Christian faith is made ‘not just philosophically cogent but intensely relevant and reasonable’ in two recent books which exemplify the craft of the philosopher. Michael Barnes SJ celebrates Fiona Ellis’ God, Value and Nature and Rupert Shortt’s God is No Thing.
When I was interviewed by the famous professor who was to become my first tutor in Indian Religions I was a bit surprised to find myself quizzed about Greek philosophy. He had recently moved back into his study which had been badly damaged by fire. ‘It was a very discriminating fire’, he said at one point, proudly pointing to the blackened spines of a number of well-thumbed volumes. ‘Destroyed all of Plato but didn’t touch Aristotle.’
His prejudices about the canon of Greek philosophy were regularly introduced into our tutorials even when his subject was supposed to be the more arcane musings of the Vedas and Upanishads. ‘That fool Plato’, he used to mutter with scarcely concealed contempt. He was on safer ground when complaining about romantic images of mystic India, although even there a touch of disdainful elitism peppered the conversation. He was in many ways a classic example of the learned Orientalist, reading everything Indian through European – not to say Oxford-tinted – spectacles. Some decades later that approach seems as dated as last week’s news bulletin. In the globalised world of the internet and mass-migration there is no dominant position which places everyone else in some sort of hierarchical order, only fragile networks and a plurality of competing view-points.
And yet on one point the old man was surely right. To privilege the Greek tradition is not to indulge in some sort of ‘footnotes to Plato’ version of philosophy, nor to play down the significance of the dharmic traditions of South Asia. When Socrates got himself into trouble with the local thought-police for corrupting the youth of the city of Athens, he was asking perennially important questions that continue to cross cultural barriers and provoke debate about the limits of what can intelligently be said.
What is ‘out there’ and how do we speak about it? Is it just a set of variations on the sort of ‘stuff’ we can somehow apprehend with our senses? Or is there something else, something ‘beyond’ or ‘deeper’ that holds it all together? What’s the nature of moral imperatives, or norms and values, and what role, if any, do the more halting intimations of awe and wonder revealed through varieties of religious or aesthetic experience play in the great scheme of things? What about religious phenomena, whether inscribed in myths or mystical experiences? Are they obscure ‘traces’ of a ‘supernatural’ realm or qualities of human living that are not quite as susceptible to investigation as tables and chairs? Or are they merely the constructs of a credulous mind that has not yet grown out of an infantile dependence on a consoling ‘other- worldliness’?
Socrates’ modern successors tend to avoid the indulgence of scare-quotes to express awkward woolly concepts. They are paid (if they are paid at all) to sort out the conceptual frameworks implied by the all-too-human tendency to fudge distinctions and beg questions. But they are also charged with keeping ancient traditions of wisdom alive and active. More is at stake than a bit of sustained critical thinking. Philosophy would not be philosophy if it did not open up the possibility of a richer account of what is most true and real and beautiful. The great schools of philosophy, both West and East, do not just draw attention to the dangers of uncritical thought and lazy argumentation. They all build serious positions about what it means to be human: the art of making connections, raising questions and criticising answers, allowing ourselves to be taken up by the inexhaustible layers of meaning that confront our halting attempts to make sense of it all. At its best philosophy demands a creative balance between vision and common sense.
Such were the observations about the craft of the philosopher which surfaced as I pondered two provocative books on the significance of God-talk.[i] In their different ways Fiona Ellis’ God, Value and Nature and Rupert Shortt’s God is No Thing are both proof that philosophy has an important role to play in public debate about the continuing significance of God in a culture obsessed by markets and targets, saleable commodities and measureable outcomes. But they also show something more: that orthodox Christian theism can be made not just philosophically cogent but intensely relevant and reasonable.
