Friday, June 8, 2012

Keith Ward's "The Case for Religion": Book Review

Relying on Bronze Age verses to critique religion's essence is like analyzing astronomy through astrology, or chemistry by alchemy. So argues this Oxford professor of divinity. The paperback edition features a large heading on the cover telling how Ward confronts "Dawkins and the New Atheism." Basically, Ward protests his fellow Oxford colleague for relying on simplistic readings of scripture while ignoring theology; I found Ward somewhat stronger in challenging Dawkins rather than Dennett, but both are dispatched very hastily in a brief preface when another book might have better suited Ward to take on his opponents with the depth deserved.

To sum up, "superstitious vulgarity" too often has been assumed by scientific and secular critics as the highest (or lowest) level to which "a complex affective encounter with the being of the cosmos" might attain--not only for modern people but for our ancestors, who could have turned to the gods or God out of not fear and trembling but out of poetry, love, and understanding, however partial or half-formed. Ward presents an overview of the philosophy of religion. He considers not only familiar criticisms, but formulations by its adherents to build upon its visions for bettering humanity.

Whether genuine or a delusion, human efforts to call on a transcendental force to guide us, away from malign presences or towards benign outcomes, appear deeply enmeshed within cultures and peoples, however diverse or scattered in time and place. Instead of primitive, Ward substitutes primal as a telling adjective for the core basis upon which religions have been able to progress, and sometimes regress. He insists that the more we understand about the non-mechanical, non-rational, yet civilizing power within religion, the more we may be able "to unlock a perception of meaning and value in the cosmos, which is necessary for the realisation of full human cognitive potential." (33)

This study analyzes anthropological, political-economic, and psychological critiques; Ward's sharp on Marxist weaknesses which promote an idealized humanity while denigrating nearly all actual humans. He's pessimistic that any system basing its success on human transformation can succeed, given inherent weaknesses we share, but he reminds us how facile put-downs from liberal skeptics of religious possibilities for not reductive materialism but progressive expansion of social justice and equality may emerge from religion. He skims over a provocative assertion that liberals should not be blamed for injecting secularism into (post-?)modern biblical exegeses, when the shift towards progressive social aims can be found in post-Enlightenment trends within Christian interpretation.

Given the relative coverage afforded each topic, however, as the next section quickly takes in the major world religions, Ward's attention to so many myriad details may be limited. The short length of a book taking on so much leads to summation and asides that must speak for much more between the lines. Ward emphasizes a definition of religion open to the transcendental inherent within all times and places, and which, as Marxists found, could not be eradicated, only warped into mass idolatry and massive iconography. "Religion is a combination of a theoretical conception of reality and of claims to experience, and to participate in the power of a transcendent reality. This is a state of being which is other and greater in power than things in the world of space and time." (103)

The next section charts the cultural shift away from evidence asserted to experience examined. Reform led to critique. Pure reason gave way to free questioning of authoritative sources, scientifically and scripturally. Ward differentiates a scientific method from the "discernment" which may compel a believer to commit one's self, even if this "matter" cannot be proven empirically.

The modern skepticism we inherit leaves no room for revelation's claims, unable to be verified. "The intuitive reason of an atheist will not be identical with the intuitive reason of a Christian. One includes God as an axiom and apprehensions of the supernatural as data, where the other does not include either." (167) How to account not for divine dictation but inspiration via a divine presence? Not easy to answer, but Ward in the latter third of this study tries to figure it out.

Ward investigates Kant's endeavor to map out a more rational understanding of morality as a start. A surprising place, but Ward's past work on Kant affords a fresh examination of how truth-claims in religion can be analyzed, and how the Enlightenment set up autonomy for one's self as with others. Ward creates a Kantian model of liberalism able to examine experience yet make room for freedom.

In the concluding chapters, Ward tackles an ambitious project. He asserts an inclusive variation on John Hick's pluralist model allowing religions to claim part of a whole which may elude human understanding. Flawed as all of human religious attempts are, still, a chance to adapt the personalist Kantian encouragement of an individual and liberal approach grounded in the latest of a move from ancient-local, medieval and early-modern canonical, recent-critical, and contemporary-global phases may free the future of religious adherents to pursue a more expansionist, far less exclusionist ideal.

More than one way must be granted to seek the Eternal Divine, Ward reasons, and his reason itself makes room for what revelation might move people towards fulfilling as a kind of 'theonomy,' to use Paul Tillich's term, in sidling into an imminent realization of what now may be still obscure. Ward packs a lot into the closing vignette, seeing an Indra's Net of multifaceted ways we can view the eternal latent in the external, and calling to at least some of us internally.  He encourages a move to a convergent spirituality where everyone on this planet can find a manner in which to find their own relationship within the spaces open between the Transcendent and the physical, empirical world.

P.S. I reviewed a decade ago Ward's "God: A Guide for the Perplexed"; it appeared at Amazon US where my take on Ward's 2007 "Case" was incarnated 3-5-12. P.P.S. I append his insight into Buddhism after he cites a typical Zen master's "Yes" and "No" responses to a seeker. Ward sensibly concludes: "Perhaps 'Yo' would do, and it would be the answer to all Buddhist questions." (133)


AM said...


another great review that packs so much into so little space

Fionnchú said...

AM, I thought of your own blog with a fake E-Card slogan I just saw, apropos: "Let's start with politics and resort to name calling before we bring in religion and start to kill each other." Although in certain provinces and realms, the order may have been reversed. I am teaching a course in Comp. Religions and I've been reading up on the sociology of such, much to the bewilderment of many of my flock who cite chapter and verse.

AM said...


on my blog they seem to tear each other apart over religion. Hope you enjoy the experience of teaching a course on religion.