Like most human constructs, what
is generally called Realism has changed considerably over its history. It
is approached here with some caution because the term has gained new life
over the last 40 years or so.
The Realist approach was born and
then dominated Christian thought in the West from around 1200 to around 1350
. As fundamental change took hold through what we
now know as the Renaissance, thinkers began to take the via moderna
or "modern way". In philosophical jargon this early form of the via
moderna is often known as Nominalism - later often termed
 and sometimes Anti-realism
 or Non-realism.
systems argue about what is real and how we know reality. Very different
castles are built upon each foundation. Which system is adopted has
become important in today's ongoing debate about the existence and nature of
God. This is at the very core of many of the pressures pushing churches
towards conservatism and even fundamentalism.
Realist experiences the world, as we all do, as a series of "contacts" with
objects, people and ideas. Her or his sense of self is, in a way, also the
experience of some-thing called "me". As the Realist sorts through these
some-things, she notices that they often exhibit what seem to be common
For example, she usually thinks of her husband as a human
being. She realises that he shares some characteristics with all other human
beings. She concludes that these characteristics are common to all of that
class of beings we call human. To use another piece of jargon, the word
"humanity" is a "universal".
So also some physical objects share certain
characteristics. Colour is one. All coal is black, for example. It turns out
that blackness is also a universal which can be applied to a particular
class of objects. "Realism" is itself another universal, one which is
applied to a particular assemblage of human concepts or mental constructs.
Individual humans, for instance, are just specific examples of that basic
reality we call humanity. And so with all other some-things we experience.
According to Realists, without universals we would not be able to live in
the world. There would be too great a confusion of unique individual objects
to deal with.
Thus, says the Realist, reality consists of more than just
individual objects, people and ideas. There is a sense in which universals
are the basis of all reality. While we can't experience universals except in
their specific instances, they nevertheless exist as part of reality.
Similarly, we can't experience God except through specific instances of
God's presence in the world. God nevertheless exists independently of the
world just as universals exist independently of the things to which they
Non-realism The Non-realist also recognises that the
real world consists of some-things "out there" which we experience. But, he
says, there is no need to suppose that there is anything else besides the
individual some-things we experience.
Universals such as "human" and
"black" are mere linguistic conveniences, according to the Non-realist. Take
mathematics as an example. It is an abstract way of thinking. It can be
applied to individual physical some-things and universals if we so choose -
or not, as the case may be.
A Non-Realist slogan might be, "All cognition
is judgement." We experience everything through the filter of our human
perceptions. The question, "How long is a piece of string?" can only be
answered, "However long I decide it is." Whatever is known is relative to
the person who knows it. We will never know what anything "really" is. We
know only what we perceive and no two perceptions are the same.
is, says the Non-realist, that it is false to say that constructs such as
"human" or "black" have some sort of supernatural reality apart from the
individual examples we come across in real life. It is wrong to suppose that
when we assert that 2 + 2 = 4 there is a "real" 2 and a "real" 4. These are
just conventions. They have no reality apart from their usage. Their
"realness" is fundamentally different from the "realness" of the flowerpot a
wife throws at her husband.
Christians have fought on this battleground
for centuries. The bitter struggle continues to this day. The reason for
this intellectual fratricide is "God".
To explain: A central question
which Christians (and many others) have always asked is, "Does God exist".
Answers are as varied as those asking the question. But the answers of
Realists and Non-realists turn out to be incompatible with each other.
Just as "humanity" has a reality over and above individual humans, says the
Realist, so also is God real. God is the
universal which includes all universals. God's existence does not depend
upon human experience. God "is" regardless of our experience of the world
around us. To be unable to demonstrate that God exists does not mean that
God does not exist. As R J Hirst puts it:
... if it were true that things could not exist apart from a person's
consciousness of them, neither, presumably, could other persons ...
- the implication being that nobody can in real life afford to deny the
existence of those with whom they spend so much time relating.
says the Non-realist. What we term "God" is really a catch-all word without
reference to anything "outside" our experience - in effect, "outside" the
universe. There is no point in praying to a God "out there" because we have
no way of verifying God's existence.
Indeed, modern physics and systems
theory propose that what we call the universe is a closed system without an
"outside". By this definition we can know nothing
of a some-thing "outside" the universe. This, says the Non-realist, is a
more accurate way of describing the world.
In other words, "God" must be
equated with the universe in the sense that we can know nothing of God
except through the universe. Our experience of things, people and concepts
is all we'll ever know about God in this life.