Ellis, who teaches at Heythrop College, is fast becoming one of the most significant voices in philosophy of religion. She straddles that uneasy divide between the Anglo-American analytic approach to philosophy, with its roots in Frege, Russell and Wittgenstein, and the so-called ‘Continental’ philosophy which is more at home in the post-Hegelian world of Husserl, Heidegger and Levinas. Her new book is a relatively short but heavyweight engagement with the contemporary philosophical debate about naturalism. Invoking the support of a number of analytic philosophers, most importantly David Wiggins and John McDowell, she mounts a sustained effort to resist all manner of what she calls ‘scientistic’ reduction, the position that restricts the intelligible to the observable, leaving little room for thoughtful talk about value, let alone God.
The structure of the book is deceptively simple, beginning with the ‘natural/supernatural’ dichotomy and moving from a purely scientific account of things to an ever-more sophisticated and subtle type of non-scientific naturalism that includes the question of God. As if this isn’t enough, Ellis then takes us from a discussion of the nature and role of value through to consideration of the philosophical coherence of Christianity as a philosophical project. We are left with a form of natural theology which, Ellis hopes, will both accommodate the well-disposed sceptic who is sensitive to morality and offer a reasoned voice to the more traditional Christian theologian – ‘to show that his subject-matter may be of rather more relevance to philosophy – and to nature – than we have been led to believe’.
Shortt, biographer of Rowan Williams and one of the UK’s most thoughtful and self-effacing of religious commentators, would probably refuse the title of ‘philosopher’. To call God is No Thing a work of Christian apologetics rather than a detailed analysis of claims about the ontological status of religious phenomena is not to underestimate its extraordinary achievement. In no more than 120 pages of rich theological argument, Shortt brings cool reason, and an added measure of acid polemic, to bear against the pretensions of the anti-religious secularism of the so-called New Atheists, both the usual suspects – Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens – and a few of the more theologically challenged, such as Jerry Coyne and an ‘Australian materialist called Armstrong’ whose exchange with philosopher Paul Ziff cries out for a wider audience:
Armstrong: There is only one type of thing in the world, the neutrons.
Ziff: What about the number 17?
Armstrong: I was never good at mathematics. Let’s have a drink.[ii]
Not the least merit of Shortt’s book is the introduction of a spirited set of witnesses for the defence, familiar names like John Polkinghorne, Keith Ward and Janet Martin Soskice, and lesser-known writers such as Thomas Nagel, David Bentley Hart, Edward Feser and Francis Spufford. If Ellis writes out of the mainstream of Western philosophy, refusing to dichotomise ‘the wisdom of Plato and the sanity of Aristotle’, Shortt is more at home with the Bible and Aquinas. Together they remind us that, in a world increasingly convulsed by religiously inspired violence on the one hand, and various forms of scepticism and nihilism on the other, a way of living and thinking based upon the great traditions of Christian faith continues to offer a powerful and persuasive case.
Despite the obvious difference in style, the one dense and assured yet also highly nuanced and self-critical, the other describing itself as a ‘tract – pithy but, I hope, not glib’, the two books complement each other. Ellis’ is essentially a cumulative case for an ontology that takes religion seriously, beginning with a critique of the science-based empirical approach to nature and gradually advancing an argument for the plausibility of Christian theism. This is philosophical reasoning of a high order, formidable in the precision of its argument yet always gracious in its presentation of different viewpoints. Ellis is clear that there is no knock-down argument in favour of one opinion rather than another; she proceeds instead by chipping away at unspoken assumptions, opening up a space where reason can operate and connections be made.
Shortt begins with a similar call to overcome what he refers to as life in a ‘mental silo’. He proceeds, however, not to defend Christianity as if it is a system or abstract theory but to sketch out the terms of a way of life and the worldview it shapes. He paints a brilliant picture of what he calls in his opening sentence ‘the story of love’s mending of wounded hearts’. This is a book calling for a religious literacy that attends not to some weird set of sub-rational absurdities but to the possibilities of transcendence opened up by a narrative that demands rather than closes down attention to a whole range of themes and questions, conceptual and intellectual as much as ethical and political. Like Ellis he is at pains to take opposing views as seriously as possible. Reasoned atheism, he allows, is a perfectly respectable intellectual position and is not to be rubbished out of hand. Quite different and more problematic is the strident anti-religion of the New Atheists. Their ignorance of the great religious traditions is outweighed only by their refusal to engage with an ever-growing array of work in science as well as intellectual history. Thoughtful Christianity, Shortt is saying, deserves better than the disdainful dismissal that refuses to think beyond the boundaries of a comfortable materialism. Although operating at a less philosophically nuanced level than Ellis, Shortt is no less convincing in his appeal that Christianity be understood not as ‘flawed science’ for the faint-hearted but as ‘an encounter with the depths of experience’. His learned polemic, neatly controlled and well-focused, is intended as much to support the believer with its account of ‘coherent Christianity’ as it is to cast doubt on the supposedly cast-iron certainties of Christianity’s critics.
While Shortt’s self-styled ‘tract’ is remarkable for the breadth of its cover and the ease with which his scholarship encompasses Aquinas as much as contemporary biblical studies, Ellis raises profound epistemological questions about how human beings account for the way things are. Both are intent, however, on ensuring that in drawing attention to the great traditions of learning – whether stemming from the Greek world, that of the Hebrew Bible, or from the other traditions and ways of life that impinge more and more on today’s secularised society – the reality of God is not subsumed into more manageable questions about human value and ethical relations or just squirreled away into some latter-day form of deism.
The danger, both writers would agree, is that God becomes subject to human control, the biggest and most interesting of phenomena in the universe of human experience, but some ‘thing’ nonetheless. Shortt’s title says it all: ‘God is No Thing’. He defends that evocative theme not by plunging into the complexities of philosophical analysis but by commending attention to what he calls the ‘self-displacement’ demanded by any serious engagement with the world of human relations. Ironically it is precisely this anti-solipsistic move that Shortt’s antagonists miss. At the heart of what might be called the Christian religious impulse is a response to the loving God revealed in the biblical story of the call of Israel – and quintessentially in the life of Jesus. With a nod in the direction of René Girard’s theory of the ‘scapegoat mechanism’, Shortt concludes a brilliant handful of paragraphs on the Gospel story of divine revelation at the heart of human failure:
God is revealed not as the figure who expels us but as the one whom we expel, and who allowed himself to be expelled so as to make of his rejection an example of what he is really like.
Shortt is clear that such an account of faith does not have to give rise to some grand Christian myth, to be cashed out in more or less fundamentalist terms. Nor need a commitment to the values that Christian living upholds generate an ‘intellectual land grab’ on other faith groups. What he opens up is not just a coherent Christian worldview but a superb account of its spiritual underpinnings and ethical and political implications. None of this allows for a complacency dressed up as the virtue of hope. Shortt offers neither the certainty of the grand system, nor a discipleship that can be encapsulated in a ‘rule-book’. ‘Coherent Christianity’, like good philosophy and no doubt good religion everywhere, is a way of living out a version of the painstaking synthesis between vision and common sense. This is Christianity as it is instantiated in the everyday lives of fallible human beings, but also a Christianity that takes inspiration from serious and unremitting philosophical reflection. Shortt no more than hints at various examples of ‘how established religious categories might be refreshed for uncommitted or sceptical palates’ – including Iris Murdoch, Edith Stein, Simone Weil and Emmanuel Levinas. Ellis takes us deeper. For her, Levinas is more than an example of philosophical seriousness.
At first this seems an unlikely move since Levinas is not renowned for any endorsement of theology, let alone Christian theism. Yet his phenomenology of the other, with its intense focus on moral value as a determinant of human flourishing, is also the fulcrum around which her cumulative case turns. If Levinas strives to keep our thinking within the bounds of a philosophically respectable ‘common sense’, he is also sensitive to the sort of uncritical fixation on ‘cosmic excess’ to which Ellis’ naturalist is prone. If God is Shortt’s ‘no thing’, not a being among beings, distinguishable only by eminence or superiority, nor to be identified in some semi-pantheist fashion with Being as such, are we talking about more than some Platonist idea or the ultimate Kantian ‘condition of possibility’ of there being anything at all? What sense does it make to speak of God’s radical transcendence and otherness if all that we end up with is a dualism of nature and ‘something else’ called the supernatural realm?
