Critically assess Kant’s criticisms of the Ontological Argument. [40]

Immanuel Kant criticised what he first termed the Ontological Argument at the beginning of his Critique of Pure Reason (1781). Focussing on the argument as presented by Rene Descartes, which suggested that existence is a perfection and thus a necessary attribute of God, who is a supremely perfect being, in the way that having three sides is a necessary property of a triangle or having valleys is a necessary property of being a hill – Kant concluded that the argument was “so much labour and effort lost”. For Kant, existence is not a perfection and is wrongly used as a predicate. He used the example of a sum of money – the difference between a real and imaginary sum is not that the real sum is worth more, just that the real sum might be in my pocket. Existence is not a predicate and does not describe the properties of an object, it just informs me whether there is such an object in the real world. Bertrand Russell developed this point, using the example of the claim “the present King of France is bald”. Russell pointed out that although the claim seems sensible, as if it is referring to the properties of the King of France’s head and might be either true or false, in actual fact, the claim is meaningless because there is no present King of France for the claim to refer to and thus no way that the claim is either true or false. Existence is not a predicate, it is not just another property that the present King of France does or does not have, it is the ground of meaning on which all sensible claims must be made. Michael Palmer used another example to explain this; that of two candidates applying for a job. If a panel is faced with two CVs listing the “perfections” of the candidate A and candidate B, it would be ridiculous to list “exists” as one of them – existence is neither a perfection nor properly used as a predicate, rather it is what makes the analysis of the CV and the contest between the candidates meaningful. Kant’s criticisms of the Ontological Argument were highly influential and following the publication of the Critique of Pure Reason in 1781, scholarly interest in the Ontological Argument declined steeply. Nevertheless, developments in the second half of the 20th Century showed that Kant’s criticisms are far from conclusive and reawakened scholarly interest in the Ontological Argument for God’s existence.

While Kant’s criticisms were directed at Descartes’ Ontological Argument, they are often applied to the arguments of St Anselm of Canterbury, presented in his Proslogion (1078). Anselm argued that if God is “that than which nothing greater can be conceived of” then God must, a priori, exist because it is greater to exist in reality than just in the mind, so if God existed only as an idea in the mind (as he must, if Anselm’s definition was accepted) then something greater could conceivably exist… something that existed in reality as well as in the mind. If God is, therefore, the greatest conceivable being then God must exist in reality, because existence is a perfection which makes something greater. Clearly, Kant’s arguments that existence is not a perfection and that existence is wrongly used as a predicate seem to undermine Anselm’s argument fatally. As Gaunilo of Marmoutiers had observed in his “On behalf of the fool”, the idea that the perfect island has to exist just by virtue of being the perfect island is absurd; nobody is going to book a ticket to go there on the basis of an argument like that. Nevertheless, that ignores how Anselm developed his argument in the next chapter of the Proslogion, a point that he made in response to Gaunilo’s attack by restating this part of the argument in his Responsio. In Proslogion Chapter 3 Anselm reasons that it is better to exist necessarily than to exist only contingently, therefore necessary existence – not being able to not exist – must be an attribute of that than which nothing greater can be conceived of. This development of the Argument could defeat Kant’s standard criticisms, in that while existence is not a perfection or rightly used as a predicate, that does not necessarily apply to necessary existence, which is a total state of existence either possible or impossible, not a property which might or might not be added to a object that could only ever contingently exist.

Norman Malcolm argued that Anselm’s argument in Proslogion 3 can be presented in terms of modal logic. Either God’s necessary existence is impossible – as in it contains a formal contradiction – or possible. If God’s necessary existence is possible, then it is necessary.   Remember, necessary existence is not existence in the sense that we could encounter through our senses. The world of sense is a world in which things exist contingently and might or might not exist, as St Thomas Aquinas observed in his Third Way to God (Summa Theologica I.II QIII). To exist necessarily is to exist in a different way, a way that is by definition beyond anything that we could experience through our senses. For Kant, because necessary existence is beyond possible experience, then it can only be speculative to even speak of it. Kant called necessary existence a “cupola of judgement” meaning that it strays so far beyond possible knowledge to be a flight of fancy or a castle in the air. Nevertheless, this assumes Kant’s world view and the primacy of sense-experience. For rationalist philosophers like Descartes, Leibniz and later Malcolm, what is real cannot be limited to what can be experienced through the senses. The world of sense is faulty, partial, subjective and limited; empirical knowledge is contingent and ever-changing. For Descartes and Leibniz, rational knowledge should be primary because it is none of these things. A clear and distinct idea, an idea which contains no contradictions, is certain, complete, objective and constant. Just as we know that 1+1=2 without resorting to a posteriori reasoning based on experiences with apples and oranges, we know that God necessarily exists a priori because he is supremely perfect. Alvin Plantinga and William Lane Craig have developed this line of reasoning, using the device of possible worlds. A concept is possible if it could be instantiated in any possible world. A unicorn is a possible concept; although unicorns (at least in the sense of being live horses with single horns!) don’t exist in this world, it is not inconceivable that they might exist in a multiverse. The concept of a horse with a horn is not contradictory, it is possible. On the other hand, a square circle is impossible and could not exist in any possible world because the definition of a square is to have four straight sides, something which directly contradicts the definition of a circle. God’s “maximal greatness” – which must include Omnipotence, Omniscience and Omnibenevolence – is possible not impossible and, because maximal greatness precludes the possibility that God might or might not exist in any one universe, God must necessarily exist in every possible world, including this one. In essence, Plantinga and Craig show that Kant’s criticisms of the Ontological Argument fail because they rely on an impoverished epistemology.

To explain this, for Kant, all existential claims have to be synthetic, they have to refer to something in the world of sense-experience and therefore contain the possibility of being either true or false. If I say “unicorns exist” I am making the claim that there are such things as unicorns in the world – if I saw a unicorn I would know that the claim was true and if no evidence of unicorns has ever been found it is probably fair to say that the claim is false. Making the claim “God exists” does not refer to anything in the world of sense experience and it is not possible, therefore, for the claim to be either true or false… in the terms of the Logical Positivists, it is a meaningless claim. In 1951 American Philosopher WV Quine attacked the basis of Kant’s objections to the Ontological Argument in his essay “Two Dogmas of Empiricism”. Like Karl Popper and AJ Ayer, as a young man, Quine had spent time with the Vienna Circle of Logical Positivists, but by 1950 Quine came to reject their approach, not only to establishing meaning in language but also to bigger questions about epistemology – “what can we know?” and “what does it mean to say that something exists?” Logical Positivists were Positivists, that is to say that they approached philosophy on the basis that scientific, empirical observation is the only source of knowledge and that metaphysics is a waste of time. Positivism formally began with the work of French philosopher Auguste Comte, but looked back to Kant and before that to Hume and Locke. Locke rejected continental rationalism and argued that human beings have no innate ideas, being born as tabula rasa and gaining all their knowledge and understanding from experience. Hume agreed to a large extent, although he acknowledged the limitations of sense-experience as well. Kant said that Hume “awoke me from my dogmatic slumbers and gave a new direction to my philosophical enquiries” and adopted Hume’s fork, the categorisation of possible knowledge into either what is known analytically or what is known from sense-experience, dismissing any other claimed knowledge – including most metaphysical and religious claims – as speculative. Scientific method drew on the work of Locke, Hume and Kant in that it came to focus on sense-experience as the source of all new knowledge and limiting the role of reason to one of analysis and clarification. It is fair to say, therefore, that the Logical Positivists were empiricists. Quine rejected empiricism, and the Logical Positivism of his youth, arguing that in embracing Hume’s fork Kant had awoken from one set of dogmatic slumbers only to fall into another set of dogmatic slumbers. On what basis, Quine asked, did the Logical Positivists claim that sense-experience is the only source of new knowledge? The Logical Positivists failed to provide an adequate explanation of why meaningfulness should depend on either sense-experience or logic and on nothing else. This point was later developed by Alvin Plantinga in his “God and Other Minds” when he pointed out that the Verification Principle is itself unverifiable and therefore self-defeating. Quine also questioned the lack of any adequate explanation for the authority of logic, pointing out that you have to accept logic in order to defend why you should accept logic, which is circular. The same applies to the authority of the empirical senses, Quine argued. On what basis do we say that the sense-experience are the only source of new knowledge without just appealing to sense-experience? This is pure reductionism and again, the justification for Positivism is circular. The answer is that the Logical Positivists adopted Kant’s world-view without much thought, ignoring the fact that Hume (not to mention Descartes) had already outlined the serious problems with relying on the senses in that they are faulty, limited in scope and that data always needs to be interpreted through reason anyway. If Quine is correct and Kant’s epistemology is more dogmatic than critical, then his criticisms of the Ontological Argument start to collapse. On what basis did Kant claim that all existential claims have to be synthetic? For Quine, he had no adequate justification for assuming the authority or primacy of sense-experience, other than by appealing to that same sense experience. Without any proper justification for his epistemology, it seems that Kant’s criticism of the Ontological Argument is on shaky ground indeed.

Further, to say that sense-experience is the only source of new knowledge is to relegate whole fields of study, discussion and indeed human experience to junk status. The fact that the Verification Principle proposed by the Logical Positivists as the gold standard of meaning had to be liberalised through the 1930s and 1940s shows that the claim that discussions about topics such as Ethics, History and Aesthetics (let alone Religion) are meaningless is unworkable and runs against what most people believe and experience. Quine proposed an alternative holistic approach called Ontological Naturalism, which moved away from the attempt to define the meaning of individual statements in terms of their reference and towards assessing their meaning in terms of cohering with and contributing to the whole field of science as an explanatory framework. Popper also rejected Verificationism, proposing another, more generous and inclusive, approach to meaning in scientific terms in the Falsification Principle. Both were influential and contributed to a decline in Logical Positivism to the extent whereby by 1960 it was declared “dead, or as dead as any philosophical movement can be.” The decline of Logical Positivism demonstrates the inadequacy of Kant’s world-view for the modern world. What place has a system which claims that sense-experience is the only source of new knowledge in a world of Quantum science and particle-Physics, in which the very act of observing particles changes their state? Long gone is the idea that the senses offer human beings a transparent window on the external world, even the world of matter and energy. Today, the whole field of theoretical Physics would have to be declared “meaningless” by Schlick, Ayer and Carnap… and yet the insights it yields offer humanity unthought of technological advances… they work. Further, Physics suggests that what appears “real” to our senses is far from being solid and as it appears. On the Planck scale no matter exists… if I hit the table the contact I experience is really the interaction of charges in the fields which make up the vast majority of each atom in the wood and in my hand. The universe, which appeared like a vast machine to Kant and which still appears eternal to the amateur start-gazer has been revealed to be infinite while still having edges, a shape and a colour and while expanding at an increasing rate… into nothing. All of this suggests that reason – mathematics – can yield new knowledge and confidently move past anything we can hope to observe through our senses, to a much greater degree than either the Logical Positivists, or Kant, allowed.

On the other hand, even theoretical Physicists admit the need to test their theories through experiments. Very recently, different theories on black holes were tested when radio-telescopes were linked together to take a photograph of a black hole. The photograph – an observation – was necessary to check analytical calculations and prevent them from being purely speculative. This supports Kant’s claim that all existential claims must be synthetic. Physicists theorise about black holes, but it is not possible to say that or how they exist unless and until we take a photograph or make some other observation to verify (or falsify) the theories. Nevertheless, there are aspects of Physics – as there are aspects of Theology – which resist any possible observation. By definition, it is not possible to observe God’s necessary existence, because by definition it must be outside of the matrix of time and space in which our senses operate. Similarly, it is not possible to observe what caused the Big Bang which created the space-time continuum, or to experience conditions in a multiverse. The extent to which cosmological theories like cosmic inflation and string theory are pseudo-scientific (to use Popper’s phrase) because they are not falsifiable or subject to normal scientific method has been a matter of controversy on the letters’ page of Scientific American since 2017. Nevertheless, this should not stop Physicists (or Theologians) from using reason, the other source of knowledge available to them, to push forward the boundaries of knowledge. While Kant was right to be cautious and to warn against metaphysical speculation – because after all, the greatest obstacle to finding something is being convinced that you already have it – his world-view with its focus on the senses as the arbiter of possible knowledge is too restrictive for the 21st Century in the way that the world-view of the Logical Positivists became too restrictive for the 20th Century. It also sits ill with both developing insights about the way in which our senses work and rely on our brains and pre-existing ideas and with insights about the different reality beyond how things appear to our senses, on the Planck scale. While Popper’s Falsification Principle is more flexible than the Verification Principle, it still limits what can be said scientifically to that which can be falsified in relation to observations, it still assumes a Kantian world-view, and herein lies the problem for particle Physics and Cosmology with Scientific Method as it is conceived today. It seems that Kantian epistemology and the assumed world-view within which science has operated since the 1790s is on the verge of being rejected; to use Thomas Kuhn’s phrase, the Positivist scientific (and philosophical) paradigm is shifting and giving way to a paradigm which is more open to reason providing new knowledge which cannot be checked by observation. Given this, it seems that Kant’s criticisms of the Ontological Argument will lose a great deal of their power. As William Lane Craig has pointed out, the Ontological Argument (as he presents it) is valid. If it is accepted that an argument can also be sound – its propositions can be said to be true – even when they cannot be verified or falsified empirically, then the Ontological Argument is much more persuasive.

Nevertheless, even if Kant was too cautious about using reason as a source of new knowledge, it could be fair to say that the Ontological Argument pushes things too far. St Thomas Aquinas made just this point in his Summa Theologica I.II question 1 (1264) when he wrote “because we do not know the essence of God, the truth of God’s existence is not self-evident to us.” Aquinas dismissed the Ontological Argument because to suggest that any human being can have a “clear and distinct idea” of God to use Descartes phrase from the Meditations, sufficient to analyse that idea and find necessary existence – a unique property of God – within it, is arrogant. God is, to use Augustine’s words “other, completely other”, outside time and space, so even if we have innate ideas – as Descartes and Plato argued – it stretches credulity to rely on those ideas being so complete in relation to God so as to make the Ontological Argument plausible. Clearly, what it means for God to be perfect or great is not what it means for human beings to have a perfection or be called great. Aquinas even rejected the idea that it could just be a matter of scale, with God at the top of the scale and people (and other created things) at the other. If God is timeless then God’s perfection and greatness must also be timeless and cannot include any potential for God to be other than he is, to change or to choose. Aquinas’ saw claims about God’s nature as necessarily analogical. Yes, our greatness depends on God’s greatness, but in the way that the healthiness of a yoghurt depends on the healthiness of somebody who eats it. Healthy people are slim, muscly and bounce around… healthy yoghurts are none of these things! For Aquinas, God’s nature can be described (and known) positively, but only in a very limited sense, not completely enough to support an ontological demonstration of God’s necessary existence from an a priori definition of His nature. Nevertheless, St Anselm and Descartes on one hand and Karl Barth and Iris Murdoch on the other would all reject this argument, with reasons that also serve as criticisms of Kant’s approach to the Ontological Argument.

