Donald Mackinnon: extraordinary theologian of the ordinary

Philosophy-and-the-Burden-of-SDL112898409-1-04665.jpgDonald MacKinnon

It has been often remarked that Donald MacKenzie MacKinnon (1913-94) has been one of the most influential twentieth-century theologians in the United Kingdom – in England in particular.  In fact, in his tribute to MacKinnon, Fergus Kerr regards him as having been “by far the most influential British theologian of the twentieth century”.[1]  Yet while it is the case that those who have learned directly from him reads like a veritable theological ‘Who’s Who’ of British theologians, he remains both relatively ill-read and little studied.[2]  Given his unsystematic approach and his preference for the essay, the occasional paper, and the book review, this lack of study of MacKinnon may well be an appropriate testimony to what George Steiner terms “Donald’s genius”.[3]  These papers are themselves stylistic expressions of MacKinnon’s refusal to engage in providing simplistic systems.[4]  On the other hand, the dearth of critical attention is equally misplaced.  When his name is mentioned it is frequently in order to amuse with the legion of weird and wonderful stories of eccentricity of a larger-than-life character.  Nonetheless, paying attention to his writing might still yield discovery of a method of inquiry that sharpens one’s own intellectual investigation and encourages the kind of intellectual reasoning and conversation that many find all too rarely occur in the contemporary West with the increasing particularisation and professionalization of discourses, and the reduction of public discourse to the banal, trivial and shallow.  The testimonies to his genius endorse MacKinnon’s deep erudition, his penetrating engagement with the particular, his concern with matters of social and political justice, and his almost tortured sense of honesty and examination.  This is MacKinnon’s extraordinariness.

[1] Fergus Kerr, ‘Remembering Donald MacKinnon’, New Blackfriars 85 (2004), 265-9 (266).

[2] André Muller’s recently completed first part of an intellectual biography may begin to address that problem [‘Donald M. MacKinnon:  The True Service of the Particular, 1913-1959’, PhD thesis (University of Otago, 2010)].

[3] George Steiner, ‘Tribute to Donald MacKinnon’, Theology 98 (1995), 2-9 (2).

[4] In their own way they are testimonies of a sort to the prevention of “the frozen certitudes of the dogmatic, the inertia of the canonic”, to adapt Steiner’s description of Søren Kierkegaard’s style [No Passion Spent:  Essays 1978-1996 (London:  Faber and Faber, 1996), 253].

Paper available at Academia edu

and  Donald MacKinnon Intro



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