This is where Ellis begins. While from the point of view of religious belief it is plausible to speak of God as ultimate cause or creator, the philosophical objection is that such a God accounts for nothing more than indefinable religious entities like gods, spirits and demons – a position which risks insulating human beings from reason and truth and leads not to some form of positive theology but, ironically, to atheism. How can God be accounted in some way as an intrinsic feature of human existence and not either be reduced to some arena of naïve folk-superstition or argued out of court by a naturalist account of things which finds any talk of transcendence otiose? It is one of the great achievements of Ellis’ book that she invokes the witness of Levinas to address these questions by bringing this most enigmatic of ‘continental’ philosophers into a fruitful dialogue with the analytic tradition.
What makes Levinas such a powerful advocate of the position that Ellis seeks to adopt is precisely that he is both highly critical of a dogmatic Christianity that turns God into an infantilising father-figure and at the same time exceedingly coy about making any claims for God that would risk God’s ‘Infinity’ becoming caught up in a ‘Totality’. Those two terms, which form the title of Levinas’s most important philosophical study,[iii] point us in the direction of the ethical reconfiguration of the problem with which Ellis’ version of ‘expansive naturalism’ is grappling. Levinas’s phenomenology of otherness considers a whole range of human experiences – from insomnia to erotic love – which can be considered, on the one hand, as taking us away from a self-centred focus on need which ends up reducing everything to a controlling ‘same’ or Totality, and, on the other, as opening us up to the self-transcending experience of desire which opens on to Infinity. The most celebrated dimension of this natural yet self-denying orientation to the other is revealed in the face of the other person – strictly speaking not a phenomenon that appears but what Levinas calls an epiphany, a movement of exteriority that cuts clean across, and therefore disconcerts, any sense of self defined by pre-existent power relations.
It may sound as if Levinas is flirting with irrationality here but the ethical relation that is revealed in the face-to-face encounter is not to be understood as some cognitive act or moment of enlightenment but an awareness of the other’s need that demands a responsibility that is open-ended. Thus Ellis quotes Levinas:
The Infinite is not the object of a contemplation, that is, is not proportionate to the thought that thinks it. The idea of the Infinite is a thought which at every moment thinks more than it thinks. A thought that thinks more than it thinks is Desire. Desire ‘measures’ the infinity of the infinite.[iv]
Although in many ways a relentless critic of the Western philosophical tradition, what he calls ‘Greek’ philosophy, Levinas nevertheless draws on various ‘forgotten’ elements – not just, as here, Descartes’ concept of God but also Plato’s form of the Good which allows him to speak of Infinity in terms of the open-ended responsibility that human beings undertake for the sake of the neighbour. It is not, however, that – to put it in Jewish and Christian terms – the second commandment takes the place of the first and the God we cannot see disappears into the background, leaving us free to get on with our lives without becoming too bothered about pressing the limits of naturalism as far as it can possibly go. God does make demands – and that too is an ordinary dimension of human living that is not to be parcelled off into some supernatural realm appropriate for the intellectually challenged. Levinas, who often seems more at home with Old Testament prophets than with analytic philosophers, professes his concern to ‘translate’ Hebrew thought into Greek by insinuating a ‘Jewish moment’, an ethical or relational element, into the great dialogue of Western philosophy. What he gives us is a phenomenology of concepts rooted deep in a particularly Jewish sensibility of concern for the ‘stranger in your midst’ – a sort of ‘ethical rationality’. For Levinas such a rationality has its origins not in intellectual speculation (which in the likes of typical Western philosophers like Hegel and Heidegger always returns the unknown, the other, to the domination of the knower, the same) but in faithful obedience to the priority of the other.
