Occasionally I like to take a walk on what I call the reading wild side – deliberately trying to wade through something that I wouldn’t normally, in order to exercise the ‘little grey cells’. Wildman’s In Our Image: Anthropomorphism, Apophaticism, and Ultimacy is one of these books. Firmly in the philosophical end of philosophical theology, this is a carefully argued and niche (alt take: academic!) look at the way in which human experience of and articulation of religion can often have an anthrpomorphic bent: simply out, religions often generate deities that look and feel human.
This is not a book for everyone – though perhaps unusually for that kind of book this author is well aware of it: “terminology is a luxury made possible by technical discourse communities where the semantic scope of key terms is carefully managed, unlike in the general public… the communication strategy I adopt remains a cultural luxury, the privilege of specialised discourse communities“. This, then, is a book well aware of the limits of the author and indeed human constructs/communication: “God does not speak and think in Arabic or Hebrew, in Sanskrit or King James English…“. This is because ‘god-talk’, or ‘religion’ is an activity of finite and limited humans discussing something or someone greater than ourselves. What Wildman identifies as “the all-too-familiar fact of finitude” is indeed something that “defines and pervades the human condition“. This, then is a book of philosophical theology that takes aim at the very act and meaning of doing these things – in a way that I found difficult but not impossible to follow.
One interesting aspect of this book is the (very) wide range of sources and voices Wildman engages with. Rarely does one see Nietzsche and Piper, Dawkins and Heidegger in the same bibliography! This is an echo of the authors’ wide reading and wide engagement with what people of religion are actually saying, which makes (for example) his observation that Richard Dawkins “is badly out of tune with the normal way these issues are expressed… [but] his question is clear and deserves a clear answer“. This breadth and depth is revealed by the singular mention of my own Vineyard strand of Christianity, admittedly not particularly positively, but in the context of the observation that the Bible’s view of God simultaneously offers an affirmation of personalism (that could be seen by some as an anthropomorphic slant) and “does not neglect the dangers of personal conceptions of God“. This reader thinks that Wildman would be comfortable recognising the important contributions of, say, Steven Duby’s God in Himself as a way of thinking about God, rather than popular (and more widespread) folk theologies. Indeed, the classical theism of the Christian tradition seems to fascinate Wildman as a subversion of what he might light to assign to his various ‘Great Models’, and my inner theologian is delighted to see that here.
Interestingly, after the main body of the book concludes, Wildman offers a personal reflection, based on his own experience of moving from one faith community to his present position and set of beliefs. He notes that “God is the ground of every moral possibility, the possibilities we long for and the possibilities we fear… It was love of those who loved me endlessly as a child that led me to walk along this path. I admire their faith even now though I suspect they might not easily understand me anymore. Yet more unites us than divides us… Love is the ultimate provocateur“. This reflection is powerful. It helps the reader make some sense of what the author is doing, yet it also humanises the author. It is this that makes this book so interesting, and with that I turn to the close of my review.
Why on earth would I (or anyone else!) read this book? Firstly, to consider seriously the claim of the author that “the bio-cultural study of religion is a game changer for philosophical theology“, which has implications for all people of all faiths and none. We do not live in a disconnected world – and so to seek to understand what is being said and taught and researched about religion is an important task. Secondly, it could be seen to provide tools for the evangelism and discipleship of two very different kinds of people. Those who have a Christian heritage or upbringing yet discover philosophy, theology and related disciplines in a way that can confuse their relationships with past loved ones often get hard stick in the kinds of churches I’ve been a part of. This book demonstrates that it is possible to bridge that gap. Also, those who are coming towards Christ from a different, non-Christian religious background will likely have a vastly different philosophical and intellectual apparatus. This book helps explain and explore some of those differences. If either of those reasons for reading, or groups of people to engage with you, tickle your fancy, then In Our Own Image may be a rewarding read.