Where is ethics with­out God?

The Church of England - - Comment - Paul Richard­son

‘To ex­pect an an­swer to a ques­tion is the wrong way to look at the world’. With this sen­tence Peter Wat­son sum­marises the think­ing of the pioneer avi­a­tor and au­thor of The Lit­tle Prince, An­toine de Saint-Ex­u­pery. It is a point of view with which Wat­son largely agrees and in his book The Age of Noth­ing (Weidenfeld and Ni­col­son) he aims to show how people have tried to live in the wake of the death of God with­out ask­ing fu­tile ques­tions of the uni­verse.

The book has faults. It at­tempts to cover too much ground and Wat­son of­ten re­lies on sec­ondary sources. He de­pends on WD Hud­son’s ac­count of Wittgen­stein’s views on re­li­gion, for ex­am­ple, rather than on a close read­ing of the philoso­pher him­self. The­olo­gians get short shift. In an in­ter­view with Prospect Wat­son re­vealed he has lit­tle in­ter­est in or re­spect for the sub­ject.

But be­liev­ers should not dis­miss this book too quickly. Wat­son makes crit­i­cisms of re­li­gion that de­serve to be taken se­ri­ously. Al­though he ac­knowl­edges the stand Barth and Bon­ho­ef­fer made, he is right to ac­cuse the churches of fail­ing to rise to the chal­lenge of Hitler. He could have broad­ened his crit­i­cism. David Kertzer’s re­cent ac­count of re­la­tions be­tween the Pope and Mus­solini makes painful read­ing.

One rea­son why church lead­ers were slow to con­demn Hitler was be­cause they were wor­ried about Stalin. Here the churches were right (with odd ex­cep­tions like the Red Dean) and a host of pub­lic in­tel­lec­tu­als on the left were wrong. Re­li­gious op­po­si­tion to com­mu­nism played a sig­nif­i­cant part in its down­fall.

An­other crit­i­cism Wat­son makes is that re­li­gion claims to pro­vide a priv­i­leged view­point from which to look at the world. He quotes James Wood’s para­phrase of Thomas Mann that ‘the idea of over­bear­ing truth is ex­hausted’. Wat­son ap­pears not to twig that there is a dan­ger in set­ting rel­a­tivism up as an ‘over­bear­ing truth’. Nonethe­less his view chimes in with a wide­spread opin­ion that re­li­gion at­tempts to short cir­cuit the hu­man quest for wis­dom and sup­ply ready-made, sim­plis­tic an­swers to ques­tions that may be in­ca­pable of re­ceiv­ing any an­swer at all.

Wat­son writes that with a few ex­cep­tions (Cha­gall, Rouault) ‘the art of mod­ernism was sec­u­lar art - re­li­gious themes are no­table by their ab­sence’. But the 20th century was not with­out artists in­spired by re­li­gion. In Bri­tain the names of Spencer, Suther­land, Moore and Piper spring to mind. Their work shows how faith can in­spire, not sti­fle, cre­ativ­ity

Wat­son is at­tempt­ing to de­scribe how people have lived since the death of God, so it might be ar­gued he can­not be ex­pected to look at the im­pact faith has made. But it is un­fair to crit­i­cise re­li­gion with­out ex­am­in­ing its pos­i­tive im­pact. His book ac­tu­ally prompts the ques­tion of why faith sur­vived as well as it did in 20th Century Western Europe.

Not only re­li­gious artists but Chris­tian poets and nov­el­ists are ab­sent from Wat­son’s pages. Eliot and Au­den are men­tioned but not the way faith in­spired them as poets. There is no ref­er­ence to Greene, Waugh, Solzhen­it­syn or Paster­nak. Paster­nak wrote that his way of see­ing he world was shaped when Chris­tian in­flu­ence in his life was great­est. We hear plenty about Philip Roth but noth­ing about Saul Bel­low or John Updike.

Clearly one rea­son why faith sur­vived was be­cause it stim­u­lated cre­ative imag­i­na­tions. An­other was be­cause people saw what the evil sec­u­lar gods were ca­pa­ble of achiev­ing. Com­mu­nism and Nazism were more dan­ger­ous meta­nar­ra­tives than Chris­tian­ity and, as Wat­son shows, both were in some de­gree in­spired by the man who first pro­claimed the death of God, Friederich Ni­et­zsche (al­though Wag­ner also has a claim to this hon­our).

In the Old Tes­ta­ment faith in God was check against idol­a­try. In 20th Century Amer­ica Rein­hold Niebuhr donned the prophetic man­tle to show how faith in a tran­scen­dent God ques­tions hu­man cer­tainty and un­der­mines over­ween­ing ide­olo­gies.

Al­though Wat­son ap­pears some­what in their awe, it is not the new athe­ists who have mounted the most se­ri­ous re­cent in­tel­lec­tual chal­lenge to Chris­tian­ity but 20th century an­a­lyt­i­cal philoso­phers. A group of Chris­tian philoso­phers, some of the an­a­lyt­i­cal school, oth­ers in some sense Thomist, man­aged to fight off the chal­lenge. Thomas Nagel may be un­able to em­brace the con­cept of God but he sees the strength of the re­but­tal of the mod­ern crit­ics of be­lief made by Alvin Plantinga. As well as Plantinga, Swin­burne, Polk­inghorne, Hick, Mitchell, Far­rer and many oth­ers in the English-speak­ing world have pro­vided able de­fences of the­ism.

The re­la­tion­ship be­tween faith and ethics is com­pli­cated. By the dawn of the 20th century re­li­gion had al­ready played its part in shap­ing moral val­ues in Europe and other parts of the world. Wat­son thinks evo­lu­tion is a ‘bet­ter author­ity as far as moral­ity is con­cerned’ and con­cludes it is well on the way to ex­plain­ing for­give­ness, for ex­am­ple. The self­ish gene pushes us to­wards co­op­er­a­tion. The dif­fer­ence be­tween al­tru­ism as a sur­vival mech­a­nism and the gen­uine ar­ti­cle clearly escapes him.

[i] The Age of Noth­ing is a good ti­tle for the al­ter­na­tive to what faith of­fers. The book it­self can be read as a signpost to some of the rea­sons why re­li­gion has sur­vived as well as it has.

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