For if that which is done away was glorious, much more that which remaineth is glorious

Saturday, 27 April 2013

Farrer and Fideism (Part 1)

Part of my background reading for my MPhil thesis (may it rest in peace) on Austin Farrer took me to a PhD thesis by a Divinity student who was writing about whether Farrer was a fideist or a religious rationalist. For a little bit of background, Farrer was an Oxford don and Anglican priest whose works include: (1) philosophical approaches to God and faith e.g. Finite and Infinite (very tough), Saving Belief and Faith and Speculation (more easily approached) and probably his best known work The Freedom of the Will; (2) typological biblical commentary (The Rebirth of Images: the Making of St John's Apocalypse is my favourite); (3) writings on the idea of biblical and poetic inspiration (e.g. The Glass of Vision).

I think Austin Farrer is one of the great twentieth century theologians, but who suffers a common Anglican fate. He isn't wrong enough to be read by everyone: or perhaps it would be more accurate to say he isn't wrong enough to be quoted by everyone as if they had read him. Protestant theologians, it seems to me, get heard - like Barth - by saying something either plainly unorthodox or easily distorted but that sounds "new" or "distinctive". My justification for saying that Anglicans suffer neglect from this kind of treatment is simply to point to Anglican divines like Hooker and Andrewes, and then to Calvin. One may be able to defend Calvin from the rather drastic views of divine agency overruling human will that are attributed to him, but his supposed notions of predestination are what his name carries around. Hooker, on the other hand (whatever injustices have been done to Calvin) doesn't even get a heresy attached to him, apart from a vague idea that he backed the Anglican Elizabethan compromise against the Puritans and gave some kind of notion of balancing reason, tradition and Scripture. Yet I think that ten pages of Ecclesiastical Polity would convince most readers that here is a breadth of mind and judgment out ahead of Calvin's, after comparison with ten pages of the Institutes. And I think that Farrer, with his fine-tuned judgments, suffers the same fate in the twentieth century as Hooker in the sixteenth.

Fideism, the notion that a belief in the existence of God or the foundational tenets of the Faith cannot be demonstrated by reason, stands over against religious rationalism, which says that at the very least the existence of God can be rationally demonstrated. One of the anti-modernist pronouncements of the First Vatican Council was that the existence of God can be demonstrated by the natural exercise of reason, not just probably but certainly.

The PhD on Farrer, mentioned above, placed him as a moderate fideist, and definitely not a religious rationalist as defined by Vatican I. While the "rationalism" of Vatican I may seem very scholastic, high and dry, I am not sure that I like the alternatives. It seems to me prima facie rather odd to say that everything, including all our powers of intellect and reason are (1) created and given to us by God but (2) don't lead to a reliably certain demonstration of His existence. I know that (2) may be justified by all kinds of caveats about the limited powers of reason, the idea that God's existence is not the kind of thing that can be demonstrated, etc. But - as will be discussed in the next post - I think that Farrer's thought points the way to an approach to this question that puts things in a new light.

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