Review: God, Jesus and Belief by Stewart R. Sutherland
Helm (Paul)
Source: Philosophy, Vol. 61, No. 235, Jan., 1986, pp. 131-132
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  1. This book, based on the first twelve of Professor Sutherland's Wilde Lectures in 1981-82, offers an elegantly written reformulation of Christian belief along post-Kantian lines. The general justification for this is in terms of the cultural importance of Christianity for use and the desirability if not the obligatoriness, of re-presenting this deposit in new cultural circumstances.
  2. The argument is in three phases. The first and most negative propounds an agnosticism in theology based upon a method of theological construction which takes as its firm and undeniable starting point the fact of human suffering. In characteristically Kantian fashion morals govern metaphysics, despite the denial in Chapter III. This agnostic thrust is reinforced by some negative arguments both against the ideas of a timelessly eternal God, and of God in time, with one or two particularly effective arguments against Swinburne's defence of God in time in The Coherence of Theism.
  3. Can anything be salvaged for theology? Sutherland thinks that something can be. In the second phase he argues for the moral significance of viewing our lives sub specie aeternitatis. To give up theism, of even the attenuated agnostic variety which is offered here, would be to give this up, the importance of which, in culture and in our lives, 'cannot be overestimated' (p. 198). Once again, the occurrence of Kantian themes, theological agnosticism and the moral value of such residual theological notions as remain, is striking.
  4. The third phase of the book consists of an attempt by Sutherland to provide an account of Jesus Christ. There can be no place here for a divine Saviour. Rather, using not merely remarks from theologians and philosophers such as Bonhoeffer and Kierkegaard but also novelists such as Dostoevsky - a wide use of literature is in fact characteristic of the entire book-Sutherland claims that in the historical Jesus is the making intelligible the possibility of human optimism. 'His achievement is that he has given intelligible form to the claim that human goodness is a possibility' (pp. 185-186).
  5. Professor Sutherland has succeeded in weaving a web, if not a spell, using materials from diverse disciplines, and in a review it is not possible to comment on each of these even if one were competent to do so. I shall restrict myself to two matters, the agnosticism, and the moral significance of the idea of sub specie aeternitatis.
  6. As regards the first, it is not clear why, if the arguments deployed are as effective as they are intended to be, they do not carry all the way to atheism. What about the arguments themselves? Sutherland evinces no interest in natural theology. Perhaps because of the value he attaches to the historical development of our culture, in which Christianity has played so signal a part, he sees no need for this. So his arguments for agnosticism concern questions about logical and explanatory priority and about logical coherence.
  7. Sutherland takes the view that any construction of the moral character of God should take the existence of suffering as its starting point (p. 20). But if one is concerned with the logical compatibility of p and q (p. 21), why does it matter whether one begins with p or with q? Or if with explanation, that one begins with the explanandum rather than with the explanans? Sutherland sees great difficulties in the idea of God in time, and presents arguments which are worth developing (p. 58). But his own arguments against timelessness seem to be too swift. It is not at all clear that if God has to produce effects in time he must be located in time. There are standard arguments against this conclusion, involving different notions of change, for example. Are they not worth considering?
  8. Professor Sutherland maintains, as his central positive thesis, that the Christian theistic legacy provides us with the resources to view our actions sub specie aeternitatis and so to render certain possibilities of action, a certain kind of fulfilled life, intelligible (pp. 85-86). He is alive to the dangers of reductionism (p. 85) here, and emphasizes the positive ontological implications of such a view (p. 114). Yet it is not clear that reductionism is avoided. To see one's actions sub specie aeternitatis is to be able to add that God knows what one does. It is to live in God's sight. But God does not actually know anything (p. 84). But if God does not know anything, and yet 'God knows' is not reductionistic, what other possibility is there? Sutherland's answer appears to be that reductionism is avoided because although the idea of an action being viewed sub specie aeternitatis is merely regulative, actions so viewed have a distinctive ontological character in that certain possibilities of action not otherwise intelligible are thereby made to be so (p. 86). Whether or not the rendering of such possibilities intelligible is itself an ontological matter it is clear that at the heart of Professor Sutherland's proposal is a variety of theological reductionism.



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