Nicholas Lash (1934-2020)

I learned a few minutes ago that Nicholas Lash had died earlier today.

Nicholas was a brilliant, incisive philosophical theologian who was by far the most formidable member of the Faculty of Divinity at Cambridge during the time I was a PhD student. He was, as far as I'm aware, the first Catholic to hold a chair in the Faculty since the Reformation. (A laicized priest married to a former nun, he was not, like many people with similar profiles, an enemy of his church. He remained unapologetically and obviously Catholic.)

Norris-Hulse Professor of Divinity at Cambridge and the holder not only of a PhD but also of an earned DD from the university, he was an elegant prose stylist whose work was rarely simple—he sought to remind us repeatedly of the complexity of thought, language, and the human situation—but always stimulating and insightful. He engaged with a broad range of topics and figures—from Newman (the subject of his dissertation and first book) to Marx to William James to Gerard Manley Hopkins. (I remember a seminar session on Antony Kenny's God and Two Poets in which Nicholas offered an amazingly close reading Hopkins's "The Windhover"—he could obviously have been an outstanding literary critic.)

I learned an immense amount from him. Easter in Ordinary was probably the single most important book I read during my time as a PhD student at Cambridge, offering as it did a way past a deeply pathological view of religious life and experience (even if I am now more sympathetic to James—an object of critical scrutiny in the book—than I perhaps was then) and forming the basis of a significant portion of my dissertation on friendship.

Nicholas unequivocally enjoyed and admired Thomas Aquinas and Karl Rahner, but he was not the architect of any sort of vast, unified philosophical or theological edifice. While he occasionally wrote book-length treatments of important issues, he metier was the extended essay, and most of his books were thus collections; I was pleased to review one of those he published later in life, The Beginning and the End of 'Religion', which included three chapters drawn from Teape Lectures he had delivered in India, a place with which his family had significant connections. He once observed to me that he was going to spend time in the US producing "that book on the Creed that every theologian writes at 60." But his book, Believing Three Ways in One God, seems likely to remain current long after many of the relatively forgettable contributions to the genre to which he alluded, full of sinuous, memorable prose I found consistently quotable (I remember subjecting the late Roy Branson to my oral interpretation of a page or more of the book during a phone call sometime in the '90s).

I opted to attend the first meeting of an undergraduate lecture course for which he was responsible during my initial term at Cambridge. He entered the room precisely at the scheduled time, long black gown swaying (at least then, senior members of the university were expected to wear their gowns while lecturing). He began speaking, and continued doing so for full fifty minutes of the scheduled class period. He spoke in perfect, complete, complex sentences that could have been transcribed and published without editing. Even when, in a seminar, he seemed to be drifting off, with eyes closed, he could snap to attention at the end of a presentation and pose a devastatingly incisive question.

He was a remarkably formidable figure, terrifying to me during my student days. When I was first introduced to him, he asked me what I was working on; I offered something that evidently sounded to him like jargony gobbledygook, he responded, in effect, "Come talk to me once you can say that clearly in English." In the university schedule of lectures and seminars for my first term at Cambridge, the listing for the philosophy of religion seminar over which he presided featured the notation, "Please see Professor Lash." Was attendance at the seminar by invitation only, I wondered. I went to see Nicholas. Not to worry, he said; the notation was just there to keep "the wrong sort of animal from getting into this particular zoo." In a seminar conversation, he supposedly once snapped at a student who’d referred to him as “Nicholas”: “My name is 'Professor Lash.'”

Snark came easily to Nicholas, who was well-known for his sardonic snort. During one seminar session, he registered the absence of two members of the Faculty whom he evidently thought would come to blows over the topic being discussed and of both of whom he was clearly inclined to be somewhat dismissive; referencing the long-running and once-famous comic strip, he noted that "neither Mutt nor Jeff was here." It was with great glee, on another occasion, that he called my attention to the encomium—in French, presumably thanks to a speechwriter—that Ronald Reagan had delivered, as a newly elected member of the Académie des Sciences morales et politiques, celebrating, per protocol, the previous occupant of his seat in the Academie, Hans Urs von Balthasar, once described, as Nicholas observed, as "the most cultured man in Europe." Another time, in the course of an informal group conversation, I urged the view that divine command accounts of ethics were primarily characteristic of a strand of Protestantism. Nicholas shot back with a response something like: “So Moses was a Protestant?” In a book review, he once quipped that many philosophers of religion seemed to mean by "the Christian tradition" whatever they happened to recall having been taught as children. 

