a behaviouristic sort. Cf. F. Kerr, Theology after Wittgenstein (Oxford: Basil Black well, 1986).
An exploration of the idea of God along these lines is given in: K. Ward, The Concept of God (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1974).
Peter Winch, The Idea of a Social Science (London: Routledge, 1958), 100.
John Wisdom, ‘Gods’, in A. G. N. Flew (ed.), Logic and Language (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1963).
The way in which experience is always subject to interpretation by existing concepts is stressed by Steven Katz: ‘Language, Epistemology and Mysticism’, in S. Katz (ed.), Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis (London: Sheldon Press, 1978), 22–74.
Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason (1781), Transcendental Analytic, Book 1, Analytic of Concepts.
R. G. Collingwood, An Essay on Metaphysics (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1940), ch. 5.
Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1962).
Cf. the useful historical discussion in: E. Schillebeeckx, Revelation and Theology (London: Sheed and Ward, 1967), 1. 100.
Hendrick Kraemer, The Christian Message in a Non-Christian World (London: Edinburgh House Press, 1938).
Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, vol. 1, part 2: 17. 2 (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1975), 299.
Ibid. 13. 1.
Ibid. 17. 1.
Emil Brunner, Revelation and Reason, trans. Olive Wyon (London: SCM Press, 1947), 207.
Emil Brunner, 208.
Ibid. 230 ff.
Barth, Church Dogmatics, 17. 3.
Ibid. 17. 1.
The sort of view associated with the radical Enlightenment, and found in John Toland, Christianity not Mysterious (1696).
John Locke, The Reasonableness of Christianity (London: A. and C. Black, 1958), 83.
Cf. n. 10, above.
S. Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, trans. David F. Swenson and Walter Lowrie (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969), 182: ‘An objective uncertainty held fast in an appropriation-process of the most passionate inwardness is the truth.’
Rom. 8: 38, 39.
William James, ‘The Will to Believe’ (1896) in T. H. Burkhardt, F. Bowers, and I. Skrupskelis (eds.), Essays in Philosophy (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1978).
Blaise Pascal, Pensées, trans, and ed. M. Jarrett-Kerr (London: SCM Press, 1959). 62–7.
Cf. the discussion by R. G. Swinburne: ‘The Christian Wager’, in Religious Studies, 4 (1969), 217–28.
Lotus Sutra, 3, trans. L. Hurvitz, as Scripture of the Lotus Blossom of the Fine Dharma (New York: Columbia University Press, 1976).
Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method (New York: Seabury Press, 1975).
Hans Kung, Global Responsibility (London: SCM Press, 1991), 123.
Andrew Louth, Discerning the Mystery (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983), 65.
Aidan Nichols, The Shape of Catholic Theology (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1991), 32.
Louth, Discerning the Mystery, 147.
F. E. D. Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1989), para. 19.
Nichols, Catholic Theology, 32.
John Macquarrie, Principles of Christian Theology (London: SCM Press, 1966),
Alisdair MacIntyre has argued that some cultures may be better understood, in a certain sense, by others than by themselves: ‘Rationality and the Explanation of Action’, in Against the Self-images of the Age (London: Duckworth, 1971), 244–59.
Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith, 90.
W. C. Smith, Towards a World Theology (New York: Orbis Books, 1981), 188.