I used to write a lot of reviews for the Times Literary Supplement (TLS), but I do that no longer. But as far as I’m aware, the TLS is turning into an organ of religious-osculation, with piece after piece making nice to faith. Now I may be wrong, as I don’t subscribe and have to depend on what people send me (surely a biased sample), or what is free online. But what is free online now is pretty dire: an article by Rupert Shortt called “How Christianity invented modernity.” (Note: it’s free this week only.) Shortt is in fact the religion editor of the TLS, so one can get an idea of what their attitude is to religious books—OSCULATION OF FAITH. Shortt is a Christian whose written a book called , Christianophobia: A Faith under Attack, and, as this interview shows, is clearly afflicted with a Christian persecution complex . He’s also written a book about the former Archbishop of Canterbury: Rowan’s Rule: The Biography of the Archbishop, and a theological book called God is No Thing: a Coherent Christianity, which appears to be a polemic against New Atheism.
In this piece Shortt reviews two books: The Evolution of the West: How Christianity Has Shaped Our Values, by Nick Spencer, and Sceptical Christianity: Exploring Credible Belief, by Robert Reiss. The two things you discover on plowing your way through this review is 1. It’s not really a review, but a sermon, setting out Shortt’s views on Christianity and his opprobrium towards nonbelievers (at the end Shortt lapses into full Jonathan Edwards mode) and 2. for a literary editor, Shortt can’t write very well. You’ll see that from the excerpts. I’ll give a few from different areas (indented, with emphases mine), so you can see how his “sophisticated” views consist, as with Sophisticated Theologians™, of academic prose veiling a simple will to believe.
New Atheism: In shortt, he doesn’t like New Atheism because it gives us no purchase for morality. Further, Shortt raises the usual canard that New Atheists criticize only a strawman: a simplified version of Christianity.
First, is secularism really robust enough to carry the freight once shouldered by the Church in Europe? Ask politicians or NGOs about the functional aspect of human rights, say, and you’re likely to get an assured answer. Ask about the source of those rights, or about deeper questions of truth and purpose, and the replies are coy. Second and more significantly, is Moran’s apparent assumption that we are simply dancing a minuet around the void actually true? Armchair philosophers – many of them far less acute than James or Moran – regularly announce that the centre cannot hold. As Terry Eagleton among others has emphasized, such people can purchase their unbelief on the cheap, usually by setting up a straw man version of religion no thoughtful believer could accept, before felling it with a single puff. To counter that things do not fall apart may take courage, or insight of another sort – or maybe just the innocence of a child.. . .A forward glance – this time taking account not just of postmodern discontents, but also of the formidable forces arrayed on Murdoch’s side of the argument – might reference the work of Charles Taylor or Alasdair MacIntyre in the English-speaking world. Murdoch’s spiritual leanings were idiosyncratic. She accepted tags such as Platonist and Christian Buddhist. But MacIntyre and Taylor, standing at different points on the Catholic spectrum, have set out with greater clarity a revised humanism based on the creative agency of human beings over and against reductive and instrumental patterns of thinking. Their work rests on a potentially far-reaching awareness: that if we are not self-created, we are answerable to a truth we don’t make.
First of all, what does he mean by “answerable to a truth”? Morality is not an objective truth, at least not in my view. Our ethics are devised to conform to our preferences, informed by empirical observation. Throughout the article, Shortt is distressed that there’s no basis for morality without God, and Christianity in particular. The response to this is to show that atheists are at least as moral as religionists, which seems to be the case. If that weren’t true, most of Northern Europe would be a den of perfidy and criminality.
Social contributions of Christianity
Liberalism’s theological pedigree has been forcefully set out by Christopher Insole in The Politics of Human Frailty (2004). He also points to elements of secular thinking in areas like law that a Christian can own and celebrate, for instance John Rawls’s emphasis on the importance of reciprocity, the withholding of coercive power, and the difficulty of making moral judgements given the tangled nature of experience. Here we get a glimpse of Christianity’s protean character. Theology has spawned many schools of thought, both complementary and competing, including secularism itself.
Is that a contribution of religion, or a reaction against religion? I think the latter. Shortt has some chutzpah to give credit to theology for secularism! But don’t forget justice!:
. . . (Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae contains a far more detailed treatise on justice than anything Aristotle provided. It addresses a host of topics including homicide, unjust enrichment, injuries against the person, slander, fraud and professional misconduct.)
Yes, and he also believed in divine punishment, consigning sinners to hell, which is a form of ‘justice’ founded on wish-thinking and social control. I’ll let those more learned than I comment on the nonreligious social contributions of St. Thomas Aquinas. But wait! Shortt gives Christianity credit for almost everything!
In brief, it is no accident that developments including the rule of law, the market economy, democracy and the welfare state have flourished most strongly in traditionally Christian societies. Within the past few generations, the UN Declaration of Human Rights emerged mainly from the hands of Catholics and Protestants working in tandem, while faith-based conviction has mobilized millions of people to oppose authoritarian regimes, inaugurate democratic transitions, and relieve suffering on a grand scale.
What he means is not “traditionally Christian societies”—for much of Western Europe is not Christian now, but is still capitalistic and all that other stuff—but “the West”. And of course Marxism and Nazism, as well as nuclear weapons, also arose in traditionally Christian societies. Further, democracy arose in ancient Greece, not to my knowledge a Christian society.
