Chapter 8: Further Reflections by D. M. MacKinnon

The Resurrection: A Dialogue
by G.W.H. Lampe and D.M. MacKinnon

Chapter 8: Further Reflections by D. M. MacKinnon

Professor MacKinnon adds some further thoughts on Professor Lampe’s position, and concludes the dialogue by briefly indicating the philosophical presuppositions which affect his own thinking on these issues.


I should like to begin by expressing my gratitude for Professor Lampe’s very valuable and searching comments on what I have written. In what follows I will not attempt to answer his arguments in detail, still less to score points against him; the matters we are concerned with are too difficult and too crucial to admit of such treatment; I shall therefore merely try to indicate where and why I still venture to differ from him.

I welcome very much the reference he makes, towards the end of what he has written, to the significance of the book of Hosea. This Section of his argument, and indeed the whole burden of his comment, seem to show clearly that what in the end is raised by the issues we have been discussing, is the relation of the temporal to the eternal. This is, of course, a metaphysical problem; but it is a metaphysical problem that is transformed in Christian theology by the doctrine of the Incarnation. In one of the most illuminating remarks I have ever encountered on the relations of philosophy and theology, the late Professor A. N. Whitehead spoke of Christianity as a religion perennially in search of a metaphysic, but never able to rest in one. While this is a remark which has many different applications, one of its senses bears on the issues that divide Professor Lampe and myself; the issues on which I touched when I suggested in my earlier comments on our material that we needed to thrash out the significance of the notion of dependence in its theological employment. Is there a sense in which sub specie aeternitatis Hosea’s acceptance of Gomer depends upon the work of God in Christ? If I understand him aright, it is one of Karl Barth’s profoundest insights that there is: I say ‘insights’ and I pause, recalling how Dr. Olive Wyon (a most experienced translator of German theology) remarked to me once in conversation that where Barth is concerned, for all the massiveness and intellectual power of his argument, one is in the end dealing with a poet rather than an exegete.

Certainly, if I turn again to that parable which, perhaps before all others, speaks of acceptance, namely the parable of the two brothers, there is one point which I am bound to repeat. Whatever the context in which this parable was first spoken, whatever general thesis we may hold of the function of parable in Christ’s teaching, we are given here a story which, in fact, describes a raw piece of human life. Emphatically, to use a modern classification, it does not belong to the genre of ‘light romance’! The relation of the father to the two brothers in the climax of the tale is an analogy of the ways of God with men. But to treat that father in himself as a portrayal of the Divine is surely to be guilty of sheer anthropomorphism. We can see in him, in his all too human ambivalence, the makings (as I said) on a different occasion of a Lear who falls ready victim to the blandishments of a Goneril and a Regan, and rejects the truth spoken by a Cordelia. We have to reckon with the precariousness of human goodness; I say to reckon with it, neither plunged by its recognition into despair, nor evading its acknowledgement in order to defend against all criticism that goodness whose reality we feel menaced, if once we admit the threats that hang over it.

What I want to suggest is that we have to see the work of God in Christ as that which secures against the ever-present menace of their dissolution, our frail, but genuine, human perceptions and affirmations (in action) of the morally excellent. It is a curious fact that while the general culture of contemporary theologians is still markedly literary, rather than scientific, they seem to forget the many lessons concerning the human situation to be learnt from tragedy, whether ancient or modern. Thus, to take one example: recently I re-read the Electra of Sophocles, and was amazed by the depth with which it uncovered the degradation into a creature consumed by, indeed virtually living by, the hatred which possesses her, of a woman who initially had simply refused to compromise with truth, and to pretend the situation at the court of Aegisthus and Clytemnestra to be other than itself. Certainly, in the play she is presented also as a woman afraid for her life, as well as desolated by the grief of Orestes’ supposed death. But it is part of the dramatist’s mastery of his theme that he makes her compromising, accommodating sister Chrysothemis a more attractive and sympathetic figure. Yet what has betrayed Electra but her fidelity to truth and justice? And something of the same sort applies in the case of Deianira in the Trachiniae; it is her tenderness towards her formidable husband, and her compassion for Tole, which tempt her into ultimately destructive folly. Something of the same sort may surely be said of Erutus, as Shakespeare portrays him in Julius Caesar, especially if his scrupulous self-interrogation is contrasted with the quick, murderous resolution of the proscribing triumvirs. If we say that in the crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ we have advanced ‘beyond tragedy’, we need, in order to understand what we are saying, to take stock of what tragedy is. Maybe we need (this is very tentative) to alert ourselves more than we do to the tragic elements lying just beneath the surface of the parabolic, and even to receive what is offered to us as tragedy as parable, at least in an extended use of that already comprehensive concept.(Again I would refer to the extended treatment of the relation of the parabolic to the tragic in the second series of my Gifford lectures. There the whole discussion is connected with the question of the relation of the familiar to the transcendent on which it depends and to which it bears witness.)

