Approaching Philosophy of Religion - a review

What is a miracle? Is knowledge of God possible? How can a loving and all-powerful God permit suffering? If you’ve ever asked any of these questions, you’ve been thinking about the philosophy of religion.

In fact, we all live with our own philosophy of religion. You may not be able to articulate it, but it is there all the same. And so this is something everyone, Christian or non-Christian, should give some deliberate thought to.

Approaching Philosophy of Religion by Anthony Thiselton is an attempt to introduce the reader into the key thinkers and ideas within philosophy of religion through the centuries. Thiselton has taught philosophy of religion for over fifty years and as such should be an able guide into the subject for the interested student.

The book divides into three main sections: 'Approaches', which covers what Thiselton considers to be the eight most significant philosophical approaches; 'Concepts and Issues', which presents twenty key concepts touched upon in philosophy of religion; and 'Key Terms', which functions as a glossary with eighty entries.

Approaching Philosophy of ReligionThe section on Approaches introduces the reader to approaches such as analytic philosophy, continental philosophy and existentialism. Thiselton is able to introduce the student to these areas in a concise way that also manages to avoid the need for too much prior knowledge.

The section on Concepts and Issues feels a bit too concise, for example the cosmological argument is covered in just over two sides, and free will is also under three sides. Of course, this is only an introduction, but it does result in Thiselton leaving lots unsaid in many respects.

Thiselton is an able guide for the interested student

The final section, Key Terms, will prove to be a helpful resource to those who are looking to quickly check for a term or definition, or simply brush up on their philosophical vocabulary.

Overall the book is a fine introduction to the topic, and yet there are many other works like it already. I was hoping that a book from a Christian publisher and written by an eminent Christian scholar of both philosophy and the New Testament, would offer some Christian analysis or perspective. Sadly, this was lacking.

Let me give just two examples of how this could have been done and how it would have proved of significant help to the Christian student of philosophy. In a section on Empiricism and Rationalism, Thiselton presents a very helpful and accurate summary of these two epistemologies. He takes the reader through the British Empiricism of Locke, Hume and Berkeley, and then considers the Continental Rationalism of Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz, before presenting Kant’s revolutionary understanding of conceptual categories.

I was hoping for a distinctively Christian evaluation that never came

The introduction is clear, accurate but also very similar to any other introduction that you might find in any other text book. It seemed to be begging for at least a page or two at the end evaluating this section from a Christian perspective, or at least commenting on how a distinctly Christian epistemology would differ. For example, nowhere was there a recognition of how human-centred each of these epistemologies proves to be. Descartes, Hume and Kant all, in different ways, place man rather than God as the final arbiter of their own reality and truth.

Elsewhere, Thiselton presents a helpful introduction to existentialism. He takes the reader through the main proponents and their central ideas. He ably shows the breadth of this philosophy and how it has been developed by theists and atheists alike. But again, I was hoping for a distinctively Christian evaluation of existentialism that never came. Given how pervasive this philosophy is within our cultural psyche it would have been a great help to consider how to respond within a biblical perspective. For example: is Sartre right when he argues that “existence precedes essence”, or does the Christian doctrine of creation question this? And just consider the apologetic opportunities that surround us with existentialism flourishing as it currently does! People long for meaning, purpose and authenticity, but they look for it within themselves and their own experiences, rather than to the God who is the source of all meaning.

I was a little disappointed; it's a missed opportunity

In the end, I was a little disappointed with this book, not for anything contained within it, but more for the missed opportunity that I found it to be. The book itself almost felt like a product of the Enlightenment; it felt like Thiselton was trying to be ‘unbiased’ and ‘objective’ in his presentation of these philosophers and their philosophies. But, of course, there is no such thing as neutral ground. There is much good within the work of all the philosophers considered within the book, even Hume and Nietzsche. But to see the good and hold on to it, and to sift out the bad, will not be done from a supposed position of neutrality. For this we need the Christian worldview, which grants the very ability to reason, to think and even to philosophise.

Anthony Thiselton, Approaching Philosophy of Religion: An introduction to key thinkers, concepts, methods and debates. SPCK, 2017. 240pp. £14.99