Steven Shakespeare, Kierkegaard, Language and the Reality of God, Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing, 2001, ISBN 0-7546-1561-8, £42.50 hbk.
[This review will appear in Connection in 2003]
How do we Christians give an appropriate account of the shape and grounds of the hope within us? The question of what is (perhaps unhelpfully) called ‘apologetics’ lies not very far from the surface of any meaningful encounter between the language of faith and the culture of context. This is the broad concern of the Mission Theological Advisory Group (co-convened ecumenically by the CTBI Churches’ Commission on Mission and the Board of Mission of the Church of England) at the moment.
As these two fine books remind us, the issue is not just one of rhetoric – language designed to persuade – but of intellectual integrity, engagement, hope and compassion. Moreover, to speak faithfully in a religiously plural and functionally secular world is always to speak, at some level or another, of fundamental categories of belief: the nature, identity and communication of God. And for that we need tough thought as well as prayerful action.
In different ways Denys Turner, Norris-Hulse Professor of Divinity in the University of Cambridge, and Steven Shakespeare, vicar of St Augustine’s Church in Sheffield, share these concerns. Their aim is to help us to move forward in thinking and practice. Turner does this through a collection of stimulating, provocative and (carefully) readable talks and sermons. They all converge on his central conviction about the congruence of heart and head in matters of faith. He has divided his reflections into five broad sections, concerning the ‘otherness’ of the divine; politics, piety and the church; remembering; prayer; and the intellectual love of God.
Turner is a both a theologian of his time and a theologian out of time. He is acutely engaged with the questions raised by ‘cultured despisers’ of Christianity over the centuries. But he also speaks of the confusions and wounds of everyday life in a cosmopolitan society. Through all this he retains a thoughtful confidence in the capacity of the Christian tradition, and especially the tradition of mystics and subversives, to help us navigate such choppy waters. However this is only possible, he suggests, through new perspectives on old subjects, and through an iconoclastic honesty about the solipsism and sentimentality that can characterise both dogmatic belief and dogmatic non-belief. Above all, he says, we need to understand that we are located in an ‘unseeable light’ and an ‘unknowable horizon’ that flows from the heart of God.
Steven Shakespeare pursues a not dissimilar course in a different way. Whereas hard-pressed ministers might warm to a collection of theological cameos, an expensive hardback organised around an exploration of Soren Kierkegaard’s ‘indirect communication’ sounds less promising. Certainly it takes us way beyond the world and words of daily parochial life. But it is these that still take up much of the author’s time and that shape his passionate intellectual interest in what kind of reality God is.
Shakespeare suggests that metaphysical realism (which confidently posits objectivity in things human and divine) and philosophical anti-realism (which denies the independent existence of God outside our language and beliefs) have dominated debates about God for too long. Having lost a proper sense of ‘the other’, of transcendence, they therefore both tend to collapse argument, to tame reality and to domesticate religion. The result can be cheap faith and cheap anti-faith in the arena of public discussion.
Contesting the way that both camps have selectively enlisted Kierkegaard, Shakespeare argues instead for a form of ‘ethical realism’ in which the otherness of God is discovered in the making of liberating signs in the world and through the human inter-subjectivity by which word becomes flesh. His book is a tough read, but well worth the effort. It is full of energy and precision. Shakespeare is convinced of the transforming reality of the God we meet in Christ, and for this reason he challenges both believers and sceptics to remove the ideological shackles by which that transformation is most readily avoided. While abstract in form, his aim is missionary (though not proselytising) in essence.