Evidence and Transcendence: Religious Epistemology and the God-World Relationship, by Anne E. Inman. Pp. ix, 188, Notre Dame, IN, University of Notre Dame Press, 2008, $26.50.
Article first published online: 29 NOV 2013
© 2013 Trustees for Roman Catholic Purposes Registered
The Heythrop Journal
Volume 55, Issue 1, pages 141–142, January 2014
How to Cite
Meynell, H. (2014), Evidence and Transcendence: Religious Epistemology and the God-World Relationship, by Anne E. Inman. Pp. ix, 188, Notre Dame, IN, University of Notre Dame Press, 2008, $26.50. The Heythrop Journal, 55: 141–142. doi: 10.1111/heyj.12064_21
- Issue published online: 29 NOV 2013
- Article first published online: 29 NOV 2013
The title of this fine book is remarkably apt. A central difficulty for the notion of God is – if a putatively real or existent entity is sufficiently transcendent to be God, then nothing can count as evidence for it. But if nothing counts as evidence for God, then one ought not to believe in God. To put the dilemma another way: What could there be which ‘transcends’, or is distinct from, not only every thing, but the universe as the sum total of everything? As Antony Flew once asked, is it not natural, and perhaps in the long run rationally inevitable, to say ‘Nothing'?
For the purpose of bringing the problem and her solution to it into focus, the author attends to five authorities. On Richard Swinburne's efforts to provide probable evidence for the existence of God, she concludes that they unduly compromise divine transcendence (33). According to George Lindbeck, Christian discourse is not so much a matter of expounding propositions, or expressing feeling, as of performing a regulatory function over a whole way of life. Thus the kind of exercise undertaken by Swinburne is wholly irrelevant so far as he is concerned. But Lindbeck has no answer to give to those who seek out evidence for the alleged truths of faith; and takes himself to be a good Lutheran Protestant in this regard(48). The same applies to Ronald Thiemann, who, as one might expect of someone so strongly influenced by Karl Barth (36, 56–7 etc.), is anti-foundationalist. For him, the Christian should abandon any search for a theoretical explanation of how God can address us through Scripture; this simply has to be affirmed (84–5).
Although Friedrich Schleiermacher explicitly repudiated the traditional forms of argument for the existence of God, one could well say that a form of cosmological argument is implicit in his conception of piety as the feeling of dependence, and God as that on which one absolutely depends. A similar point may be made about Karl Rahner's ‘recognition of the necessity of the transcendent ground as the condition of human knowing’ (152). I think that Rahner is quite right that there is an inveterate tendency in Protestant theology to oscillate between a God who is the inner meaning of humanity and nothing more, and one who, in the manner of the ‘dialectical theology’ of Emil Brunner and the earlier Barth, ‘utterly contradicts us and our world’ (82). The author's solution to her initial problem is essentially that of Rahner, with Schleiermacher as a close second (155).
In my view, the best clue to the solution of the problem is well expressed in a formula of Thomas Aquinas, ‘God operates in every operation of nature and will.’ (What is basic to the sinful acts of human and angelic creatures constitutes a sort of exception to this; but there is no space to go into the matter here.) This shows how God can be at once immanent and transcendent; God (at least so far as God is knowable by merely natural reasoning as distinct from special revelation) is at this rate not identical with any entity whose existence depends on divine activity, or even with the sum-total of such entities (the created order as a whole). But God, to be God, must not only have aseity; God must in some respects be analogous to a person or conscious subject. In accordance with classical theism, God is the conscious subject who conceives and wills the whole of creation rather as we do our vastly narrower range of actions and products. Matter/energy, in the view of very many people in our time, has the property of aseity or existence of itself; but it is not useful to pray to it.
And what evidence, it may be asked, do we have that whatever has aseity is at all analogous to conscious subjects like ourselves? The answer is, the very possibility of science. Does not the fact that the mysteries of the universe are open to the probings of our minds rather strongly suggest, at least, that something like mind is at the bottom of it? Furthermore, if one attends to modern physics, it seems that the ‘matter’ which, as Bishop Berkeley observed, is so enthusiastically harped on by atheists, is dissolved in an ocean of elegant mathematical formulae. The reader may note that this is a far cry indeed from that pitting of science and theistic religion against each other which has been characteristic of modern times, and has recently become so fashionable again.
Though the author's discussion of Swinburne is interesting and on the whole fair, I should say that, in the last analysis, she undersells him. Certainly Swinburne stresses the positive analogy between the properties theists attribute to God on the one hand, and human mental acts on the other; but so far as the via negativa is emphasized to such an extent that the term ‘God’ appears meaningless, his corrective is much needed.