Is Christianity True? by Hugo A. Meynell
University of America Press, 149 pages, $24.95
Apologetics-the traditional intellectual exercise of defense of Christian belief against attacks from rivals and the attempt to show the superiority of Christian belief-has seen something of a revival among philosophically minded Christians in recent decades. In the 1960s and 1970s, in Europe and the United States, it was difficult to find serious professional philosophers defending the truth of Christianity. It is no longer difficult. The work of Richard Swinburne at Oxford, Alvin Plantinga at Notre Dame, and Nicholas Wolterstorff at Yale has taken apologetics out of the ecclesiastical backwaters and returned it to the philosophical mainstream.
Hugo Meynell’s book is an elegant and clear example of this resurgent interest in apologetics. Meynell considers four common objections to Christian doctrine-that belief in God is morally irrelevant; that there is no reason to believe in the special claims of Christianity over those of non-Christian religions; that no sense can be made of the doctrines of Incarnation, Atonement, and the Trinity (or that these doctrines are for other reasons implausible); and that Christian doctrine about life after death is based upon an indefensible view of the nature of human persons-and shows to his own satisfaction that these objections can be met. It should be noted that Meynell predicates his discussion on the prior assumption that God exists. This is not because Meynell takes that assumption to be indefensible or incapable of demonstration; it is rather that the existence of God is not his topic in this book.
Meynell’s strategy in his chapter on the relevance of theism to right moral behavior is typical. He begins by arguing that belief in God does have specifically moral effects upon those who have it: it enables us to act upon our beliefs about what it is right for us to do, and enables us to correct our pressing and depressing tendencies toward self-deception and self-interest. And he then argues that philosophical challenges to this view of the relations between theism and right action fail. The principal challenge he has in mind is the claim that Socrates’ question in the Euthyphro -whether the gods love what is good because it is good, or whether what they love is good merely because they love it-cannot be answered without incoherence. Meynell answers it effectively with an essentially Thomist version of divine-command ethics. The upshot of the chapter is not that theists are better people than atheists. It is the more modest (and true) conclusion that theists have no good reason to abandon their belief that theism is relevant to moral beliefs and actions.
Meynell’s treatment of whether one can reasonably assent to the special claims of Christianity in the face of knowledge about the conflicting doctrines of non-Christian religions is unfortunately much weaker. He shows only that it is not necessarily incoherent to do so and that there are important and irreconcilable doctrinal disagreements among the major religions. But he does not seem to see the force and importance of the interesting epistemological question of whether the knowledge that there are faithful religious persons who believe things incompatible with one’s own beliefs changes the degree and kind of one’s assent to those beliefs. Neither does his sketchy attempt to state the uniqueness of Christianity do any more, so far as I can see, than say that Christianity is more like itself than is anything else-which is true, but not exciting.
In his defense of the Incarnation, the Atonement, and the Trinity, Meynell addresses first their coherence, and second their plausibility in the light of historical-critical study of the Bible. On the first front he succeeds admirably in sketching, very briefly, a form of these doctrines that is at least not prima facie incoherent, and that is congruent with the historic credal affirmations of the Church. In passing, as well, he manages to summarize very briefly and very lucidly just what the Councils of the Church were after in formulating and defending the orthodox Christological and Trinitarian dogmas. Meynell’s own sketch of the content of the doctrine of the Trinity is largely epistemological in intent. He employs the basic insight, expressed by many Christian theologians from Augustine to Aquinas, that human consciousness provides us “with an analogy by which we can achieve some understanding . . . of the mystery of the Trinity.” By looking closely at the structures of human self-estrangement and self-deception, Meynell says, we can see a distorted mirror-image of the relations between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and so gain some actual knowledge of the Divine relations.
On the second front-that of showing the key Christian doctrines not to have been invalidated by historical-critical study of the Bible-Meynell is rather less effective. He is rightly clear that the key Christian doctrines could in principle be falsified by such study, which is to say that they have an irreducible historical component. He is usually clear that the evidence available is simply not of a kind to make firm conclusions as to, for example, what Jesus did or did not say possible for the disinterested historian, and that historians who think they can arrive at such conclusions always betray commitments to metaphysical or epistemological beliefs held independently of their activity as historians. These two points would suffice for Meynell’s philosophical needs at this point in his argument. It is unfortunate, then, that he chooses to spend several pages defending a particular view of the historicity of the Gospel of John, a view that may or may not be correct but whose correctness is not at all required, so far as I can see, for the remainder of his argument.
Meynell approaches his final topic, whether it is proper to believe in life after death, by arguing first that philosophical attempts to show the incoherence of human persons existing without their bodies have failed (which is the same as to say that some forms of dualism-mind/body, flesh/spirit, or the like-have not been shown to be false). He then argues that Christian orthodoxy requires some such belief. And he concludes that there is some empirical evidence for postmortem survival. In all this he is eminently and lucidly correct.
I would have liked more in this chapter on the interesting question of whether there are good reasons that Christians should refrain from engaging their intellects or their imaginations in this matter, beyond the basic affirmation that there must be postmortem existence. I think there are good biblical and theological reasons why Christians should avoid imagining or arguing about the details of the next life. Meynell seems not to think so, and I would have liked to be told why.
Meynell’s book is, then, largely successful in its goal, which is to show that inquiry into the matters it discusses “might have been subversive of Christianity; but as a matter of fact . . . is not so.” This, of course, is a relatively modest goal. Meynell has not shown, and does not take himself to have shown, that Christianity is true. This suggests that the book might better have been titled Is Christianity Reasonable? since Meynell certainly does succeed in showing this much.
It is unfortunate that Meynell seems in general to be somewhat behind the times in his knowledge of contemporary philosophy, biblical criticism, and the like. All too often, both the opponents he engages and the allies he enlists are from a generation or more ago. This by itself is not necessarily a problem, and may even be an advantage if the best work in the fields under discussion was done then. But in several areas of Meynell’s discussion this is not the case. On questions of mind/body dualism, for instance, the most recent and best work is that by such as Thomas Nagel (pro) and Derek Parfit (contra), while the works that Meynell mentions and discusses are less subtle and interesting. His argument would have gained considerably from engaging more recent work. Similarly, on the question of the historicity of the Gospel of John, Meynell relies mostly on a twenty-year-old work by J. A. T. Robinson that on the whole was not well received when it came out. Even more distressing is Meynell’s apparently blithe ignorance of the best recent constructive work by Christian philosophers on topics of central concern to him. In addition to those I mentioned in the first paragraph of this review, Meynell should take some account of the work of such as Robert Adams, Bill Wainwright, and Bill Alston. Engaging and using their work would have supported and improved his.
But these are cavils. Meynell’s work is full of intellectual energy, is a delight to read, and argues for theses that are largely true. And it is written by a man who can use the word “forsooth” with panache and can appeal to P. G. Wodehouse in the context of a discussion of the Trinity. What more could one want?
Paul J. Griffiths is Associate Professor in the Divinity School and in the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago.