Thursday, 23 February 2012

40 Books for Lent: 1. The Problem of Metaphysics

Ramping and Roaring has given up television. Part of the reasoning was that this would allow R&R more time to read - novels, theology whatever - something more constructive than Cougar Town, Gossip Girl and Dawson’s Creek. I spoke to Roaring earlier though and it seems on this first tv-less night she spent most of her time skipping about the internet. I, on the other hand, picked up Alex Preston’s recent The Revelations. I read a review in the FT while tipsy and immediately purchased it on Amazon along with another book I’ll probably never read. The Revelations though has immediate entertainment value. It looks basically like an amusing take on the Alpha Course with lots of psycho-sexual drama. Rofl.

All this is by the by though. Given this new attention to reading, Ramping and Roaring through Lent is going to bring you its top 40 books-that-have-changed-the-way-we-think. It’s a good chance to think through the ideas that have shaped the way you think and if I can persuade Roaring not just to do twenty different reviews of Gone with the Wind, we might discover some interesting, little known works…

So my first book, my number one book, is Don Mackinnon’s The Problem of Metaphysics. A bit heavy to start with but I really think that more than any book this one resonated with me and changed the way I saw the world. It came out of his Gifford lectures and so is relatively short and readable. I remember hearing an amusing story about him, where his wife went into the bedroom one day to find his trousers lying on the bed. She thought ‘oh hell’ to herself ‘he’s finally lost his marbles and gone out without his trousers on’. Turned out he had just gone out and bought a new pair. For all his reputed skattiness though and despite not actually publishing a huge amount (part of the last generation who weren’t continually harried to publish or perish), reading between the lines, he has influenced the main voices in contemporary theology as much as anyone.

Essentially, The Problem of Metaphysics gives a really convincing account of metaphysics, teasing out the relationship between transcendence and language. What is so splendid is the way he pulls it all together with such a wide array of anecdotes and examples from history, literature and art. He speaks authoritatively on Plato, Aristotle and Kant, as might be expected, but is just as lucid and impressive on Shakespeare, Sophocles and Cezanne. More than anything, it is a work that is convincing at a human level - it is one of the rare works of philosophical theology than genuinely conveys a sense of wisdom. My supervisor once explained that he understood God as a sort of matrix for understanding reality. In these terms this book was incredibly helpful to me in explaining God.

I have never been much interested in the specialist. It is not within me and I would never make it as a footnote precise academic. The people I find interesting then are always polymaths - those who can illuminate an area of life and keep it tied to all sorts of other areas, but most of all retain the ability of speak to everyday life. Mackinnon does this here better than anywhere else I’ve found. His analysis of the Good Samaritan and the Raising of Lazarus are exemplary as homily, philosophy and ethics. His development of parables, tragedy and presence are masterful. It is the only work of theology I’ve read twice cover to cover and it deserves at least this. It is to philosophical theology what Madonna is to pop music, having influenced an entire new generation of theology while yet remaining unique and fascinating in itself. Go buy a copy.


  1. Umm have had a copy on my shelf for a year or two, perhaps I should pull it down and place it on my urgent reading list rather than to read list...

  2. Definitely. Though that book was 2 days ago - you're going to have to read fast to catch up.


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