Review: God, Jesus and Belief by Stewart R. Sutherland
Hepburn (Ronald W.)
Source: Religious Studies, Vol. 21, No. 2, Jun., 1985, pp. 254-257
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  1. Professor Sutherland proposes a drastically revised version of Christian belief about God. Problems over evil and suffering, problems about God's eternity of sempiternity, about his action in the temporal world, about his omniscience, lead Sutherland to a substantial degree of agnosticism. Difficulties focus on the idea that God is an 'individual being who transcends the world'. Sutherland argues that 'much of what is central to theistic belief will be retained' in a view of theology as the 'articulation of the possible'. 'Sometimes by showing that something is possible we can establish a sense in which it is actual'; and to show the possibility of such distinctions as that 'between justice and injustice' or 'between the temptations of evil and the inclinations of one's character or nature' is 'to show their reality'.
  2. Sutherland draws a recurrent example from Bolt's A Man for All Seasons. Thomas More tells Rich that 'if he becomes a teacher and teaches well, "You will know it, your pupils will know it, and God will know it" .In what sense, Sutherland asks, will God know it? Not as a supernatural being who knows all: to add 'God will know it' is, again, to talk about possibilities - 'possibilities about human fulfilment' and 'self-knowledge'. Metaphysics, however, has not been abandoned. There is an 'ontological difference between a world in which fulfilment can be found in human life and one in which this is not so'.
  3. Sutherland argues that a valid and fundamental role of theistic language is to set forth the possibility of a view of human affairs sub specie aeternitatis. By this he does not mean a personal-God's-eye-view: he is speaking of nothing 'other than the world seen and experienced'. Nor does he wish to relate his interpretation to testimonies about mystical experiences. What positively is ' mediated in the view sub specie aeternitatis is a non-relativistic evaluation. Whether the way of life More recommends to Rich (and indeed the prayerful preparation of Jesus for his death) are more than 'a product of fantasy or dream' depends precisely on the possibility of a view of the world sub specie aeternitatis. And this is a possibility 'contained within the structures of the world'. The idea of a transcendent order expressing the eternal values is a vital means for affirming forms of goodness and rightness not acknowledged by the bulk of society, and for distinguishing commitment to such values from fanaticism or madness. In a sympathetic discussion of Bonhoeffer, Sutherland writes, 'we have no further conception of transcendence to fill out or "complete" the ethical' Transcendence is 'essentially ethical in character'.
  4. If theism in general is concerned with the expression of a possible view of the world sub specie aeternitatis, what role in this is played, more specifically, by ' the figure of Jesus'? Sutherland discusses some episodes in recent debates over the historicity of the New Testament picture of Jesus. He distinguishes usefully between circumstances when factual historical accuracy is and is not vital for the justification of a person's responses. The historicity of Jesus rules out some possible accounts of Jesus as unfounded or fanciful; and it means that the significance of Jesus' life 'cannot be sumarised ... definitively': 'the facts can always be regrouped'. Yet Sutherland does not propose re-opening the quest for the historical Jesus: the scholars disagree over the facts, and their enquiries could not, in any case, 'verify faith'. We may hold to the importance of Jesus' historicity per se (thereby escaping a ' purely subjective Christology'), yet without becoming subject to the 'vulnerability' that afflicts a faith founded on would-be historical detail.
  5. Can it make sense to claim, Sutherland asks, that moral perfection is manifested in a particular life and death? For 'partial illumination' he considers the problem Dostoevsky encountered in attempting to portray a thoroughly good man. We note also that to Kierkegaard the good man must appear 'entirely like others' - he is 'incognito'. Failure to portray such goodness is 'inevitable' since it 'has no external particular form'.
  6. The 'work' of Jesus must, obviously, be reinterpreted on a revisionary account like Sutherland's. That work is seen as the 'rejection of radical pessimism': Jesus has given 'intelligible form to the claim that human goodness is a possibility'. The closing chapters of John's Gospel are found especially illuminating. On the one hand: 'I am in the Father, and the Father in me', and on the other - 'the apparent denial of this by his very fate'. Goodness remains something inner and essentially ambiguous.
