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Featuring guest Alister McGrath

Alister McGrath | Doorway to Wonder

Alister McGrath joins Jim Stump to talk about his book Born to Wonder.


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doorways through wall

Alister McGrath joins Jim Stump to talk about his book Born to Wonder.

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Alister McGrath joins Jim Stump to talk about his book Born to Wonder. McGrath describes his early conversion to Christianity as feeling like he walked through a doorway—his new found faith gave him a fresh perspective when looking at the world. But instead of being content with standing just inside the doorway, he found that there was a whole world worth exploring. After many decades of deep exploration he has come away with a higher tolerance for uncertainty, even in the midst of all the knowledge and wisdom he has found.

  • Originally aired on October 29, 2020
  • With 
    Jim Stump

Before You Read

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Transcript

McGrath:

I think everyone who discovers Christianity, like me, discovers a part of it. In other words, there’s something about the Christian faith that speaks them very powerfully and, if you’d like, it’s the doorway. That’s how they come in. And it’s always tempting to come into the doorway and stop and say, “that’s it.” And what drew me in was its remarkable ability to make sense of things. And for a while, that was all I wanted to know. Then I began to realize, through talking to other Christians, and also beginning to read books by people like C.S. Lewis, Augustine and others, that there was rather more to Christianity than this, that if you’d like, there were other doors leading off. And I decided it was time to explore these. So if you’d like what I discovered was that Christianity was far richer, far more expansive than I’d realized. I had discovered part of it, and that was welcome, but there was so much more to discover in the process of growth, development and discipleship.

I’m Alister McGrath and I’m the Andreas Idris Professor of Science of Religion at Oxford University in England.

Stump:

Welcome to Language of God. I’m Jim Stump. 

If you’ve been around the podcast for a while or if you’ve been following the science and faith dialogue, you know Alister McGrath. He was our guest back on Episode 28, and he’s one of the most prolific authors out there…but that is about to change. In this episode he tells us why he’s now done writing books, and what he plans to do next. But there are still a couple of his books in the production pipeline, and the latest to come out now in the United States is titled Born to Wonder: Exploring our Deepest Questions, Why are we here and why does it matter. Those are some of the questions we explore in our conversation with him today.

The theme of uncertainty comes up several times and after his many years of research and study, McGrath has become more tolerant of uncertainty in his life, realizing that wonder and curiosity continue to grow as he explores these questions. Instead of facing the mystery with fear or anxiety, he finds purpose, and even great joy, in all the unanswered questions that lie in front of him. 

Let’s get to the conversation. 

Interview Part One

Stump:

Well, thanks, Alister, for talking to us again. Last year, we had you on the podcast talking about a couple of your new books at the time. And you said then that you were writing just one more book and then that was going to be all is this it? Is Born to Wonder your last book?

McGrath:

No, it’s not. It’s actually a later version of a book I wrote some time ago, which has been reissued in the United States. My last book is now out in the UK, it’s called, in effect, Through a Glass Darkly. And it’s about living with science with faith and with doubt and that is my transition from Atheism to Christian belief. So that is my, if you like, farewell.

Stump:

So if I may ask, why are you done writing books?

McGrath:

Because I think you quit when you’re ahead. And also, I mean, I want to do more podcast work, more video work, because I think actually, I’m better at doing that kind of thing. So I’ve written some books, that’s great. I’ll write more articles. That’s great. I want to do other things as well.

Stump:

Well, very good. Maybe I could ask you just to reflect a little bit on your writing career here. Is there any pattern maybe, or an arc to the kinds of topics that have interested you and what you’ve written about?

McGrath:

The arc is there and basically it’s what I’m interested in. And my interests vary. I’m kind of a restless person. So I’ll move from one thing to another. And I find I write on a wide range of issues, not because I’m defocused or any kind of way lacking any real ability to concentrate on anything. It’s just, everything is so interesting, and I love writing about this. And I love writing for people who want to think about these things and I hope that what I’ve discovered, might help them as well. So if you’d like, I find researching intellectually exciting. And I want to share that excitement with those I’m writing for.

Stump:

As you look back across the many books that you’ve done, have you seen that your own views have changed at all during this time or development or things you might change or say differently now at this stage of your career?

McGrath:

I think as you get older, you begin to learn that life isn’t quite as simple as you had hoped for, that the universe obstinately refuses to conform to what we think it ought to be. And you have to, kind of way, adapt yourself to a certain degree of ability to live with uncertainty, to be able to, in effect, realize that some of life’s big questions cannot be settled absolutely. And therefore, you have to say, this seems the best option, and I’m going for that, and I learn to live with the uncertainty. If you like, I’ve become less intolerant to uncertainty as I become older.

