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Humanity, Environment and God

University of Glasgow

Unlike former years, the honour of presenting the 1988 Gifford lectures fell on the shoulders of a team of leading scholars: Don Cupitt, John Barrow, Richard Dawkins, John Roberts, Anthony Kenny and John Habgood. As 1988 marked the centenary of the Glasgow Gifford Lectures, by way of tribute, the edited volume framed the 1988 lectures within the thematic context of Max Müller's original 1888 Glasgow Gifford Lectures. The published work, edited by Neil Spurway (then a member of the Glasgow Gifford Lectureship Committee), is comprised of seven chapters. The first essay, written by the editor, discusses the history of the Glasgow Gifford Lectures and includes a helpful introduction to Natural Theology. The following six chapters, each written by the six Gifford lecturers, are slightly abbreviated forms of the original lecture series. Each of the six principal essays is preceded by a brief one- or two-page collection of extended quotes from Max Müller’s 1888 lectures, which correspond to the themes covered in the 1988 lectures (e.g., Language, Infinity, Evolution, History, Cosmology, and Religion)

Don Cupitt’s essay, ‘Nature and Culture’, discusses the history of the concept ‘environment’ in relationship to changing images of the natural world in culture, tracing this idea from antiquity to the post-war era. Cupitt encourages his audience to reclaim a Christian understanding of the natural world, which seeks to ground environmental thinking in the Christian doctrine of creation rather than in what Cupitt argues has historically been the grounding of environmental thinking in the implied cosmology of Platonic theism.

In ‘Inner Space and Outer Space: The Quest for Ultimate Explanation’, John Barrow explores the formulation of a ‘Theory of Everything’, which encompasses religious and scientific forms of knowledge and encapsulates all natural laws into an understandable single representation. Barrow's lecture touches on a variety of topics ranging from quantum physics to mathematics.

Richard Dawkins’s lecture, ‘Worlds in Microcosm’, explores the relationship between the imagination and human evolution. Dawkins argues that natural selection has uniquely enabled human beings to represent not only the world as it is, but the world as it could be. For Dawkins, the human capacity for imaginative representation allows an infinite range of possibilities to arise from the basic limited material substances of nature.

John Roberts, in ‘History as Environment’, discusses a holistic understanding of ‘environment’, arguing that one’s environment is inclusive of the entire sum of relations, histories and entities, irrespective of natural and artificial objects. History is brought to the foreground as the cornerstone of the human environment and as the key to self understanding.

’The Kingdom of the Mind’, presented by Anthony Kenny, is an explicit turn away from the natural and historical environments discussed elsewhere in this course of lectures into what Kenny refers to as the ‘spiritual environment’. Here, the inner workings of the mind and the nature of religious language are explored through the language of literature and poetry. He concludes by arguing that religious language is in fact aesthetic language, and that talk about God, though possible, is not always sensible.

Lastly, John Habgood, in his lecture ‘Is There Reliable Knowledge about God?’, compels his reader to distinguish between the impious endeavour to attain knowledge of God and the pursuit (through immersion in the biblical narrative) of a form of knowledge about God. As such, Habgood proposes that knowledge about God can only become meaningful when it is lived out or applied.

  • Michael W. DeLashmutt, University of Glasgow