The above summary is short
and simple - unlike the highly complex highways and byways built by
philosophers. John Macquarrie, for example, proposes that Realism consists
of a new Realism, which can be contrasted with the old Realism of the
scholastic period. He writes that Realism nowadays
... may be taken to stand for the view that we have knowledge of a
real world which exists quite independently of our cognition of it.
Realism is regarded as opposed to idealism, for which the world is in
some sense mind-dependent. 
Macquarrie proposes that European Realism should be
distinguished from that of England, and both from Realism in the United
Some other sub-sets are
Critical Realism in which we are unable to demonstrate
with complete certainty that the world "out there" actually does exist.
But we nevertheless intuitively accept that it is there.
Dialectical Realism Some suggest that we experience
the universe at various levels. The highest of these is that of spirit.
The other levels must be interpreted in terms of this. This sub-set
allows theism. Hardly surprisingly it was a favourite of William Temple
(1884-1944), one-time Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury. But it also
allows the definition of the "highest" reality as that imposed by human
ideology through social controls - the form of realism beloved of
demagogues, tyrants and absolutist political groups.
Thomistic Realism is similar to the Dialectical type. It
is often described as a "moderate" Realism. The real world is solid
enough - but in essence it is not fully actualised. That is, the
universe is still at a potential stage, not fully itself. Only in God is
it fully actualised. God is "pure act" and completely realised potential
- and is therefore the supreme reality.
Naive Realism was perhaps best typified by John Locke
(1632-1704). He was "naive" or over-simplistic because he assumed that
we experience the real world through our senses and that our senses
correspond with what's out there. He failed to realise that a sensation
doesn't necessarily guarantee the existence of the some-thing out there,
never mind communicate what it "really" is. I may experience a man
shouting as "angry" and then discover he is merely trying to make
himself heard. My initial sensation turns out to have been wrong in the
sense that it did not correspond to reality. The many visual and
auditory illusions to which we are all subject from time-to-time witness
to the same possible gap between experience and reality.
John Hick points out that one need not be a Realist in relation to
everything. One can, for example, split one's religious awareness from the
scientific. I can apply Realism to physical things but not to morality. I
can maintain that the chair I'm sitting on is really there and is part of
a greater "chairness". At the same time I can insist that moral rules
exist only in the human mind, that such rules are a human creation. He
There are in fact probably no pan-realists who believe in the reality
of fairies and snarks as well as of tables and electrons; and likewise
few if any omni-non realists, denying the objective reality of a
material world and of other people as well as of gravity and God.
An important aspect of modern Realism relates to the various attempts
by governments to impose a particular reality on a society. Perhaps the
most important of these were the contemporary ideologies of Fascism and
Communism. The former was relatively short lived and succeeded in
persuading millions that the "Volk" or German people were destined to rule
the world and, in the end, replace the mass of mongrel humans with a pure
Aryan race. In other words, the external reality was what the State
declared it to be.
Communism in the person of Josef Stalin was more
successful and long-lasting. The "Man of Steel" seems to have realised that
it was not enough to engineer the daily lives and actions of the mass of
citizens through mass propaganda and rhetoric. The State had also to
engineer the very minds of its subjects. As a result, Stalin spent much
energy on trying - without great success, it must be said - to ensure that
all aspect of the arts and sciences were subject to revolutionary ideology.
The very thoughts of people from cradle to grave were to be dictated by the
State and its unquestioning (and therefore utterly ruthless) servants.
At this point, it's appropriate to step around the mare's nest of the
many and varied versions of both Realism and Non-Realism. Waiting at the
other side is an interesting debate concerning the "existence" of God.
In 1984 Don Cupitt, then Dean of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, England,
published The Sea of Faith . It caused an
immediate furore. Many Christians accused Cupitt - who is also an Anglican
priest - of atheism. Others saw in his views a way towards a God they could
accept. The controversy rumbles on still.
In summary, Cupitt has
offended many of his fellow Christians by promoting a Non-realist deity. He
maintains that the personal God of the ages is no longer available to guide
us and to direct world events. That God is dead. A personal God is no longer
available to prop us up. Christians, says Cupitt, must give up this crutch.
The time has come for humanity to grow up, take charge of itself, and become
whatever it decides to be. God is not "there", just as the universals of
blackness or roundness are not "there". To accept this, says Cupitt, is not
easy. First, there is a sense in which we must now make our own God. Second,
God will not intervene to either punish or rescue us. One implication
is, for example, that the environment may collapse if we choose to let it.
