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Alister McGrath: Points of light in the darkness

28 August 2020

Alister McGrath describes his journey from knowing all to understanding a little


Light installation, Riga, 2017

Light installation, Riga, 2017

THE 1960s now seem a distant dream — a fading moment in cultural history tinged with a pervasive optimism and idealism, given intellectual resilience at the time by a belief that life’s great questions could be sorted out definitively and unambiguously by the straight-talking no-nonsense Logical Positivism of A. J. Ayer, or the totalisations of Marxist ideology.

I thought I was standing on the brink of a new age of clarity and certainty; in fact, it was simply an age of briefly fashionable new dogmas that were just as ephemeral as those they displaced.

I longed for a simple truth back then, resisting any recognition of complexity. I was seeking an objective, universal account of our world, independent of place and time, believing that the natural sciences and human reason, individually or collaboratively, were capable of delivering this secure and compelling rational truth.

Indeed, for a while I believed I had found it, before gradually coming to realise, in a heartbreaking process of disillusionment, not merely that I had failed to find this rational Nirvana, but that it was not there to be found in the first place.

So, what about philosophy, which, some suggest, offers complete and reliable answers to life’s great questions? Despite welcome moments of rational transparency, our world seems frustratingly resistant to total intellectual mastery. While philosophy offers us a most impressive and engaging array of intellectual possibilities, there is no persuasive evidence that it has decisively resolved any of life’s great questions.

We can certainly take and defend committed positions on these questions, but these are to be seen as opinions and judgements, not secure knowledge.

The cultural history of philosophy discloses how human reasoning has been shaped by its historical and cultural contexts, suggesting that its solutions might be transient and local rather than permanent and universal. Until recently, European philosophy has been strongly ethnocentric and monopolistic, treating Chinese and Indian philosophies with a haughty condescension.

Breaking with the universal ambition of the bygone Western “Age of Reason”, it is now widely conceded that we need to speak of “comparative philosophy”, acknowledging how philosophical methods and assumptions (including those of the Enlightenment) are shaped by their cultural and historical contexts.


HAPPILY, many philosophers are now alert to these changing perceptions of the relationship between philosophy and its shifting and unsettled cultural contexts. Mary Midgley, one of the most interesting of this group of historically and culturally enlightened philosophers, clearly appreciated the strengths and limits of the philosophical enterprise in the light of such a cultural and historical attentiveness.

We philosophise in the midst of a changing world, and our philosophies can never be considered definitive or final. Philosophising, in fact, is not a matter of solving one fixed set of puzzles. Instead, it involves finding the many particular ways of thinking that will be the most helpful as we try to explore this constantly changing world. Because the world — including human life — does constantly change; philosophical thoughts are never final. Their aim is always to help us through the present difficulty.

Given the vulnerability of our faltering and fragile answers to life’s ultimate questions, how do we cope with this uncertainty? After all, we are not logical calculating machines, but creatures who have realised the importance of intuition and emotions in helping us make decisions about our identities, aspirations, and true meaning.

The mechanical rational algorithms of the Enlightenment — so brilliantly parodied in Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy — can offer only inadequate (and often incomprehensible) logical or mathematical answers to what are fundamentally existential questions, yet are so often posed as if they were logical or scientific questions.

Religious faith, seen by dogmatic rationalists as a violation of human reason, is better seen as illustrating the rational dilemma that we all face in trying to make sense of things. Faith is a rejection of the rationalist delusion that we can have clear and secure knowledge of the answers to ultimate questions about our meaning, value, and purpose.

Perhaps it was once possible to believe that these grand questions could be definitively answered by an appeal to compelling or overwhelming evidence; yet the discussion has moved on, and we must leave such illusions behind us.

We can give answers that we believe to be warranted and justified, but we cannot prove they are right and reliable, even though we believe that they are so. Faith is a willingness, even a determination, to cope with this half-lit world, believing with our minds and trusting in our hearts that we can find good answers to our questions, while tantalisingly knowing that we cannot prove them to be true.


THERE is, indeed, a single human faculty of reason; yet this gives rise to multiple rationalities. There are many ways in which human beings can be rational, one of which is the monopolistic approach associated with the Age of Reason; another is the distinct rationality of the Christian faith.

Early Christian writers constantly reaffirmed that their faith was logikos: rational, in the sense of corresponding to a deep understanding of fundamental truths about our situation within a greater order of things. But these deep truths are better understood as wisdom rather than knowledge, in that they enable us to live meaningfully in a complex world, coping with human suffering, vulnerability, trauma, and failure.

Wisdom, however, is not a set of abstract ideas, but something that is best grasped through exemplars — living human beings who are seen to embody these ideas, and are able to express them in practice. We learn what it means to be good, faithful, and caring through encounters with people who compellingly exemplify these qualities and evoke both admiration on our part and a desire to emulate them.

Christianity speaks of the embodiment of wisdom and goodness in Jesus Christ, using the language of “incarnation” to express the core belief that Christ manifests and embodies divine wisdom, while nevertheless enduring rejection, suffering, and crucifixion.

Christ exemplifies, embodies, and enables the Christian capacity to cope with meaninglessness, incoherence, uncertainty, and tragedy. Part of Christian discipleship is the development of the “mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2.16), a habit of thought and reasoning that allows us to cultivate resilience in the face of life’s enigmas and traumas.

Christianity does not merely offer a new way of beholding our world, but an enhanced capacity to live within that world and cope with its uncertainty and complexity, as well as our own frailty and failings. It enables us to confront glib and shallow accounts of our situation, such as the superficial rationalism of the Enlightenment, or the facile optimism of an ideology of “positive thinking”, which seeks to exorcise any recognition of the darker and more disturbing aspects of human nature or creation.

Reality is complex and ambivalent; wisdom demands that we recognise this rather than crudely force it to be uniformly simple and positive. Intellectual violence is unable to suppress this darker truth about our world, which Christianity has affirmed and confronted, rather than implausibly denied.

Wisdom is a form of knowledge that eschews simple and superficial readings of reality, driven by an intolerance of uncertainty. It demands a deep immersion in the paradoxes and problems of living in a world that is resistant to quick and easy interpretations.

The “wise” are those who are willing to adapt their patterns of thought and life to this complex world rather than attempt to force the world to conform to their preconceived ideas. Wisdom demands that we respect and actively embrace a deep mystery, something that transcends the boundaries of human comprehension.

G. K. Chesterton declared that, by acknowledging one thing to be mysterious, everything else becomes lucid. As Newton found in setting out the idea of gravity, and Christians in expressing the notion of the Trinity, we often find that something that we do not — and perhaps cannot — fully understand allows us to understand everything else. Paradoxically, mysteries have a remarkable capacity to illuminate.

We do, indeed, see through a glass darkly (1 Corinthians 13.12), being captives to our limited capacity to behold and understand, and the fragility of the truths on which we base our lives. That’s why we attach ourselves to others for company and solidarity, holding on to a vision of reality and embodiment of wisdom, which in turn holds us, encouraging us to probe and discover its depths and riches.

Somehow, the shadows of the cosmos seem softer and more bearable when we journey in company — and in hope, knowing that someone has walked through that darkness before us, blazing a trail that we can follow.


This is an edited extract from Through a Glass Darkly: Journeys through science, faith and doubt — a memoir by Alister McGrath, Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion in the University of Oxford. It is published by Hodder & Stoughton on 3 September at £14.99 (Church Times Bookshop special price £12.99).

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