God in a Single Vision

Integrating Philosophy and Theology

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David Brown
Editor(s): 
Christopher R. Brewer, Robert MacSwain
  • New York, NY: 
    Routledge
    , May
     2016.
     202 pages.
     $49.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781472465597.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Editors Christopher R. Brewer and Robert MacSwain have performed a worthy task in gathering some of philosopher and theologian David Brown’s most important essays into a single volume. For those unfamiliar with the arguments of Brown, who spent time teaching at Oxford, Durham, and St. Andrews, MacSwain suggests that his work is distinguished by an attempt to embody the Anglican principle of via media. This manifests itself in Brown’s efforts to position himself between the fields of philosophy and theology, as well as between the various polarities that dominate these fields—analytic/Continental, liberal/conservative, and Protestant/Catholic. It also animates his commitment to learn from and incorporate insights from other fields—history, literature, classics, anthropology, and biblical studies. It is not without reason, then, that MacSwain notes, “in an academic world of increasing hyper-specialization, Brown is a rare example of a scholar who remains in careful conversation” with a wide array of disciplines (ix). Still, readers should not expect to find in Brown’s writings the kind of vast and glitteringly novel perspectives that one encounters in, for example, Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age (Harvard University Press, 2007)To the contrary, as MacSwain notes, Brown “work[s] within a broadly analytic framework to make critical interventions in current debates,” albeit interventions that tend to utilize “a wider range of reference and considerations than his interlocutors” (viii).

The volume’s thirteen essays divide into four sections titled “The Created Order,” “Experience and Revelation,” “Incarnation, Trinity, and Redemption,” and “Heaven and Our Communal Destiny.” All the articles productively intermingle philosophical and theological reflection. However, when arranged as a whole, the chapters move gradually from a more philosophical mode of argumentation into one that is firmly Christian-theological. Readers less interested in Christian theology than in philosophy of religion will therefore likely find parts 1 and 2 more interesting. The volume’s essay format lends itself to such a piecemeal reading. This could be a strength or weakness depending on one’s perspective. As it stands, despite the short introductory essays that Brown contributes, the volume functions more as a collection of Brown’s past essays than as a book that exhibits a clear organizing principle. Those looking for a ready way to engage Brown’s essays will appreciate this approach, but those hoping to grasp the wider context and significance of Brown’s work might not. A more extensive editorial introduction could have mitigated the volume’s sense of being a mere collection.

Yet even for a reader such as myself, who does not engage Brown’s arguments on a regular basis, the fecundity of his insights readily appears. In chapter 2, for example, entitled “Creation and its Alternatives,” Brown considers the insights and complexities involved in the religious notions of emanation, pantheism, monism, and immanence that have been variously put forth in the Western tradition. I was reminded of Thomas Nagel’s article, “Secular Philosophy and the Religious Temperament” (2005), which examines a variety of secular worldviews in a similar spirit. However, whereas Nagel quite easily collapses “religious” worldviews into the kind of theology that emerges from the debates surrounding intelligent design, Brown demonstrates the meaningfulness and plausibility of a much wider range of options. It would be interesting for someone to bring these arguments of Nagel and Brown into more explicit conversation.

Be that as it may, I feel compelled to register a more general worry about Brown’s style of argumentation. I recognize that insofar as Brown understands himself to be making analytic interventions into ongoing Anglo-American debates, the following criticism is not entirely fair. But from the vantage point of a reader who sympathizes with the arguments presented by Kevin Schilbrack and Thomas A. Lewis about the problematically parochial, christocentric, and metaphysical nature of contemporary philosophy of religion, and who also sees in the more thoroughly historical and socio-political arguments of Charles Taylor and Akeel Bilgrami a more appealing vision of philosophy of religion’s future, the contrast between Brown’s expansive methodological aspirations and the highly proscribed set problematics he engages with cannot but appear stark. In this regard, the very claim that Brown is one the more wide-ranging analytic philosophers of religion underscores Schilbrack’s and Lewis’s point about the relative narrowness of the field.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Benjamin Schewel is on the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Groningen and Associate Research Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia.

Date of Review: 
August 23, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

David Brown is emeritus professor in the School of Divinity at the University of St Andrews. Ever since the publication of The Divine Trinity in 1985, he has been recognized as one of the leading philosophical theologians of Great Britain and an important international voice in the conversation between philosophy and theology. He is a priest in the Scottish Episcopal Church, a Fellow of both the British Academy and the Royal Society of Edinburgh and a previous President of the Society for the Study of Theology.

Christopher R. Brewer is visiting scholar at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has edited or co-edited three volumes, including Art that Tells the Story.

Robert MacSwain is associate professor of theology at the School of Theology of The University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, USA. The author of Solved by Sacrifice: Austin Farrer, Fideism, and the Evidence of Faith, he has edited or co-edited five other volumes, including Theology, Aesthetics, and Culture: Responses to the Work of David Brown.

Comments

Robert MacSwain

As the co-editor of this volume whose introduction is referenced by the reviewer, I am grateful to Benjamin Schewel for his careful review. Given Schewel's concern about Brown's analytic style of argumentation and Christian-doctrinal focus in these particular collected essays, I think Schewel would probably find Brown's recent monographs of more interest and value, both in regard to methodology and content. For example, Brown's God and Enchantment of Place: Reclaiming Human Experience (OUP 2004) is considerably less "metaphysical" and "christocentric" (to quote from the review) and offers a far more expansive and constructive argument about the mediation of religous experience through human culture. Books like this, as well as Brown's co-authored The Extravagance of Music (with Gavin Hopps, Palgrave 2018) would not fall foul of what Schewel describes as "Schilbrack’s and Lewis’s point about the relative narrowness of the field." Nor would Brown's other essay collection, Divine Generosity and Human Creativity: Theology through Symbol, Painting, and Architecture (also co-edited by me and Chris Brewer, Routledge 2017), reviewed on Reading Religion by Steve Miller. I mention all this partly because Brown's body of work is far wider in methodological scope and thematic content than the volume under review, but also because--ironically--many contemporary philosophers of religion would not find Brown's approach in God in a Single Vision analytical enough! 

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