Pages Menu
Categories Menu

Posted by on Aug 21, 2008 in atheism, Nicholas Lash | 10 comments

Lash and Turner on internet?

I have just been reading Nicholas Lash’s (a collegue at Heythrop) piece on the Impossibility of Atheism. I also read Denys Turner’s thing (his inaugural Cambridge lecture) a while back in which he argues similarly. I will shortly write something on these two very influential pieces. But I am wondering, before I do, if either is available anywhere on the internet.

Sam Norton – you know of any links?

Also, Sam, I read the Lash book you recommended (Believing Three Ways in One God). I can’t see how it helps with the problem of evil. You want to explain?

The “Impossibility of Atheism” is chpt 2 of Theology for Pilgrims by Lash. The Denys Turner is “How to Be An Atheist” (2001), which is in a collection of his papers, I believe.


  1. This book review uses the same phrase (“Impossibility of Atheism”), so I wonder if you’ve read a condensed version of this book? speculation based on googling only, of course.As an aside, I do find it frustrating why so much theistic/apologetic philosophy requires payment to read it. Being honest, people aren’t going to make their fortune on books like this, so why not save as many souls as possible when you get your name in print? Authors could even retain copyright and disallow derivative works whilst permitting unrestricted distribution in electronic form.To take an extreme example, why is Benedict XVI’s book on Jesus not available for free download? The Vatican doesn’t need the money, and neither does the pope.To be honest, I don’t think there’s a sinister motive here…ignorance of the electronic age probably. Still frustrating though.

  2. So here’s the bit that confuses me – and this isn’t confined to Lash, but seems to be true of huge numbers of theologians of different faiths.Dawkins… persists in taking for granted that ‘God’ is the name of a non-existent thing, a particular, specifiable, fictitious entity.Surely this is exactly what the vast majority of religious believers – including every single one I’ve ever met, Jewish, Christian and Muslim – understands by the word “God”?Now either I’m completely wrong or Lash is completely wrong. What am I missing here?

  3. Paul CI think you’re right, the vast majority do. However, it appears that some academic theologians are coming around to the fact that the firmer one’s definition of God is, the easier it is for somebody to stick pins in it. So in liberal Christian circles, God is becoming an ever more amorphous concept; it can be anything you want it to be, so long as its “love” (no firm definition of love is given either, other than it is what God is &c). By withdrawing from a concrete description, one takes the teeth out of the opposition’s ability to even speculate about that flimsily defined thing, let alone come to a conclusion about what or if it actually is. So, whereas one can maintain a solid atheist/agnostic position towards the more conservative presentations of the divine (e.g. the OT and Revelations give a pretty firm definitions), one is nevertheless forced to retreat to ignosticism on the more liberal views.Not so much case of shifting around goal posts as removing them entirely, imho. It’s a strategy with similar overtones to that used by the troll with the “I can prove God exists” website. The intent is to win by producing a thick smokescreen of confusion as to what one is actually talking about.However, I think embracing an increasingly fuzzy depiction of God is a self-defeating strategy in the end, because the more intangible God becomes, and the more he is flawlessly integrated into our worldview (rather than our corrupt worldview being crowbarred into His perfect worldview), the weaker the argument for appealing to him becomes. The more God is elevated to being an abstract description of evertything (He is the sky, the stars, the pulsars, the universe &c), the more he ceases to be a God that intervenes in human enterprises, or that acknowledges an individual relationship with his creation. He simply becomes a synonym for the cosmos.So the ignostic position is equally, if not more of a threat to contemporary theology, because rather than asking the question, “Does God exist”, it asks one that I think most theologians would find to be far more unsettling: “Does it matter either way?”.

  4. incitatus – absolutely spot on.just to pick one example from chapter 1:”Not only does Dawkins suppose ‘believing in God’ to be a matter of privately entertaining the opinion that a thing called `God’ exists…”So we’re now supposed to adopt the contrary position to Dawkins? Theists believe that ‘believing in God’ is to *not* entertain the opinion that God exists…? How do you think that would go down in apologetic debate?As you suggest, the goalposts are such a fuzzy blur I’ve no idea if they’re there or not now.

