Book Review: ‘Critical Conversations: Michael Pol Christian Theology’, ed. Murray A. Rae

‘Critical Conversations: Michael Pol Christian Theology’, ed. Murray A. Rae, Pickwick Publications, 200 pp. $20.00

In this volume, the thought of chemist-turned-philosopher Michael Polanyi is put into conversation with various aspects of Christian thought. Polanyi, largely due to (I suspect) T.F. Torrance, is generally seen as a figure congenial to theology, and these essays show the extent to which his thinking has proven useful here. For those unfamiliar with Polanyi, the first essay proper, by Tony Clark will serve as a solid intro to the basic contours of his epistemology (tacit knowledge, personal knowledge, passion, etc). All the distinctive aspects of Polanyi make an appearance here with an eye towards how these aspects apply to religious thought, although unfortunately the religious payoff is just under a page long and leaves much to be desired. As a general introduction to what makes Polanyi attractive to religious and theological thinkers, however, this is a worthy essay. The following essay, by R.T. Allen, is also extremely helpful in exploring Polanyi’s notion of ‘logical gaps’ which require heuristic passion to cross as well as showing the extent to which Polanyi appears to largely be Augustinian in his epistemology. Lincoln Harvey’s essay, which follows Allen’s, is also tantalizing in its suggestion of knowing as a social act or practice (I wish this had been developed further).

For a figure as legitimately interesting as Polanyi, the essays here, with one or two exceptions (which I’ll get into shortly) largely fall flat in putting him into genuine critical conversation. David J. Kettle’s essay ‘Truth and Dialogue’, for example, revolves entirely around Polanyi and Gadamer as opponents of Descartes – however, not once is Descartes himself mentioned or even footnoted. Instead, ‘Cartesian approaches to knowlegde’ and ‘Cartesian habits of imagination’ are deployed as a kind of bogey-man. Gadamer is, of course, interesting enough, and but these invocations of vague buzzwords inspire little confidence that Kettle really wants a critical conversation. These kinds of invocations abound in this volume, unfortunately – one wonders if reading Polanyi is seen as itself authorization or entitlement to invoke these kinds of buzzwords without doing the necessary work of engaging at a primary level. Paul Forster’s essay on Polanyi and Barth falls flat as well – the conversation between the two feels less like actual conversation and more like a forced matchmaking (Forster’s invocation of ‘greek influence’ as a bogeyman shows the extent to which little actual work has been done here).

Equally frustrating is the narrow scope of the conversation(s). While Polanyi is paired with a wide range of conversation partners, the actual conversations revolve almost exclusively around one or two aspects of his epistemology (usually tacit knowledge). While this is of course significant in Polanyi, it is equally significant that the more technical sides of Polanyi (for example, his work in probability theory, formal logic, and semantics) are largely ignored here. A notable exception is Paul Weston’s essay on Polanyi and Newbigin, where Polanyi’s critique of doubt is fleshed out (and the critique of doubt, to me anyway, is one of the most interesting aspects of Polanyi’s thinking). Weston’s essay stands out in this collection – though he does invoke a few buzzwords – as very much worth reading and as an example of the kind of conversation that Polanyi needs to be in. Weston’s essay, along with the three first essays mentioned above, are all for the most part solid engagements.

I’m puzzled by a few admissions in this volume. There is no mention of Polanyi’s actual understanding of religion or his reliance on Tillich (Polanyi explicitly states in Personal Knowledge that he follows Tillich on matters of theology), no engagement with his notion of commitment or risk in even the most basic logical propositions. Perhaps most puzzling is the complete absence (except for one mention in a footnote) of T.F. Torrance, who as I noted above is responsible for Polanyi being as well-known as he is within the theology world. Torrance built a good deal of his own thinking on Polanyi but could also be sharply critical of him.

While there are some helpful essays in this volume, I’m generally left with a bad taste in my mouth after reading through most of this collection. I’d recommend the first three essays, as well as Weston’s, but the rest unfortunately aren’t up to the same standard.





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