If Christianity gets all the credit for stuff that arose in the West, then it must take the blame as well. And faith-based conviction has also motivated millions of people to construct and obey authoritarian regimes, and to inflict suffering on a grand scale. (I refer to the Catholicism Shortt lauds.) What galls me most, though, is that Shortt gives Christianity credit for science:
The scientific contributions of Christianity
What is true of social developments applies in large measure to science. Taylor’s A Secular Age (TLS, February 1, 2008) is among the most important works of revisionist scholarship to have overturned religion-versus-science clichés. For all the obduracy of certain theologians and church leaders, modern science did not arise in opposition to religion; on the contrary, it grew in a godly crucible. Copernicus, Descartes, Newton, Leibniz and countless other pioneers were nothing if not serious Christians. The secularist turn only arose later. In establishing his thesis, Spencer supplies bite-sized introductions to the work of contemporary figures including Stephen Gaukroger, Peter Harrison and David Bentley Hart.
My guess is that from the 19th century on, scientists were, by and large, far more atheistic than the general public, a finding clearly documented in modern society. Once again Shortt gives to Christianity everything that arose in the West. The notion that all of these men wouldn’t have made their discoveries if they weren’t religious is dubious, with perhaps the exception of Newton. Note that neither Gaukroger, Harrison, nor Hart are scientists: they are theologians, philosophers, and historians (none is all of these).
Finally, Shortt might be asked, “Well, even if Christianity made those contributions, is it true? Or doesn’t that matter?” It surely does matter, for if the truth claims of Christianity be false, then there’s no reason to prize Christian morality above secular morality—or the morality of any other faith. And Shortt lays out the reasons we should believe in God (clearly the Christian God). For the life of me it all sounds like pure gibberish, but of the academic species:
You cannot (to posit a crazy thought experiment) add up everything in the universe, reach a total of n, then conclude that the final total is n + 1 because you’re also a theist. God belongs to no genus; divinity and humanity are too different to be opposites. By definition, then, no physical analogy will describe our putative creator adequately. We are migrating off the semantic map. But light is among the more helpful. The light in which we see is not one of the objects seen, because we apprehend light only inasmuch as it is reflected off opaque objects. From a monotheistic standpoint, it is the same with the divine light. The light which is God, writes the philosopher Denys Turner, we can see only in the creatures that reflect it. “Therefore . . . when we turn our minds away from the visible objects of creation to God, . . . the source of their visibility, it is as if we see nothing. The world shines with the divine light. But the light which causes it to shine is itself like a profound darkness.”
In other words, we know God exists because humans are godly and the world evinces divinity. But those aren’t the humans and the world I know.
Shortt also recycles the “first cause” argument, though he pretends it’s something else:
Given the hostility of many believers – let alone atheists – to the philosophy of religion, it is important to be clear about what theistic arguments amount to. They do not “prove” the existence of God. Apart from anything, a deity established on the Procrustean bed of human reason would be a small thing by comparison with the Creator who immeasurably surpasses our imaginings. To those who accept any of them, arguments such as Aquinas’s frequently misinterpreted Five Ways establish a more modest premiss: that theism is a valid inference of metaphysical reasoning, because contingent existence is not its own cause. There is no such thing as pure potentiality; even a quantum vacuum is not nothing. It is an entity within a structured cosmos. That God defies definition should neither surprise nor trouble enquirers. Reason infers the existence of causes from the existence of effects, without always being able to specify the nature of the causes from the nature of the effects. Perceiving God’s presence is a far cry from knowing what God is.
That’s just the old argument of “everything had a beginning, and the Beginning of the Beginning must have been God.” But that begs the question, because God is defined as not having a contingent existence. Finally, there’s always that good old “leap of faith”: you accept God’s existence simply because you want to. Here Shortt tricks that notion out a bit, but it’s still wish-thinking:
None of this, then, is to downgrade the importance of a leap of faith, better termed a leap of the imagination. Many take a lead from figures including Luther and Pascal here. Pascal thought that God can be expected to appear openly to those who truly search, but to remain hidden from those who do not seek. His work points to the importance of the motivational heart and will, rather than just the mind or the emotions. This path in turn connects with the gospel summons to newness of life.
Well, I’ve looked for God, and I haven’t found him. Why does He hide himself from me? Is it possible that a “seeker” is someone who is predisposed to find God? More tautology afoot.
I am weary of theology, and swore I wouldn’t discuss it much after I wrote Faith Versus Fact. Theology is pablum for intellectuals, an unworthy enterprise on a par with learned discourse about fairies. As Dan Barker quipped, it’s a subject without an object. So I’ll end with an excerpt from the end of the review. Here Shortt puts on his dog collar and steps into the pulipit (he’s not just summarizing a book’s thesis). It’s embarrassing, and I weep for the TLS of old:
Over and again, Jesus indicates that the question of how people relate to him will govern how they relate to the God he called Father. In effect, he is re-embodying and radicalizing God’s call to Israel at the dawn of the biblical drama. The message of the early Church is that a new phase of history has been ushered in by the cross and resurrection. God is not to be seen as a monad, but as a pattern of loving relationship (the awareness refracted in language by the doctrine of the Trinity). God invites humanity to share in this mutual exchange of love – that is, to partake in the divine life – as daughters and sons by adoption. The Church is the community on earth representing a “new creation”. It is both a human society with a sometimes woeful history, and a divine society called to implement God’s will for universal reconciliation.
There is much else that Reiss might have conveyed more vigorously. For example, that although the Scriptures as a whole are humanly written and developed history riddled with ambiguities and dead ends and fresh starts, they nevertheless form powerfully challenging calls to humanity to grow and reform itself. Or that because of the conviction that God’s world helps make itself at every level, the believer can fit into one picture evolution and its costliness, and the Christian redemptive answer to human and natural evil. Or that, in the words of the Dominican theologian Cornelius Ernst, God is not only the background and the presupposition of human experience; “he is the foreground, the personally accessible sense in human terms of the human search for the absolute beginning and the absolute end”