by Anthony Freeman
from Signs of the Times No. 55 - Oct 2014

Recent articles on directions for liberal theology -- by Jonathan Clatworthy (ST April 2014) and Michael Wright (ST July 2014) - have made reference to ‘theism’ and ‘realism’ and related philosophical terms.

The following notes are offered as a brief guide to these families of words and the way they have featured in recent theological debate, with a final word on their relevance to Modern Church.

God Talk

THEISM says that there is a God, who is personal, who created all that exists, and has a continuing relationship with creation while remaining distinct from it. Theists generally agree that God is eternal, almighty, all-knowing, and all-loving. Theism is the ‘traditional’ Christian attitude to the God of the bible, but there are variations within Christian theism.

Thus, some theologians say God is eternal by being outside time; others that God simultaneously inhabits all time. Some say God is almighty and so can do anything; others that God’s own nature acts as a constraint, e.g. an all-good God cannot act in a way that is irredeemably evil. Some say God is good because God only does things that are inherently good; others that things only count as good because the inherently good God does them or approves them.ATHEISM says that if there were a God, God would be as described by theists, but that in fact there is no such God.

DEISM (popular in the eighteenth century because it is compatible with Newtonian science) says that God created the universe ‘in the beginning’ but has subsequently left it to run according to its own laws, without further divine intervention.

PANTHEISM (associated with Spinoza [1632-77], although the term was coined after his death) says God is the totality of all that is.

PANENTHISM teaches that God is in all things but also transcends all things. Twentieth-century process theologians such as Charles Hartshorne and John Cobb claimed that theism’s absolute gulf between creator and creation was a Greek aberration, while pantheism’s denial of any distinction between them went too far in the opposite direction. They espoused panentheism because it restored the biblical balance of both a clear distinction and genuine interaction between God and the universe.

NONTHEISM is a less well defined term, useful for describing views of God that are positive but differ from classical theism. Among Quakers, where the emphasis is on practice rather than doctrine, the Nontheist Friends Network provides an umbrella support group for any Friend not comfortable with traditional theism, including atheists and those with a nonrealist stance (see below).

Philosophical Stances

REALISM is the philosophical belief that there is a ‘way things are’ that is independent of any human or other conscious awareness. ‘Naïve realism’ further holds that things ‘in themselves’ are exactly as humans perceive them to be. In contrast, ‘critical realism’, following Kant [1724-1804] and the most widely-held position today, insists that human knowledge of the universe is limited by human perceptual apparatus, so we cannot know the inner reality of things as they are ‘in themselves’. For example, we see poppies as red because that is the way our visual system interprets the light reflected by poppies, but the colour red exists only in human consciousness, not in the outside world. Keith Ward has a useful discussion of realism in relation to our knowledge of God as Trinity in Modern Believing July 2014.

NONREALISM (or ANTI-REALISM) is the philosophical belief that there is no ‘way things are’ that is independent of human or other conscious awareness. In this view, the universe as humans perceive it, whether through their senses (empirically) or with their minds (rationally), is a construct of human consciousness, both individual and corporate. This is similar, but not identical, to the classical Idealism of Bishop Berkeley [1685-1753]. It is the theological approach associated since the 1970s with Don Cupitt.

Philosophy and Religion Meet

Nonrealism is counter-intuitive and largely dismissed by theological liberals on the grounds that if everything is ‘made up’, then everything becomes trivial. Unless there is a Truth to be discovered (so the reasoning goes), there are no grounds, even in theory, for judging between the claims of rank superstition and those of critical scholarship, between the gods of Mount Olympus and the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Against this are two considerations that might commend a nonrealist approach to theology, one philosophical and the other scientific.

First, there is some force to the claim of postmodern continental philosophers that ‘there is no outside to the text’ (i.e. the human mind is confined by its own word-bound experience and thinking). Even if there is a Truth about the way things are beyond our experience and imagination, by definition we cannot access it. If that is the case, critical realists are in practice behaving exactly as nonrealists, and working wholly within the limits of human experience and imagination.

Second, for nearly a century quantum physics has (at the very least) placed a large question mark against the assumption that the physical universe is a ‘reality’ waiting to be discovered by scientific investigation. The earliest and still dominant interpretation of quantum mechanics maintains that (1) there is no ‘deep reality’ (what a critical realist would call the nature of things ‘in themselves’); and (2) ‘phenomenal reality’ (the nature of things as we experience them) is created by observation.

Ways of being ‘Modern’ Church

The word ‘modern’ was added to the name of our society in the 1920s, after pope Pius X had condemned (under the title ‘modernism’) the very thing we stood for, namely the Enlightenment project of bringing historical, scientific and literary criticism to bear on the bible and Christian faith and order. This rather precise sense of the word proclaimed the society’s support of modernism as opposed to dogmatism and fundamentalism. It could be argued that faithfulness to this heritage now requires the promotion of modernism (liberalism; critical realism) against postmodernism (radicalism; nonrealism).

But ‘modern’ also carries the wider everyday sense of ‘contemporary’, and a hundred years on we find postmodernism a significant and creative part of the current intellectual scene.

Whether or not nonrealist ‘theology’ should be included in Modern Church’s debates and publications is now a live issue within the society, and one to which readers of Signs of the Times may wish to add their voice.

(This debate will indeed be continued in the next edition – Ed)