For Anselm it is true to say that God’s attributes are not the same as human attributes, because God is timelessly perfect, nevertheless it is possible to understand enough about God’s greatness to deduce that necessary existence is a necessary property of it. This is because, according to the a posteriori argument in Anselm’s Monologion, God is the best explanation for our ability to judge things in this world as more or less perfect. God creates us with an innate conception of perfection, the top of a scale which we use to measure things in this world every day. Indeed, Aquinas – although he still denied that this would give people a clear enough concept of God to analyse and find necessary existence within – included a similar argument as his fourth way to God in Summa Theologica I.II question 3, arguing that claims about God’s nature can be understood as analogies of proportion as well as as analogies of attribution (as above). This suggests that Aquinas’ rejection of Anselm’s approach was more about the degree to which we can conceive of the essence of God and a matter of interpretation, rather than about Anselm’s whole methodology in the Monologion, which he later used to support his reasoning in the Proslogion. Descartes “trademark” argument in the Meditations supports Anselm’s belief that God creates us with an innate idea of God’s existence and there have been other, similar arguments in the work of scholars from St Augustine to CS Lewis, arguing from the experience of believers, their desire for and innate awareness of God, a posteriori to the conclusion of His existence. It seems that many believers could accept the idea that we have an understanding of God’s supreme greatness even if we cannot completely conceive of what that might entail. It seems, therefore, that Aquinas’ dismissal of a priori attempts to argue that God’s existence is self-evident is rather hasty. Just as Aquinas’ rejection of the idea that God’s existence is self-evident and exclusive focus on arguments from observation as the only approach to defending God’s existence rationally does not fit with believers’ experience of God as an innate idea, Kant’s rejection of both a priori and a posteriori arguments for God in the Critique of Pure reason does not fit with the imperative to believe in God which he himself expressed in strong terms, most completely in “Religion within the bounds of Reason alone” (1794). While Kant dismisses all the rational arguments for God’s existence, including the Ontological Argument, he argues that God is a necessary postulate, an assumption that it is our rational duty to make, to explain the existence of the moral law which we know as a synthetic a priori. Kant reasons, therefore, that we know the moral law a priori, before experience, although it is supported in all respects by experience as well. The moral law is, furthermore, necessarily explained by God. On what basis can Kant argue that Descartes is wrong to claim that we know God’s existence a priori, something which is supported in all respects by experience as well, but proceed to make a similar claim about the moral law. It is worth asking, is Descartes concept of God actually different from Kant’s concept of God? All that Descartes attempts to demonstrate through his Ontological Argument is that Supreme Perfection necessarily exists… he makes no claim about the Ontological Argument proving anything about the nature of that Supreme Perfection, stopping short of listing attributes like being male, being the father of Jesus etc. Is it fair to claim that the moral law can be known a priori – as Kant does – and reject the idea that the necessary existence of Supreme Perfection cannot be known a priori, when both seem equally borne out by experience.

Further, Karl Barth (and later Iris Murdoch) pointed out that the Ontological Argument, although not conclusive as a proof of God’s existence for the non-believer, it is deeply persuasive for the person with faith. In Barth’s “Faith Seeking Understanding” (1930), far from pre-empting Norman Malcolm’s claim that the Proslogion was an exercise in modal logic (a claim that has been accepted by Hartshorne, Plantinga and Craig), Barth argued that Anselm’s work had been wrongly characterised as a philosophical treatise and argued that it was really a prayer, a deeply spiritual meditation on contingency and necessity and the nature of reality. If Barth is correct then Kant’s criticisms of the argument, at least as they are applied to Anselm rather than their intended target, Descartes, are misplaced. To say that Anselm’s work is “so much labour and effort lost” misses the point that he may not have intended to formulate a deductive proof such as to convince a non-believer at all. Further, while the philosophical intent behind Descartes’ arguments in the Meditations is difficult to deny, it is worth mentioning that this work too was written from the perspective of pre-existing faith. Descartes too had “faith seeking understanding” and was not engaged in a work of Christian apologetics. Kant’s criticisms approach Descartes’ ontological argument for God in isolation and attempt to dismantle it from the perspective of a radically different world-view and epistemological framework. Given the doubt that has been cast on the possibility of attaining objective Truth and a grip on ultimate reality – a doubt that was adopted by Kant from Hume but which was often subsequently ignored – the idea that Kant’s world-view and epistemological framework, which as has been explained rests on as many assumptions as does Descartes, should have the authority to dismiss Descartes’ Ontological Argument is unconvincing. Today, most philosophers have to look to coherence rather than to correspondence to find meaning, and thus have to be open to the possibility that an Ontological argument might be both valid and sound within one form of life and simultaneously valid but not sound in another form of life.

In conclusion, Kant’s criticisms of the Ontological Argument are effective only if his epistemology and world-view are accepted.

A symbolic understanding of religious language renders religious discourse incomprehensible. Critically evaluate this claim. [40]

A symbolic understanding of religious language does not render religious discourse incomprehensible. As Paul Tillich explains in his “Dynamics of Faith”, symbols participate in the ultimate reality which they refer to.  If they do not so participate, then the symbol has no power.  If they do participate in ultimate reality, it follows that symbols have an external point of reference with which they correspond. They can, therefore, be either true or false and are cognitive.  Tillich confirms that symbols are not arbitrary or created intentionally; no one person can create a symbol or determine its meaning by themselves. Rather, symbols grow out of the collective unconscious, something akin to what Hegel called the zeitgeist. Because the process of symbols being created, and dying away, is an organic one it is difficult to see why symbols would be created – as they so obviously are – if they were indeed “incomprehensible”. The power of the symbol depends on the extent to which it participates in and so communicates ultimate reality, so it is unfair to say that symbolic language is incomprehensible, even if symbols resist being reduced to or explained in more literal terms.

Further, if religious communities produce symbols together, then it seems likely that the symbols will at least be comprehensible to members of those communities, at least on the level of cohering with their language game and form of life, being true or false in relation to accepted doctrines and beliefs. As Wittgenstein observed, meaning depends on usage, so whether or not Tillich is correct about symbols participating in ultimate reality, within a form of life – such as a religious community – symbols are meaningful and, presumably, comprehensible – when they follow the rules of the agreed “language game”. It is clear that people “comprehend” many symbols and claims that cohere with their cultural frame of reference, whether they refer to things that we can see, touch, taste or smell or not. Take the portcullis, a symbol of the British Parliament and of parliamentary democracy… in terms of what people can see, it refers only to a gate to the palace of Westminster, but everybody in the UK is able to comprehend its broader and deeper meaning. Similarly, the cross refers only to the way Jesus of Nazareth died, but all Christians are able to comprehend its broader and deeper meaning as a symbol of Jesus’ atoning sacrifice and triumph over death, and of the hope for eternal life that those who believe in Jesus sustain. Because it is so obvious that people do comprehend symbolic religious (and other) language, Tillich rejected the “logical” criticisms of philosophers such as Paul Edwards, who argued in his paper “Professor Tillich’s Confusions” that symbols are incomprehensible because they do not point towards anything that we can clearly understand or experience. Tillich maintained that the comprehensibility of symbolic religious language is demonstrated by its adequacy, by the fact that it works for those who use it and sustains the faith of more than two billion Christians.

As Wittgenstein observed, and Tillich would surely have agreed, insisting on meaning depending on reference and on comprehensibility depending on a symbol corresponding with an external state of affairs that can be observed through the empirical senses – in the way that Paul Edwards seems to demand – is unrealistic and betrays a superficial understanding of how language of any type can work. As David Hume pointed out in his “Enquiry concerning Human Understanding” 1748, our empirical senses do not deliver objective, external experience of anything; instead they deliver a narrow range of data which must then be interpreted according to subjective categories, values and ideas. The ball is not red in itself; redness is a property of the way most human eyes see the ball, not of the ball in itself. Further, as Wittgenstein noted, our experiences of the world are like beetles in boxes, necessarily private. Nobody can peer inside my mind to find the external point of reference which would make any claim, religious or otherwise, meaningful according to the standard of the Verification Principle. The meaning and “comprehensibility” of language, including religious language, can only depend on what coheres within a form of life, not on correspondence. Indeed, the idea that meaning depends on verifiability has long been rejected, even in the context of science. Scientists need to discuss states of affairs which can never be verified, including how the “Big Bang” happened, what will happen in billions of years’ time as the universe cools and slows etc. Karl Popper showed how scientific method relies not on verifiability, but on falsification and being willing to modify or drop any hypothesis which conflicts with the evidence. Further, in quantum science the state of the object is changed by the act of observing it, so the meaningfulness of scientific claims about the probability of quantum events can only be tested by the extent to which these claims work. For example, how mobile phones share limited bandwidth is worked out using quantum mechanics; the fact that I can make and receive calls demonstrates that quantum mechanics is meaningful. Richard Swinburne argues that religious claims are a bit like claims in quantum science; we cannot observe what they refer to and so the meaningfulness of religious claims has to be evaluated in a different way. He used the analogy of “toys in the cupboard” to make this point; can a child talk meaningfully about his belief that his toys come out of the cupboard at night when he is asleep? Obviously enough, they will all be in the cupboard when he sets out to check – there is no doubt that his belief might reasonably change how he feels about his toys and how he behaves towards them. Similarly faith-claims are based on faith; we cannot set out to demonstrate their basis, because to do so is impossible and undermines their very nature. Religious symbols cannot be validated because they point towards something that we can experience through our senses or clearly define in the language of the ordinary world of space and time, nor can they be validated because they are falsifiable in the same terms, and yet the fact remains that they work and have profound effects on religious believers, so in some sense must be “comprehensible”.

Paul Edwards would reject this argument, arguing that “comprehensible” refers specifically and narrowly to being cognitive. As religious symbols do not refer to clear and distinct ideas or to states of affairs that we can see, hear, smell or taste, they cannot be cognitive and must, therefore be regarded as non-cognitive. Nevertheless, being non-cognitive in character does not equate to being “incomprehensible”. As Tillich’s colleague Randall argued in “The Role of Knowledge in Western Religion” chapter four, although symbols are in no sense representative, they still do things in provoking emotional and/or actual responses in both individuals and communities, in communicating shared experiences effectively and in revealing or disclosing insight or vision. While they may be non-cognitive, symbols work in communicating religious experiences and concepts and inciting specific forms of understanding and religious actions. It is, therefore, not reasonable to say that symbols are “incomprehensible”, even though they may be impossible to reduce or explain in terms of other things and even though they refer to what is beyond empirical experience or clear, logical definition.

Naturally enough, Edwards would reject this, arguing that the very fact that religious symbols are irreducible makes them – at least Tillich’s account of them – circular. You can’t understand symbols unless you understand symbols, you can’t comprehend symbols unless you already comprehend whatever generally incomprehensible thing they refer to. Edwards would conclude that this shows that the religious symbols themselves are incomprehensible and add nothing in themselves to the business of trying to understand what it is that they refer to. Nevertheless, Tillich would rightly defend the comprehensibility of symbols, drawing on Aristotle to argue that they are both cognitive and successful in communicating new meaning, thus helping people to open up understanding and develop their comprehension of what would otherwise be closed and opaque. Symbols are not the same as metaphors, which are more carefully constructed by an individual author or speaker, but they rely on the same process of new meaning being created through concepts coming together, in what Aristotle called the epiphora between them. As Nietzsche and later Heidegger argued, we communicate entirely by placing one word next to another with the intention of meaning being transferred in the process of connecting them, from the space and tension between them. Real human communication is not just pointing (whether physically or auditorily) to a series of things as a chimpanzee might do, it is about creating rich and dynamic pictures in other peoples’ minds. It is wrong to reduce human language to a string of words and their verifiable points of reference. Just as it would be wrong to think that by writing “the life of a man is of no greater importance to the universe than the life of an oyster” Hume was only making a point about bivalves, it would be wrong to see language as a series of signs pointing towards specific points of reference in a static and predictable way. Hume chooses the oyster, then cheap and plentiful fast-food sold by the pint in the London streets – as a symbol for a disposable form of life. The use of this symbol enabled readers to comprehend Hume’s position on the sanctity of life more quickly and precisely than many hundreds of other words and arguments. This is demonstrated by the fact that this quotation is much better remembered than any other part of Hume’s essay “On Suicide”. Symbolic language, therefore, often supports comprehension more effectively than more straightforward uses of words.

Edwards – along with thinkers such as Ayer and Flew – would again reject this argument, drawing on Frege’s 1898 essay “Sense and Reference” to distinguish between claims supported by reference – which are meaningful in a strict, logical sense – and those which can have sense, but which lack reference and so include much room for misunderstanding and speculation. The word “symbol” comes from a Greek root meaning “thrown together”, which points to the essential problem with symbolic language, that there is nothing to regulate how symbols are developed or used and no standard against which to check their comprehensibility. While this criticism might just apply in the case of metaphors, which are chosen by individuals with more or less success, symbols develop organically and are projected by groups, not individuals. The standard against which the comprehensibility of religious symbols can be checked is the extent of their adoption and the length of their life within the community of faith. Further, as Plato suggested in his Cratylus, in a sense the whole of language is built out of symbol, not out of bald and arbitrary auditory signs. Words are not arbitrary but are usually chosen – consciously or unconsciously – because they seem to participate in what they refer to. Plato’s own example was the Greek word “Anthropos”, which according to Socrates appears to break down into anathrôn ha opôpe, ‘one who reflects on what he has seen’ – the word does not point to a meaning beyond itself, but – through the creation of what Ricoeur called a “semantic kernel” – actually participates in the meaning to which it points. In this way, translation is not just a matter of swapping one sound for another, referring to exactly the same object or concept, but is more of an art which involves a deeper understanding of what words connote in each language and the attempt to convey not just the superficial meaning as in reference of words, but their full sense. Critics of symbolic language like Paul Edwards miss the essence of what language is and what it means to “comprehend” something. Comprehension does not come from somebody pointing at an object – say a ball – or having something rephrased for us – by Paul being a bachelor I mean that he is an unmarried man. Rather, real comprehension comes from the new connections that words in combination create in our minds. Further, as Hume acknowledged, but his empiricist disciples too often choose to ignore, we do not experience the world directly but rather through the conceptual filter of our minds, which is surely built and enriched not only through direct sensory experience and rational reflection, but also through real communication, which enables us to deepen our understanding by sharing in others’ experiences and reflections. These points show that lack of formal regulation does not render religious discourse (understood symbolically) meaningless, because the same lack of formal regulation applies to non-religious discourse, when it is understood properly, and because insisting on such regulation betrays a misunderstanding of the essence of all forms of linguistic communication.

