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Faith and Understanding.

This book is an effective curtain-raiser to a new series entitled `Reason and Religion' being produced by Edinburgh University Press. The aim of the series (itself edited by Paul Helm) is to investigate issues in the general area of the relationship of rationality and religion. Other titles have begun to appear. The choice of subject-matter for the series goes to the heart of philosophical questions about the nature of religious commitment, and the list of books promised already shows great promise. The philosophy of religion is once again a live and challenging subject, and, particularly in the United States, has engaged the attention of many leading philosophers in a way that would have appeared inconceivable in the heyday of logical positivism, and allied views.

Sometimes the relationship between faith and reason has been seen as a perennial battle. The temptation has been even to deny the rationality of faith or, alternatively, to demand that it be subject to the passing fashions engendered by secular reason. It is hardly surprising that believers should be reluctant to put their faith at risk by allowing it to be judged by rational standards which may at their roots be fundamentally antipathetic to any reference to the transcendent or the supernatural. On the other hand, a retreat to faith may appear to be a strategic withdrawal, to protect an untenable faith from the depredations of those who are prepared to think clearly. Matters have perhaps become even more difficult since the time of the Enlightenment, in that rationality has become aggressively `secular' in a way that may appear to beg all the most important questions. Paul Helm in this book elucidates what he terms the `faith seeks understanding' project. His method is to look in the first three chapters at the various ways this slogan has been adopted and applied. He then devotes the remaining chapters to what he terms five `case-histories' through the history of Christian thought, which demonstrate how the wider implications of faith can be articulated. As Helm understands this whole tradition, the role of philosophy is not as an antagonist of faith but rather to provide tools and doctrines with which to understand it better. He accordingly examines the role of time and creation in Augustine's `Confessions', and also devotes two chapters to the work of St Anselm. He then jumps in time to the eighteenth century and the work of the New England theologian Jonathan Edwards (particularly his writings on original sin). The book ends with what purports to be an examination of Calvin's claim that `there is within the human mind, and indeed by natural instinct, an awareness of divinity'. In fact, however, Helm quickly devotes his energies to examining the contemporary claims of so-called `Reformed Epistemology' as laid out, in particular, by Alvin Plantinga. The latter is explicitly influenced by Calvin, but as Helm rather rapidly indicates, it is far from clear that Plantinga and Calvin are really concerned with the same issue. Calvin appears to be making a factual claim about the origin of religious belief in all people. Whether someone can therefore be entitled to believe in God without reasons is surely a different issue. As Helm says, Calvin is making a first-order observation about human beings. Plantinga is dealing with epistemological theory. One problem which both have to deal with is the fact of human sin. Whilst this may help to explain why many find belief in God difficult, this is an argument that can go too far. If we are unable to rely on our reason because of its corruptibility, why should sin be at work in the beliefs of unbelievers but not those of believers? Helm, as in so much of this discussion, has to pass rather quickly over this very crucial point, and he suggests that we have to appeal to the working of divine grace. The problem remains, however, that at each level, even that of invoking divine grace, reason can, it might seem, be corrupted. In the end, is not this form of distrust in human reason inevitably self-refuting? Whatever the final answer, it is an issue that needs much more discussion than Helm feels is appropriate in this book.

The discussion about Calvin and Plantinga illustrates the way in which Helm skilfully interweaves understandings of the connection between reason and faith from a wide stretch of history. Such an approach can lay itself open to the charge of merely dipping into arbitrarily chosen parts of the past to help prove a point in contemporary discussion, rather than genuinely allowing ourselves to be taught by major theologians and philosophers who were writing in, and reacting to, very different circumstances. The opposite danger, however, is to refuse to allow our present concerns to be illuminated by the past. In this volume, it is certainly refreshing to pass from some of the great works of past Christian theology to contemporary attempts to wrestle with what are recognizably the same problems. Ancient and modern thought can in this way illuminate each other.

One underlying issue in any discussion about faith and reason is that of realism. An undue dependence on faith can appear to make religious commitment a very subjective matter. The great theologians of the past were in no doubt that in trying to achieve understanding, they were trying to grasp what was real and independent of human thought. They were, even in theology, in the business of discovery and not construction. God is no mere projection of our beliefs or our practices. Helm trenchantly shows how in this respect, the contemporary philosopher D. Z. Phillips is engaged in a very different enterprise from those, like Augustine and Anselm, who epitomize the tradition of faith seeking understanding. Phillips is engaged in a subtle reinterpretation of religion which attempts (perhaps mistakenly) to transcend the simple debate between realist and anti-realist. He does not wish to change religious language so much as to root it in its context in a way which stops it making the metaphysical claims which Helm quite rightly wishes to retain. When Helm, therefore, says that `the reality of God appears relative for Phillips' (p. 71) there is a sense in which from the realist point of view that is quite correct. Nevertheless, Phillips would be able to retort that he is not asserting the relativity of God's reality. He is elucidating what it means to the believer to refer to the reality of God.

The issue of realism also raises a perennial fear that many have of an undue emphasis on faith, rather than on reason. Is not faith a personal matter, and does this not make religion a matter of subjective choice rather than a claim to objective truth? At least arguments for the existence of God, and an appeal to natural theology seem to involve a reference to what is true and not just to individual beliefs. Once even revelation is assimilated to the beliefs of an individual and cannot be properly passed on, the danger is that objective truth cannot be properly distinguished from individual commitment. This is a path that has often been taken in theology, particularly by those who are unduly impressed by views of reason which imply that the supernatural cannot be a matter of reason. The note on which Helm ends his book is with a brief reference to Plantinga's bold claim that so far from this being the case, the very possibility of human knowledge is itself grounded on theism. That might suggest that in the end, faith and reason can never be properly divorced. Perhaps without God, the idea of rationality itself must fall. Helm does no more than quote this view, but it is itself an indication of how crucial the interweaving of faith and reason is for human thinking. Helm is to be congratulated for a book which raises such fundamental issues, and for the establishment of a series which should take these discussion further.
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Author:Trigg, Roger
Publication:The Journal of Theological Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1998
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