The rule, as I understood it, was that no one could serve as one of my dissertation examiners who had played a substantial role in reviewing the dissertation before its submission, so I asked him to comment on one chapter that fell squarely within an area of his expertise. He had no obligation to read it, but he did so, offering me lots of useful comments. As it turned out, he was on sabbatical at Notre Dame at the time of my viva; in any case, though, I benefited from his considerable insight.

I had the amusing experience of hearing Nicholas and John Hick (who had been my teacher at Claremont) offer each other almost parallel back-handed compliments (not in each other's presence). Nicholas once said of John: "He's a very fine philosopher, but he really ought to learn more theology." And John said of Nicholas something that might have amounted to: "His prose is like a chambered nautilus, curving back on itself and returning again and again to the same topics from different perspectives. He's really brilliant, but he would benefit from being more of a philosopher." (John also criticized my characterization of Nicholas as a Wittgensteinian, even though he had considerable affinity, I think, with the Wittgensteinian Thomists, because he wasn't a Wittgensteinian fideist a la D. Z. Phillips.)

Nicholas was the uncle of Ralph and Joseph Fiennes (his sister, the novelist Jennifer Lash, was their mother). While I last saw Nicholas in the flesh in 2005—we gossiped over Indian food during a brief visit I made to Cambridge—I was frequently reminded of him as I saw Ralph Fiennes on screen more recently, since, when beardless, the now middle-aged nephew looked increasingly like his uncle as I remember him in 1988 (he would have been roughly the age Ralph is now). He was a thoroughly elegant dresser (I recall him as regular wearer of French cuffs) whose aristocratic demeanor and delivery seemed vaguely at odd with his lefty politics.

A reviewer of the first edition of my first book observed (I suppose on the basis of an over-hasty count of index entries) that the figure by whom I had been most influenced was Nicholas. I doubt that’s the case. But he was and is someone who has influenced my life and thought substantially. He will not be remembered for having created a school of disciples—there was nothing of the guru about him, nor, as I’ve said, of the system-builder—but he will continue, I hope, for years to come to inspire the reminder that understanding can be profoundly difficult; that language can be a source of betrayal as much as of enlightenment; that idolatry is a persistent temptation to which good theology ought to function as a prophylactic—and to serve as a model of stellar intellect, breadth, perceptiveness, and wit.

See Nicholas on video here and here. And here's The Tablet's obituary.


John said…
Thank you for sharing the mark this famous man made on your life and thought. I’m only slightly aware of Lash but what I knew was quite positive. Your appreciation of him inclines me to read more. May you also find comfort in your personal grief.
Unknown said…
A fine man and wonderful theologian. Stephen Sykes and Nicholas were the two people at Cambridge who helped me at the start of my career. Btw, John Hick was my dissertation director at Birmingham.
Unknown said…
Thanks, Gary, for so promptly sharing this tribute from which I learned a great deal--both about Lash and about you, and even about his famous sister and nephews! Your description of Lash could, in large part, be said about you as well. Obviously, to a large extent, we are influenced by our professors. Thanks for picking up the good parts!
JanLash said…
I have just been sent the link to this for which, as Nicholas’s widow, I am very grateful. Our son is constructing a website in honour of his father, and we would very much like to include this tribute if you were to give us permission. I do not know your name nor how we could contact one another privately.
Incidentally, I was once a nun but not ‘laicised‘ as I never took final vows!
Gary Chartier said…
Jan, thanks so much for posting; it's lovely to hear from you. I don't know if you'll se this, but I've sent you an add request on Facebook. You can also contact me directly via the email address at my website,

I've removed the inaccurate use of "laicized" above.

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