Saturday, March 3, 2012

Donald Wells' "God, Man and the Thinker": Book Review

Slow going, but worth the mental exertion, this 1962 survey of philosophical approaches to religion is not theology. That is, it isn't normative, so it doesn't set standards for belief to defend from the presumption God exists. Instead, this analyzes the systems set up upon belief. It delineates the pro-con arguments for religion, God, and dogma, and then it judges their merits. Rather than trying to prove what faith asserts as beyond reason, it uses reason to investigate faith claims as far as logic can, before reaching a logically logical impasse or barrier.

This distinction bedevils many scholars and seekers. Wells diligently, for 500 pages, shows what fifty years ago could be published by a mainstream (and not university) press, Random House, as a challenging study for an audience able to handle "nisus, tychism, apodictic" as words not summoning up my red squiggles as I type them, and to know what "Capua" stood for metaphorically. As for me, I had to look up all four words, but overall, Wells' careful examination rewards the reader, who, if like me, will take awhile to progress through its vast chapters. This is not a drawback of Wells' book, but it is an indication of its rigor.

I read this after J.C.A. Gaskin's considerably peppier and compact 1984 "The Quest for Eternity" (see my review). Much as I admired Gaskin's primer, its minor shortcoming was that it concentrated more on proofs for and against the existence of God and less on the wider philosophical examination of religious truth-claims in historical and contemporary settings. These, Professor Wells emphasizes, cannot by reason be ultimately tested, for resting by definition on faith, they elude "evidential proofs." (101) For instance, St. Thomas Aquinas claims, as Wells shows, that God's existence is not a theological but a philosophical problem; theologians by nature already assert there's a God. (Gaskin is also good on this aspect; Wells sometimes gets impatient with his predecessors and deniers both, so testiness lurks herein. This tone of dismissal is a slight letdown in this otherwise valuable compendium.)

Most people who don't believe, Wells reasons, aren't going to be convinced of God by such philosophical proofs; however, science may dissuade those whose lack of faith is deepened by rational analysis of religious textual or dogmatic claims that can be falsified from ancient sources which tend to be lacking in accuracy. Metaphorically, as St. Augustine argued, Scripture can be interpreted when facts clash with its assertions, but for fundamentalist Protestants, as Wells sees it, they are trapped in claiming the inerrancy of Scripture even as each believer can lay claim to his or her reading of the text as true. Rapidly, this leads to endless fission in the Protestant realm, without the controlling force of Catholic interpretation imposed from above. This was written while Vatican II was convened, so a slight shift may or may not have happened since, but this observation appears accurate for the time of this book, and most times over the past five centuries.

Wells deals with much material, and he can be wry at times despite his academic demeanor. He concludes about Christian boasts that it alone is the best religion by reminding readers that folks tend to show preferences for their conventional religion based far more on where they are raised than by "any claims of cognitive or normative superiority for any religion." He adds that if there was a superior religion, it'd have to have "super-empirical" evidence to back up its factual existence! "So far, the shrewdest way in which the claim to uniqueness has been defended has been to appeal to intuitive insights or divine revelations. These, however, suffer from being inexplicable, incommunicable, and, from the perspective of an independent observer, indefensible." (282)

Overall, this is not an easy book to navigate, but effort pays off. Philosophy of religion is defined and contrasted with science and philosophy itself in part one; religion is defined in a variety of ways--belief, feeling, and ethics--before being "nominally defined" and its origins probed into in part two; the idea of God or gods takes up part four; arguments for the existence of God comprise part five.

Problems of Religious Knowledge serve as part six, as applied to truth-claims. Natural evil, immortality; knowledge of religion as faith vs. reason comprise parts seven-nine. From here it gets a bit easier, and after 150 pages or so, issues like psychic claims and scriptural manufacture enliven this treatment. Inerrant Scripture, fixed vs. evolving religions, fundamentalism, and modernism take up parts ten-thirteen. Humanism, psychology, the church and state over the centuries, and finally science cover the remaining parts through seventeen, with a few study questions appended, leaving me to wonder if Wells' college students half a century ago could handle such daunting material! (Amazon US 1-19-12)

No comments: