Obituary: Professor Donald MacKinnon
Wednesday 09 March 1994
AS AN INTELLECTUAL trained in philosophy, Donald MacKinnon worked on the borderlands of philosophy and theology for more than half a century. His greatest strength was the breadth of human experience and learning which he brought to bear on deep, intractable problems which others tried to tame by isolating monodimensional aspects of them for minute analysis. As a consequence his style irritated some for whom intellectual tidiness was the touchstone of success.
Conversely, MacKinnon's ability to connect the superficially distinct and separate inspired and bewitched generations of students in Oxford, Aberdeen and Cambridge, as of course did his quite unique style of lecturing. He was, as one senior Cambridge colleague described him, 'a lecturer of rare distinction', rising equally to the grand formal occasion of a Cambridge Public Lecture Series, and to the need to breathe inspiration into the Ordinary Moral Philosophy Class in Aberdeen at 9am on a February Monday morning.
The persona was of course grand and at times eccentric, but what held the respective audiences entranced was the combination of intellectual passion and the type of genius which is in constant tension with the pursuit of truth and reality. The pressures which this produced were often concealed from others but of course never from his wife, Lois, to whom he was happily married for more than five decades.
As a teacher his concerns for the welfare of his students showed to many of them a perhaps initially unexpected ability to particularise his philosophical and theological concerns with the suffering in this world. The social and political expression of this manifested itself both in his writings and in his continuing commitment to the cause of nuclear disarmament.
MacKinnon's churchmanship was 'high' rather than 'low', but he often spoke of the different character of Anglicanism north of the border, where the Scottish Episcopal Church is not the established church. He could be especially fierce in his distaste for ecclesiastical self-regard, and witnesses still remark on the power of the delivery of his lecture 'The Stripping of the Altars' in Westminster Abbey (published in a collection of that title in 1969). None the less his disdain for what Caiaphas represented went hand in hand with an appreciation of the responsibilities of ecclesiastical as well as political office.
This belief was reinforced by his war service and in later years he attached great importance to, as well as deriving much pleasure from, membership of a group led by Martin Wight, which produced the volume Diplomatic Investigations concerned with the theory, ethics and practice of international relations.
His central concerns remained however with the interfaces between philosophy and theology. Recurring themes such as the nature of metaphysics, the reality of evil, its manifestation in ethics, in tragedy and in theological reflection on the atonement, the nature of self- knowledge, and historicity in Christianity were the subject of series of public lectures including the Giffords (at Edinburgh), the Wilde Lectures (at Oxford) and the Stantons (at Cambridge). In Oxford he taught many who filled the Chairs and Fellowships of the decades to follow. In the different world of Aberdeen he left the legacy of visiting Gifford Lecturers of the standing of Paul Tillich and HH Price and also a warm regard from all who knew him - even down to the waitress who, serving him coffee, made it clear that she still recognised him after a gap of 30 years and more. I think that thought gave him great delight. In Cambridge his gifts dominated theology for 15 years.
After retiring to Aberdeen he revived his interests in the Greeks, as well as continuing to deliver papers on a variety of topics - working very recently for example on P. T. Forsyth.
Donald MacKinnon did not live in an age in which it was easy, or even possible, to come to a great systematic synthesis and this probably disappointed him. It was however an age for the insights of the essayist and teacher and in both of these he excelled.
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