Simon Barrow

Rethinking Christianity - by Keith Ward

By Simon Barrow
August 13, 2007

Re-thinking Christianity is the title of the latest in an energetic series of recent, semi-popular books which have poured forth from the pen of Keith Ward, Professor of Divinity at Gresham College, London, and Regius Professor of Divinity Emeritus at the University of Oxford, over the past few years. I say "semi-popular" because these titles (God: A Guide for the Perplexed; Is Religion Dangerous?, What the Bible Really Teaches and Pascal's Fire: Scientific Faith and Religious Understanding) have their roots in careful, scholarly thought. But they are still crafted with a clarity and engagingness that ought to communicate to intelligent people who otherwise lack a grasp of much of the technical, historiographical, interpretative and conceptual vocabulary which needs to inform discussion of God and belief at the toughest level - that is, way beyond the pigeon-holing, point-scoring approach of both 'muscular religion' (in its many modern guises) and the new 'muscular atheism' (of Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Grayling, Hitchens, et al).

Publishers OneWorld Books (Oxford, 2007) sum up the remit of Ward's new volume, made available in hardback earlier this year (2007), as follows: "The Christian faith is often charged with being outmoded and anachronistic. [Subsisting in what is taken to be] a monolithic institution rooted in the past, many critics have claimed that it lacks the resources to adapt to modern society's needs and advances. In Re-thinking Christianity, popular Christian theologian Keith Ward sets out to challenge this view, arguing persuasively that it is not only uncharitable, but refuted by historical evidence.

"Mapping the evolution of six major beliefs, from the Hellenistic restatement to the challenge of evolutionary theory, Ward demonstrates that Christianity has always been expressed in constantly changing ways in response to new knowledge and understandings of the world. Controversial, liberal [in the sense of open and critical], and confronting the principal questions facing Christianity today, Ward uses this basis to support the construction of his own ground-breaking theology: a 'systematic theology' for the post-scientific age." [My interpolations added]

At this stage I will not enter into a detailed commentary on the book's specific and various arguments about core Christian convictions, because I want to spend more time immersed in them myself. Suffice to say, the title's ambiguity is deliberate: Ward is contending that Christianity is both the product of, and productive of, a process of grounded re-thinking. Hear, hear to that, I would say. Likewise, the 'post-scientific' ascription is not about denying the fruits of modern scientific endeavour; rather it is about seeking to move beyond narrow types of philosophical naturalism and empiricism which have been parasitical on the nobler aspirations and procedures of the enterprise in recent years.

As a general guide, readers who have some familiarity with the scope of Ward's work will find that his tenor in Rethinking Christianity is less pessimistically revisionary than, say, the iconoclastic A Vision To Pursue: Beyond the Crisis in Christianity (SCM, 1991, rev. 2005). But it is, equally, significantly more adventurous than the more conventional apologetics of Living God (SPCK, 1984). It is also more rigorously constructed than either of these consciously rhetorical tracts, while recognisably reiterating and expanding what could be called "a family of concerns" that the writer has nurtured over the years, both as a scholar and as a practicing Christian in the service of church and society.

Though my own temperaments of thought diverge from Keith Ward's (I am more apophatic and less propositional in understanding theory, say), I have always found him a very helpful writer, for a variety of reasons. Unlike many theological thinkers he is often disarmingly straightforward. He puts a high premium on saying what he means. He is prepared to state his position boldly and without precursory defensiveness. As I have already intimated, he is also unafraid to change his mind or try what looks like an entirely different line of approach between books - having gone through more liberal, more conservative and more consciously synergistic and inter-disciplinary phases. (It is not so much that this betrays inconsistency as that it is openly developmental, while remaining strong on logic.)

The impact of this on the reader can be varied and sometimes a little unsettling - in a good way. So one moment I find myself cheering Ward. Then the next I want to wince slightly, or to enter substantive reservations - about, for instance, his devotion to the overall efficacy of analytic philosophical categories; his commitment to Greek metaphysics as a primary frame for Christian doctrinal thought; his often intense linguistic realism; his sometimes too-comfortable political liberalism; his quasi-latitudinarianism; his temptation to underplay the originating subversiveness of Jesus traditions, and so on. But, without doubt, he is always worth arguing with. And I don't think you can pay a writer a higher compliment than that.

I also appreciate the basic balance and structure of Keith Ward's recent work - which is to pursue the fruitfulness of traditional Christian language in an exploratory and constructive way, to take seriously the sharp distinctiveness of incarnational theology, and yet to situate all this in relation to unavoidable questions arising from comparative interreligious theology (Religion and Creation, Religion and Revelation, Religion and Human Nature, Religion and Community). His method keeps the correlative and the confessional in a healthy conversation where neither is allowed a final stranglehold (though the former retains something of a dispassionate upper hand).

Undoubtedly, I wish Keith Ward would take much more account of post-Christendom political theology (John Howard Yoder and beyond) together with phenomenologically-driven continental philosophy (John Caputo, Richard Kearney and so forth). But then I would say that, wouldn't I? He's far better off being himself, of course; thereby forcing us all towards more faithful thought, unsentimental hope and - his particular charism - generous clarity.


Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. His blog can be found at http://faithinsociety.blogspot.com

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