Timothy McDermott: An appreciation
By RUPERT SHORTT
“The Mass is make-belief – as is Christian faith itself. Faith just happens to be a form of make-belief of which God approves.” Thus Timothy McDermott, Catholic philosopher and former professor of computer science, who has died in Cambridge at the age of eighty-seven. Many of his gnomic remarks were laced with this sort of wry but always gentle humour – another was that “there is no such thing as God in this world”. His underlying point tended to be that we need to know what Christian teaching is and is not saying before being in a proper position to accept or reject it.
His career appeared to fall into two distinct halves. Born in 1926, he joined the Dominican order as a young man and taught theology in England and South Africa before resigning from the priesthood in middle age in protest against authoritarianism in the Catholic Church. He then retrained as a computer scientist in London, returning in due course to South Africa, getting married, and becoming a father and step-father. Yet science and religion were always interlaced at some level. Had he not embarked on ordination training, he would have pursued a doctorate in biochemistry at Cambridge, possibly working at the feet of Crick and Watson shortly before the discovery of DNA.
Like many associated with the Dominican order, he saw in the work of St Thomas Aquinas a rich resource for clarifying debate on the existence of God. Aquinas’s crowning achievement consisted in transposing the works of Aristotle into a Christian key. As Timothy put it in his exemplary book Aquinas (2007), St Thomas found within Aristotle’s emphasis on this-worldly individual experience and agency “a far more potent pointer to God than Plato’s emphasis on the other-worldliness of spirit”. For Aquinas, he went on, “nature does not play second fiddle to supernature: God is . . . not supernatural but the source and author and end of the natural”. For this reason St Thomas held that human reason has its God-given autonomy. Rejecting the separation of faith and reason, he saw the two as complementary means of shedding light on the truth of our being.
In retirement, Timothy noted to his great regret that a new form of the old Platonic–Aristotelian clash was being played out in a fight between religion and science of alarming proportions. He saw the basic misconception at the heart of much New Atheist polemic: “Richard Dawkins and his followers think that theologians are trying to add something on to what it already perfectly explicable by science. But we’re not going outside nature. We’re asking, Where does nature get it from? How is it all possible?”
Take a very simple example like boiling a kettle on a stove. From a Thomist point of view, the process has been misconceived by believers and non-believers alike in three ways. The first mistake is to think that the gas boils the water and that God is not involved at all. The second is that God boils the water and the gas is not involved at all; the third, that God makes the gas act on the water as a puppeteer moves a puppet, and the gas does not exercise a power of its own. For St Thomas, the right interpretation is subtler. As a canvas supports a painting, so God makes the whole situation to exist: the gas, its power and its action on the water. God and the gas work at different levels, not in competition. Were Aquinas alive now, Timothy added, “he would surely have recognised the same struggle of secular and sacred, reason and revelation, material atomism and Platonic reality, in which he was embroiled”. St Thomas’s Aristotelianism was “just the refreshing view we need to resolve this contemporary debate”, he judged.
As a philosopher, he could be withering about the attempt by some scientists to explain how the universe could have emerged from “nothing”, properly understood. He remained adamant that it is impossible, in the terms naturalism allows, to say how anything could exist at all. But his final review – of Steve Jones’s book The Serpent’s Promise (TLS, August 9, 2013) – ended with an insight more important to him than debate about first causes and unmoved movers. According to the monotheistic traditions, he wrote, “the presence of God is not primarily a remote, supernatural, offstage part in the grand narrative of Nature – the ultimate beginning and ultimate end – but an immediate and intimate presence as a centre in the small narratives of human responses to the call to live”.