06 November 2006

Denying and Disclosing God

Another book review, this time for Science and Christian Belief:

Michael J. Buckley SJ
Denying and Disclosing God: The Ambiguous Progress of Modern Atheism
New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2004

This book (an expanded version of the author’s D’Arcy lectures given in Oxford in 2000) is an exploration of the internal contradictions of theism as it has developed in the modern era. Its starting point is the conclusion of his earlier work, At the Origin of Modern Atheism, that atheism was generated dialectically from contradictions in theism.

The first chapter of the book, ‘The New Science and the Ancient Faith’, is perhaps the most directly relevant to the interests of this journal. Here Buckley sets out to demolish the popular conviction that atheism arose out of the antagonism of the new sciences to religion. He does so by examining three ways in which the new sciences embraced religion. The way of Galileo was to see them as separate enterprises. Kepler, by contrast, reduces them to a single Neoplatonic enterprise: ‘a deduction of what is likely and appropriate within the universe from the triune nature of God and the suggestion or the confirmation of that deduction from observation and mathematics’ (23). Finally Newton’s universal mechanics offers an inferential base for religion.

But if early modern science embraced religion so enthusiastically, what led to the emergence of atheism in modernity and the apparent hostility between science and religion? Chapter 2 explores aspects of this question by examining ‘A Dialectical Pattern in the Emergence of Atheism’ with particular reference to three early modern theological experiments – Lessius’s 1613 apologetic against atheism (then understood as the opinions of certain ancient philosophers); Cotton Mather’s use of science in religious apologetics; and the internal philosophical wrangling of seventeenth-century French Catholicism. What these various experiments have in common is an unacknowledged denial that interpersonal religious experience has any cognitive cogency. The subjective dimension of religion is effectively bracketed out in favour of a range of inferential approaches.

In an important essay published in 1946 Paul Tillich traced this turning away from experience towards inference back to the work of Thomas Aquinas. Buckley’s third chapter takes the form of a close reading of specific passages of the Summa, from which he concludes that ‘For Aquinas, God is given initially or primordially in his effects, rather than simply inferred from his effects. God is a presence, not simply a conclusion’ (68). Thus the Summa pointed in a radically different direction from that taken by seventeenth- and eighteenth-century rationalism.

Chapter 4 explores the radical shift in the evidential basis for theism that occurred in the nineteenth century. The secular autonomy of the sciences, Kantian epistemology and the rise of evolutionary explanations of design in nature conspired to force the apologists of theism to look increasingly to human nature. The human being became the implicit absolute and God was reduced first to a function in modern philosophy and then to a mere projection.

But, for Buckley, this is by no means the end of the story. The dialectical process may not be arrested at this point. Rather, the initial negation must be allowed to generate its own further negation. So, in the fifth chapter, he explores two different paths taken by the negation of religious experience: atheism and negative theology. Both accept the liability of religious discourse to projection. But while Freud and Feuerbach stop here and call for the disclosure of the authentically human through the deconstruction of the divine, St John of the Cross goes beyond to the negation of these projections in the classical night of the soul.

Finally, the author proposes one way of passing over the atheistic negation of a theism in which primacy has been given to inference and ‘scientific evidence’. He calls for religious experience to be restored to its proper place; ‘not a flight into the irrational or the enthusiastic, but the retrieval of a specifically religious intellectuality’ (xv). His concluding paragraph is worth quoting in full:

[T]his book argues that inference simply cannot substitute for experience. One will not long believe in a personal God with whom there is no personal communication, and the most compelling evidence of a personal God must itself be personal. To attempt something else as foundation or as substitute, as has been done so often in an attempt to shore up the assertion of God, is to move into a process of internal contradictions of which the ultimate resolution must be atheism. (138)

While *Denying and Disclosing God* is a valuable supplement to Buckley’s important earlier work, to see it only in those terms would be to undervalue it. This closely argued and elegantly written set of lectures will be immensely helpful to anyone who wishes to enter into a serious dialogue with modern atheism.

No comments: