McCormack on Barth on Prolegomena

Bruce McCormack on Barth’s case against Prolegomena

Secularism as an argument for the necessity of apologetics was encountered by Barth in 1932 in virtually the same form in which it was expressed by Gilkey, Ogden, et al. Barth wrote, ‘At this point the customary procedure, followed with new zeal in modern work, is to indicate the change in general cultural awareness and the general world-picture which has taken place in the last 300 years and called theology as such in question … This altered situation, we are told, is what makes dogmatic prolegomena necessary today.’ The argument made little impression on him. ‘There is no theological foundation for the assumed difference between our own and earlier times. Has there ever been an age in which theology has not basically confronted a radical negation of the revelation believed in the Church? . . . the struggle between the unbelieving reason of man and the revelation believed in the Church has always been with fundamentally the same seriousness the problem of Christian utterance in general and of dogmatics in particular. Hence we need not regard the tragedy of modern godlessness as anything out of the ordinary…’ (CD., 1/1, pp. 26-8) If secularism was not new in the 60s, neither did it have the strength commonly imagined. In his recent contribution to the Christian Century’s ‘Change of Mind’ series, Langdon Gilkey professes to see in the present context, the ‘re-evaluation of the secular’ and the ‘reappearance of the religious’. (Gilkey, ‘Theology for a Time of Troubles’. Christian Century (April 29, 1981), p. 475.) What this suggests is that the social upheaval of the 60s was not as radical as was thought. Seen up close, the 60s indeed seemed revolutionary. Taking a longer view, from a perspective fifteen years later, the historical continuities are more striking than the discontinuities. That President Reagan could find a chord of response in the voting electorate with descriptions of America as a ‘chosen nation’ and a ‘city set on a hill’ is just one indication of the close ties our day has with the nineteenth century. Many others could be adduced. What this means is that systematic theologians ought to exercise a great deal of caution before concluding that a ‘new’ situation has given us grounds for a thorough reconception of the entire task of theology. Systematicians would be well-advised to take a longer view of the historical situation.

from “Divine Revelation and Human Imagination: Must we Choose Between the Two?” Scottish Journal of Theology 37.4 (1984), 454 n.62.

John Whittaker on proofs of God’s existence

John Whittaker on rational proofs of God’s existence

The impression that one gets from most philosophers of religion is that religious conversions might be, and perhaps should be, brought about by the justification of God’s existence on rational grounds. To me this ideal of evidentiary justification seems so far removed from the actual life of believers that those who defend it seem almost hopelessly out of touch. It is true that they have many powerful slogans on their side: ‘a rational belief is a well-grounded belief,’ ‘it is a moral failure to believe something on the basis of insufficient evidence,’ etc., etc. And so none of us should be surprised by the well-meant desire of such philosophers to square religious belief with this ideal. Yet these philosophers fail to notice that the very character of religious beliefs is altered when they are represented as hypotheses before the bar of what passes for reason. The point of those beliefs is lost as they are realigned with the evidence of natural theology or with the arguments of abstract philosophy. ‘Maybe their point is lost,’ they may say, ‘but it can be reinstalled at a later time; what matters is that philosophers have found a way of justifying religious beliefs according to the standard ideal of a rational conviction.’ But the religious point of these beliefs cannot be reinstalled at a later time. Or if it is, the means by which this is done render the philosophical proofs beside the point.

from “Can a Purely Grammatical Inquiry be Religiously Persuasive?” in Philosophy and the Grammar of Religious Belief, (St. Martin’s Press, 1995), 352.

Fergus Kerr on rationalist apologetics

Fergus Kerr on rationalist apologetics

The point has been well made by Bernard Williams. Reviewing J. L. Mackie’s demonstration of the incoherence of the arguments for the probability of God’s existence that certain modern philosophers of religion favour, Williams, himself an atheist, notes that Mackie’s refutations leave the real question in tact. The intellectual case for accepting the God hypothesis is so full of holes that no rational person could accept it; but it is a mistake, in demonstrating this, to leave it as if religion must therefore be something alien to humanity and its needs, ‘now simply abandoned by advanced thought.’ What is required from the atheist, is an account of religion that understands it as expressing needs that will have to be expressed in some form when the belief in God has disappeared. As Williams writes elsewhere: ‘Humanism – in the contemporary sense of a secularist and antireligious movement – seems seldom to have faced fully a very immediate consequence of its own views: that this terrible thing, religion, is a human creation.’

Religion, in other words, has to do with something deep and sinister in us. Its power is not ended by refutations of arguments for the existence of the deity. Religions are an expression of human nature long before they give rise to reflections about the divine. Certain modern reflective procedures tempt us to forget that. Objective study of primitive religion gets in the way of our seeing how savage our own religion is. We prefer a certain interpretation of other people’s behavior to understanding what is deep and sinister in ourselves – and thus we do not have much understanding of the savages either. […]

It is because people exult and lament, sing for joy, bewail their sins and so on, that they are able, eventually, to have thoughts about God. Worship is not the result but the precondition of believing in God. Theological concepts, like all concepts, are rooted in certain habitual ways of acting, responding, relating, to our natural-historical setting. The very idea of God depends on such brute facts as that, in certain circumstances, people cannot help shuddering with awe or shame, and so on. It does not follow that the idea of God has a place in the conversation simply because we enjoy singing hymns: but if we cannot imagine what it is to observe rites, enjoy singing hymns and the like, the nature of religion is bound to remain opaque.

Fergus Kerr, Theology After Wittgenstein, 2nd Ed. (SPCK, 1997) 162, 183.