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Alister McGrath, theologian

07 July 2017

‘It’s important to be reminded of the limits of our understanding as human beings’

Chris Andrews

My typical day consists of teaching, research, academic super­­vision, and administration, leavened by the de­­light of occasionally being able to write books and articles. I’m chair­man of Oxford’s Final Honour School of Theology examiners this year; so I’ve spent the past fortnight wearing full academic dress, making my way to the Examination Schools to ensure that the examinations go smoothly.


I feel a complete fool wearing this kit in such hot weather, yet find consolation in delighting the Jap­anese tourists, who stop me to ask for a selfie.


Science and religion is a growing field at Oxford, and it’s exciting to develop new initiatives, especially connecting up with Churches’ min­istries. We’ve just got a major grant for the reinvigoration of natural theology in the life of the Churches from the Issachar Fund. We hope to show Churches that taking nature very seriously is really important for Christian theology, and encourage Christians who are engaged with these issues.


I also direct the Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion, which has a particular interest in helping schools and churches think through the implications of new scientific and technological developments. Science and religion will be the most popular optional paper next year in Oxford’s Final Honour School of Theology.


My personal spiritual life is focused more on home and the parishes in which I minister and preach on Sun­­­­days, in a rural benefice on the western borders of Oxford diocese. Leading worship in 900-year-old Cotswold churches gives you a strong sense of a tradi­tion of faith — and an unsettling sense of responsibility for ensuring this continues in the future.


Ancient churches reinforce my sense of a theology of place: their distinct identity, their long history of memories, promises, hopes, and fears, and the sense of stability they still give their communities.


I grew up in rural Northern Ireland, and I’ve fond memories of long summer afternoons in our family garden in the early 1960s. The world seemed much more stable and optimistic about the future. I think we’ve lost that.


I studied natural sciences, believing then that science entailed atheism, and treated religion with the super­cilious dismissiveness of a teenager. I had a sense of wonder at the beauty and complexity of nature, and a half-glimpsed insight that this might point to something more significant. Only later I re­­­­alised that my wonder at nature might point to God as well.


I arrived at Oxford in 1971 to study chemistry, then research in molecular biophysics. Brooding misgivings and suppressed doubts about the reliability of atheism led me to discover Christianity. I found myself asking a new question: how could I hold together science and my new love of the Christian faith? Were they separate things, in­­­cap­­able of speaking to each other? Or might there be a way of bringing them together?


The only way to sort this out was to immerse myself in theology. Al­­though I loved it, and even served as Oxford’s Professor of Historical Theology, my concern was to un­­der­­­­stand the relation of Christian theology and the natural sciences. This demands immersion in two different communities, and learning their different languages and methods.


In Inventing the Universe, and The Great Mystery, I argue for the mutual enrichment of theology and science, seen in the right way. It’s not a new idea. I’ve simply picked up a Renaissance theme, and up­­dated it, but it’s difficult to pre­­sent it within a cul­­­ture which is tone-deaf to the nuances of scholarship, and prefers simplistic slogans — above all the long-discredited mantra of the “warfare” between science and relig­ion. As I belong in both the scien­tific and theological com­mun­ities, I find their border­lands intel­lectually interesting and culturally signifi­cant, and enormously im­­portant for Christian theology, spirit­uality, and apolo­getics.


I’m currently working on a rather dull academic monograph on ra­­tion­al­ity in science and religion, to be published by Oxford Uni­versity Press in 2018. It’s an important topic, [but] I admit that it is being written partly to meet the require­ments of the 2021 Research Ex­­cellence Framework. And I and my colleagues in the Ian Ramsey Centre are fund-raising for major outreach projects in science and religion, hoping to move the dis­cussion beyond the discredited war­fare model in much more inter­esting directions.


In principle, the dialogue between science and religion embraces every scientific discipline and every reli­gious tradition; but there’s a marked preponderance of Christian engage­ment with the field. This partly reflects Christianity’s trad­i­tion of ancillae theologiae, or “hand­­maids of theology”: i.e. other disciplines which help theology de­­velop, sharpen, and enrich its ideas. It’s mandated by Christian theology, and helps it interact with con­­­temporary Western culture. It’s a hallmark of a mature faith which risks interdisciplinary engagement.


In The Great Mystery, I discuss John Mackay’s distinction between two different ways of thinking about the human journey through life. The “balcony” invites us to stand above the landscape of faith; so we can see the roads on which we travel and where they lead. Yet faith’s lived out “on the road”, and we simply don’t have access to the God’s-eye view from the balcony. We must live with limited vision, walking by faith and not by sight, trusting that there’s a bigger picture which makes sense of our journey. I find that imaginative framework helpful in mapping the journey of faith.


It’s important to be reminded of the limits of our understanding as human beings, while not being re­­­duced to confusion, bewilder­ment, or despair. Bertrand Russell on philo­­­­so­phy could easily be applied to theology: he said philo­sophy’s purpose is to show us “how to live with­­out certainty, and yet without being paralysed by hesitation”. It’s also a helpful corrective to the hopelessly confi­dent overstatements in many of the writings of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.


Dorothy L. Sayers remarked: “All spiritual experience is a closed book to me; in that respect I have been tone-deaf from birth.” My first relig­ious experience, when I was about ten, was a sense of utter in­­significance in the face of the vast­­ness of the universe. It didn’t lead to any interest in religion or God as such. My embrace of Chris­tianity was primarily rational: the Christian account of reality made sense of myself and my world.


Perhaps this has led me to under-appreciate the experiential side of faith. Yet Christian theology gives us a framework for experiencing life in a new way. In Inventing the Uni­verse, I talk about a rare relig­­­ious experience I had at night in a desert in Iran, when I saw the sky with a brilliance and solemnity I’d never known before. It brought new depth to my reading of Psalm 19.1.


Lots of individuals help us as we travel. Some walk alongside us on the road for some time, others join us only briefly; yet they all help us move on. My wife’s also a priest, ministering in a different parish. We often talk about theology, or how best to preach on the lectionary passages. I still recall a sermon preached in 1973 by Charles A. Coulson, Oxford Professor of Theo­retical Chemistry and a Methodist lay preacher, that gave me a frame­work to correlate faith and science. One of the greatest influ­ences on my life is C. S. Lewis, whom I began to read in 1974. Every time you read him, you notice things you failed to pick up before. He’s a generative writer, someone who stimulates and informs.


I do pray, often — generally with a deep sense of unease about troub­ling God about my minor concerns, when the world around me seems to need far more attention. My own prayers tend to be about the unbear­able mess our world is in, and my perplexity about what anyone can do to sort it out. Often I find myself praying for myself, my family, and my friends, only because these seem more manageable problems, and I ought to be able to make a dif­­ference in their situations.


I’d choose to be locked with C. S. Lewis in his church: Holy Trinity, Headington Quarry. I’m conscious of how little we actually know about his complex character. Might we share similar fears and hopes? Was I right in redating his conversion, which Lewis places in 1929 and I place in 1930? And how did he learn to cope with the darker side of his nature, hinted at in some of his writings? And what advice might he give me?


The Revd Dr Alister McGrath holds the Andreas Idreos Professorship of Science and Religion at Oxford. He was talking to Terence Handley MacMath. The Great Mystery is published by Hodder & Stoughton (£14.99 (CT Bookshop £13.50)).

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