Monday 10 December 2007

T. F. Torrance and Richard Dawkins

by Kim Fabricius

The Independent features an obituary of T. F. Torrance, who was undoubtedly the greatest British theologian of the 20th century.

The obituarist David Fergusson rightly points to the immense contribution that Professor Torrance made to the dialogue between theology and science – or rather between the science of theology and the science of nature. Only in the English-speaking world do we find the ideological reductionism that cedes the natural sciences hegemony over the rational and critical investigation of reality and allows the likes of Richard Dawkins fraudulently to prosper.

David Fergusson remarks on the conflict between Torrance and his colleague James Barr, citing Torrance’s stinging remark that “Barr had been a brilliant tailgunner in the RAF and had carried on shooting throughout his academic life.” At least Barr shot at moving targets. Dawkins prefers shooting fish in a barrel to taking on the great whales like Torrance who would have him for breakfast.

St Mary’s Parish Church Whitekirk, where Torrance was buried last week.


Drew Tatusko said...

If shooting fish in a barrel is the same thing as the strawman argument, then this is precisely what Dawkins and others do. Monolithic understandings of the nature of faith, skewed understandings of all religion as dogmatic certainty, a view of all religious texts as fiction no different than Harry Potter.

What is more disturbing is that atheists who take these arguments uncritically assume that they speak truth about the study of religion much less theology.

Torrance was a rare genius and his contribution will only grow as more people read his complex and thought provoking work. Even Polkinghorne did not quite get at the depths of thought in religion and science as Torrance. Transformation and Convergence in the Frame of Knowledge ought to be reprinted just for his essay on James Clerk Maxwell alone!

R.O. Flyer said...

Of course, James Barr's criticisms of Torrance were always right on the money. The Semantics of Biblical Language dismantled the linguistic fallacies upon which much of the so-called Biblical Theology movement was built.

Matthew said...

"science of theology"

Really? Are you serious? What definition of "science" are you using here?

Anonymous said...

Hi Matthew,

I am using "science" in the sense of the French science, the Italian scienze, the German Wissenschaften - i.e. in the sense that does not succumb to what Martin Rudwick, in the Tarner Lectures he delivered at Cambridge in 1996, called "the Anglophone heresy of 'science'" (referred to in Nicholas Lash's essay in New Blackfriars, September 2007, "Where Does The God Delusion Come from?"). "Science" in this sense is a matter of offering an rational, ordered, and critical account of of a particular object of study, the methodology of which cannot be prescribed in advance but must be determined by the object of study itself.

"The point," as Lash says, "is this. Whenever one comes across the concept of 'science', in the singular, being used (as Dawkins does) to support sweeping assertions to the effect that here, and here alone, is truth to be obtained, then one is in the presence neither of science, not history, but ideology."

Chris Tilling said...

Great comments, Kim. I'm getting tired of reading "Dawkins this" and "Dawkins that". Such attention hardly corresponds fairly to the actual quality of argumentation in The God Delusion. And with some of the things he comes out with in interviews, I would be cringing were I an informed atheist.

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

My copy of Andrew Louth's Discerning the Mystery: An Essay on the Nature of Theology arrived just today, with its favorable mention of Torrance in the introduction and much ado about science and theology. Eerily recommended.

Lord, have mercy on all those who come before You!

Matthew said...

"Science" in this sense is a matter of offering an rational, ordered, and critical account of of a particular object of study

This is a fairly broad definition of "science", and using it to describe "theology" is a little misleading. At any rate, if you don't clarify, you're going to look silly to people who assume you are using the more common definition of the word, which implies empiricism.

Calling something a science also implies a tendency toward reductionism, which I think students of theology would be wise to reject rather than claim as their own.

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