Wm. Curtis Holtzen and Roberto Sirvent have done a great service for those searching for a succinct compilation of theologian-philosopher Keith Ward’s voluminous work. In By Faith and Reason: The Essential Keith Ward, we now have a text which displays the depth and breadth of Ward’s momentous thinking. The compilation is appropriately arranged into five parts, each of which offer relevant texts pertaining to 1) faith and reason, 2) concept of God, 3) science and religion, 4) the Bible and its interpretation, and 5) interfaith dialogue and disagreement. It is part five that I shall review here.
Part five closes out the volume with its focus on “Inter-Faith Dialogue and Disagreement.” The first essay, “The Study of Truth and Dialogue in Religion” approaches this contemporarily important theme from a philosophical angle. In essence, Ward examines the nature of relation between philosophy and Religious Studies insofar as they strive for meaning and truth. He surveys the basic options available to a philosophy or theology of world religions (i.e., exclusivism, inclusivism, pluralism) as well as offering three approaches to “the question of whether religious assertions do refer to observable maters of fact or not” (241). There are 1) Non-Cognitivist Accounts of Belief (R.B. Braithwaite and Don Cupitt); 2) Religions as Forms of Life (Ian Ramsey and D.Z. Phillips); and 3) Realism in Religion (Richard Swinburne and John Hick). Above all, Ward stresses the necessity for both self-criticism and dialogue. He concludes that “Religious Studies is good for philosophy, since it keeps alive the questions of ultimate meaning and value which are its lifeblood. Philosophy is good for Religious Studies, since it keeps alive the question of truth and justification which preserve religion from complacent dogmatism” (248).
In “Truth and the Diversity of Religions,” Ward takes John Hick’s pluralistic hypothesis to task. Ward deems Hick’s proposal for “hard pluralism” invalid, incoherent, and philosophically unacceptable. Its claim that all religious traditions are equally valid paths to salvation and equally authentic modes of experience of a Real (which is completely unknowable) is incoherent because if the Real is completely unknowable, then it simply cannot be known whether all experiences of it are equally valid nor if all paths to it are equally valid. Instead, Ward argues for a “soft pluralism” which advocates that a) although God is beyond human comprehension, God is disclosed through many religious traditions; b) many traditions strive to overcome selfish desire as an appropriate response to God; and c) no traditions hold complete truth about God, but all hold “revisable and corrigible beliefs, and that we should look to other traditions to complement, correct or reshape our own” (257). Ward also touches on a “revisionist pluralism” which is compatible with “soft” but not “hard” pluralism. He concludes that although religious believers do not have to suppose that most are excluded from salvation, they do have to commit to the assertion that “most people are mistaken in their beliefs about the ultimate nature of God” (259). This assertion, though “sad,” provides one humility vis-à-vis his or her own tradition, and perhaps a greater openness and appreciation for traditions other than their own.
In “Theology as a Comparative Discipline,” Ward advocates for a method of theology, though not mutually exclusive to so-called “confessional theology,” that “moves away from seeing theology as an exclusively Christian discipline,” (261), and instead engages the plurality of traditions as a rich resource for reflection, criticism, and learning about one’s own tradition. Further, “scholars of any religious persuasion or none may engage in questions of comparative theology, [which is] the analysis of the concepts of God and of revelation” (268). Grounded in the reality of pluralism, comparative theology as a discipline must be self-critical, pluralistic, and open-ended. That is, it must know and critically engage its own roots, engage other religious traditions’ concepts, and be open to revising beliefs and positions when necessary.
In the final essay of the book, “Religion and the Possibility of a Global Ethics,” Ward asks “if there is such a thing as a global ethics” (274) and whether religion can contribute to such a quest. He suggests that there are at least some universal moral truths, each of which he treats under the principles of benevolence, liberty, truthfulness, and justice. Under the broad religious perspectives of Semitic and Indian religious traditions, Ward demonstrates that despite sharing the same basic moral principles, various religious traditions approach them differently due to different conceptions of the supreme. Ward then examines how three religious attitudes appropriate these principles in their approaches. These attitudes are the “renouncing tradition” (monastic approaches), “divine law traditions” (e.g., Judaism and Islam), and “devotional traditions.” Though religions clearly differ in many ways, where most religions in the contemporary world can find common ground is that they all “promulgate ways of overcoming egoism and attachment and achieving knowledge of, or union with, a being or state that embodies the highest possible degree of reality and value” (291). Overall, Ward concludes that both religion and humanist ethics need one another. Religion needs humanist ethics to prevent the misinterpretation of religious rules that lead to oppression of basic human needs, and humanist ethics needs religion “to give its moral principles a strongly motivating moral goal and a real hope of its realization” (296).
You can read the review in its entirety here.
Keith Ward. By Faith and Reason: The Essential Keith Ward. Wm. Curtiss Holtzen and Roberto Sirvent, editors. London, England: Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd., 2012. Pp.309. £25.99 pb. ISBN 978-0-232-52898-5.
photo courtesy of Darton, Longmann, and Todd