DONALD MacKINNON is a legend. There are a hundred stories about his

eccentricity. At Aberdeen his students used to watch with apprehension

as a pencil, being sharpened during their teacher's metaphysical

speculations, got smaller and smaller until his finger was next for the


A new book, Christ, Ethics and Tragedy, constitutes the proceedings of

a conference on his work held in Cambridge in 1986, in honour of his

75th birthday. This festschrift, edited by Professor Kenneth Surin for

Cambridge Univerity Press, is for ''the most influential philosopher of

religion in Britain this century.''

MacKinnon's grandfather was the son of a Tobermory shopkeeper. ''My

father was only seven when his father died. He was discovered as a lad

of pairts largely by Levack, the dominie of Tobermory school, who helped

him to go to Daniel Stewart's College in Edinburgh.''

Having qualified as a lawyer, MacKinnon's father returned to Mull to

practise in Tobermory. In 1905 he moved to Oban as procurator fiscal and

founded the firm of D. M. MacKinnon and Company.

Donald MacKinnon was sent to Cargilfield prep school in Edinburgh

where he won a scholarship to Winchester in 1927. ''Academically, it was

an outstandingly good school. The 70 scholars, including myself, formed

a kind of academic elite. One was preserved from a lot of the least

attractive aspects of English public school life.''

His parents worshipped at the Dunollie Road United Free Church, Oban;

but the boy found himself drawn towards the mystery of the Eucharist,

and at Winchester he was confirmed as an Anglican. He got his parents'

blessing, but his father didn't want him to go into the Church. ''He was

absolutely right; I see that now.'' Donald went to New College, Oxford,

on a scholarship to read Greats.

''As some people had expected, I was caught by philosophy.'' In 1936

he became assistant to A. E. Taylor, professor of moral philosophy at

Edinburgh University. ''You were paid #250 a year. You didn't lecture,

except when the professor was ill, when in fact you would read his

lecture for him.''

MacKinnon met his wife Lois, the daughter of a Midlothian minister, in

a moral philosophy class he was teaching. George Elder Davie was

studying philosophy at Edinburgh at the same time and he married Lois's

sister Elspeth.

After the achievement of winning the prestigious John Locke

scholar-ship in mental philosophy, Donald MacKinnon moved from Edinburgh

to Oxford. Persuaded by one of his former tutors, Isaiah Berlin (''from

whom I got a tremendous amount in all sorts of ways'') to apply for a

tutorial fellowship at Keble College, he stayed there for 10 years and

was latterly also a lecturer at Balliol.

There is always a silence as MacKinnon ponders an answer, but when I

asked him if these were happy years, he looked unusually pained: ''There

were good and bad periods.'' What caused the bad periods? ''Unless you

know Oxford, you don't know how it can take you over.'' Did he mean

narrowness of vision? ''Yes. Exactly. And a general belief that,

academically and intellectually, all that matters is there, in Oxford.''

As his wife brought tea, she recalled her own unhappiness during those

years in enclosed, rarified Keble College. The MacKinnons wanted a

change, preferably back to Scotland.

In 1946 he was urged to apply for the Regius Chair of moral philosophy

at Aberdeen University. He was 33. Remembering that happy move, he

became animated: Aberdeen gave him wider contact with people and opened

his mind, which is why he finds the current predicament of its

university so tragic.

''From 1981 it has fallen on days that make it unrecognisably

different from the Aberdeen University that my wife and I knew. As a

university community, I would say it has changed fundamentally. But it

still has a great deal going for it.''

After 13 years at Aberdeen, he knew he had to make a move or remain

there till retirement. The Norris-Hulse divinity chair had been a New

Testament chair, but in 1949 it was used to promote the philosophy of

religion to professorial level in Cambridge, and this was continued in

1960. ''I defined the task that I set myself at Cambridge: which was to

make theologians appreciate the importance of philosophical analysis,

and make philosophers see the significance of theology.''

How did Cambridge compare to Oxford? ''I came to prefer it greatly. It

was much more open, less enclosed in itself, though its standards were

rigorously high. It was a fruitful period for me.''

How difficult was it for a religious philosopher to live and meditate

in the time of the Nazis and Belsen? ''It's a dominant fact.'' Did it

ever make him have doubts about religion? ''Oh yes.'' Then how did he

manage to hold to his convictions? ''I think the answer is that

gradually things get pared down. I don't see answers, but I find a focus

of interrogation.

''When I began to lecture on the problem of evil in Cambridge, I was

told by one of my audience -- now a university teacher -- that he found

the first lecture I gave completely shattering because he thought he had

the answers. I devoted the first lecture to the subject of Judas

Iscariot and the failure of Jesus. 'The Son of Man goeth as it is

written of him: but woe unto that man by whom the Son of man is

betrayed. It had been good for that man if he had not been born'.''

In the lecture MacKinnon told his audience that there are problems

which are insoluble and people have to recognise this. There is the

problem of undeserved suffering, such as the Nazis meted out to people.

''No facile teleology, no attempt to show good coming out of evil, is

any answer.''

So it is not sufficient for us to say about Terry Waite and his

fellow- prisoners in the dark cellars of Beirut: believe in God and it

will turn out right in the end? There has to be something more? ''Of

course there has to be something more.'' MacKinnon went to a bookshelf

then read from the English Puritan poet Richard Baxter:

Christ leads me through no darker rooms

Than he went through before;

He that into God's kingdom comes

Must enter by this door.

''It is capable of much wider application. You see, you've got to say

that there's no answer in our hands, specifically about the problem of

evil, of undeserved suffering.''

MacKinnon acknowledges a huge debt to his wife in encouraging his

reading, expanding his philosophical vision. ''If I'm talking on the

problem of evil, or writing on it, I will refer to the tragedies of


But is it not difficult for many people to maintain their belief in

this age? ''There's a tremendous problem. There's not one problem; there

are many, a vast number. There is the cosmological problem, the role of

man in the universe, and the place of the universe in that which is

greater than the universe.''

Has science diminished or enhanced the status of Man? ''Both. It's

diminished it in one way; in another, of course, it's greatly enhanced

it because, as Pascal said, man is a reed, but a thinking reed; that

remains. There are times, though, when the whole Christian scene seems

to me to be unbearably anthropocentric. But then I say, after all, we

are human.''

After a lifetime of meditation, MacKinnon still doesn't claim to have

the answers. ''I don't pretend that my philosophy and my theology hang

together. I wish they did. They impinge on each other; but there are

many very dark places.''

When I suggested that the dignity and solitude of death was diminished

by terrorism, he said sadly: ''Think of the hundreds falling out of the

sky over Lockerbie.'' But isn't it very difficult for people to believe

in an afterlife in this technological, overcrowded age? ''You're

absolutely right.'' He then referred me to the Gifford Lectures given at

Glasgow University in 1955-57 by the English theologian Leonard Hodgson.

In a memorable passage in one of these lectures, Hodgson describes the

mood of uncertainty induced in him by walking along Sauchiehall Street:

Who are these hordes of people, and what is to become of them?

Is it very important that we try to hold on to faith in this world?

''Yes it is, and it can only be done by the most strenuous effort.''

It's not enough just to attend church on Sunday? ''It's not a matter of

attending church, though that is important. It's a matter of one's

interior self-interrogation.'' He has come to hate bigotry. ''One of the

reasons why bigotry is so destructive is that it prevents one learning

from traditions other than one's own. This has been recently been

illustrated in the case of Lord Mackay.

''But I could equally well illustrate it from the kind of exclusive

bigotry that too often characterises the Anglo-Catholic tradition. I

have a great admiration for Lord Mackay that I have for no other member

of the present Government.''

Donald MacKinnon retired from Cambridge in 1978. He had a house near

Benderloch, just up from Oban, where he could write and his wife paint

in the holidays, but they gave that up in 1984. He has done Aberdeen the

honour of retiring there, and he maintains his university connections

through his emeritus professorship at Cambridge.

When he received an honorary degree from Stirling in the summer, he

told staff and graduands that if some universities are to be converted

into student-processing institutions, teaching without research, they

will cease to be universities and become cramming establishments

instead. ''You can only have a university where research and teaching go

on together.''

What sustains Donald MacKinnon?

''For me the two poles of faith are my wife's love through some very

difficult and dark periods and, on the other side, the rite of the

Eucharist which to me remains supremely important as a focus of thought,

of aspiration, of intercession, of the offering of perplexity: though I

know that my understanding of it has changed, and I believe, deepened.''