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Convergence for a richer vision  

09 December 2016

David Atkinson on a contributor to the God-and-science debate

Enriching our Vision of Reality: Theology and the natural sciences in dialogue
Alister McGrath
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THERE is a welcome renewal of the conversations between Christian faith and science.

Almost 30 years ago, the Society of Ordained Scientists was founded under Arthur Peacocke’s inspiration, and well over 100 ordained scientists are linked in a fellowship of prayer. The Faraday Institute promotes interdisciplinary research and public understanding of science and religion. Last year, the Church of England backed a project at Durham University to promote engagement between scientists and theologians, led by David Wilkinson (theology professor), Tom McLeish (physics professor), and Richard Cheetham (Bishop of Kingston). Several dioceses promote “science weeks” or “science and theology” groups.

The conversation between Christian theology and science has been significantly enhanced over the years by Alister McGrath, who has doctorates in both, and is now Andreas Idrios Professor of Science and Religion at Oxford. His academic trilogy The Science of God explored theology using the insights of natural science. In 1999, he wrote Science and Religion: An introduction. Later, The Open Secret and especially his magnificent 2009 Gifford Lectures explored the implications of “A Fine-Tuned Universe” for a reshaped natural theology.

This book, at a much more accessible level, though very fully referenced, shows the same erudition, clarity, and passion. It is primarily addressed to scientists and theologians, though it is ideal for church study groups — and required reading for ordinands.

Enriching our Vision of Reality weaves freshly and creatively together insights from his experiences, from theology, philosophy (Bhaskar, Polanyi), biography (the theoretical chemist Charles Coulson; the British theologian Thomas Torrance; and John Polkinghorne, the physicist/priest who has done so much to enrich and popularise mutual understanding between science and theology), and contemporary writers from C. S. Lewis to Richard Dawkins.

Beginning with questions about intelligibility and coherence, McGrath then illustrates six converging dialogues, debunking the Victorian myth of the “warfare” between science and religion, still so tediously promoted by New Atheists. Scientific theory and theology are both ways of grasping a vision of our strange world; they both involve belief on the basis of sufficient evidence — and both are provisional and open to correction. The complex reality of our world needs complementary models and analogies to represent it.

A fascinating chapter on Darwin illustrates the open-endedness of discovery. McGrath discusses who we human beings are from scientific and theological perspectives, and returns again to the theme of “natural theology”, explored at a more academic level elsewhere. Throughout, McGrath seeks to “interlace science and theology to help us glimpse a richer vision”. As he says, it is an idea as old as the Renaissance. Nevertheless, “we need all the wisdom we possess to cope with the challenges of the moment” — and he rightly hopes that this enriched vision can gradually “capture the imagination of our culture.”


Dr David Atkinson is an honorary assistant bishop in the diocese of Southwark.

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