It is with such considerations as these in mind that I would wish to speak of the act of God in Christ as objective, as something built into the structure of the world, even perhaps (as I think that Barth would argue) its very foundation. Indeed, I remember that Barth enthusiastically welcomed a remark of the late Dorothy Sayers, in her broadcast plays, that we are dealing here with ‘the only thing that ever really happened’. Although Barth rejected the analogia entis, he has had his own doctrine of degrees of event-hood!

There are, in the history of philosophy, continually renewed controversies between those who, where the theory of knowledge is concerned, are commonly called realists, and those who are sometimes called idealists, but also constructivists, between those for whom truth resides in the end in correspondence between proposition and fact, and those for whom it is something brought into being by more or less autonomous understanding. It is, of course, a mark of the very greatest philosophers, of Kant for instance, that they have sought the middle way between those two positions, or rather have sought to do justice to the insights both contained. In contemporary philosophy of science, what gives its commanding significance to the work deriving from Sir Karl Popper’s book, The Logic of Scientific Investigation (Hutchinson, 1958), is an analogous attempt to fuse, in an exact account of theoretical activity in the sciences, the moments of creativity and of finding. Yet one cannot in the end escape some sort of choice concerning the place where one acknowledges the last word spoken on questions of truth and falsity: is it that which is found to be the case, or is it that which satisfies the demand of the self-regulating intellect? I suspect that, very much as Coleridge said that all men were at bottom either Platonists or Aristotelians, so we are, most of us, if we are informed enough philosophically to be self-conscious about these things, idealists or realists. Moreover, I further suspect that one’s state of mind on these matters is reflected in one’s theological attitudes, and that for good or for ill. In the end I know that my own bias is always in the realists’ direction, and that therefore I am (perhaps quite unfairly) hostile to views which seem to me to move in the direction of saying that faith creates its own objectives. I say move in this direction: for it is manifestly utterly unfair to Professor Lampe’s position to suggest that he does anything of the sort. Yet I must admit that my readiness to use objectivist language more freely than he does may have its roots (at least in part) in an eagerness, in questions of general epistemology, to endorse the views of those who emphasize the element of discovery in coming to know, and the authority of brute fact in the refutation of hypotheses.

It is perhaps valuable to seem to digress in this way, if only to bring out into the open conflicts of attitude that may be reflected in one’s theological judgement, although their roots lie in quite general considerations of another sort. Thus, I realize that I almost certainly tend to over-emphasize the extent to which faith must be construed as following after, or corresponding with, something antecedently given, and to under-emphasize the extent to which it is a constituent moment in a whole purpose that is, in the last resort, incomplete without it. I have to reckon with the degree to which my theological thought may be vitiated by a readiness to conceive or to represent the work of atonement in ways that depreciate the extent to which it necessarily includes within it personal response on the part of those who are (to use traditional language) recipients of its benefits. Against this I can plead that while my philosophical parti pris may betray me into distortion in this respect, it also enables me to do justice to something clearly glimpsed by Dix in the passage from The Shape of the Liturgy, to which I referred in my comments, as well as by Barth and by P. T. Forsyth.

Clearly, these last considerations are also relevant to the difference there is between Professor Lampe and myself, where the tradition of the empty tomb is concerned. It is because I seek after facts (rather than after ‘a sign’ in the sense of the sort of evident manifestation which I agree with him it would be radically wrong to seek) that I look for a publicly observable state of affairs in the spatial and temporal world, not disclosing, nor containing, but still pointing towards (in a way that I agree remains entirely ambivalent) that which is, in my view, necessarily unique and creative. What discussion I have had with him of these issues has enabled me to see more clearly (apart altogether from the numerous points of detail on which his scholarship and insight have illuminated my understanding) the extent to which here a whole number of different questions are knotted together. Thus I conclude, at the risk of repetition, these last remarks by saying that what I now find I want most to do is to clarify a little, if I can, the notion of dependence as we employ it in these contexts. It is not without significance to notice that it is a notion whose exploration plunges one at once into the ethical intimacies of soteriology, and the abstract styles of the philosophy of logic. Advance in theological understanding demands, in a measure, a combination of both manners of reflection!