Nuclear weapons will proliferate if we allow that to happen. A third of the
population of southern Africa will die of AIDS if they continue to live as
they now choose to live.
This dead God of Realism was considered
personal, in the same sense that you and I are personal. We relate to other
persons; we communicate with them; we form emotional attachments; we love
others. The God of tradition is a "person" and therefore personal in just
this sense. God cares for us. Although we can't fathom what seem to be
uncaring aspects of God's creation, we must accept that a personal God has
good reasons for having made the world this way.
In contrast, Cupitt
offers a definition of a Non-realist God as
... the sum of our values, representing to us their ideal unity,
their claims upon us and their creative power ... Just as you should not
think of justice and truth as independent beings, so you should not
think of God as an objectively existing super-person. That is a
mythological and confusing way of thinking ... The meaning of "God" is
religious, not metaphysical ...
Realists accuse Non-realists of constructing their own private reality
when they say that universals are human constructs and when they deny the
objective nature of the world we experience. It is individualism gone out
of control. But Cupitt counters that it is no longer valid to suggest that
the Non-realist vision of God is
... simply a humanly constructed ideal, such that when there are no
human beings any longer there will be no God any longer ...
This is an "improper" way of looking at things because we now know that
all human reality is constructed. God is man-made only in the sense
that everything, all our knowledge of the world, is man-made. This
accounts, says Cupitt, for the hard fact that humanity's vision of God is
in constant flux.
This is a good and necessary thing, because there is no task in life
more important than that of working out our own personal vision of God, a
task which each person must undertake for himself.
Cupitt's stand in this respect upsets traditional Christians, if only
because their Realism is put to the test in organisational terms. For if
Non-realism became the position of the Church at large, Christianity would
be much more inclusive, more dynamic, more changeable than Church
authority can at present allow.
What I mean by this is that Realism is
by definition more stable and solid than Non-realism. Just as "blackness"
represents something real, so also is it possible to discover and establish
real, objective truth.
Those who find they don't experience a personal
God cannot understand or agree with the Realist stance. They are (if Cupitt
is correct) released to discover God in their lives. They are free of
creeds, loosed from imposed beliefs and rigid moral codes. They leave the
Church, or hover at its margins, in order to seek out who God is for each of
them. There the Church authorities have no hold on them. They cannot be
persecuted for heresy, or condemned for breaking rules of behaviour. They do
not have to accept a one-size-fits-all God.
Realists might say that
Non-realists create their own idols. Whatever the case, the institutional
Church no longer has any grip on them. They are free to creatively construct
or frame their lives as a spiritual project. Nothing, according to Cupitt,
could be more life-giving than that.
Non-realists would say that those who
stay with traditional theism tend to become impoverished. Because the Church
as a Realist institution "knows" what lies behind appearances, it is able to
proclaim absolute truths. It follows that Christian theists can re-interpret
and restate them from time-to-time to meet social changes, but can't change
their essence. The fundamentals are for ever.
My guess is that the debate will never cease. We will always argue
about the nature of the world and the possibility of a personal God.
However, we appear to be able to influence the environment more and
more as our grasp of the physical world extends. That is, whether we like
it or not, we are increasingly able to decide what to do with our
Insofar as that is the case, it is not surprising that a Non-realist
worldview seems to be gaining ascendance outside the Church. It is less
and less easy to imagine an external, personal Being "out there" who can
(but usually doesn't) manage our world. It is becoming easier to imagine
that we are the architects of our lives, that life itself on this planet
is to a great extent in our hands.
Nor is it surprising that Realists
harden their attachment to a reality other than the physical, and remain
firmly attached to a personal God "out there" (yet "in here" also) who cares
for each and every one of us. They are by far the majority in the churches.
It may be that as Non-realism becomes the approach of so many outside the
churches, Realists will retreat into a more defensive position.
 Christian Theology, A E McGrath, Blackwell, 1994
 See Idealism
 Theological Realism and Antirealism, Roger Trigg in A
Companion to Philosophy of Religion, Blackwell, 1999
 In The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Macmillan & The Free Press,
 If there was a Big Bang event from which the universe developed, and
if that beginning derived from an infinitely small "singularity", then we
can know nothing before (and therefore "outside") that singularity.
 Twentieth Century Religious Thought, SCM Press Ltd, 1963
 Quoted by Trigg
 A British Broadcasting Corporation publication