The Christian Idea of God

A Philosophical Foundation for Faith

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Keith Ward
Cambridge Studies in Religion, Philosophy, and Science
  • Cambridge, England: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , September
     2017.
     236 pages.
     $30.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781108410212.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The Christian Idea of God, by preeminent theologian and Kant scholar Keith Ward, is an ambitious and surprisingly fast-paced exploration into cutting-edge possibilities for Christian philosophical theology in the light of remarkable recent developments in 21st century Western rationality. Ward explicitly and correctly cautions that it would take a library of books to defend all his theses (2), which become increasingly tenuous. He eventually engages, for instance, in “thought experiments” concerning particulars of afterlife and divine judgment. The ongoing shift in emphasis moves from conclusions in early chapters that are driven by general philosophical warrant, to later chapters, many of which are mini-essays on key topics (e.g., creativity, the world to come, kenosis and theosis, divine causality, and revelation), where proposals are increasingly driven by a desire to show that a Christian idea of God is within the bounds of philosophical possibility. While Ward appears to be telling us what he personally believes in these later chapters, he is not at all dogmatic. He is explicit about the decreasing warrant for his conclusions, but he considers the provocative, creative, and ambitious scope of his explorations to be worth a sojourn into highly speculative waters. I agree. The later chapters of the book are tenuous but insightful and suggestive, inviting careful reflection and generous discussion.

Ward’s conclusions in early chapters are more highly warranted but still provocative, a sign of quiet but revolutionary developments in recent philosophy and science of which Ward has taken full measure. Insofar as the scientific revolution was at its heart predicated upon rethinking causation without Aristotle’s formal and final causation (appealing only to material and efficient causation, which delivers the essence of modern materialism), and since, as Ward makes clear, cutting-edge philosophers and scientists (wittingly or no) are now finding it most reasonable and elegant to return to something like formal and final causation, current developments are revolutionary precisely on a par with the 17th-century scientific revolution. Situating himself squarely in this emergent conceptual context, Ward offers (especially in Part 1) a defense of an empiricist version of philosophical idealism—“the opposite of philosophical materialism” (1)—a defense useful and recommended to anyone wanting a clearly delineated account of the particulars and implications of the current, open-ended revolution in rationality/philosophy.

As Ward notes, even many scientists who engage in philosophy now see materialism as “intellectually obsolete” (78). There is no longer philosophical justification for using “Cartesian dualism” as a “term of abuse” (75). Wards’s one-time tutor, A. J. Ayer, acknowledged that the idea of an objective physical world was a hypothesis needed to make sense of what we receive as a jumble of experiences, and he conceded that “God” was the same sort of hypothesis, but, he objected, “God” has no explanatory force (51). After materialism, Ward argues in Part 1, “The Nature of Mind,” it is most reasonable to be both an empiricist and an idealist and to insist that experiences of thinking, beauty, value, and agency are as basic as sense experience. While one no more infers the existence of God then one infers the existence of an objective physical world, after materialism both are useful “interpretive” hypotheses with “objective physical world” allowing us to make sense of sense perceptions and “God” allowing us to make sense of human feelings, values, purposes, and even “publicly testable intelligible laws of nature” (55). 

When Ward says “God,” one should hear “supreme mind” (56) or “ultimate cosmic mind” (85), and “the implicit reality we know in all our knowing” (13), hypothesized to the precise extent necessary to make elegant, integrated sense of experiences of thinking, understanding, intending, beauty, moral value, and personal presence. Ward explicitly distances himself from Aristotle because of the disengaged character of Aristotle’s “unmoved mover.” The similarities increase, however, if one thinks of Aristotle’s world soul in terms of his fourfold causation—in Charles Taylor’s phrase, as an “ontic logos” (i.e., Plato’s transcendent logos made immanent). Ward acknowledges his susceptibility to the complaint that he is delivering more of the “God of the philosophers” than the God of Christianity (100).  Ward means to defend the God of the Abrahamic traditions, a “personal presence underlying all experience,” with knowledge, intentions, and “a good purpose for the physical world,” a “creator God” who has “revealed the divine nature and purpose … in Jesus of Nazareth” (67). The contrast between the early and later arguments in the book largely pivot around the intellectual responsibility to mind the gap between “God” unfolded as an interpretive hypothesis and “God” personally experienced by Christians as “(agapistic) love” (67)—significantly, Ward nowhere analyzes personal experience of agape.

The stark visibility of this gap is a virtue of Ward’s work. First, to generate a compelling argument for a “God of the philosophers” in the dusk of a still potent secular age is quite an achievement. Second, not overstating the reach of one’s argument even as the God one defends falls shy of the God of one’s faith, is admirable. Third, to begin sketching, with explicit caveats, potential paths from a God of the philosophers to the God of the Abrahamic faiths, is daring and creative. The way Ward frames his argument, lacunae are not so much weak points as an updating and reframing of cutting-edge issues that invites constructive reflection. Ward isn’t playing it safe here, and the result is a stimulating, thought-provoking work that makes visible, and begins blazing rich theological trails into, the wide-open frontiers of 21st century philosophy.

My major constructive response, entirely friendly, would be to suggest Ward remains in the grip of modernity’s privileging of epistemology as first philosophy. Thus, he starts with ideas/reason and struggles to get to passion/motivation—this is the gap manifest in Kant’s inability to motivate fidelity to the categorical imperatives and in Sidgwick’s dualism of practical reason. I suspect Ward could benefit from the thought of Emmanuel Levinas, who worked in the wake of Heidegger’s powerful (but ethically inadequate) argument for an empiricist idealism. Levinas upended the objectivizing, disengaged, atomistic foundations of modern rationality with his argument for beginning from the experienced reality of the passion of agape (“ethics as first philosophy”), which immediately gives rise to ideas such as “agape” and “God.” While a categorical gap would remain between the lived experience and the idea of the lived experience, Christians’ and others’ experience of the passion of agape would be properly recognized as the source of the idea of agape (and the like in other traditions) and passion/motivation would be integrated from the start. This suggestion is consistent with Ward’s idealism and empiricism and would allow him to enhance his affirmation of the idea of God by clarifying its relation to the God of love/faith (especially insofar as God is agape), and also to strengthen many of his more particular theses. In all these areas Ward in turn provides a considerable supplement to Levinas, for The Christian Idea of God is an especially wide-ranging work, a fine, thought-provoking addition to the small host of recent works striving to navigate 21st-century philosophy’s reawakening to the spiritual.

About the Reviewer(s): 

William Greenway is Professor of Philosophical Theology at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

Date of Review: 
October 4, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Keith Ward has been Professor of the Philosophy of Religion, University of London, and Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Oxford. He is the author of many books on religion, philosophy, and theology (including on Kant, comparative theology and, recently, Christ and the Cosmos: A Reformulation of Trinitarian Doctrine (Cambridge, 2015). He is a Fellow of the British Academy, and a Canon of Christ Church, Oxford.

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