Alister McGrath, The Big Question: Why We Can’t Stop Talking About Science, Faith and God (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2015).
Alister McGrath has written a lot of books. Critics suggest that not all are of even quality, but that is an almost inevitable consequence of the volume of his output. I’ve read quite a few of his books carefully, and I almost always come away with an appreciation for how he draws together threads of insight from a wide array of fields. That makes him one of the most eloquent voices in the science and religion dialogue today.
His recent book, The Big Question: Why We Can’t Stop Talking about Science, Faith and God (which appears to have been published in the UK under the title Inventing the Universe) is a good example of this breadth. It won’t be upheld as an example of penetrating depth into any particular sub-issue of the academic field of science and religion, but it is as good as any book I know in showing how the Christian position hangs together over the whole range of subjects found at their intersection.
McGrath has written about many of these topics in his other books (I think his section on fine tuning appears almost verbatim in several of them). There is a difference of emphasis here, though, as The Big Question appears to be packaged for a general (though thoughtful) audience that is skeptical of the claims of Christianity. It is published on a secular trade press rather than an academic press or a Christian press, and there is a consistent theme of countering the New Atheist perspective.
As such, many Christians might expect the book to be a straightforward exercise in evidential apologetics: providing a series of proofs for why Christianity must be true and all rational people should accept it. But that is not McGrath’s approach. He says,
“As a teenager, I was angry that [Bertrand] Russell made things needlessly complicated. Now I realize that things are complicated and that simplistic answers to life’s great questions are for children and fools. I have come to terms with the dilemma we all face as human beings, so powerfully affirmed by postmodern philosophy—namely, that we cannot prove the things we believe on the basis of good reasons but believe that we are justified in believing them all the same” (p. 204).
What McGrath has done, instead of providing proofs, is to tell his story and show how he believes the Christian perspective makes better sense of the world we find ourselves in than the atheism he held to at one point in his life. The central idea of this approach is encapsulated in the C.S. Lewis quote he uses so often (which is the epitaph on Lewis’s memorial stone in Westminster Abbey, and which adorns the sidebar of this blog), “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it, I see everything else.” McGrath’s book shows how “everything else” looks in the light of Christianity.
After the first couple of chapters that are more historical and methodological, he surveys some of the usual origins topics—cosmology and evolution, for starters. It is interesting that McGrath does not engage Intelligent Design or (Young or Old Earth) Creationism here. But again, he’s not really addressing that crowd so much as those who have been persuaded by Dawkins and his ilk that modern scientific theories have shown the tenets of Christian faith to be silly. McGrath admits that these scientific discoveries have created tensions for some interpretations of faith, but he consistently shows how the Christian tradition itself has the resources to provide reasonable answers to these tensions.
One of the newer topics discussed is the cognitive science of religion, which has credibly shown that religion is a natural phenomenon for creatures like us—religious beliefs arise from our “cognitive processes that are automatic, unconscious and not dependent on culture” (p. 140). Some people have tried to leverage this by claiming that since we are hardwired to believe in supernatural entities, such beliefs therefore have no justification. But these same facts seen in the light of Christian faith suggest that we are wired that way so we can more accurately and reliably perceive the way things really are. It is not cultures that condition us to be religious contrary to our nature, but instead we were created with a God-shaped hole inside of us (according to Pascal), and our hearts are restless until they rest in God (according to Augustine). McGrath says, “The origins of religious belief do not lie so much in cultural or social conditions as in the intuitions that arise from normally developing and functioning human cognitive systems” (p. 142).
In the apologetics of my youth, the field was divided between the evidentialists and the presuppositionalists. The former were people who trotted out their proofs for why Christianity must be true, often appealing to science-y sounding arguments; the latter were deemed “fideists” because they merely assumed the truth of Christianity and sometimes claimed there could be no arguments for even the rationality of Christianity (let alone its truth). I think McGrath’s approach finds a promising via media between these poles. There are good reasons for accepting the claims of Christianity, but often these make sense only as we work out our faith. This is the approach of faith seeking understanding that I’ve advocated for this blog.
In closing, consider the list of McGrath’s personal answers (in the order he values them) to the question of how religion has helped him make sense of life (p. 65).
- Religious faith helps me make sense of the world by giving me a way of seeing reality which affirms both its intelligibility and coherence.
- It gives me a framework which allows me to discern meaning and purpose within life.
- Faith generates a moral vision that is not of my own making and does not serve my own interests.
- Faith helps me cope with negative situations by allowing me to see them in a new light.
- Faith brings hope by enabling me to see my life in a wider context of meaning.