In conclusion, a symbolic understanding of religious discourse does not render it incomprehensible. Certainly, religious discourse is often incomprehensible to those outside the religious community or “form of life” which generates and validates the symbols it draws on. Certainly, religious symbols cannot be checked and their comprehensibility resists normal measurement. Nevertheless, religious discourse is successful in sustaining faith; its many symbols are widely used and live for generations, doing more than just pointing towards an external reality but actively participating in and animating the faith experience. Perhaps, in the end, it comes down to what “comprehensible” actually means.   While it is fair to say that both religious discourse and its object is often baffling, even to those trained in Theology, this does not mean that either the discourse or the religious symbols it employs are “incomprehensible”. There is no question that labelling something “incomprehensible” is pejorative, and that to agree with the title-statement would be to dismiss the value of a symbolic understanding of religious discourse. There is a difference between discourse which is rich and sophisticated and which cannot be reduced or explained in other terms and discourse which has no value. While few, if any, religious people will ever completely “comprehend” religious discourse, let alone its object, a symbolic understanding of religious discourse goes some way to explaining the value of continuing to engage in the process of discussing what can never be fully understood. It is in that process that faith resides and grows.

Orthopraxy is more important than Orthodoxy! Discuss. [40]

Orthopraxy is certainly important and should not be ignored in favour of a focus on Orthodoxy. As the 1965 encyclical Gaudiem et Spes confirms,

“… the Church has always had the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel.”

Pope Paul VI might have been inspired by Jesus’ own example in admitting this.  The Gospels record how Jesus put the needs of the poor, the sick and outcasts and the spirit of agape ahead of following the letter of the law. For example, he was criticized for healing people on the Sabbath (Luke 13).  Although Jesus affirmed that he had not come to alter “one jot or iota” of the law (Matthew 5:18), and even required higher standards from His followers than the notoriously fastidious Pharisees did of theirs (Matthew 6-7).  Jesus clearly respected Orthodoxy, the Scriptures and particularly the Law of Moses.  Nevertheless, Jesus reminded His followers that the Law was created to serve man, not man to serve the Law; He put the immediate needs of people, love and compassion, first and ahead of following the letter of the Law as it was usually interpreted.  For examples, when Jesus was touched by the woman with a hemorrhage, he didn’t for a moment consider how her action in touching him had made him ritually impure (Mark 5:25-34) .  When Jesus was approached by the Centurion on behalf of his servant (Matthew 8), or on behalf of the Syro-Phonecian woman on behalf of her daughter (Mark 7), Jesus agreed to help people who were beyond the pale in Jewish society.  His parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10) underlines how Jesus put emphasis on orthopraxis.  Jesus forced his Jewish listeners to admit that the Samaritan’s good actions meant that he deserved praise, despite his identity, while by inference, the behavior of the Scribe and the Levite deserved no praise, despite the letter of the law and their exalted positions in Jewish society.  It is clear that both the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church and the Bible confirm the importance of Orthopraxy, that it should not be ignored in favour of a focus on Orthodoxy.

Further, following Pope Paul VI’s teaching in Gaudiem et Spes, in “A Theology of Liberation” (1971) Gustavo Gutierrez argued that the process of Praxis and doing Theology must include both a critical reflection on Christian texts and interpretations (Orthodoxy) in the light of peoples’ lived experience and the needs of the poor (Orthopraxy).  It is not a case of either orthodoxy or orthopraxy, both are needed, both must be in dialogue – to risk using the Marxist language f historical materialism, in a dialectical relationship – if Christianity is to stay alive.

If Orthopraxy is given priority to the exclusion of Orthodoxy then there is nothing distinctively Christian about what is done to improve conditions for the poor.  The actions of feeding and clothing somebody, of visiting them and listening to them, are definitely right actions but any or all of these can be carried out for multiple reasons, including reasons which have nothing to do with Christianity or love.  For example, a political party might help the poor with the intention of buying votes or an overseas-aid project might help the poor with the intention of exerting political influence in another country; this might seem like Orthopraxy, but because it is not informed. guided and motivated by Orthodoxy it is not.  Without Orthodoxy, there is no clear line between Orthopraxy and basic social work and, as St Paul confirms in 1 Corinthians 13:3:

If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.”

Marxists and indeed many other non-Christians who are concerned with social justice engage in first-act Praxis by visiting and/or living with the poor and acting in solidarity with them.  Yet without second-act Praxis and the mediations of seeing, judging (reflecting on what is needed in the light of the Gospel) and acting, there is nothing Theological, nothing distinctively Christian, about what is done.  Certainly “liberation theology leads to action” but, as Leonardo and Clodovis Boff affirm in “Introducing Liberation Theology” (1987, p.39) this is

action for justice, the work of love, conversion, renewal of the Church and the transformation of society

and is thus much more than just charity work.  It follows that both Orthodoxy and Orthopraxy are important, and that neither is more important than the other.

On the other hand, if Orthodoxy is given priority to the exclusion of Orthopraxy Christianity loses sight of what it is for.  Before the Second Vatican Council Pope John XXIII recognized that the Catholic Church had become obsessed with Orthodoxy and had turned inwards, focused on narrow issues in ecclesiology rather than on the social problems faced by most Christians.  This threatened to make the Church irrelevant in the lives of ordinary people, which would in turn lead to a decline in numbers, influence and strength.  Jesus’ great commission demands that Christians should “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19), not be satisfied with a diminishing pool of existing believers. Further, Jesus’ parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25 emphasizes that the eternal fate of each Christian depends on how they respond to people who are in need.  Jesus affirmed that “when you do this for the least of these brothers of mind, you do it for me…” (Matthew 25:40). In allowing itself to become irrelevant, the Church would have betrayed a disregard for people and for the poor in particular, who are most in need of its love and help.  Further, the Church would have demonstrated that it was ignoring both Jesus’ Great Commission and the consequences of ignoring those in need, falling well short of what it means to be disciples of Christ.  Pope John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council to cause the Church to engage with social challenges and by confronting them and critically reflecting on its own teaching (Orthodoxy) devise a series of reforms designed to refocus the Church on holiness, each individual being responsible for doing Christ’s work (Orthopraxy). The Papacy of Pope Francis has resumed this drive for Holiness, with the encyclicals Laudato Si and Amoris Laeticia serving as powerful, if controversial, calls for Catholics to temper their zeal for ecclesiology and Orthodoxy with heartfelt consideration for the lived experience of other Catholics, particularly the poor. In Amoris Laeticia Pope Francis acknowledged

“Nor it is helpful to try to impose rules by sheer authority… We also need to be humble and realistic… We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them… Rather than offering the healing power of grace and the light of the Gospel message, some would “indoctrinate” that message, turning it into “dead stones to be hurled at others”

While it is clear that Pope Francis’ words are informed by concern for Orthodoxy, he is seeking to refocus the teaching and work of the Church in the lights of Orthopraxy.

Within the Protestant Reformed tradition, John Hick drew attention to the consequences of focusing on Orthodoxy in such doctrines as the Incarnation or Sin and Salvation. He argued that Religious traditions have much in common and can work together to the benefit of humanity. Inter-faith dialogue opens the way for reconciliation and peace-building in communities from India to Indonesia, from South Africa to South Armagh. The obstacle to meaningful dialogue lies in peoples’ attachment to doctrines like the Incarnation or Original Sin which either cannot be understood literally or are frankly incompatible with broader principles which all religions can agree on such as love and justice. For Hick, Orthopraxy is more important than Orthodoxy. It is not that Orthodoxy has no importance, just that what we accept as Orthodox doctrines on the strength of history, tradition and authority should be open to revision in the light of experience. When Orthodox doctrines conflict with reason and science and undermine the pursuit of the real and what is true, when they cause confusion and lead to disillusionment with faith and when they lead to division, conflict and injustice, then it is right that Orthodox doctrines should be reconsidered and even revised. Hick proposed that the Incarnation should be understood as a powerful metaphor rather than as a literal fact, that the Christian beliefs in Original Sin and Exclusivism should be revised to allow for non-Christians to be saved by a just God. In his arguments for Philosophical Pluralism Hick did not suggest that Christians should ignore Orthodoxy, just that it should be informed by Orthopraxy. Nevertheless, his ideas led to deep and lasting controversy, particularly following the publication of The Myth of God Incarnate in 1977. Hick was put on trial for heresy twice as leading Christians lined up to condemn the idea that Christianity should be guided by humanitarian love, should not be quick to judge and should be humble. The affair serves as an illustration of why Orthodoxy cannot be allowed to dominate and exclude considerations of Orthopraxy.

It is fair to say, therefore, that both Orthopraxy and Orthodoxy are important and not fair to say that Orthopraxy should override considerations of Orthodoxy altogether.

Despite this, some Liberation Theologians argue that Orthopraxy is more important than Orthodoxy when Orthodoxy means conforming to Church teachings which prevent good works because of points of doctrine or which intend to stifle Orthopraxy for political reasons.  For example, Leonardo Boff argues that the Papacy changed direction away from that set by Vatican II under Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI, largely because of pressure from the Americans, who found the activities of Liberation Theologians threatened their policy of creating dependency in South American states.  The Americans found both Liberation Theologians’ use of Marxist terminology and the willingness of some Priests to get involved in the Political struggle for workers’ rights and policies which would give the Poor a Preferential Option in a practical sense, incendiary and not conducive to the success of their ongoing war against Communism in Catholic countries such as South America.  It is true that CELAM was set up as a result of Pope Paul VI’s initiative and directed by Vatican II’s call for holiness.  It is also true that the language of Gaudiem et Spes (1965) and of Populorum Progressio (1967) is distinctively Marxist in flavor.  Gaudiem et Spes seems to accept a Historical Materialist account of history:

“the human race has passed from a rather static concept of reality to a more dynamic, evolutionary one. In consequence there has arisen a new series of problems, a series as numerous as can be, calling for efforts of analysis and synthesis.”

Populorum Progressio rejects:

“oppressive political structures resulting from the abuse of ownership or the improper exercise of power, from the exploitation of the worker or unjust transactions.”

The attempt to exert control over CELAM through the Puebla conference in 1979 did indeed coincide with the beginning of Pope John Paul II’s papacy and it is easy to see how his opening speech to the conference could have been interpreted as a radical change in direction by the Liberation Theologians – including Gutierrez – who were barred from attending CELAM for the first time.  The Papal condemnations of Liberation Theology, issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1984 and again in 1986 seemed to reverse the focus on Social Justice that came out of Vatican II.  In claiming that…

“Liberation is first and foremost liberation from the radical slavery of sin… Faced with the urgency of certain problems, some are tempted to emphasize, unilaterally, the liberation from servitude of an earthly and temporal kind…”

there seems little doubt that Pope John Paul II (and Cardinal Ratzinger, who became Benedict XVI) were trying to assert the importance of Orthodoxy over Orthopraxy, and seemingly the importance of faith over works.  While they could legitimately claim support from St Paul and St Augustine for this argument, there is undeniable tension between the focus on spiritual liberation rather than practical liberation and the practical focus of Jesus, found in the Gospels and described above.  For this reason and because it does not seem to match the teaching found in documents emanating from Vatican II under John VI (or the more recent documents emanating from the Papacy of Francis I) the Orthodox position defined by Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI, with its inward-looking focus on spiritual salvation rather than practical liberation, cannot be taken as reflective of Christian Orthodoxy as a whole.  There is no denying that Jesus’ teaching in the Gospels, along with Gaudiem et Spes, Populorum Progressio and recent encyclicals like Laudato Si and Amoris Laeticia support a focus on Orthopraxy, right action and providing a preferential option for the poor in a practical sense.  Pope Francis beatified Oscar Romero and invited Gustavo Gutierrez to be the keynote speaker at a Vatican conference to underline this point.

In conclusion, there is no way that Christian Orthodoxy can be defined in terms of ignoring the practical needs of the poor and focusing on unity and political expediency over agape and what is right.  To define Christian Orthodoxy in these terms is to take the same path as the Papacy did during WWII in appeasing the Nazis.  While it is fair to criticize some Liberation Theologians for embracing Marxism too “uncritically“, being a Christian cannot and should not be apolitical.  While Jesus avoided confrontation with Rome over paying taxes, saying “give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, but give to God what belongs to God” (Mark 12:17), he also cleansed the Temple in a fearless political protest against the corruption of the Jewish authorities and showed no hesitation in either healing on the Sabbath or in helping Gentiles, in both cases putting himself on the wrong side of religious law in the interests of love and attending to the practical needs of people.  Further, Marx’ critique of institutional religion as peddling the “opium of the masses” was fair, given the practices of the Church during the 19th Century.  The fact that Marx and most Marxists were atheists and critics of religion does not detract from the truth of their analysis of Capitalism or the legitimacy of Christians learning from their work to further Christ’s mission.   While some of those influenced by Liberation Theology have undoubtedly gone too far in their pursuit of Orthopraxy, in effect excluding the hermeneutical mediation (reflection on the Bible and Christian doctrine in the light of the situation faced by the poor) from their second act praxis, it is not fair to reject Liberation Theology as a whole for its focus on Orthopraxy.  Seen in context, the focus on Orthopraxy that Gutierrez and Boff argued for offered necessary balance and was designed to pull Christians back from the Papal retreat into inward-looking politically expedient Orthodoxy during the 1980s and 1990s.  In the end, both Orthopraxy and Orthodoxy – in the sense of a focus on the Bible and central Christian principles – are important; they should exist in a dialectical relationship at the heart of all Christian Praxis and it is wrong to prioritize either one to the exclusion of the other.





Secularism does not pose a threat to Christianity. Evaluate this statement. [40]

Programmatic secularism is the policy of separating religious and public life, ensuring that the state is free of religious influence and leaving religion as a purely private matter for citizens. Both the USA and France are secular republics, which means that religious leaders have no place in government, religious holidays do not necessarily coincide with national holidays, religion is not taught in public schools and religious values are not necessarily reflected in legislation. By contrast, in the UK the Monarch is both the head of state and the head of the established Church. Bishops (and more recently other religious leaders) are represented in the House of Lords, giving them the opportunity to influence legislation. Religious holidays coincide with national holidays; Christmas Day will always be a Bank Holiday, as will Easter Monday. Religious broadcasting is protected by law; it only recently started to include non-Christian broadcasting and still does not feature Humanists. Under the terms of the Education Act 1988 as amended, schools are actually required to organise acts of collective worship of a broadly Christian character and to teach about Religion for 5% of curriculum time and 50% of what they cover is reserved to the “main religious tradition of the UK” i.e. Christianity. In 2018 NatCen’s British social attitudes survey demonstrates the difficulty with this approach; 52% of people now claim to have no religion and only 14% now identify with the established Church of England. If the state seeks to represent the people, there is now a clear case for programmatic secularism, as “no religion” is now the belief of the majority of UK people. However there is resistance to policy changes designed to reduce or remove the influence of religion in UK public life and this resistance comes, for the most part, from Christians. To what extent, therefore, does secularism pose a threat to Christianity in the UK? The answer very much depends on how “Christianity” is defined. If “Christianity” refers to following Jesus’ teachings – to loving God and one’s neighbour (Mark 12:31-32), then secularism poses little threat.

