chapter  4
27 Pages

Theological realism

The strategy of employing the under-labouring services of critical realism to defend an approach to religious education critically oriented toward the pursuit of ultimate truth and cultivation of truthful living sub specie aeternitatis inevitably looks to the triumvirate of ontological realism, epistemic relativity and judgemental rationality. Of the three, epistemic relativity is certainly the least controversial. The affirmation, revision or rejection of a range of different spiritual, religious and theological beliefs is highly contentious, and hence necessarily epistemically relative, both within and across different religious and secular traditions. Ontological realism is slightly more problematic. ‘There is no getting around the fact that people who express their religious convictions are in so doing referring to a specific – usually divine or divinely instituted – reality and intend to assert something as true of it’ (Pannenberg 1976: 327; cf. Byrne 2003). However, we cannot ignore the emergence, largely under the influence of post-modernism, of a plethora of non-realistic readings of religion that seek to employ religious language and practices as pragmatic tools for the enhancement of spiritual wellbeing, whilst denying they enjoy any epistemic purchase on Transcendent ontological reality. This does not, however, rule out ontological considerations. Those who reject the ontological reality of God or Transcendence, regardless of whether they go on to either affirm or deny the pragmatic utility of religious beliefs and spiritual practices, will necessarily embrace, whether explicitly, implicitly or by default, some form of immanent or naturalistic understanding of the ultimate order-of-things. Thus the absenting of God or Transcendence constitutes a critical move that necessarily involves some form of ontological commitment. Judgemental rationality is by far the most contentious. The positivistic assumption that Transcendent truth claims are closed to rational investigation remains influential today, both in popular culture and amongst a minority of academics. This despite the fact that academic theologians and philosophers continue to subject Transcendent truth claims to rigorous rational investigation. This chapter assumes that most religious adherents are ontological realists, and that those who deny religious truth claims any purchase on ontological reality cannot legitimately avoid ontological commitments. The terms of the debate may have shifted from a pre-modern conversation between

incommensurable Transcendent truth claims to a modern conversation between incommensurable Transcendent truth claims and a range of immanent alternatives, but the critical ontological question of our place in the ultimate order-ofthings and the challenge of living truthful lives sub specie aeternitatis (whether this entails the affirmation or absenting of Transcendence) remains. It also assumes that all ultimate truth claims are necessarily epistemically relative. This is not to affirm a thoroughgoing relativism in which all Transcendent truth claims are deemed equally true/false, but rather a provisional relativity in which conflicting truth claims are seen as ontologically incommensurate rather than ontologically redundant. Given the possibility of false consciousness, the task of adjudicating between conflicting truth claims and striving to differentiate between more and less powerful explanations of the ultimate order-of-things becomes an intellectual, moral and spiritual imperative. Hence the central importance of cultivating forms of judgemental rationality and establishing and maintaining appropriate levels of religious, spiritual and theological literacy, both amongst those who affirm and amongst those who deny the ontological reality of Transcendence. Given critical realism’s rejection of epistemic foundationalism, there is no need here to demonstrate that the application of judgemental rationality to Transcendent truth claims rests on secure epistemological foundations. Since we always reason from within particular traditions and seek to better understand that which we already believe we know, there is no need to provide any antecedent justification of our attempts to understand and assess our established beliefs and practices. The fact that adherents of both Transcendent and immanent worldviews subject their beliefs and practices, and the beliefs and practices of others, to critical scrutiny, in an ongoing and as yet unresolved process of enquiry, is sufficient condition for the debate to proceed. Understanding seeking faith may require the establishment of secure antecedent epistemic foundations, but faith seeking understanding simply embarks from our given situatedness in particular faith traditions, whether religious or secular. The issue is not whether it is possible to employ judgemental rationality in evaluating our religious and secular beliefs, and the religious and secular beliefs of others, since it is a phenomenological fact that many religious and secular believers do precisely that. Rather, the issue is that of the quality, richness and depth of the judgemental rationality we employ. Even the most cursory review of the attempts of academic theologians and philosophers to apply judgemental rationality to Transcendent claims reveals the presence of genuine quality, richness and depth, marked by attentiveness, intelligence, reasonableness and responsibility. Indeed, the absence of these factors in the academy is most clearly visible in the remarkable failure of a number of contemporary critics of religion to engage with the corpus of theological and philosophical literature when presenting their arguments, despite the established academic protocol of attending closely to the best available version of a position one seeks to debunk. Despite the rhetorical flourishes that are perhaps justifiable in a semi-popular polemical text, the following words of Alister McGrath, in the context of a close reading of the work of Richard Dawkins, are worth quoting here:

Richard Dawkins . . . knowing nothing about Christian theology, rushes headlong into the field, and tells theologians what they really mean. . . . There is a total failure on Dawkins’ part to even begin to understand what Christian theology means by its language. It really does make it difficult to take his judgements concerning its alleged failures with any degree of seriousness. . . . Now perhaps Dawkins is too busy writing books against religion to allow him time to read works of religion. On the rare occasions when he cites classic theologians, he tends to do so at second hand, often with alarming results.