Friday, 13 August 2010

Nature Man and God, Lecture I

‘The Distinction Between Natural and Revealed Religion’

I think some of Temple’s most important thinking on the essence of religion and its study are contained in this brief introduction. Significantly, he blurs the distinction between ‘natural’ knowledge of God (that which can be had through observation of the world around us, without reference to supernatural revelation), and the knowledge of God which depends on revelation. Although he does not deny that the Holy Scriptures are ‘inspired’, Temple counts the study of Scripture to be a proper activity to gain a ‘natural’ knowledge of the Jewish and Christian faiths. After all, the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures are, along with everything else that can be claimed for them, the record of the response made by generations upon generations of people to a specific revelation. The revelation contained in the scriptures may be in dispute; the response, for Temple, is not. It is essential to study the content of religions, and not just their forms. For Temple,

'It is a perfectly reasonable, if provisional, judgement, which declares that what has been so great a power in human life cannot be altogether illusory. It is not the beneficence of religion that is here in question; about that there is much more to be said. Our question concerns its manifest potency, for evil as for good. It is not inconceivable that so great a force is grounded solely in the psychological vagaries of the human mind; but it is not unreasonable to prefer the alternative hypothesis and, merely on a broad survey of human history, to adopt the view that man’s great religion is a movement within him of some great force which it behoves him to appreciate, or his response to some object of supreme import, which it behoves him to understand, or both of these at once.' (p. 7)

For Temple, it makes no sense to separate the phenomena of religion in general, from the specific content of a particular religion. And actual faith and devotion are (almost) never based on ‘natural theology’ by itself. Faith always has an object and content; rarely is it the result of argumentation, but experience. There is, however, no ‘element in human experience which may claim exemption from examination at the bar of reason’; however it is also ‘unwise’ for religion to try to ‘exclude reason altogether from investigation of its treasures.’ (p. 17)

He is also quite clear that ‘orthodoxy’ in religion—not least the Christian religion—is annoyingly difficult to pin down: ‘it is also true that there is no one complete doctrine of the Trinity accepted by all orthodox Christians. There is an orthodox formula, which excludes certain conceptions of the Divine nature; but that formula is itself capable of many interpretations...’ (p.5). This is echoed throughout Temple’s writings, especially those that pertain to his work in the ecumenical movement.

Religious authority is always an interesting topic in William Temple’s work. Religious belief, or trust in God, almost always begins with the acceptance of reasonable authority (p. 18)—the idea of ‘reasonable’ being the key. Authority has to be trustworthy—for a child, that may be the authority of loving parents or knowledgeable teachers; and this holds true in every aspect of life (not just religion). However, Temple encourages people to test authority through their experience. He is confident that in most cases, the teaching authority of a trustworthy religious tradition will be confirmed, rather than invalidated, through testing at the bar of reason and experience. Submission to religious authority is not ‘unreasonable’, any more than, for example, than deferring to expert opinion in medicine or law. What would be unreasonable, once ‘authority’ has been tested by experience and found not to be reliable, is to continue to submit to it. Authority, for Temple, is never about sheer enforcement of will or opinion—that is coercion. True authority welcomes challenge and testing, because it can stand up to scrutiny.

And perhaps that is why, at the close of this first lecture, Temple sets the following task for the study of Natural Theology:

'Natural Theology should be the criticism of actual Religion and of actual religious beliefs, irrespective of their supposed origin and therefore independently of any supposed act or word of Divine Revelation, conducted with full understanding of what is criticised, yet with the complete relentlessness of scientific enquiry.' (p. 27)

This, I believe, predates the contemporary love for ‘practical theology’—but it is an important element in it. Can faith claims stand up to scrutiny, through reason and experience? Is this great historic force known generally as ‘religion’, understood in its power for both good and evil? From there, the questions are many, including how people live the theology they claim to hold, and how that plays out in a wider society.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

William Temple

Obviously, I am not a terrific blogger. I often feel that my own ideas are not as exciting as they might be. So I need to recycle the ideas of others. I'm inspired by Dan's blog
on Richard Hooker.

To make a start, I am going to (attempt to) spend some time blogging about one of my theological heroes, Archbishop William Temple. Temple was born in 1881, died in 1944, and was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1942 until his death, having been Archbishop of York for 13years previously, and Bishop of Manchester before that. Ordained Deacon in 1909, Temple produced the equivalent of a book-length work per year of ordained ministry, and never held an academic post. He is best remembered for his work in the ecumenical movement, and as a champion of social reform, most notably in his little Penguin Classic, Christianity and Social Order.

Few people read much besides CSO any more, and I think this has been true since about the 1970s. However, I think this lack goes far to explaining a common misconception that Temple was too much a product of his own time, with little enduring to say to us today. This was the underlying premise of my doctoral dissertation (thesis to my UK colleagues), . I won't rehearse the ecclesiological arguments here.

There is much to commend William Temple's writing to us today. There is a warmth, open-mindedness, and graciousness of writing that makes reading his works much like drinking good wine--it's possible to consume a great deal before realizing the effects. I used his Christian Faith and Life to good effect with an undergraduate class in theology in 1999, and I think that slim volume, which contains the addresses to the Oxford Student Christian Mission in 1931, is still the best short introduction to his work.

However, I feel somewhat remiss that I did not produce an article in 2009, for the seventy-fifth anniversary of Nature, Man and God, Temple's Gifford lectures of 1933-34. I will, therefore, over the next few weeks, to make up for that lack, and present here a series of offerings which reflect on the enduring value of that work, and ways in which Temple's largest single volume can be a resource for theological thinking now.