Walking on Wimbledon Common last Monday, eying the gathering clouds, I was listening to an old programme from the In our Time series. These 40 minute discussion programmes conducted by Melvin Bragg provide a comprehensive education in historical, scientific, religious and philosophical culture. I thoroughly recommend them.
This one was called “The Examined Life”, and its starting point was Socrates’ phrase “The unexamined life is not worth living.” The panel were Anthony Grayling, Janet Richards and Julian Baggini. I give you their names because it is relevant that they are all highly cultured luminaries in fields related to philosophy.
I am not going to describe the discussion, fascinating though it was, because you can listen to it for yourselves (below). But, after having spoken about the ancient Greek pioneer work into the meaning and ends of life as understood through philosophical reasoning, Bragg asked them about Christianity. They initially responded with such a collective snigger and rolling of the eyes that Bragg said he wished that he had had a television camera to catch their expressions. He put up a brief, and quite good, challenge from the Christian angle, but they would have none of it. Christianity, they believed, had been the enemy of philosophy because it had exchanged reason for diktat, and moral investigation for legal imposition. Far from increasing our understanding of the meaning of life, Christianity had brought a foreign, in fact oriental, world view which it proceeded to impose on society.
Now I am accustomed to half-baked pseudo intellectuals who attack Christianity through some kind of instinctive reaction – I encounter them all the time, but I had supposed that the luminaries on the panel, as alleged experts in such matters, would at least have picked up some level of understanding of the history and the approach of Christianity, before they criticised it.
The first thought which came to my mind was Cardinal Ratzinger’s remark that Socrates was in some way a prophet of Christ through his claim that man possessed the capacity for understanding truth. And, at Regensburg (which postdated this discussion), he insisted on the essential connection between reason and faith in the history of Christianity – ironically quoting Socrates himself.
They appeared to know nothing of the influence that Stoicism had on the development of the Church’s understanding of natural law, and its relationship to the divine law. The whole movement of Neoplatonism seems to have passed them by. Aquinas, whose introduction of Aristotle into the debate changed the direction of Western philosophy, was apparently unknown to them – to say nothing of the whole corpus of medieval philosophy. Neither Descartes nor Pascal need to have written a word. Elizabeth Anscombe’s damning critique of agnostic approaches to moral philosophy had passed them by.
There is plenty to criticise about the Church’s development of philosophical enquiry – indeed often expressed on this Blog. But if those whose profession it is to understand the history of ideas are capable of sniggering at Christianity without bothering to understand it, what hope is there for the common man?
The discussion referred to here is at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00548dx.