It may feel like a complex detour, wandering around ethical relations in order to avoid getting caught up in an ontology that has no space for God. In fact, as Ellis shows with considerable philosophical dexterity, Levinas’s theological minimalism has the subtle purpose of mediating between an agnosticism that reduces the First Commandment to a function of the Second and a sort of fideistic theism which ends up uncritically bundling them both together. It is Levinas’s unremitting focus on the ethical context of all ontology that makes Ellis’ case for a value-soaked ‘space’ for God-talk so compelling. Ethics comes first. The one aspect of nature that always resists reduction to ‘more of the same’, its sheer otherness, cuts clean across the human tendency to turn our vision of the unity of things into a naïve supernaturalism, what Ellis neatly refers to as ‘cosmic excess’. Levinas’s face of the other person does not, however, forbid the expanding of visions and the making of connections; on the contrary, he opens up precisely a glimpse of the ‘holiness of the holy’ that underpins all properly moral frameworks for human living. This is what makes Shortt’s plea for more considered attention to the Christian ‘way of life’ so important philosophically. More bluntly than Ellis he reminds us that God is not some further ‘thing’ that somehow emerges on the philosophical scene once we have opened up a richer vision of things; faith is not some expanded gnosis or super-objective reason. Rather prayer, contemplation and spirituality – what Simone Weil speaks of so movingly as ‘attention’ – prepare a sense of wonder through which the very truth and grace of things both consoles and challenges, opening up not a new vision but a deeper or renewed sense of the old.
My old teacher, grumpily complaining about ‘that fool Plato’, did not know Levinas. They inhabited different philosophical universes. But if he had, he might have appreciated how Levinas found in Plato’s idea of the Good a connection with Levinas’s profoundly Jewish concept of Infinity. Set around Ellis’ theme of value, God remains utterly transcendent to human comprehension yet meets us in moments of revelation which call forth the testimony of the prophet-philosopher. The faith of such a prophet is not based on some other sense or inner experience that the benighted scientist or the analytic philosopher does not possess, and which they take delight in ignoring. Whatever the truth in Shortt’s analysis of the New Atheist agenda, something more profound is at stake.
The making of connections is as much a challenge to the imagination as it is an exercise in logic. Human beings can be insatiably curious but they can also be incredibly stubborn and credulous – a trait which, as ISIS shows, holds practical and theological dangers for all of us. As Ellis shows, Levinas’s discerning critique of human discourse is sensitive to the rhetoric of excess but at the same time refuses to consign God to some ‘region of darkness without remainder’. It is not, however, a matter of displacing theology from its partnership with philosophy, swopping ontology for ethics, ‘thing-talk’ for ‘value-talk’ which then morphs imperceptibly into ‘God-talk’. To say that theology is inseparable from spirituality is to propose a very particular context or angle or mode of observing and arguing that appreciates that the ancient art of making connections has room for both Plato and Aristotle – indeed needs multiple viewpoints if the world’s wisdom is not to be reduced to the trivia of a forgotten age. What holds them all together is Levinas’s celebrated description of philosophy as the ‘wisdom of love at the service of love’[v]. Philosophy as the analysis of arguments and the use of logical techniques is always at the service of philosophy as a form of life, a practice of self-transcendence, responding generously to what is always other, and thus learning how to glimpse one’s place both in human community and in the larger scheme of things.
Michael Barnes SJ is Professor of Interreligious Relations at Heythrop College, University of London.
[i] Fiona Ellis, God, Value and Nature (Oxford: OUP; 2014); Rupert Shortt, God is No Thing: Coherent Christianity (London: Hurst and Co; 2016).
[ii] Shortt, p.6; Shortt acknowledges the source of this anecdote as Professor Albert Weale of University College, London.
[iii] Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity( Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press; 1969).
[iv] Emmanuel Levinas, ‘Philosophy and the Idea of the Infinite’, in To the Other: an Introduction to the Philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas (West Lafayette: Purdue University Press; 1993), p.113.
[v] Emmanuel Levinas, Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence (Dordrecht, Kluwer; 1991), p.162.