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The Luminous Web by Barbara Brown Taylor & The Great Mystery by Alister McGrath

02 June 2017

Adam Ford considers science and religion

The Luminous Web: Faith, science and the experience of wonder

Barbara Brown Taylor

Canterbury Press £10.99


Church Times Bookshop £9.90


The Great Mystery: Science, God and the human quest for meaning

Alister McGrath

Hodder & Stoughton £20


CT Bookshop special price £16.99


BEHIND the facts lies the meaning. This is the lovely insight that reli­­gion and science, despite being different disciplines, complement each other as each searches for truth in its own distinctive way.

Barbara Brown Taylor, author and New York-based Episcopalian priest (she refers to herself as a Preacher) describes, in this slim and beautifully crafted memoir, her own journey of discovery into the dia­­logue between science and faith. Her writing is clear, poetry in her prose, and sprinkled with memor­able lines that force the reader to stop and meditate: “In us God has given all creation a voice.” Our response to this wonder is to say “Thank you!” and give praise; “God taught the children of rocks to sing hymns.”

The author begins by tracing her own experience through school and university as an “arts person”; she lived with the assumption, rein­forced by most of her colleagues, that religion and science were separ­ate and mutually exclusive realms of human thought. She became at­­tracted to science through the writ­ings of Stephen Hawking and the quest for a unified theory of every­thing, later discovering with excite­ment the value that the great quan­tum physicist Richard Feynman put upon a philosophy of doubt. Theo­logy and science both need faith, and know doubt at a funda­mental level of their thinking. This insight led her to realise that “Our faith in an incarnational God will not allow us to ignore the phys­ical world.”

We live in a world that has mirac­ulously evolved, over aeons, from the Big Bang, which emerged amaz­ingly from nothing more than a pin­point of probability. Taylor does not succumb to the temptation that led many a preacher in the past to find God in the detail of life’s incred­ible design: it is the task of science to explain the workings of the world.

But she does become fascinated by the big question how evolution generated all those successful traits in living creatures which scientists observe, before the selection process kicked in. She discovers a “different kind of understanding” through the experience of awe at creation, and comments beautifully on the limits of language “When the measly lasso of my reason falls a couple of mil­lion miles short of the living truth”.

Alister McGrath in The Great Mystery asks the questions (with his usual rigour and clarity) that philo­sophers tend to avoid these days: “What is the point of life?” and “What is wrong with us?” He, too, is concerned to explore the meaning that lies behind the facts in a world drowning in information from the sciences, cal­­ling for a fundamental rethinking of who we are. And, if we conclude that life’s meaning is invented rather than discovered, how will we come to terms with that?

McGrath’s focus falls on the hu­­man being, “the strangest and most puzzling occupant” of this world. It is a complex quest, because a human being can be described from differ­ing points of view, like a mountain that from one side may appear as a friendly grassy slope while another aspect offers a craggy fastness.

He dips into a dizzying wealth of writing, from St Augustine of Hippo to Richard Dawkins, and Aristotle to Iris Murdoch, in an attempt to comprehend the mystery of human identity. Selfish, self-deceiving, self-defining, deluded, and sinful — all characterise our natures. But also, he concludes, any “comprehensive and reliable account of humanity” has to take seriously our innate tendency towards religion and spiritu­­­­ality which seems to be an intrinsic aspect of human nature.

He turns to the overwhelming sense of wonder which we feel from time to time, seeking a deeper vision of humanity through the observa­tions of science and the insights of religion.


The Revd Adam Ford is a former Chaplain at St Paul’s School for Girls.

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