Secular states like the USA and France permit citizens to practice their religion privately, so there would be no bar to baptism or worship or indeed to charitable giving and good works. In Matthew 6:1 Jesus taught his disciples: “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.” He praised the widow for making her offering to the Temple treasury quietly and with total sincerity and devotion, contrasting her with the rich men making a show of giving only what they could easily afford. Arguably, Christians could better practice their religion when that practice is limited to being in private. In that case, there could be no confusion that engaging in worship might yield worldly rewards, whether legal, social or otherwise. Further, Jesus taught that ethical action is more important than religious ritual. Jesus made a point of healing people on the Sabbath (Mark 3), he made himself ritually impure by eating with sinners – saying “it is not the well who need a doctor, but the sick” – and he challenged the Pharisees who criticised the disciples for picking ears of corn on the Sabbath, pointing out that in their zeal to enforce the letter of the law they were ignoring its spirit, which is to protect life (Mark 2:23ff). For Jesus, the essence of Christianity lay in loving God and showing this by loving our neighbours as ourselves (Mark 12:31-32). In no way would being prevented from making a public show of ritual worship pose a threat to Christianity as understood like this.

Certainly, phasing out faith schools would take away some options from religious parents in terms of educating their children in a faith, yet American Christian parents seem to have coped with the challenge of organising religious instruction outside school, whether in the home or through the Church, or paying for private education. Arguably, putting the responsibility for planning and overseeing the process of educating children in a faith back onto parents (and Churches) would cause them to take a greater interest in the efficacy of the process in terms of forming faith. This done, it might do something to stem the decline in Church attendance which is charted dramatically by the Brierley Institute’s Church Statistics research, which covers the period from the early 1980s to the present day. One of the key findings in the 2018 Faith Survey reads: “UK Church membership has declined from 10.6 million in 1930 to 5.5 Million in 2010, or as a percentage of the population; from about 30% to 11.2%. By 2013, this had declined further to 5.4 million (10.3%). If current trends continue, membership will fall to 8.4% of the population by 2025”[1] While there are obviously other factors contributing to this and while this trend does not follow through to France, Church attendance is far higher in the USA, where religion cannot be taught in schools. At least programmatic secularism could lead some Christians to practice their faith more actively, even if it leads others to abandon their nominal faith altogether. In addition, while actual research data is difficult to find, it seems likely that UK Faith schools do not have much effect on the religiosity of young people after they leave school. According to NatCen’s British Social Attitude Survey 2018, some 70% of 18-24 year olds in the UK claim to have no faith at all, a figure which has been rising steadily, despite more than 1/3 of UK schools having a faith designation[2]. Humanists UK point out the incongruity in designating so many schools as Faith Schools, when they do not reflect even the nominal faith of those in their areas. Further, in the UK, Faith schools have struggled to recruit Headteachers and RE teachers who are practicing members of their faith tradition and Faith schools have struggled to form faith when forced to admit 50% of their students from outside their religious tradition anyway, to facilitate multiculturalism and prevent ghettoization. Nowhere in the Bible does it suggest that Christians should expect the state to subsidise and/or facilitate the process of parents educating their Children in a faith. Nowhere does it suggest that the Roman state does or should even respect Christianity. In the Temple Jesus taught people to “give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s; give unto God what is God’s” (Mark 12:17) Which suggests that he envisaged peoples’ religious lives existing in parallel to their civic responsibilities. It follows that programmatic secularism in the UK would not pose a threat to Christianity if it is defined by the Bible and Jesus’ teachings. Rather, it would offer Christians the opportunity to experience their faith as early Christians did and force them to decide whether to commit or not.

Cases like the famous “Gay Cake” case involving Asher’s Bakery and its Belfast owners the MacArthurs may seem to point to the weakness of this argument. If laws conceived out of programmatic secularism make acting (or not acting) on religious principles illegal, then it seems that peoples’ ability to be Christian is under threat as a result of secularism. Nevertheless, Christianity was born into adversity, as a minority faith within a remarkably plural Roman Empire. Jesus taught his followers to… “take up your cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24) always recognising that being a Christian was a brave choice that would entail significant hardships or even death. The whole point of Christianity was to do what is right, not what is easy, and earn an eternal reward in heaven. Almost all of Jesus apostles were martyred, along with innumerable early Saints. Coming into conflict with the authorities as a result of one’s Christian faith seems almost to have been a mark of a true Christian within the early Church. While secularism will lead to larger numbers of Christians finding that their faith brings them into conflict with the law, this is not necessarily a threat to Christianity. Indeed, during the early centuries of Christianity the sacrifices Christians had to and were willing to make for their faith drew attention to the religion and advertised its fundamental beliefs and benefits as nothing else could. In a sense, without opposition from the state, it seems doubtful whether Christianity would have spread as quickly and as far as it did. The fact that cases like those of the MacArthurs have attracted widespread publicity and have caused even non-Christian commentators to admit respect for the sincerity of peoples’ faith, suggests that the relationship between Christians coming into conflict with the state and the religion growing is not only a thing of the past. Further, data showing that Christianity is growing fastest where it encounters most opposition from the state supports this argument. Looking at the International Bulletin for Missionary Research (IBMR) for 2015, Christianity is growing most quickly in African countries like Nigeria and South Sudan where Christians are being persecuted by Muslim militia. In the 15 years to 2015 Christianity in Africa grew by a staggering 51% to 541 million. Similarly, in China Christianity exploded in popularity at a time when any form of religious practice was banned by the secular Communist state under threat of “re-education” in camps. The same pattern can be seen in North Korea today. In the Middle East, in countries where Bibles are banned, Christianity is experiencing exponential growth. By contrast, in Europe, where the state is either actively Christian or only procedurally secular, Christianity is in long-term and significant decline, Islam is the fastest growing religion and increasing numbers of people have lost faith altogether.  While Christianity can justly complain that secular laws impede peoples’ ability to act on their religious principles – when it comes to matters as diverse as mission and discipleship, denouncing homosexuality or gay marriage, wearing visible symbols of their religion or refusing to condone or facilitate what they perceive to be sinful behaviour – the suggestion that these laws or the conflict they cause threatens the continued existence of Christianity is misplaced. On the contrary, secular laws and the conflict they cause are likely to be the cause of growth in Christianity.

In conclusion, it seems that if “Christianity” refers to following Jesus’ teachings – to loving God and one’s neighbour (Mark 12:31-32), programmatic secularism poses little threat to its continued existence and might in time lead to renewed growth in the UK, where it has been in decline. Of course, if Christianity is defined in terms of Church institutions and particularly as the Church of England, then the threat posed by programmatic secularism would be real. A Church founded to facilitate a King’s divorce (and resolve a royal cash-flow issue) will obviously struggle when its privileges and protections are withdrawn. Antidisestablishmentarianism has always been a minority movement in the Church of England because of the certainty that divorcing Church and State would be traumatic and the difficulty of advertising the benefits succinctly on the side of a bus! Nevertheless, the growth in Evangelical Protestant and conservative Roman Catholic Christianity demonstrates that it is possible for Churches to thrive outside the UK establishment. If the Archbishop of Canterbury and other leaders of the Church of England were liberated from their establishment positions they would be able to speak out freely against social injustices and thus give witness to the true Christian message. While basic calls for tolerance and compassion from Justin Welby (such as in his recent speech to the TUC) always attract a barrage of press criticism for political meddling (as if that wasn’t always the job of an Archbishop!) if the Church was disestablished there would be no basis for such. While Church leaders would have a smaller platform – one commensurate with the numbers sitting in their pews – they would have the ability to represent Christian teaching and opinion on that platform, which is more than can be said at the moment. Similarly, without forcing families to confess beliefs they don’t have to secure a good education for their children, without forced acts of communal worship in Schools and without teaching about Baptism and Communion in classrooms, there might be less hostility for religion in general. Similarly, without a protected position in BBC schedules, the Church might lack prime time coverage of acts of worship… but would it really miss the bland, vanilla portrayal of what it means to be a Christian? Constant reinforcement of the (false) idea that Christianity is all about community singing, forced happiness and boring “thoughts for the day” read out by people nobody wants to listen to is far from being a help to the religion! It is fair to say that programmatic secularism in the UK would lead to further sharp decline within the Church of England – and particularly in the numbers of people who claim to be “CofE” but rarely attend Church – but whether this “threat” would harm the longer-term prospects of even this Church is uncertain.


[2] Parliamentary Briefing on Faith Schools, 2018.

Can God act in the world? [40]

This question is of huge significance for religious faith and goes to the heart of issues arising from the concept of God. If God can act in the world, this implies that He is in time, which raises questions about his perfection because acting in time suggests that God depends on the passage of time to frame His action. Further, if God can act in time and chooses not to, then can He be all good… and if God can and does act in time, can He justly hold people responsible for moral evil? On the other hand, if God cannot act in the world (either because He is outside time or because he is limited in His powers, by His own nature or by his decision to allow human free-will) then can God be understood to be omnipotent? Also, can a God who cannot act in time be the God of the Bible or the object of Christian worship? How could an inactive God answer prayers, be addressed by Jesus as “Abba”, care if people attend Church-services or be understood to work miracles and Religious Experiences? It seems that either answer to this question will cause problems for believers. Further, there is no way to know the answer definitively. Nevertheless, the claim that God cannot act directly in the world is easier to sustain philosophically than the claim that God can act in the world as this claim would usually be understood.

The rational arguments for God’s existence from observation – the cosmological and teleological arguments – point to a God who is eternal in the sense of being outside the space-time universe we inhabit. As St Thomas Aquinas argued, a God who is the Prime Mover, uncaused cause and necessary sustaining cause of the universe is “neither something nor nothing.” The God of Classical Theism is not a person or object and has no physical presence within space and time, yet God is the necessary creator and effects everything. If God is timeless and space-less, then God must be wholly simple and unchanging. This supports the idea that God is perfect and all-good in the sense that He must be 100% whatever it is to be God and containing no evil (understood as potential, falling short). If God is timeless and space-less, God cannot be other than He is. Yet if God is the wholly simple, timeless being that Aquinas’ arguments suggest and support, there are natural questions about His ability to act. Action implies time – a time before the action, a time during it and a time after it. Action might also imply some choice to act or not to act, or to act in different ways. Clearly, if God is timeless and unchanging, the degree to which “action” is compatible with the concept of God, God’s nature, is unclear. St Thomas Aquinas argued that the word “action”, when applied to God can only be understood analogically. What it means for God to act is not the same as what it means for a person to act. Certainly when a person acts, it implies time and choice, but these cannot be part of God’s action because they are excluded by God’s necessarily timeless, wholly simple nature. For Aquinas, God’s timeless action can be understood to mean only that God is the original cause of everything in the universe. As in the Cosmological Argument, God is the Prime Mover, the uncaused cause and the necessary sustainer of the universe and everything in it. For Aquinas, God can act in the world only by causing it through his single, simple creative act, and not by responding to events as they happen in time. Aquinas’ understanding of God’s action being timeless and limited to a single, simple creative act is consistent with his definition of God as eternal and wholly simple. This God, in turn, is relatively well-supported by rational arguments, in a way that an everlasting God-in-time – who might more reasonably be said to act in time – is not. It follows that strictly limiting God’s action in the world to his general providence in creation is easier to sustain philosophically than a claim that God can act in the world.

In addition, Aquinas argued that God can – and as the Scriptures reveal, did – create beings who can act directly in the world on God’s behalf. Firstly, God created angels, who repeatedly deliver God’s message to Prophets. In addition, God ordained that Saints can also work miracles and later respond to petitionary prayers. Further, as is affirmed in the Nicene Creed, Christians uphold that God became incarnate in the Virgin Mary and was made man. The Incarnation was part of God’s general creative action but made it possible for God to act very directly in the world for a time by self-limiting. John Macquarrie and later Peter Vardy argue that God’s omnipotence must include His ability to enter time and act in the world, even though that appears to compromise God’s perfection by making him and his actions depend on the passage of time. Remember, an eternal, timeless God created all natural laws, including the laws of logic. Our understanding of natural laws and logic depends on partial, subjective experience and can never be complete or 100% certain. It is, therefore, possible that God’s single, simple creative act included some occurrences “not commonly seen in nature” which appear to break the laws of nature and logic to us, but which are within these laws when seen from God’s point of view. One such unusual occurrence could have been the Incarnation, where God took temporary human form to act in the world, making sure to limit His own powers so that they did not cause too much disruption to the usual operation of nature and logic. Other such occurrences could include miracles, religious experiences and even instances of extreme beauty, all of which could have been built-in to God’s single, creative act with the intention that these would point people back towards the existence of God. In this way, maintaining a belief that God acts in the world only through general providence and not directly by “breaking” the laws of nature or logic, is consistent both with Christian precepts and with the concept of God as eternal and wholly simple. St Thomas Aquinas was careful NOT to argue (as Hume later did) that a miracle must breaks the rules of nature by particular volition of the deity. Not only did Hume’s definition of miracles block the possibility that any event could legitimately be called a miracle – because nobody has certain knowledge of the laws of nature and nobody can know of or observe God’s particular volition – but it also pushes believers to choose between believing that the existence of God is supported by the existence of natural laws and believing that God can act in the world. Aquinas’ definition allows for extremely uncommon events to be called miracles and does not demand that they result from a special act of God. Through Aquinas’ argument God can “act in the world” without responding to events in time or doing anything other than the simple, single original act of creation, so God can both be eternal and wholly simple – and so well supported by arguments – and be the object of Christian faith – able to act in the world. Aquinas showed that it doesn’t have to be a choice. It follows, therefore, that Aquinas’ position in limiting God’s direct actions to those ordained as part of the single, simple, creative act is easier to sustain philosophically than the claim that God acts directly in the world in a more spontaneous and responsive way.