  7. Does Sutherland's 'revisionary theology' fully reckon with the huge difference that is bound to be made by his agnosticism over God conceived as an individual being? Even accepting that theism has more strands than one, can this strand be discarded and theism survive? Can there be theism without a theos? In my own view (and I am sympathetic to the enterprise), the connections that remain with traditional theism are here very tenuous indeed. If we concentrate on an ethical interpretation of transcendence, what does this amount to? To the view of the world sub specie aeternitatis. And that? - to the possibility of non-relativistic moral appraisals, related to forms of human fulfilment. 'God will know' does not refer now to any divine being or to any knowing, but expresses a moral judgement of exactly that kind.
  8. My worry here is that not only does the language of theism not seem necessary to express such judgements, but it looks positively misleading, even morally misleading, if used to do so. First, it goes against the grain of' knows' to withdraw all reference to a personal mind over-against the human subject and his acts. Secondly: in many contexts of moral challenge, we are not attuned to the purely ethical demand until we altogether discount any thoughts about who, if anyone, is watching or 'knows' what we are doing or failing to do. So why bring in the thought of a (literally non-existent) divine knowing, or see in such a thought a uniquely helpful way of characterizing our non-relativistic appraisals and moral actions? The language fights rather than supports the simple, austere thought - that neither the threat nor the consolation of another's knowing is decisively relevant to the moral quality of my acts. Further: if we are in quest of a better understanding of the idea of non-relativistic moral judgements, it is doubtful if re-working theism in terms of a view of the world sub specie aeternitatis will point the way to it.
  9. Stewart Sutherland claims that the actual world is so structured as to 'tolerate' the view sub specie aeternitatis, but that not any and every world would tolerate it. Ontology matters. But the reader is left wondering what features of the world produce this toleration; and what ontological difference would destroy it. The metaphor of the 'structures' of reality awaits further clarification.
  10. Also incomplete, I think, are the arguments over the particularization of goodness, and the question of grounds for optimism about the possibility of goodness. Despite their individual interest, the accounts of Dostoevsky's personal failure to portray perfect goodness, and Kierkegaard's claims about the incognito, the hidden, inward character of the good man and his goodness, are rather slight to bear the great weight that Sutherland places upon them.
  11. Particularly puzzling is the relation between this view of goodness as veiled and inward and fictionally unportrayable, and the issue of our knowledge and ignorance of the historical Jesus. The historical Jesus presumably did and said a great many things that were seen and heard by others, although the alleged inwardness of goodness will make the relation between deeds and words and goodness elusive and indirect. If the incognito is thoroughgoing, how do we know to single out this man for reverence? There has to be some trusting the records, and in reasonable detail. Why then should we not quest for the historical Jesus? If our right to 'optimism' - about the possibility of human goodness - rests upon the 'work of Jesus' (i.e. his giving 'intelligible form' to that possibility), surely a substantial amount of particularized historical data about Jesus' life is indispensable. Also, although it is entirely plausible to claim that Jesus enhanced our confidence in the possibility of goodness, it is hardly shown that he uniquely gave grounds for optimism, so construed. Would this really require perfect goodness? and if less than perfect goodness would do, the Dostoevskian and Kirkegaardian obstacles to the portrayal of perfect goodness lose their power.
  12. Jesus affirms that he is the Way and yet accepts a fate incompatible with all outer signs of divinity. His 'life and words... point clearly to the inadequacy of any account of goodness which is essentially outward and unambiguous'. But we are able to say this only if we have considerable confidence to the historical accounts of that life and those words. How then can we not have the utmost interest in what historical scholarship continues to say about these accounts, both about the large outline of Jesus' life and about the details? Vulnerability too, I think, cannot be avoided.
  13. With its candour and honesty, Sutherland's book will undoubtedly give new impetus to the search for revisions of Christian teaching compatible with the philosophical thought of the day.

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