Readings on Theology and Realism

As I understand the realist dispute, the crux of the matter is captured in the following question tersely posed by Austin Farrer:

Tell us what middle position is tenable between a serious personalism in religion, and that pious atheism which has no other god than the backside of human nature? (Faith and Speculation, 1967: 48)

Farrer’s unstated point is that there is no such position. There is either (1) a traditional realist picture of God as a self-existing reality, or (2) some species of a constructivist picture of God as an artifact of human religiosity. (It might be worth noting: Farrer’s “personalism” is a separable point, e.g., a pantheist could still be a realist.) In any case, Farrer leaves us before two stark alternatives.

Others, however, have wondered whether more nuanced options might not be available. In another study, for instance, E. H. Henderson took up the question of whether D. Z. Phillips in fact articulated a third position. In the end, Henderson doesn’t think Phillips succeeded, for the reason that Phillips’ position seems to Henderson entirely translatable into the terms of the second picture. And so Henderson leaves us back where we started, with Farrer’s disjunction.

The story might have ended there, were it not for Denys Turner. Commenting on Don Cupitt’s retrieval of medieval theology, Turner claims:

The common thread which may be identified as running between the speculative mysticisms of the Pseudo-Dionysius, Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure and Eckhart … is to be found … in their critique of those antinomies of thought and those deformations of spirit for which there can be no alternative to a naïve realism except in a naïve non-realism. At the level of theological language, those antinomies show up in the naïve polarizations of ‘objective’ and ‘subjective,’ ‘realism’ and ‘non-realism’ (God and Reality, 124).

For Turner, the only thing as naïve as ‘naïve realism’ and ‘naïve non-realism’ is the naivety of the supposition that these two antithetical theses exhaust our options. Turner, that is, wants to leave the door open to the prospect of a more varied landscape. An intriguing claim (cf. Wittgenstein, OC §37). So for those with an interest in furthering this conversation, I’ve compiled a list of readings on realism as it bears on philosophy and theology.

Realism in Philosophy

  • Cora Diamond, The Realistic Spirit (1991).
  • Hilary Putnam, Realism with a Human Face (1992).
  • William P. Alston, ed., Realism and Antirealism (2002).
  • Stuart Brock and Edwin Mares, Realism and Anti-Realism (2014).
  • Hubert Dreyfus and Charles Taylor, Retrieving Realism (2015).

Realism in Theology

(listed chronologically — since Honest to God)

  • John A. T. Robinson, (1963) Honest to God.
  • Donald MacKinnon, “Idealism and Realism: An Old Controversy Renewed.” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 77 (1976): 1-14.
  • Don Cupitt, (1980) Taking Leave of God.
  • Charles M. Wood, “On the Reality of God.” Iliff Review, 39/1 (1982): 3-8.
  • Rowan Williams, “ ‘Religious Realism’: On Not Quite Agreeing with Don Cupitt.” Modern Theology 1/1 (1984).
  • Edward Henderson, “Austin Farrer and D. Z. Phillips on Lived Faith, Prayer, and Divine Reality.” Modern Theology 1/3 (1985): 223-243.
  • Fergus Kerr, (1989) “Idealism and Realism: An Old Controversy Dissolved,” In Christ, Ethics, and Tragedy: Essays in Honour of Donald MacKinnon, edited by Kenneth Surin, 15-33.
  • Colin Crowder, ed., (1997) God and Reality: Essays on Christian Non-realism.
  • Andrew Moore, (2003) Realism and Christian Faith: God, Grammar, and Meaning.
  • Francesca A. Murphy, (2007) God is Not a Story: Realism Revisited.
  • Robert A. Cathey, (2009) God in Postliberal Perspective: Between Realism and Nonrealism. [This would be the book to start with if you can find a copy. I could nitpick, but I won’t. Its strength is the survey of the conversation it provides.]
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