Truth and the Reality of God: an essay in Natural Theology

Written by Ian Markam Reviewed By Stephen N. Williams

In this work, Ian Markham attempts to outline a case for, and the contours of, a natural theology. After rejecting the enterprise of two leading philosophers of religion—Swinburne and Phillips—on the ground that they fail to work with a proper view of religion, which is an all-embracing world-view making claims about the whole of reality, Markham turns to the celebrated work of Alasdair MacIntyre. He agrees with him that we base ourselves intellectually on a rationality constituted within a specific tradition, but he wants to press for a bolder realism in a bolder way than MacIntyre does. Reflection on communication and translation shows how our language is meant to refer to external reality; reflection on logic shows the fit between logic and that external reality. This enables the move that is at the heart of the book. The possibility of truth depends on the reality of God. Either the fit between language, world and logic is arbitrary, which is highly implausible, or it indicates God, which is highly plausible. Here, Markham grafts a version of the Cosmological Argument—fully sensitive to its location within a particular religious tradition—on to the characteristically Augustinian persuasion that the existence of Truth indicates the existence of God. In two concluding chapters, the author invokes Nietzsche as an ally to the extent that he saw the connection between truth and deity and then sketches out some implications for natural theology ethics and inter-religious conversation.

This is a somewhat frustrating book. In his introduction Markham tells us that he has chosen to cast his bread upon the waters rather than prepare a substantial meal that will take ten years to cook: ‘Although I am confident that each part of my argument can be defended, I am conscious that I have not always done the defending in depth or detail’ (4). Still, we were not prepared for the dismissal of Barth in about six lines or Phillips in about eight nor for such a flurry of unsubstantiated statements in the concluding chapter as, ‘[t]he Reformers felt … that redemption was an essential prerequisite for any knowledge of God’ (122); ‘atheists are rarely inclined to be as intolerant and petty as Christians often are’ (123); ‘it seems [in relation to the knowledge of truth] clear that God-desires ambiguity and complexity’ (126); ‘God must have not only allowed but delighted in the wisdom of the Buddha’ (128). But what of the core thesis? Again, it is swiftly argued. Supposing one grants the coherence of language, world and logic (and it is for philosophers of logic, not philosophers of religion, still less theologians, to assess some of this), is Markham right in specifying two options at this point: either the fit is arbitrary, or it is made possible by God? Will not Far Eastern philosophical traditions resist either conclusion? I do not know how successfully they may do so, but then this is the frustration—the landscape goes by very quickly. Having said that, Markham’s whole tone is certainly not that of the dismissive dogmatist, so that he inculcates in this reader, at least, a preparedness to hear him further on these crucial points. And, theologically, the move to align realism, truth and God as the author does is quite a welcome project on the contemporary scene. If, philosophically, he has not had time to deliver, it is not because it manifestly can’t be done; it is, because it is asking a lot in less than 110 pages of text.

Stephen N. Williams

Stephen Williams is professor of systematic theology at Union Theological College in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and served as general editor of Themelios from 1995 to 1999.