  5. I know we’re drifting off topic here, but I thought I’d add a quote I like from the trenchant P.Z. Myers:Most of the discussion takes up a weakness in theology, and it parallels the weakness in Dawkins’ book: the confusion between different concepts of this god-thingie. Theologians play that one like a harp, though, turning it into a useful strategem. Toss the attractive, personal, loving or vengeful anthropomorphic tribal god to the hoi-polloi to keep them happy, no matter how ridiculous the idea is and how quickly it fails on casual inspection, while holding the abstract, useless, lofty god in reserve to lob at the uppity atheists when they dare to raise questions. When we complain that the god literally described in the Old Testament is awfully petty and hey, doesn’t this business of a trinity and an immortal god being born as a human and dying (sorta) sound silly, they can just retort that our theology is so unsophisticated—Christians don’t really believe in that stuff.It gets annoying. We need two names for these two concepts, I think. How about just plain “God” for the personal, loving, being that most Christians believe in, and “Oom” for the bloodless, fuzzy, impersonal abstraction of the theologians? Not that the theologians will ever go along with it—the last thing they want made obvious is the fact that they’re studying a completely different god from the creature most of the culture is worshipping.

  6. In his [in]famous book “Honest to God” [1962] the then Bishop of Woolwich, John Robinson, deployed a lot of opaque modernist theology to redefine God as “The Ground of Our Being – a Depth at the Centre of Life”. This didn’t make very much sense to me, but it provoked howls of fury from traditional Christians who accused him of betraying their faith.Looking at the squabbles in the Anglican Church today, not much seems to change….

  7. bloody hell Stephen how fast do you read??!

  8. “In the second place, Dawkins sees God as ‘a competing explanation for facts about the universe and life. This is certainly how God has been seen by most theologians of past centuries (38). Central though it may be to his polemic, as a scientist, against religion, this contention is, quite simply, wrong.With the exception of rationalist currents in modern Christianity, Judaism, Christianity and Islam have, by and large not attempted to ‘explain’ either ‘our own existence’ or ‘the nature of the universe’.”And yet so many Christians seem upset by the theory of evolution. I think this ‘rationalist current’ is much more prevalent than Mr. Lash realizes. At least when reading this first chapter of his book, I had the impression that he is quite out of touch with the average churchgoer. Maybe things are different in England than in the States?“’Of course’, says Dawkins at one point, ‘irritated theologians will protest that we don’t take the book of’ Genesis literally any more. But that is my whole point’ We pick and choose which bits of scripture to believe, which bits to write off as allegories’ (18). Notice that ‘any more’. Dawkins takes it for granted that Christians have traditionally been fundamentalists, but that as the plausibility of fundamentalist readings of the text has been eroded by the march of reason, ‘irritated theologians’ protest that they no longer take biblical texts literally. Paradoxically, he has the story almost completely upside down. Patristic and medieval theology worked with a rich, at times almost uncontrollable diversity of ‘senses of scripture’. Passages of Scripture gave up their sense only by being read in many different ways. Fundamentalism – in the sense of the privileging of the meaning which a passage, taken out of any context, appears a priori, on the surface, to possess – is, as the Old Testament scholar James Barr demonstrated thirty years ago, a by product of modern rationalism: of the privileging of timeless and direct description, of mathematics over metaphor, prose over poetry (19).”While Mr. Lash is quite correct to point out that ancient interpreters of the books of the Bible were not limited to literalist readings of the Bible, he is, I believe, quite mistaken that they did not also hold to a strong belief in the actual historical truth of what was related in those scriptures. And even fundamentalists of today are not as literal in their interpretations as he appears to indicate; many of them believe events in the Old Testament prefigure the life of Christ. The mere fact that there are levels of meaning to be found in the Scriptures does not negate the importance of the literal level.Bill

  9. Hi Stephen – just got back from a short holiday, so sorry for a delayed response. I’m not aware of those two articles being on the internet; I don’t have the Lash one, but the Turner is in his book (collection) called ‘Faith Seeking’ published by SCM.I didn’t recommend the Lash specifically with reference to the problem of evil, more that he was representative of the sort of mainstream Christianity that I subscribe to, so substantive criticisms of his position would have more of an effect on me than criticisms of a typical US evangelical.BTW I have an article by Lash on Dawkins’ God Delusion – have you seen it? If not, send me an e-mail and I’ll send a copy.

Post a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *