Posted by: hansgustafson | April 17, 2013

Review of “The Essential Keith Ward”


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 display the depth and breadth of Ward’s momentous thinking.  According to Ward, “taken as a whole, the readings constitute an argument that it is possible to make a firm commitment to Christian revelation while defending to the full the free use of philosophical and critical reasoning” (12-13).  Holtzen and Sirvent have appropriately arranged the compilation 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.

Part one on “Faith and Reason” opens with an original piece by Ward written for this text alone.  It narrates Ward’s personal journey from an atheistic philosopher to a believing theologian and argues that “reason is, or should be, the friend of faith” (13).  The second essay showcases the basic assumptions to be kept in mind when engaging in “serious, sympathetic yet crucial, study of religion” (24).

Part two reflects on Ward’s “Concept of God” through five chapters drawn from Ward’s corpus of writing.  Most evident is his robust challenge to the classical Christian concept of God.  In the first chapter of the section, Ward takes up key issues pertaining to God such as: omnipotence, evil, omniscience, creativity, freedom, God as person and personal, relationality, and the Trinity.  This is followed by a reflection on what God as principle might add to cosmological explanation.  In short, Ward argues that just “as modern science sprang from the context of Christian belief, so now it seems to be leading back to its roots, the apprehension of the physical cosmos as the visible expression of the mind of God” (64).  Then Ward takes up the question as whether God is a person, in which he suggests that the idea of a personal God in the West does not contrast greatly (as is popularly thought) with the “alleged ‘Eastern’ idea of ultimate reality as an impersonal reality which is fundamentally monistic in character” (65).  Rather he contends that Western personal theism is a result of an overstressing of a “much too anthropomorphic” (73) vision of God at the expense of  neglecting that “great part of the Christian tradition” which calls for a God that is a “self-existent absolute reality of supreme conscious and bliss” that is “wholly beyond description” (73).  Ward concludes that “God may be properly manifested in a person; that he may be truly thought of as a person; and that he may be related to as a person in prayer.  Yet God is as far beyond being a person as the infinite is beyond the infinite” (72).  The following chapter deals with “Cosmos and Kenosis.” Here Ward advocates for a Christian vision of creation as a “kenotic and pleromal process,” in which creation commences out of kenosis by moving towards its telos, or consummation, in theosis.  In short, this entails a “cosmic movement from divine self-emptying to creaturely fulfillment in God which is the sacred history of the cosmos” (88).  This entails a concept of God which God both permits, and shares in, the pain of creation and creatures.  The final chapter of this section deals with “Creation and the Trinity.”  By employing a method of comparative theology by learning from other religious traditions (via Heschel, Barth, Iqbal, and Aurobindo), Ward produces a Hegelian doctrine of God as a Trinitarian being from a Christian perspective.

Part three turns to “Science and Religion” and opens with an essay on “Believing in Miracles.”  Against Hume, Ward argues not that miracles occur, but rather “they could occur, be reliably reported, and be justifiably believed” (130).  The next chapter, “Christianity and Evolution: A Case Study,” defends “the view that the scientific vision of cosmic evolution forces a coherent and interconnected set of changes on traditional Christina beliefs” (133).  This should not threaten, repudiate, nor scandalize Christian “canonical and authorities beliefs” (147); rather, it ought to serve as constructive development for the ongoing disclosure of God in a creatively emergent cosmos.  “The Soul and the Brain” defends the existence of the soul vis-à-vis cybernetics and neurophysiology.  In short, “it is essential to see that the soul is both a spiritual and embodied reality,” and “though it is truly material, there is a very real sense in which the soul looks beyond the material world for its proper fulfillment” (160) in the supreme realty (i.e., God).  “The Open Future” closes part three by demonstrating that an indeterminate probabilistic universe with an open future is consistent with both quantum physics and a basic religious view of reality as spiritual.

Part four focuses on “The Bible and its Interpretation.”  The first two essays reflect on Ward’s understanding of “Biblical Inspiration” and the necessity of “Breaking out of Literalism.”  Here the reader encounters fruitful and reasonable approaches to scripture within the context of a twenty-first century scientific worldview and experience.  The two most common obstacles to discerning truth in scripture remain approaching scripture literally and as inerrant.  The third essay, “Morality and the Bible,” defends against the charge that religious morality is dangerous, but is rather “widely considered to be a valuable resource for moral thinking in the modern world” (222).  The final essay in this part, “By Faith Alone,” demonstrates that Protestantism, by its very nature, ought to be considered inherently liberal “in the classical sense of allowing, and even encouraging, diversity of interpretation, the right of dissent, and personal freedom of belief” (235).  In other words, people are not saved by confessing absolutely correct doctrines since God saves those with faith and faith does not require theoretical certainty.

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 in so far 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).

Overall this text does a magnificent job of introducing the reader to the breadth and importance of Ward’s work.  I suspect this volume can be used as a reference text since each chapter and part can stand on its own.  Many of the chapters, especially those in part four on Biblical interpretation, are written in a clear and accessible manner appropriate for most undergraduate audiences.  The editors were wise in their decision to include an exhaustive bibliography of Ward’s books and articles to allow readers to go deeper into Ward’s work.  I will be recommending many of these parts (and often the whole book) to colleagues and friends for many years to come!

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.

Variations of this review will soon be published on and

photo courtesy of Darton, Longmann, and Todd


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