Oxford Theologian Giles Fraser Folds Intellectual Tent
Giles Fraser, a lecturer at Wadham College, Oxford, has decided that theism is not a premise that can be defended intellectually. In an article on Ekklesia entitled God is Beyond Metaphysics, Fraser writes:
Last year, I stopped teaching undergraduates at Oxford. For years, I had struggled through the Philosophy of Religion course, where I did not much recognise the God being discussed by generations of students.
For example: to write that hoary old essay on how suffering is possible if God is omnipotent and good, without being able to write about the cross or the story of salvation — not “philosophical” enough — is like trying to fight with both hands tied behind one’s back. Throughout the course, the wonders of God’s loving purposes are exchanged for a metaphysical Meccano set. It was like attempting to understand the beauty of a butterfly by studying one pinned on a board rather than one fluttering in a meadow.
Aside from his pathetic butterfly analogy (his god can’t be seen either fluttering or pinned to a board) I find it astounding that someone could spend presumably decades in the world’s top educational institutions, and not see the contradiction. He’s essentially arguing that passionate or emotionally charged events of dubious historical nature (such as the crucifixion) can have a bearing on larger questions of philosophy.
Jesus dying as the “propitiation” for the sins of others can be supported exactly how? Even if true, this explains away theodicy? I always understood “human suffering” and “sin” as two distinctly different problems:
One, the problem of human suffering: Natural disasters, poverty, disease, malnutrition, birth defects, and mortality. And two, the problem of evil: The fall of man, the serpent, pride, eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge, sexual temptation, etc. According to the doctrine, redemption from “sin” is only available through Jesus Christ. No one in any church I’ve ever heard claims the problems of human suffering can be solved–they seem to almost universally advocate an abject acceptance of the vagaries of “god’s plan.” They’d look pretty foolish otherwise since as Earth’s population explodes, despite all their efforts, the magnitude of human suffering increases almost daily. [What improvements there are on the human condition come almost exclusively from the halls of science: immunization, water filtration, condoms, communication, pharmaceuticals, etc.]
But this distinction seems to be lost on Giles, or he’s decided it doesn’t matter. According to what I would have no choice but to call “surrender theology,” Giles lumps them together and sweeps them all under the rug of his beliefs and personal subjective experiences–they can all be solved with a “relationship” with the divine.
Pascal wrote of the difference between the God of the philosophers, and the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob — the former being some lifeless intellectual formula, and the latter something living and active, with which people could have a relationship.
After years of reading philosophy, Martin Luther concluded: “I have worn myself out at this, and can see quite clearly that it is a vain and ruinous study. It is time for us to devote ourselves to other studies, and to learn Jesus Christ and him crucified.”
In other words, Giles is hanging his hat on 500-year-old statements of theological incoherence from Martin Luther. Martin Luther apparently couldn’t figure it out either, so he gave up and busied himself with a life of temporal power–the theo-political “Reformation.” Then as now, the most advanced theologians are forced to conclude that none of it can be supported. It’s beyond philosophy. So just forget about making sense of it, shut up, and pray. And donate. And sacrifice.
Giles blames the rise of atheism on an earlier Christian concession to philosophy and a decision to engage in apologetics. “We brought it on ourselves.” He says.
The argument is roughly this. As free-thinkers began to challenge the Christian world-view, the Church set its finest minds the task of defending Christianity. As the challenge was basically philosophical, the Church chose Christian philosophers to see off the challenge. The problem was that, in doing so, the Church effectively conceded that the core issues of faith are essentially philosophical.
It was a poor place to mount a defence of Christianity. The teachings of the carpenter from Galilee were replaced by the apparently more sophisticated arguments of the philosophers. The problem was that the arguments of the philosophers became increasingly unconvincing and desperate. Christianity had, in Fr Buckley’s words, “abandoned the justification intrinsic to its nature”. Thus the very forces that were designed to defend God eventually gave rise to atheism.
It’s refreshing to hear such honesty. It sounds to me like Christians can safely shut down their schools of theology, since even the luminaries concede their work has got little to do with knowledge or argument. It’s all about their desire for answers, and the adjustments they force themselves to make inside their own heads. And a retreat into a pre-intellectual and subjective stubbornness. And that can be taught in just two words: “Have faith.”
“Follow the leader” also helps.