Book review by John Schofield
In 64 pages Ian takes us on a whirlwind tour. Twice he refers to particular people as polymaths; after reading this, I am inclined to ascribe that title to Ian himself. The range of disciplines which he authoritatively calls on – Biblical studies, philosophy, sociology, anthropology, cosmology.to name a few – and authors (only a new of whom are mentioned in this review!) is immense. And though he doesn’t fight shy of using technical language, he does so in a way which carries the reader with him rather than obscures or obfuscates. But I have to say, short as it is, it is not a read for the faint hearted!
To quote the concluding summary as a way of understanding this book, it is ‘about monotheistic belief [as] an embodiment of human being, one that not only gives expression to faith’s inclination towards self-transcendence, but also, through participating in a sponsoring belief system, relates the believer to faith’s source of fulfilment through learning to live in God’s light.’ Monotheism may be a ‘hypothesis only verifiable through personal experience’, but with a rigour and a depth of erudition, Ian shows how this is a sustainable basis for personal living and flourishing.
In the first section we are given an overview of faith within the origins of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, starting with a discussion of what faith is, how faith can be identified and, indeed, whether it lends itself to precise or even meaningful definition, and a reminder of the distinction between faith as orthodoxy and/or as orthopraxy.
Abraham is, as you would expect, a key figure, though Ian is clear that the context of Genesis 15.6 (‘and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness’) is that of right relating rather than the forensic meaning prominent in later interpretations. Then the development of monotheism in Israelite understanding is discussed, as well whether in Islam ‘a trusting faith in Allah constituted of itself a sufficient Islamic response or whether believing aright was necessary’. This tension is a consistent thread throughout the monograph.
Section two looks at faith and belief, introducing the idea of faith as self-transcendence and distinguishing between ‘faith as an inherently human impulse or potentiality towards transcendence and belief as the interpretative framework or semiotic system’. The helpful identification of belief systems (as distinct from beliefs) throws some light on what is going on in some arguments in the contemporary church. As often elsewhere, there are useful analogies drawn from the contemporary world.
The third section concentrates on the status of religious beliefs, starting with an outline of George Lindbeck’s categorization of four possible dimensions to doctrine and religious beliefs more broadly: the referential, the expressive, the interpretative and the formative. This is brought into dialogue with the critique of Alister McGrath and the insights of Ian McGilchrist.
This section includes some important statements:
‘this conviction that the truthfulness of religious beliefs resides in their capacity to offer a satisfactory account of human experience, including its relationality, supplies a promising route for being able to claim anything about God beyond that experience’
‘if the word ‘God’ did not resonate with a common pool of human experience, it could never have become a source of cohesion and community formation.’
‘believing is learning to live “as if” God is in the fullest sense … thereby engendering the existential orientation within which God enters human consciousness – not as a construct or derivation, but as the ‘thou’ summoning forth our personhood, animating our being-in-relation.
Section four brings what has gone before together to focus on monotheistic belief, stressing the importance of relationality: ‘we are relationally constituted integrities for whom relating to the beyond-self, to the other, is constitutive, not simply derivative, of our human being.’ This is given precedence over a Cartesian understanding. It is then related to expressive, interpretive and formative belief in discussions which are much illuminated by the writings of the Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart. While recognising that ‘there is no access to God apart from human experience (shaped by belief systems)’, Ian also points to ‘the danger of the deployment of personal language, leading to conceiving of God as being in some sense a substantive person’.
In a short section of concluding remarks, Ian opens up a few questions. One is about special revelation, where he challenges us to consider whether the suggestion inherent in special revelation that ‘God is not equally immanent in all times and places but invests certain persons or moments with additional donations of divine being’ is or is not compatible with monotheistic belief; and whether the concept of ‘sacramental amplifications’ in time, where extraordinary persons or events intensify divine presence, serves us better by embodying divine presence ‘in such a way that it becomes more perceivable.’
This is a thought-provoking and encouraging journey into the subject area.