Of course, Aquinas’ understanding of God as wholly-simple and eternal, limited to timeless action, is not without problems. As Nelson Pike observed, the Bible refers to God in language which is “unavoidably tensed”, so claiming that God cannot act in the world makes it impossible to use the Bible as evidence for his existence and nature and undermines using the Bible as the basis for other aspects of Religious faith and practice. Further, if God is eternally wholly simple and his actions – including the Incarnation, miracles and religious experiences – are limited to the single, simple act of creation, then the course of the world and of human lives seems determined and there can be little room for free will. Aquinas recognised this and sought other explanations for the existence of suffering than that it resulted from free human actions. He argued that evil is only a lack of goodness and that creation benefits from it, in the way that “the silent pause adds sweetness to the chant.” In addition, Aquinas saw no necessary contradiction between God’s goodness and his creating a world that included suffering, because God’s goodness is not moral goodness but only that goodness compatible with His wholly simple nature, the goodness that comes from God being eternally simple and unchanging, being 100% whatever it is to be God and not falling short in any way, and from God being the source of all good things in the universe, remembering that as evil is a lack and not a substance, a function of how we experience God’s creation through time and space and not a property necessary to the universe as seen from God’s timeless perspective, then God cannot reasonably be held to be the source of it. Nevertheless, Aquinas’ explanation of evil and suffering and the lack of room for genuine human freedom within his philosophical system is problematic. It leaves God choosing to send miracles and religious experiences to affect some people and situations but not others and God sending some people to hell for choices that were largely determined. Aquinas’ understanding of God’s goodness is a very long way from the understanding held by most Christians, so although his position might be easier to sustain philosophically than the position that God is everlasting in time and more directly active in the world, it is far from being the easiest position to sustain theologically, let alone pastorally. The sheer length of the Summa Theologica, which tries to reconcile Aquinas’ concept of God with the precepts of Christian Theology, is a good demonstration of this.

Nevertheless, even if God is not seen to be timeless and unchanging, but is understood to be everlasting in time in the way that Theistic Personalists such as Richard Swinburne have argued, there could be problems with claiming that God can act in the world.

Firstly, in the absence of sufficient rational arguments for the existence of an everlasting God in time, a lot depends on taking the Bible as evidence for both the existence and nature of an everlasting God. The Bible undeniably claims that God acts in the world but offers no clear or conclusive explanation of why God sometimes does not act and how God holds people eternally responsible for actions he could ultimately have prevented. Baruch Spinoza pointed out that if God CAN act, but CHOOSES NOT TO prevent the worst suffering, then it seems that God cannot be omnibenevolent. Surely it would be better for a Christian to believe that God is constrained and cannot act in the world than to believe that He chooses not to and consciously allowed the Holocaust to happen. Maurice Wiles, a leading Anglican Theologian, certainly thought so, along with many Protestant thinkers who have preferred to see God as limited in power than limited in goodness. Jurgen Moltmann is a classic example of this approach, arguing that God can act sometimes but cannot always do anything to stop suffering. Moltmann’s God expresses His perfect knowledge and love by suffering with people, although this raises fair questions about whether such a God, if also held to be the creator, would be worthy of worship. Would a teacher be praised for suffering along with her students even if she organised the trip down the mine which led to their suffering?

Secondly, if God CAN act and DOES act, then again the extent to which human beings are free and can justly be held responsible for moral evil must be in question. It is not a simple choice between Aquinas’ eternal God and determinism on one side and Augustine’s everlasting God and Free Will on the other; whether God is in time or outside it, it is impossible to reconcile God’s ability to act in the world – whether just through general providence or through direct interventions – with genuine human freedom and so with moral responsibility. St Augustine places God in time, if observing it from a great distance – as though from a mountaintop – and still struggles to explain how genuine human freedom is compatible with God’s absolute power and creative action and has to resort to calling how this works a mystery. Placing God in time and claiming that He can act directly in the world is incompatible with any idea of human free will or divine justice, so it remains easier to sustain Aquinas’ timeless God and very limited understanding of divine action.

Further, if God can act because he is in time and has the sort of knowledge that enables him to respond directly to events, then God’s detailed knowledge of events, even if God does not interfere in them, makes believing in human free will and the justice of human beings being held morally responsible difficult. Through the “Consolations of Philosophy” Book 5 Boethius attempted to dissolve the tension between God’s knowledge and human free will, suggesting that God’s knowledge of events is conditional on those events taking place, that God’s knowledge does not necessitate events happening as they do. However, suggesting that God is not only in time, but that his knowledge depends on events and thus changes continually is a long way from any idea of divine perfection or immutability. Is the object of Christian worship any more comfortably said to be contingent and ever-changing than He is said to be wholly simple and impassive? It seems that defining God as everlasting and placing Him in time fails to resolve either the philosophical or the theological problems raised with claiming that He acts in the world, so although Aquinas’ wholly simple eternal concept of God and limitation of God’s action to what can be considered timeless and part of His single, simple act of creation comes with significant theological problems, it is still easier to sustain than the claim that God is everlasting in time and able to act directly in the world.

In conclusion, the claim that God cannot act directly in the world is easier to sustain philosophically than the claim that God can act in the world, at least as this claim would usually be understood. Nevertheless, limiting God’s action to what is timeless and part of a single, simple, general act of creation is difficult to reconcile with the Bible and precepts of Christian faith as outlined in the Nicene Creed, let alone with apparent acts of special revelation like miracles and religious experiences. St Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica is a masterful attempt at such a reconciliation and was rightly hailed as being every bit as good as a miracle at his beatification, however his explanation of how God can be both eternal timeless and have been Incarnate and Immanent through history remains contentious. Perhaps, in the end, Christians need to accept that both God’s nature and how God acts in the world must remain a mystery, however unsatisfactory this is for Philosophers of Religion.



“An omnipotent God could have created free beings who always choose what is right!” Discuss [40]

With this point atheist philosopher JL Mackie rejected the classical Free Will Defense theodicy, relied on by generations of Christians to defend God against charges of creating and/or allowing evil and suffering.  Going further, in his article “Evil and Omnipotence” (1955) Mackie argued that the absolute logical contradiction between believing that God is omnipotent and acknowledging the reality of evil in the world He created demonstrates that God cannot exist.  Considering a range of classical theodicies, Mackie notes how each limits the meaning of an essential divine attribute to the extent that faith becomes difficult.  For example, he argued that saying that evil is a necessary corollary of good limits what God’s “omnipotence” means to the extent that God is limited by the laws of logic and seems compelled to create anyway, despite the fact that what he creates will result in horrendous suffering.  It is difficult to reconcile this with faith based on God being the Father “almighty” and also benevolent, caring about human beings and seeking to minimize suffering.   Mackie’s article is persuasive.  His argument that an omnipotent God cannot be understood to be limited by the laws of logic while remaining true to what it is that theists believe in is difficult to deny.  Yet it is still possible to believe in the existence of an omnipotent, all-good God, in a way that is rational, despite the evil in the world. It is not necessarily correct to claim that God, though omnipotent, cannot do what is logically impossible and create free beings who always choose to do what is right .

Omnipotence means having the power to do anything. This seems straightforward, but it is important to appreciate that there are different ways of understanding what this entails precisely. Rene Descartes  is usually held up as the example of a Philosopher who claimed that God’s omnipotence involves His power to do what is impossible – create a square circle or a rock that is too heavy for Him to lift to use Avicenna’s famous example. He did write “God could have brought it about … that it was not true that twice four make eight”, but putting this claim in context reveals that Descartes’ position on Omnipotence was more sophisticated. For Descartes, ultimate reality is metaphysical, in the world of ideas.   He famously wrote “I think, therefore I am”, pointing out that there is no way to know that the world I experience through my senses is how it seems. The senses frequently lie and I could be dreaming after all. The only thing, Descartes claimed, that I can know with any certainty is that I am thinking and therefore that I must exist. From that tiny basis of certainty, Descartes extrapolated to the limits of possible knowledge using reason and mathematics. Clear and distinct ideas exist, confused and contradictory ideas do not. God necessarily exists because existence is a perfection and is an undeniable property of the supremely perfect being . Because God IS existence for Descartes, He doesn’t do the impossible as much as determine what is and what is not possible. Of course this means that God might make things possible that seem to us to be impossible, but not within this world. God exists through eternity while human understanding is bounded by a particular place and time and is limited. From our perspective now it seems that 4×2=8 is a clear and distinct idea, containing no contradiction, but for all we know God might have made 4×2=9 instead or in some other reality. Either way, this understanding of God’s omnipotence does not have to support Mackie’s conclusion that God cannot be all good. Human freedom and always choosing what is good are indeed contradictory, yet there is nothing contradictory about God being all-good in the sense of being supremely perfect as Descartes understood it and God’s including both freedom and the ability do evil in His plan. To reject the idea that a good God could wish human beings to be capable of evil and causing suffering is to interpret God’s goodness as moral goodness. This makes no sense if God is supremely perfect, because God causes moral laws to exist and cannot be bound by them. Of course, this raises its own questions about whether a God whose goodness is not moral and includes wishing human beings to be able to choose what is evil and cause suffering is worthy of worship, but it does not support Mackie’s conclusion that God cannot rationally be held to exist .

Secondarily, in his Summa Theologica (1264) St Thomas Aquinas took a different approach to establishing God’s necessary existence and supreme perfection. Aquinas reasoned inductively from observations of movement, causation, contingency, grades of perfection and teleology in the universe to the necessary existence of a being “which everybody calls God“.  Aquinas went on to reason that God must be the Prime Mover, absolutely uncaused and unchanged in Himself, outside even the framework of time and space, timelessly eternal.  In this way aquinas’ God – as the cause of everything – is omnipotent.  God is the originator of all movement and causation in the universe and what makes the existence of an infinite universe built entirely of contingencies possible. Further, Aquinas’ wholly simple God is pure act, 100% whatever it is to be God.  Outside of time (and space) God can have no potential and cannot fall short (be evil in the Aristotelian sense) in any way, so He is also all-good.  For Aquinas, God necessarily exists.  As the originating cause of everything, God’s omnipotence also contains His perfect goodness, since God caused the time and space required for evil and is not contained within it.  God’s attributes are in fact simple, single, indivisible. It is only because human language and comprehension is limited that we have to describe and try to understand God’s nature through multiple analogies. Mackie contends that God cannot be considered truly omnipotent if he cannot break the laws of logic in this world, but this seems to ignore Aquinas’ argument that God’s creative act was timeless and simple.  For Aquinas, God’s omnipotence extends only to what is actually possible.  God can do whatever is compatible with His nature and internally consistent within His single, simple creative act.  God cannot create a contradiction or create and not create simultaneously, because – as Richard Swinburne pointed out in “The Coherence of Theism” – that is not really possible and God’s omnipotence only means that he can do anything that is possible .

Certainly, Aquinas’ wholly simple God cannot sin.  Being 100% actual and timeless, God is whatever God is and necessarily cannot fall short of His nature or be considered evil.  Further, since God creates timelessly, his creation must fulfil his purpose for it and be timelessly complete, 100% whatever God intended it to be from His point of view and so good.  Yet despite not being able to sin, not being in any way evil and producing a completely good world in relation to his intentions for it, Aquinas’ understanding of God’s goodness does not necessarily conflict with His wanting freedom to involve the ability to choose what is evil, with all the consequences that flow from that. By Aquinas’ model, time and space are functions of our perception and are not objectively real properties of the universe.   From my point of view time has passed since I started to write this essay and it now takes up more space than it did, but my perception of reality is just a partial, subjective view of the case.  From God’s perspective all time and all space are as-one, fulfilled as the universe is fulfilled and complete.  As Boethius put it in the “Consolations of Philosophy” (Book V) God sees everything “all at once as present”. To use a modern analogy, it is as if God is writing the source-code for a computer program.  Being a perfect programmer, the code is simple and elegant – he can see it all at once.  He has total power over the program and total knowledge of its capabilities.  The program does 100% of what it was designed for.  This is not the same as God sitting on the shoulder of people using the program in different places and over time, watching them use it in different ways more or less well. This means that (as John Macquarrie pointed out in “The Principles of Christian Theology”) God’s power is very different from our power, God’s goodness is very different from our goodness.  God’s omnipotence does NOT include his ability to do the logically impossible, create a square circle, or a free being who can only choose what is right, but this does not mean that he is constrained by laws of logic that exist prior to or above God.  God’s actions are only limited within this world and in relation to other aspects of the same single, timeless act of creation.  God can do anything that is compatible with His perfect nature and internally coherent within a simple, single act of creation. He can do anything that is absolutely, actually possible and that does not include creating free beings who only choose what is right .

Of course, for all we know, God might have created a different world in which square circles and free beings who always choose what is right are possible, but we know from the existence of this world that he created this world. This world must, therefore, fulfil God’s intention for it and at least be of the Best Possible World type (to use Swinburne’s phrase) with respect to that intention. Remember, it is not a case of God creating things – or laws of logic – individually over time.  Creation must be simple, single and complete from God’s timeless perspective.  Mackie asks: Surely it would have been better to create a world with laws of logic which allow for both freedom and 100% good choices?  Yet what makes him hang on to the idea that God’s goodness precludes the possibility of evil being part of His design.  As for Descartes, for Aquinas, God’s goodness refers only to his pure timeless actuality and should not be understood to imply a moral dimension. It is perfectly rational to conclude that a timelessly omnipotent, timelessly good God exists, even if we object to evil and to the suffering it causes us.  Mackie’s argument fails to demonstrate that belief in an omnipotent, all-good God is irrational in the light of evil in the world, although it does highlight the limited content attributes like “omnipotent” and “all-good” can have in relation to a timeless, wholly simple being .

To be fair, Mackie makes just this point.  “Evil and Omnipotence” concludes… “there is no valid solution of the problem [of evil] which does not modify at least one of the constituent propositions [i.e. God’s attributes] in a way which would seriously affect the essential core of the theistic positionMackie is right to point out that Aquinas’ wholly simple God may be rationally satisfying, but it falls far short of the God most people worship.  The Bible records God acting directly in history and the lives of individuals; people claim to have experienced visions, voices and miracles directly from God.  When believers pray they hope that God can and will respond and when people are in trouble believers hope that God understands their plight and can act to help them.  Certainly, Aquinas tries to explain how these beliefs can still have content in relation to a wholly simple God, but his explanations are less than convincing.

