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The Territories of Human Reason, by Alister E. McGrath

14 June 2019

Victoria Johnson looks at remapping the God-and-science debate

LEONARDO DA VINCI might have loved this book. As someone who studied physics, aeronautics, and was an exquisite artist, anatomist, chemist, inventor, musician, poet — he was in every sense a Renaissance man who pushed the boundaries of human knowledge and reason to their limits.

Alister McGrath may be seeking to inaugurate a new kind of renaissance movement, articulating the quest of all human beings to think more expansively and break out of the stereotypes promoted by the “Western European illuminati” of the 18th century. There is no “normative” view of the world, he says, and we can no longer dissociate our thoughts about the world we live in from our thoughts about our ultimate value and purpose. Further, we cannot dissociate ourselves, either, from the communities and contexts of which we are part; so he proposes an age of multiple rationalities.

This would destroy what McGrath calls the “monomyth” of the conflict narrative between religion and science. Those who work on the hinterland between those two disciplines can only rejoice that this is being stated loudly and clearly. He goes on to conclude that studies of the history of science and religion reveal, in fact, that, for most of the time, religion has facilitated scientific thought. McGrath, using science and religion as a case study, suggests that the mapping of these supposedly distinct “intellectual territories” is fundamentally flawed, historically, philosophically, and theologically, and needs to be re-examined.

This book sets out to re-examine this observation through the prism of human reason and the multiple rationalities in which we are culturally embodied and embedded. There are no boundaries here between either science and religion, or, indeed, any other disciplines that have been artificially separated. This book provides a sound framework in which dialogue may flourish.

A refreshing exploration of complexity and mystery in religion and science poses the question: Why should rational people believe in dark matter, when dark matter is a hypothesis? Such questioning exposes the myths and muddled methodologies of many disciplines, and posits that mystery and wonder lie at the heart of science and religion. The chapter concludes with a meditation on the mystery of the Trinity, and the realisation that there will be some knowledge unavailable to us until we see God face to face.

For such a comprehensive tour de force, the tone of this book is one of humility: humility before the living God, and before the incredible and far-reaching knowledge that human beings have acquired about the universe that they inhabit. This is a book for those who have an interest in science and religion, and for anyone interested in how we can intellectually navigate a complex world. It is for those who are tired of easy answers and crave critical analysis and intellectual clarity on this subject.

McGrath faces the complexity of the debate head-on, and is unapologetic about the tangled threads of knowledge which contribute to the fabric of human wisdom. Leonardo said we must stretch ourselves to the very limits of human possibility. Anything less is a sin against both God and man. This book opens the door to a profound stretching of the limits of our inherited ways of thinking, and begins mapping out new territories for exploration.

The Revd Victoria Johnson is a Residentiary Canon of Ely Cathedral. She has a doctorate in biochemistry and is a tutor for the College of Preachers.


The Territories of Human Reason: Science and theology in an age of multiple rationalities
Alister E. McGrath
OUP £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

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