  • Firstly, the idea that God’s actions are part of general, not special providence – that God always planned to bring the Israelites through the Red Sea, that God always planned that the Babylonians would take the people into captivity, that God always planned that Jesus should die on the cross – raises enormous questions about human freedom and resultantly, about God’s goodness.  If Adam and Eve being banished from the garden was factored into the single, simple act of creation, to what extent can they – and all human beings – rightly be held responsible for their original sin, be in need of Salvation or have the power to accept it?
  • Secondly, if creation is complete from God’s perspective, the end has already happened and it is difficult to see how anybody has any meaningful choice at all.  Small actions have big consequences, so every tiny decision we make might seem to have the potential to change the outcomes of creation… it follows, therefore, that human freedom must be, or be very close to, an illusion for Aquinas.  In this case, how can people be held morally responsible in this world?  How can an all-good God justly reward or punish people on the basis of choices that He Himself determined?  It is difficult to conceive of satisfactory answers to these questions.
  • Thirdly, Aquinas’ wholly simple God – although omnipotent – cannot be understood to act directly in response to events within the world, or even to have reflective knowledge of how his creation is perceived from within through the spatio-temporal framework.  This is not a God who can respond to prayers, as most theists hope that He can.  The idea that some of God’s actions are actually effected by intermediaries such as angels or saints is more convincing, but it is still hard for believers to pray to, worship or even respect an omnipotent God knowing that he cannot understand their plight or respond Himself.


Aquinas’ God is necessarily distant; His timeless omnipotence and His perfect goodness actually stands in the way of God being the God most Christians worship.  It follows that Aquinas’ wholly simple model of God does not definitively resolve the paradox of omnipotence highlighted by Mackie or defend faith against the possibility of having to accept that God caused or allowed evil and suffering, unless the Doctrine of the Trinity works as a means of explaining how God can be BOTH wholly simple and timeless AND active in the world and the lives of individuals, something it can never do on a purely rational basis .

Mackie’s argument boils down to the claim that if God is omnipotent, He must be responsible for evil and cannot therefore be all-good.  Either an omnipotent God knew about the horrendous consequences of creating free beings who can choose evil and chose to create anyway or God did not know, had to create or was otherwise constrained by the laws of logic and was not omnipotent.  Mackie presents omnipotence as a paradox; neither definition supports theism because few people would worship a God who is limited in power and fewer would worship a God who is malevolent.  Yet the possibility of God choosing to limit His knowledge of outcomes in order to make human freedom genuine remains open.  In “The Puzzle of God” (1993) Peter Vardy argued that God could have acted like King Cophetua, who hid his true identity so that the beggar-maid had the opportunity of coming to love him for himself rather than for his power. Vardy’s analogy was originally intended to make a point about how God could have self-limited with respect to his omnipotence, making the incarnation possible, and yet it might be re-purposed to explain Maquarrie’s broader argument that God could have self-limited with respect to his omniscience in order that human free will could be meaningful and support a genuine opportunity for people to choose what is right and earn salvation for themselves.  Recognising the inadequacy of Boethius’ understanding of God’s knowledge being only contingently necessary, this argument assumes that for freedom to be real, God could not know what it would lead to as then God’s knowledge of the end point would in a sense make that end point inevitable however free people may feel in the moment.  God might choose, therefore, to self-limit because human freedom was an essential part of the Best Possible World, as proponents of the Free Will Defence theodicy such as St Augustine and Alvin Plantinga have suggested. Nevertheless, this response to Mackie is not entirely convincing.  If God chooses to self-limit and as a result has no knowledge of the consequences of human free-will, he must have chosen to distance himself from His creation to a very great extent.  Is it worth worshipping a God who has no idea what is happening in history or in the lives of individuals?  Would such a self-limited God be able to work miracles or respond to prayer, when knowledge of the circumstances must involve His knowledge of at least some consequences of free will?  One possible way round this would be to suppose that God delegates the power to respond to crises to angels, saints or other intermediary beings.  Yet there is still a question over whether theism is supported by distant God who can only respond indirectly through general providence.  Take the analogy of Microsoft.  It designs Windows with regular updates, a troubleshooting module and has a FAQ page on its website, but if there was no helpline number to call when these proved inadequate, and no ability for the company to recognize and resolve improbable issues as they arise, few people would rate customer service highly, let alone regard the company as perfect !

In conclusion, JL Mackie raises important questions about the coherence of the Christian concept of God. He points out that there is no way that an omnipotent, all-good deity – as understood by most believers – can be excused from charges of creating or allowing evil and suffering by appealing to human free-will. Nevertheless, Mackie does not succeed in his aim of showing that it is impossible to reconcile the existence of an omnipotent, all-good deity with the reality of evil and suffering in this world and that atheism is the only rational conclusion. Mackie’s argument only highlights the superficiality of most believers’ understanding of what omnipotence and goodness could mean when applied to God. He is right that there is no way to sustain what he defines as “the essential core of the theistic position”, yet he does not establish that it is absolutely impossible either to base theism on a different core or to sustain deism. In the end, it is not true to say that “An omnipotent God could have created free beings who always choose what is right!” It would be more accurate to say that “For all we know, an omnipotent God could have created another, different world in which free beings always choose what is right”. Yet the fact remains that this-world, with all its limitations, exists and that if God exists, He must have created it. Further, it is unreasonable to speculate about what that world would be like or make facile judgements about which world-type would be “better”. The laws of logic by which we make these judgements depend on the world we live in and presumably don’t apply to other worlds or comparisons between worlds in the way that they don’t apply to a timeless God. Mackie’s conclusion, that atheism is reasonable position, is persuasive, but in the end it is not unreasonable to disagree .



“The arguments for the existence of God do nothing to support the God people actually worship” Critically evaluate this statement. [40]

It is fair to say that the arguments for the existence of God fail to prove the existence of God.  The ontological argument is the only one that sets out to deliver an a priori proof and as Immanuel Kant argued in his “Critique of Pure Reason” (1781) it is “so much labour and effort lost“.  It is equally fair to say that the inductive arguments for God’s existence, both Cosmological and Teleological, fail to demonstrate the existence of God conclusively.  Criticisms leveled at the arguments by David Hume, amongst many others, point out their several flaws and fallacies.  Nevertheless, to say that the arguments do nothing to support the God people worship is a big overstatement. [THESIS]

The ontological argument, for all it seems to rely on bad grammar by treating existence as a perfection and a predicate, remains a powerful thought-exercise for those who already believe.  For one example, Karl Barth – who utterly rejected Natural Theology – appreciated the spiritual depth of Anselm’s argument.  In “Faith Seeking Understanding” (1931), he suggested that Anselm was not trying to prove that God exists, but was rather meditating on how God exists.  For Barth “that than which nothing greater can be conceived of” is a revealed name of God which contains something of God’s nature.  Reflecting on it and seeking deeper and deeper understanding is an essential faith-activity, which supports and enriches peoples’ relationship with the divine.  For another example, the mystic Thomas Merton was inspired by Anselm’s “faith seeking understanding” and exploration of how God necessarily exists as his starting point in opening his mind to insights about God from all religions [Faith Seeking Understanding: Theological Method in Thomas Merton’s inter-religious Dialogue by Ryan Scruggs, Journal of Ecumenical Studies 46:3 2011].  Both Barth and Merton used Anselm’s ontological argument to support their understanding of and enrich their faith in God, in their different ways.  It is wrong to say then that this argument for God’s existence does nothing to support the God that people worship. [REASON]

Cosmological arguments point to God as the Prime Mover, uncaused cause and Necessary sustainer of the universe.  For St. Thomas Aquinas, these arguments show a posteriori how God must be eternal in the sense of being outside time and space, which in turn distances God from creation and limits how He can be understood to know and intervene in what happens.  On one level, this suggests that the statement “the arguments for the existence of God do nothing to support the God people actually worship” is reasonable.  Omnipotence – in the sense of being able to work miracles – omniscience – in the sense of being able to respond to prayer – and benevolence – in the sense of understanding and having a personal relationship with worshipers – are all crucial to the Christian concept of God.  Aquinas’ God, although well-supported by the cosmological argument – is not obviously the God most Christians worship.  Nevertheless, Aquinas’ ways to God  only serve as a preamble to the substance of his argument in the Summa Theologica, which seeks to show why the necessary being supported by observational evidence must be the God Christians worship.  It is true that for Aquinas, the meaning of divine attributes like omnipotence, omniscience and omni-benevolence has to be understood analogically and cannot be understood literally, univocally.  Yet he also maintains that there is real and positive meaning in claims such as “God is good”, which are central to Christian worship.  It is clear that Aquinas’ cosmological arguments establish the necessary existence of the God Christians worship, even if they do not by themselves explain how or why God must be as Christians worship Him. Therefore it is an overstatement to say that the arguments do nothing to support the God people worship.  [REASON]

Teleological arguments suggest a God who is more obviously involved in His creation than either ontological or cosmological arguments.  William Paley used the analogy of watch and watchmaker to describe the close relationship between creation and creator.  Even Aquinas’ fifth way suggests that God is the intelligence that directs inanimate things towards their ends (telos) “as an arrow is given flight by the archer.”  In “Dialogues Concerning Natural ReligionDavid Hume’s character Philo is right to point out that the observable evidence of creation includes things that seem poorly designed or even cruel and might more properly suggest an imperfect deity, or multiple deities, than the perfect God of Christian worship because in practice, most Christians are resigned to worshipping a God who at least allows evil and suffering, albeit for a morally sufficient reason.  For example, John Hick argued that God created human beings in His own image, with only the potential to grow into His likeness after passing through the “vale of soul-making” that is human life.  In “Evil and the God of Love” (1966) he argued that belief in a God who allows people to suffer for the spiritual benefit that they (or other people) may gain from that experience is compatible with Christian faith and worship.  After all, in the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus called out to “Abba, Father…” asking that “this cup of suffering” be taken away by God’s will.  God did not act to prevent his suffering, even when Jesus called out “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani, which means “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34)  Christians do not worship a God who doesn’t know about or understand suffering and nor do they worship a God who even tried to create a world with no potential for horror… he placed the tree in the garden after all.  It follows that teleological arguments support the God Christians actually worship, “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” far more than they support the perfect “God of the philosophers”, to use Blaise Pascal’s distinction.  [REASON]

Pushing this line of reasoning might give more credence to the claim that “the arguments for the existence of God do nothing to support the God people actually worship.”  Certainly, ontological and cosmological arguments – if they are sound and cogent respectively – support the existence of a perfect God.  Anselm defined God as “that than which nothing greater can be conceived of,” Descartes defined God more straightforwardly as “Supreme Perfection” and Plantinga similarly defined God as a “maximally great being.”  Aquinas’ cosmological arguments support a God who is the Prime Mover, uncaused causer and de re necessary being sustaining the universe.  By definition, such a God is 100% actual and has no potential, is outside time and space and cannot change.  Aquinas successfully showed that this God must be all-good.  In the Aristotelian sense defining goodness in terms of fulfilling potential and evil in terms of falling short, a God whose nature is to unchangingly be 100% actual cannot be other than all-good.  Further, Aquinas successfully showed that this God must be all-powerful and all knowing in the sense of being the primary cause of everything that exists, what is responsible for things being as they are and no other way.  Nevertheless, Christians do not worship a God who is perfect in this abstract way.  The Bible casts God as the creator of everything, but a creator who has a defined purpose for each aspect of his creation (Genesis 1:27-31) and who can and does interact with and respond to people both in Eden (Genesis 2-3) and subsequently throughout Biblical History.  In Genesis God appears to Abraham – albeit in a mysterious way – then Jacob wrestles with God, mistaking him for a man.  In the New Testament God speaks to acknowledge Jesus as His son, Jesus calls God Abba (literally Daddy) and claims “the father and I are one” (John 10:30) before dying horribly on the cross.  It is difficult to claim that the God Christians worship is the abstract if all-powerful, all-good God supported by ontological and cosmological arguments.  [DISAGREE]  Nevertheless, the Nicene Creed affirms that the Christian God is the perfect God of the philosophers as well as being the God of Biblical history.  God is the creator both of what is “seen and unseen”, Jesus’ incarnation is part of the original creation, willed from the beginning of time rather than being a response to circumstance.  God speaks but through the prophets, acts but through the agency of the Holy Spirit.  It is fair to say that the Christian God, the God Christians actually worship, is paradoxical and mysterious but it is not fair to say that the God supported by the arguments is not the God people actually worship.  [EVALUATION]

In conclusion,  to say that the arguments do nothing to support the God people worship is a big overstatement. [THESIS] While it is true that the ontological argument and the cosmological argument point towards an abstract, perfect God which demands theological explanation to show as the God of Biblical history, it is unfair to say that the arguments do nothing to support the God people actually worship.  Certainly, as Karl Barth and Thomas Merton pointed out of the ontological argument, they are useful in enriching and sustaining faith by supporting deeper understanding of God’s nature.  Certainly, as Reformed Epistemologists like William Lane Craig have argued, cosmological arguments help believers to “defeat the defeaters” and show that faith – while not based on or dependent on arguments – is not irrational despite that.  In addition, as St Thomas Aquinas reasoned, a proper understanding of religious language shows that the attributes of the God supported by the arguments and the attributes of the God actually worshipped by Christians share meaning, even if that meaning is of a specific and limited type.  Finally, teleological arguments offer essential support for the God people actually worship, showing His creative care and causing people to reflect on the existence of evil and suffering in a way that is essential to Christian worship.  Without appreciating the reality of suffering – and rational reflection on God as designing intelligence encourages this – Christians could not understand the importance of the atonement or stake their lives on the hope for salvation, and in this case there would be little point in worship.  [Significance]



To what extent does Hume successfully argue that observation does NOT prove the existence of God? [40]

David Hume criticized all the classical arguments for God’s existence through his book “Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion“, which was published after his death in 1776.  The Dialogues take place between four characters, with the interaction between Demea, a deist, Cleanthes, a theist and Philo, a sceptic, being the focus.  Most scholars see Philo as a vehicle for Hume’s own views and arguments and because of this, A Level textbooks list simplified versions of Philo’s criticisms of the classical Cosmological and Teleological arguments from the Dialogues and credit them to Hume.  It is probably fair to say that if the textbook was the sum total of one’s reading it would be easy to conclude that Hume was unsuccessful in arguing that observation does not prove the existence of God, in every case other than the criticism that the arguments do not support belief in all the attributes of the Christian God, which Christians accept in any case.  Few believers suggest that arguments for God’s existence are sufficient support for Christian faith in themselves. For example, when the textbook suggests that Hume asks “and what caused God” in response to Aquinas’ Cosmological Argument, it would be natural to criticize Hume for missing the more subtle point that Aquinas is making about God’s necessary existence.  Nevertheless, if one reads “Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion” it becomes clear that the criticisms Hume places in the mouth of Philo are subtle and support the conclusion that Hume was indeed successful in arguing that observation does not prove the existence of God.

In Part VIII of the Dialogues, against a very basic form of the Cosmological Argument for a “voluntary agent or first mover” Philo points out that nobody can know whether all things in the universe have a cause, that it is fallacious to make the leap from all things in the universe being caused to proposing that the universe itself has a cause.  He points out that for all we know some things in the universe could exist or happen without a cause… why not some natural process rather than a supernatural, divine agent deciding to create.  He argues in favour of the Epicurean Hypothesis, the idea that the universe could be actually infinite, which was the commonly accepted scientific world-view at the time, rooted in Aristotle.

But this presupposes, said Demea, that matter can come to move without any voluntary agent or first mover.  And where’s the difficulty in that? replied Philo

Superficially, Philo’s criticisms appear ill-founded.  William Lane Craig and other Christian apologists argue that an actual infinity of causes is impossible and suggest that Big Bang theory supports them in the need for an absolute beginning for the universe as a whole and so in the need for an uncaused cause.  However in fact, modern Physics supports Philo’s reasoning.  Although it is true that the standard model suggests that time and space had a beginning – the Big Bang – no Cosmologist today sees the Big Bang as the absolute beginning in the sense of needing a divine cause to explain it.  Stephen Hawking responded to a question about whether the universe needed a cause by saying that the question makes no sense to ask.  True, causation applies within time and space, but within the singularity there is no sense in which it could apply.  Cause and effect imply time and space; without either it makes no sense to think in terms of causation.  Further, research confirms the hypothesis that (at least at the Planck scale) things in the universe exist and happen without a cause and it is possible that the natural action of sub-atomic particles could account for the Big Bang.  Whatever the apologists claim, it seems that modern science supports Hume’s criticism of the attempt to prove God from observation and does not support the existence of God as the necessary uncaused cause.

In addition, through parts 8 and 9 of the Dialogues Philo makes the important point that…

I won’t even allow any one part to justify conclusions about another part”

This is a point that builds on one he made in relation to the teleological argument in Part II

can it be proper to argue from parts to the whole? Doesn’t the great disproportion between part and whole bar all comparison and inference?”

While superficially flippant, Philo’s point is actually subtle and far-reaching and extends beyond the point that the arguments from observation depend on the Fallacy of Composition.  Although it what is true of parts is not necessarily true of the whole, it still could be so the most damage that the classic textbook criticism of the Cosmological Argument could do is to point out that the conclusion needs more support, not that the argument has no merit.  In fact, Philo’s criticism of the Cosmological Argument is more damaging than the technical point about relying on the Fallacy of Composition.  He points out that the argument makes the massive assumption that the part of the universe we can observe is a fair sample, that the whole universe behaves as this part behaves, and that the way we see the universe is the way it really is.  The Cosmological Principle was first spelt out by Isaac Newton and Astronomer William Keel states that it…

amounts to the strongly philosophical statement that the part of the universe which we can see is a fair sample, and that the same physical laws apply throughout. In essence, this in a sense says that the universe is knowable and is playing fair with scientists” [The Road to Galaxy Formation, 2006]

Following the discovery of Quantum Physics, science has had to abandon the Newtonian paradigm to the extent that today, the “Cosmological Principle”, the very principles of homogeneity and isotropy, are being questioned – even though that leads to the unwelcome conclusion that science is extremely limited in what it can claim to know about the universe.  Philosopher Karl Popper criticized the Cosmological Principle on the grounds that it makes

our lack of knowledge a principle of knowing something

concluding that

the “cosmological principles” were, I fear, dogmas that should not have been proposed

and since then some Physicists have come to similar conclusions, including Steven Weinberg.  Scientists might be as reluctant to accept the force of Philo’s argument as believers, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that there is no way to know that the way we perceive causation is actually what is happening or that the principle of causation that appears to apply here also applies everywhere in the universe, let alone to the universe as a whole.  Certainly, what is true of parts of the universe is not necessarily true of the whole of the universe – but further, it is not possible to say what is true of parts of the universe and let alone what might be true of the whole.  This argument of Philo’s alone shows that attempting to prove God from observation is impossible.

Further, also in Part 9 of the Dialogues, Philo attacks a version of the Cosmological Argument presented by Demea that echoes Jeremiah Clarke’s a priori argument. While not strictly an argument from observation, this version of the cosmological argument deduces God’s necessary existence and attributes from the contingent nature of other existences.  Nevertheless, unless one is an idealist, understanding what it means for other things to exist must depend on observation, so it is worth considering Hume’s refutation of this version of the argument here.  Although in 1996 Joseph K Campbell successfully argued that Philo fails to defeat this version of the Cosmological Argument – leaving open the possibility that God could be the necessary sustaining-cause of the universe – Philo’s point in asking why the cause of the universe would have to be intelligible renders Campbell’s argument in support of proving God from observation only a technical victory.  While it is true that there might be the necessary sustaining-cause of the universe, it is also true (as Philo contends) that it is not meaningful to claim that this sustaining cause has the attributes of the Christian God.  Jeremiah Clarke faced the same difficulties as Aquinas in trying to marry the attributes of a necessary being with those of the object of Christian faith.  Neither thinker manages to do more than imply that Christian faith is misplaced, because there is no way that the being indicated by contingent existence could create or act in the way that the God of Abraham and Isaac creates and acts, let alone provide hope for salvation and/or personal survival beyond death.  Nobody seriously claims that the Higgs Boson is omnipotent, let alone omniscient or omnibenevolent.  Nobody worships quarks.  Even if God might be whatever sustains the universe in being, there is no way to support religion on that basis.  Further, there is now a sensible natural explanation for the universe which obviates the need to call the necessary sustaining cause of the universe “God” and so muddy the waters of Cosmology with Theological assumptions and associations.  On this point also, despite Campbell’s work, Hume’s argument against proving God from observation has been vindicated.

Philo provides numerous other criticisms of the arguments from observation.  For example, through Parts II-V of the Dialogues, Philo criticizes versions of the Teleological Argument presented by Cleanthes, pointing out that the analogies Cleanthes employs are weak, that there is no way to establish that everything in the universe which appears to have order and purpose really has, and that (because like effects prove like causes) the universe suggests a cause or designer who is far from perfect, not necessarily single and either way a long way from being the God of the Christian religion.

what shadow of an argument, continued Philo, can you produce, from your hypothesis, to prove that God is one being? A great many men join together to build a house or ship, to found and develop a city, to create a commonwealth” … “For all he knows, the world is very faulty and imperfect by certain higher standards… only the first rough attempt of some infant god, who afterwards abandoned it, ashamed of his poor performance… the work of some dependent, inferior god, whose superiors hold it up for ridicule… produced by some god in his old age and near-senility, and ever since his death the world has continued without further guidance, activated by the first shove he gave to it and the active force that he built into it.” (Part V)

As JCA Gaskin has argued, Philo’s individual criticisms are compelling, highlighting one by one the flaws and leaps in reasoning in two distinct versions of the teleological argument.  They are far more serious than Philo’s flippant tone might suggest, as they demonstrate how far short of proving the existence of the Christian God classical arguments fall and how much believers must depend on revelations and authority. 

In addition, the broader criticism implicit in Philo’s line of argument is conclusive; despite the multi-layered theodicies of St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas, and the less complete but more pastorally satisfying Irenaean theodicy proposed by John Hick, there has as yet been no satisfactory explanation of why a perfect creator would create an imperfect world.  As JL Mackie observed in his essay “Evil and Omnipotence” (1955), St Augustine’s Free Will Defence fails to explain why an omnipotent God could not create free beings who always choose to do what is right.  Further, St Thomas Aquinas’ approach to redefining evil as a lack of good and God’s attributes as meaning that He can do only what is actually possible and compatible with His wholly simple nature fails to do justice to the reality of peoples’ faith.  The problem of evil and suffering remains the most persuasive objection to attempts to argue to the God of Christianity from observation.

In conclusion, Hume’s arguments – as proposed through the character Philo – successfully show that attempts to prove God from observation all fail.  The Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion present a persuasive case against belief in any sort of God which goes well beyond the petty point-scoring that the genre and style of the piece suggests.  Nevertheless, while extremely persuasive, Philo’s line of argument is a skeptical one and there significant implications flow from accepting it.  Philo casts doubt not just on belief in God, but also on the human ability to know that what we observe is really what we observe and on the human ability to deduce natural laws of any kind on the basis of observation.  By this argument, people wouldn’t just have to drop their belief in God but also their belief in science, something which few people are willing to do.  This, perhaps, is the best objection to Philo’s arguments against the attempt to prove God from observation, that they surely and persuasively lead people into a pit of despair.  However, it is not reasonable to conclude from this that the arguments from observation prove God or that Hume’s criticisms, as presented through Philo, are less than successful.

The best approach to understanding Religious Language is through the Cataphatic Way. [40]

The word “cataphatic” comes from the Greek “kataphasis” meaning affirmation.  To take the Cataphatic Way is to affirm things positively of God and to assume a univocal understanding of words and claims.  By this approach, if somebody says “God is good”, they mean much the same as if they said “St Anselm is good”.  The Cataphatic Way is sometimes called the Via Positiva; it uses language confidently and positively to describe God, as a painter might use paints confidently and positively to represent what is in front of them.

There is no doubt that the Cataphatic Way supports people in understanding what is said about God.  Insofar as people understand what is said generally, people can understand what is said about God through the Cataphatic Way.  For those believers and theologians working with an everlasting, personal model of God supported by religious experience and/or a priori faith in the revealed status of the Bible – arguably mostly for Protestants – the Cataphatic Way is the natural and therefore the best way to understand religious language.  In the same way as I might affirm things about any other thing that I experience or read about, I can affirm things about God.  Nevertheless, this model of God is philosophically unsatisfying.

  • Firstly, many believers have no personal experience of God to support their affirmations, and those who do often suggest that their experience was ineffable (James) and resisted normal description in any case.  It is difficult to confirm religious experiences as genuine, so there is no quality control when it comes to things affirmed of God on the basis of them.
  • Secondly, Biblical criticism makes believing in the revealed status of the whole Bible very difficult, both because it seems to have been compiled by multiple authors and editors over a very long period of time – before even considering the late and politically influenced development of the Canon – and because it seems to reflect several different models of God rather than one unified model.  The God of Genesis 2-3 walks in the Garden of Eden and has to look for Adam and Eve, whereas the God of Job 38 – who asks “where were you when I set the foundations of the earth” – seems beyond such anthropomorphic descriptions.

It seems fair to conclude that saying that the Cataphatic Way is the best way to understand Religious Language may be limited to Theistic Personalists.  It might be the best way of understanding what somebody already knows about God and/or religion on some other basis, but it might not be the best way of coming to understand something new about God and/or religion.

Certainly, for believers and theologians who are Classical Theists and believe in an eternal, timeless God, the Cataphatic Way raises questions about the meaning of what is said, whether what is said and understood about God refers credibly to actual attributes of God and whether a theologian taking the Cataphatic Way can mean what they say and so be understood.  For many Roman Catholics, but also for others whose faith relates to if not depends on reason, God cannot be a thing that we can experience and observe in any normal way.  Religious experiences, if any are genuine, are best understood to be non-sensuous (Stace) and noumenal (James), an experience of ultimate reality that goes well beyond normal sensory experience and normal description.  It is certainly fair to suggest that the Cataphatic theologian is not like a painter representing a normal subject on canvas; what is affirmed of God is much further removed from what it could mean than the 2D canvas is removed from the 3D subject.  For most theologians, God’s nature cannot properly or fully be conceived or understood.  As God said to Moses in Exodus 3 “I am what I am” and as He said through the Prophet Isaiah

“my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways.” Isaiah 55:8-9

When the cataphatic theologian affirms attributes of God univocally they seem to be going beyond possible experience and beyond what the human mind can possibly comprehend.  In this way, using language confidently and univocally to describe God seems like trying to represent a singularity in paint… it wouldn’t do to rely on the artists’ impression because in many ways the nature of what is being represented is beyond and even the opposite to the medium being used.  Because it is highly likely to lead to misunderstandings about God, it seems that the Cataphatic Way is not the best way to understand Religious Language.

Further, as Pseudo-Dionysus argued, affirming things positively of God seems to limit Him.  To say that God is good in the same way as Anselm is good implies that God’s goodness is changeable, moral, relative to other things, because goodness when referring to things in this world implies such conditions and limitations.  For Classical Theists, God’s nature cannot be understood in the way that we understand other things because God is necessarily unlimited, timelessly perfect.  Words cannot, therefore, be applied univocally to God and the Cataphatic Way fails to support any true understanding of God’s actual nature and attributes.  Because of this, in the 11th Century Moses Maimonides argued that the only credible approach to religious language was the very reverse of the cataphatic way, the apophatic way.  For Maimonides, human words refer to human experience and are inescapably tied to the spatio-temporal framework that encompasses human experience.  Applying human words to God can only lead to misunderstanding.  The changeable, contingent nature of things in the world which leads people to recognize God’s necessary existence and to understand that whatever we can experience, understand and say then God is not that.  For Maimonides, this leaves open the possibility of using language in a negative sense to leave an impression of what God is.  Like a sculptor chipping away what is unnecessary and leaving an impression of what they are trying to represent, Apophatic theology takes away what it is not possible to affirm of God.  For example, God cannot be evil, because to be evil is to fall short, something which a changeless, timeless, perfect God cannot do.  For another example, God cannot swim because to swim requires a body to move through water from position a to position b.  God is changeless, timeless and perfect, which precludes his acting or moving in time and space in any way, aquatic or otherwise.    For some Classical Theists, it is the Apophatic Way, not the Cataphatic Way, that is the best way to understand religious language.

Nevertheless, scholars such as St Anselm rejected this approach, arguing that God gave being to this world as it is, so it is reasonable to affirm of God attributes of the being He created.  In the Monologion St Anselm argued that we are able to understand the world through concepts that exist in our mind because our mind comprehends God as their ultimate form.  We judge things to be unjust, more or less just… and this suggests that we have something against which to measure justice in our minds.  God is that against which we grade perfections in other things that we encounter in the world that God created.  God is not a thing in the world, but God created those things and we understand their goodness, greatness, perfection in relation to God.  In a way, Anselm’s philosophy relates back to Plato’s.  For Anselm, the world of the forms – the metaphysical concepts of justice, beauty, truth – are more real than the partial, contingent world we experience through the senses.  For Anselm, human beings understand what they experience through the senses through the concepts that already exist in the mind.  Words are just signs, attached to concepts that are hard-wired into reason by God, our creator, so it follows that these signs can be traced back to and applied to God.  Anselm safeguards against the possibility that people affirm just anything of God by arguing that signs are in a sense controlled by what it is that they point towards, so it is not possible to say something about God which is not consistent with His nature.  Given that only “the fool says in his heart that there is no God” (Psalm 14:1, Proslogion 2) we all have the concept of God as “that than which nothing greater can be conceived of” in our minds (in intellectu) and would understand the impossibility of affirming attributes that are not consistent with God’s supremely perfect nature.  As Marcia Colish suggests, Anselm sees language like a mirror reflecting some of the being of God very precisely, but only when it is directed correctly.

Clearly, Anselm’s Cataphatic approach is much more sophisticated than the seemingly naive univocicity of believers who affirm things of God such as “God is so pleased to see you here this evening!”  Nevertheless, it assumes a world-view which is very much in the minority in the modern world.  Most people, and most Philosophers, tend towards the Aristotelian model of concepts being built out of experiences, which are primary, rather than experiences being understood through concepts which precede them as in the Platonic way. Although neuroscientists are now gathering in support of Chomsky’s nativist approach to language acquisition, which seems to support Plato’s world-view, the dominant framework remains empiricism and the idea that human beings start as tabula rasa (as Locke put it) and that concepts and reason itself is constructed out of experience and socialization.  In addition, Anselm’s argument makes the assumption that human beings have an idea of God as “that than which nothing greater can be conceived ofin intellectu, something which St Thomas Aquinas rejected.  Before moving on to his famous five ways, Aquinas dismissed the possibility of proving God’s existence a priori, as in Anselm’s Ontological Argument.  He wrote

because we do not know the essence of God, the proposition is not self-evident to us; but needs to be demonstrated by things that are more known to us, though less known in their nature — namely, by effects.” Summa Theologica 1, 2, 1

He continued, arguing that “univocal predication is impossible between God and creatures...” Summa Theologica 1, 13, 5 because the cause and effect relationship is too slight to support a single meaning for what is affirmed of the two.  For Aquinas, what can be affirmed of God and in what sense needs to be even more strictly controlled than Anselm suggests, to prevent the imprecision in the use of religious language that attends on Cataphatic theology and subsequent misunderstandings.  Aquinas was persuaded by Maimonides arguments for apophatic theology, saying

The reason why God… is said to be above being named, is because His essence is above all that we understand about God, and signify in word… Because we know and name God from creatures, the names we attribute to God signify what belongs to material creatures… these kinds of names fail to express His mode of being, forasmuch as our intellect does not know Him in this life as He is.” Summa Theologica 1, 13, 1

For Aquinas, the most that can be affirmed of God is analogous, affirmed in a strictly limited “timeless” sense.  As John Milbank explains, words have primary and secondary usages which are connected but not the same.  A person is healthy in a primary sense and a yoghurt in a secondary sense… what it means for the two to be healthy is different but still linked.  Similarly, the primary sense of words like “good” belongs to God and only the secondary sense to things in this world.  The meaning of attributes affirmed of God is not to be understood univocally, although there is still some meaning.  For Aquinas, the Cataphatic way is not the best way to understand Religious Language because it depends on the flawed claim to know or understanding the nature of God and because it conflates the two distinct meanings of attributes affirmed of God into one misleading claim.  While Aquinas’ argument is compelling, it leaves religious believers with a very limited set of things that they can say about God which makes it difficult to hold on to the spirit of doctrines, if not the letter.   Analogy may be a philosophically better way to understand religious language than the Cataphatic way, but it is not in practice much more helpful to religion than the apophatic way.

In conclusion, religion demands a different approach to language, one which is neither cataphatic nor apophatic, nor yet as abstract and technical as analogy.  The Cataphatic Way, for all the possibilities that it seems to offer in terms of making religious language understandable, fails to support any true understanding of God’s actual nature and attributes and actually symbol offers a better balance between the need for religious people to affirm their beliefs about God and the need for theologians and philosophers to conduct quality control by testing the possible meaning of those affirmations.  Symbol has the advantage of requiring people to learn a new religious language rather than seeking to apply ordinary words positively, negatively or with the use of implied or stated qualifiers (Ramsey).  Symbolic language draws attention to its difference and its specific relation to theology and in both cases, what is affirmed of God invites discussion and interpretation and discourages people from taking things on face value.  Symbolic language has clear roots in the Bible and in how believers have sought to express their religious experiences, but it resists facile, superficial interpretations and the misunderstandings about the nature of God that attend upon Cataphatic univocicity.  As Tillich suggests, the symbol starts to participate in the meaning it refers to, so that in using it words become more than just pointers to meanings beyond themselves.  God becomes present in the use of symbols; symbols acknowledge the need to draw on as many means of communication as possible, indirect as well as direct, when trying to express ultimate reality.  As Randall argues, symbols also invite a response and so acknowledge that what people are doing when they affirm God’s attributes is not just inert description.  Religious language does not just describe a state of affairs more or less accurately, it calls people to action.  In these several ways symbol and not the Cataphatic way is the best way to understand religious language.



OCR H573 Potential Questions… the very long list!

If you read the OCR H573 specification closely, you will see that under the content a series of issues which students “should have had the opportunity to discuss” are listed.  Reading between the lines, it seems that the wording of these issues might be used by those setting questions.

Here is my very long list of 120 exam questions, each created out of an “issue” for discussion, listed on the specification.

WARNING: Some of them are VERY challenging, and probably unlikely to be set in the examinations… but worth considering nonetheless. 


  1. Critically compare Plato’s Form of the Good and Aristotle’s Prime Mover [40]
  2. To what extent is Aristotle’s use of the senses to make sense of reality more convincing than Plato’s reliance on reason? [40]
  3. “There is no evidence for dualism!” Discuss [40]
  4. The word ‘soul’ is best understood as a metaphor. Critically evaluate this claim. [40]
  5. Talk about a separate soul rests on a category error! Evaluate this statement. [40]
  6. To what extent are a posteriori arguments are more persuasive than a priori arguments for God? [40]
  7. It is more likely that the universe came about by chance than that God designed it. Discuss this statement. [40]
  8. To what extent does Aquinas provide sufficient explanation for his conclusion “and this is what everybody calls God”? Discuss with reference to the Third Way. [40]
  9. The Cosmological Argument is defeated by the fallacy of composition. Discuss. [40
  10. Critically assess the view that the Ontological Argument is the most persuasive argument for the existence of God. [40]
  11. “Existence is not a predicate.” Discuss [40]
  12. To what extent does Anselm’s ontological argument justify people in having Christian faith? [40]
  13. The ontological argument fails because it can be reduced to absurdity: it is obvious that perfect islands don’t exist by definition, so God can’t. To what extent is this judgement fair? [40]
  14. There is no way to establish the validity of religious experiences, so they are not a reliable basis for faith in God. Discuss. [40]
  15. Are corporate religious experiences any more reliable or valid than individual experiences? [40]
  16. Religious experience is a good pointer towards the existence of God, but it is not a sufficient basis for belief in God in itself. Discuss this statement. [40]
  17. To what extent does Augustine’s theodicy succeed in defending God against the charge of allowing evil and the suffering it causes? [40]
  18. Why would a perfect God need to put people through a ‘vale of soul-making’? [40]
  19. To what extent is the evidential problem of evil a greater challenge to Classical Theism than the logical problem of evil? [40]
  20. Is it possible to successfully defend monotheism in the face of evil? [40]
  21. The Christian concept of God is incoherent! Discuss. [40]
  22. Critically evaluate the claim that Richard Swinburne provides the most useful understanding of the relationship between divinity and time. [40]
  23. To what extent does Boethius succeed in resolving the problems of divine knowledge, benevolence, justice, eternity and human free will? [40]
  24. God can only do what is logically possible. Discuss. [40]
  25. Critically compare symbol and analogy as approaches to religious language. [40]
  26. The Via Negativa is an unhelpful way of approaching religious language. Discuss. [40]
  27. Meaningful theological discussion depends on the Cataphatic approach to language; it is impossible through the Apophatic way. Critically assess this claim. [40]
  28. Aquinas’ analogical approaches to religious language are too limiting to support religion. Discuss. [40]
  29. A symbolic understanding of religious language renders religious discourse incomprehensible. Critically evaluate this claim. [40]
  30. Critically assess the claim that Religious Language is necessarily non-cognitive. [40]
  31. To what extent can Scripture mean anything if religious language is understood to be non-cognitive? [40]
  32. How far is Aquinas’ analogical view of theological language valuable in the philosophy of religion? [40]




  1. To what extent is Aquinas’ natural law a helpful method of moral decision-making when it comes to Assisted Dying? [40]
  2. Critically assess the view that something or someone being good depends on its success or failure in achieving its telos. [40]
  3. To what extent is it fair to say that the universe as a whole – including human nature – is inclined towards the good? [40]
  4. Is  the principle of double effect an adequate defense? [40]
  5. Situation ethics provides the most helpful method of moral decision-making. Discuss. [40]
  6. To what extent does something being good, bad, right or wrong depend on the extent to which, in any given situation, agape is best served? [40]
  7. Is it fair to say that, given his misunderstanding of the Christian concept of agape, Fletcher’s Situation Ethics is merely a version of Utilitarianism? [40]
  8. Situation ethics is an unhelpful approach because it renders decision-making entirely individualistic and subjective. Discuss. [40]
  9. Kantian ethics provides a helpful method of moral decision-making when it comes to Business. Discuss. [40]
  10. Does goodness depend on doing one’s duty? [40]
  11. Critically assess the view that Kantian ethics is too abstract to be applicable to practical moral decision-making. [40]
  12. “Kantian ethics is so reliant on reason that it unduly rejects the importance of other factors, such as sympathy, empathy and love in moral decision-making.” Evaluate this claim. [40]
  13. Utilitarianism is unhelpful when making decisions about sex. Discuss. [40]
  14. The right action is always that action which makes most people happy. Discuss. [40]
  15. Utilitarianism fails because it is impossible to measure pleasure. Critically evaluate this view. [40]
  16. Assess the view that Natural law is a more helpful approach to euthanasia than situation ethics. [40]
  17. The religious concept of sanctity of life has no meaning in twenty-first century medical ethics! Discuss. [40]
  18. To what extent should a person have complete autonomy in medical decision-making? [40]
  19. Is there really a moral difference between killing somebody and letting somebody die? [40]
  20. “Utilitarianism a more practical way of making decisions in business ethics than Kantian Ethics!” Discuss [40]
  21. The concept of corporate social responsibility is nothing more than ‘hypocritical window-dressing’ covering the greed of a business intent on making profits. Critically assess this view. [40]
  22. Capitalism stands against human flourishing! Discuss. [40]
  23. To what extent is it possible to be a good consumer?  [40]
  24. To what extent does globalisation encourage the pursuit of good ethics as the foundation of good business? [40]
  25. Is “what does “good” mean?” the most important question for the 21st Century Moral Philosopher? [40]
  26. Saying that an action is “wrong” is meaningless! Discuss. [40]
  27. Everybody knows what is right and what is wrong! Discuss. [40]
  28. Critically compare Aquinas and Freud on the concept of guilt. [40]
  29. To what extent is Freud’s account of conscience more convincing than that of Aquinas?
  30. Is the voice of conscience the same as the voice of reason? [40]
  31. To what extent is conscience the product of education? [40]
  32. “We are all determined by our genes.” To what extent is this a fair claim? [40]
  33. Religion should have no place in 21st Century sexual ethics. Evaluate this claim. [40]
  34. “Decisions about sex are personal and private; they are nobody else’s business.” Critically assess this statement. [40]
  35. To what extent are normative theories useful in making decisions in sexual ethics? [40]



  1. “Both Augustine’s interpretation of the Fall and his doctrine of Original Sin are simply wrong!” Discuss
  2. Critically assess the view that if Augustine is right, humans can never be morally good. [40]
  3. Augustine’s view of human nature is an optimistic one. Discuss this claim. [40]
  4. Is there a distinctive human nature? [40]
  5. Is it possible to discuss when God’s judgement will take place meaningfully? [40]
  6. Could hell be eternal? Discuss. [40]
  7. “Heaven is the transformation and perfection of the whole of creation” Discuss [40]
  8. Is purgatory a state through which everyone goes? [40]
  9. To what extent can God can be known through reason alone? [40]
  10. Faith is sufficient reason for itself. Critically evaluate this claim. [40]
  11. To what extent can human beings have natural knowledge of God after the Fall? [40]
  12. Is natural knowledge of God the same as revealed knowledge of God? [40]
  13. Is it wrong to trust in God, when we have no evidence of His existence? [40]
  14. Jesus was only a teacher of wisdom! Discuss [40]
  15. Was Jesus was more than just a political liberator? [40]
  16. Was Jesus’ relationship with God truly unique? [40]
  17. Did Jesus think he was divine? Discuss. [40]
  18. To what extent are Christian ethics distinctive? [40]
  19. Are Christian ethics are personal or communal? [40]
  20. To what extent is acting with love sufficient to live a good life? [40]
  21. Is the Bible is a comprehensive moral guide? [40]
  22. Critically evaluate the view that Christians should not practise civil disobedience. [40]
  23. Is it always possible always to know God’s will? [40]
  24. Critically evaluate Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s approach to suffering. [40]
  25. To what extent has Bonhoeffer’s theology relevance today? [40]
  26. If Christ is the ‘truth’, can there be any other means of salvation? [40]
  27. “A good God could not send anybody to hell!” Discuss.
  28. Will all good people be saved?
  29. To what extent does theological pluralism undermine central Christian beliefs?
  30. Can a Christian be a theological pluralist? [40]
  31. Inter-faith dialogue has not contributed practically towards social cohesion. Evaluate this claim. [40]
  32. Should Christians seek to convert people from other faiths?
  33. Christians should try to convert atheists. Discuss. [40]
  34. To what extent does scriptural reasoning relativise religious beliefs? [40]
  35. The Church cannot change to reflect secular views of gender. Discuss [40]
  36. To what extent have secular views of gender equality undermined Christian gender roles? [40]
  37. Is motherhood is liberating or restricting? [40]
  38. To what extent is the idea of family entirely culturally determined? [40]
  39. Critically compare Ruether’s and Daly’s approaches to sexism and patriarchy within Christianity, as it has developed in the mainstream Churches. [40]
  40. Has Christianity a future? [40]
  41. Christianity is essentially sexist! [40]
  42. If God is male, then man is God! Discuss [40]
  43. Can a male saviour save women? [40]
  44. Critically assess the view that only women can develop a genuine spirituality. [40]
  45. Can God be mother? [40]
  46. Are Christian values just human values? [40]
  47. “Christianity is a major cause of personal and social problems!” Discuss this claim. [40]
  48. “Secularism presents an opportunity for the Church to develop new doctrines and practices.” Critically evaluate this idea. [40]
  49. Should Christianity continue to play a role in public life within the UK? [40]
  50. Are British values actually Christian values? Should they be? [40]
  51. To what extent should Christian theology engage with atheist secular ideologies?
  52. Assess the view that Christianity tackles social issues more effectively than Marxism. [40]
  53. Liberation theology has not engaged with Marxism fully enough! Discuss. [40]
  54. Critically assess the view that since Christians should not show favouritism, it is wrong to offer a preferential option for the poor. [40]