Stump:

Nice. Well we’ll talk about that a little bit with this present book. One more question, though, on your writing career, perhaps? Which of your books do you think best capture your thought? Or if you could only, say, preserve three of your books for a future generation, which ones would they be, do you think, that say these give the best insight into my thinking?

McGrath:

I think my first book, which is a study of Martin Luther’s theological development was quite good, because it was the outcome of a long period of engagement, if you like, it was a long process of reflection leading to that one. That’s back in 1985. And I don’t think I’ve really written a very good book since then. But I think I also really enjoyed writing my biography of C.S. Lewis, because he was so interesting. I kept finding out new things about him. And it was great fun sharing them with people. But on science and religion, I think that’s such an exciting topic. And the book I really enjoyed writing most there was a study of Richard Dawkins. It wasn’t a kind of polemical book, it was simply called Dawkins’ God. And it was asking this question, what sort of God does Richard Dawkins not believe in and why? And actually, Dawkins himself said, “look, this book gets me absolutely right.” He didn’t like what I did. He didn’t think my alternative was right, either. But he just said, “look, you’ve got inside my mind.” And I very much appreciated that.

Stump:

Well that’s fascinating. Well, let’s talk about the new book, Born to Wonder. So you say that it is a re-release in the US of a different book that was already done?

McGrath:

Yes, was it a book I wrote a few years ago, and it came out in the UK. And in the US, they changed the title. And I think it’s a much better title in the US because that’s a big theme. It covers a lot of territory. And the theme of wonder is central to everything because it’s really about saying, at the heart of the whole scientific enterprise, is a sense of wonder at the natural order. Not just, hey, this is interesting, but more there’s something really significant here. It’s imaginatively challenging. It makes me want to engage, want to reflect, want to unpack. And a very similar trajectory in my own case led to the rediscovery of religious faith. And that’s a very important point. Because for me, it was a sense that, in effect, my science was good but it became even better if you looked at it through a Christian lens. So for me, this if you like,  exploration of wonder, led to both science but also to a realization of the importance of Christianity, if you’d like, as a framing device for thinking about the scientific enterprise.

Stump:

Another of the themes that jumped out at me as I read was the kind of incompleteness of rationality or maybe even the barrenness of pure rationality as an approach to some of the most important questions that confront us. You allude to this already in you describing the arc of some of your writing. But I wonder if you might talk a little bit more here about the need for subjectivity. For many people, I think science is the highest expression of rationality and the triumph over subjectivity in a sense, but how do you respond to such people with the need for a subjective sense?

McGrath:

Science is very objective. And in the positive sense of the word that means it doesn’t matter who is doing this, the results should be the same. And actually, that is very important. But it’s also objective, in another sense, a cold sense, a clinical sense, a sense that this does not affect you. It doesn’t excite your imagination. It doesn’t move you emotionally. And for me, that isn’t the way science should be. Because when I look at Einstein, I mean, he, in effect, found himself carried away by a sense of rapturous amazement, both at the universe itself, but also at the ability of human reasoning to be able to capture at least something of this. So we do need, I think, to recapture the subjective, or the affective aspects of our world, because science doesn’t seem to be very good at capturing that. But it’s really important for our existence as human beings.

Stump:

So you develop a metaphor taken from John MacKay, of seeing from the balcony versus seeing from the street. Can you explain that a bit for our audience here?

McGrath:

I think a lot of people try to imagine themselves standing on high, and looking down at the world being able to see everything in full detail. But for those of us who are actually on the ground, so to speak, we don’t see things in all of their fullness, we have to, kind of way, make difficult decisions based on our limited vision. And for me, that very helpful image developed by John MacKay, who was President of Princeton Theological Seminary is reminding us that there is—we have limited access to the big picture of reality. We have to learn to live with a degree of uncertainty, a degree of hesitation, not I say despair, but rather this realization, we don’t have the crystalline clarity of vision that the Enlightenment promised. And we have to learn that that was, in effect, a false promise, and adjust our thinking accordingly.

Stump:

So what is this perspective of seeing from the street then, in this metaphor? So you have somebody standing up above—is the claim that we cannot ever get to that perspective from the balcony where we see that big picture, that we’re forever trapped in the view down on the ground?

McGrath:

I think it’s realizing that there may indeed be some people of remarkable genius, who are able to see further, more clearly than the rest of us. But it’s also, I think, alerting us to the limitations placed on our understanding, and our vision. We don’t see things as clear as we would like. And because we are, if you like, a community that’s journeying along the road, we can in effect, talk to each other and help each other see further and understand better. So, if you’d like, it’s also a metaphor for the importance of community in generating knowledge.

Stump:

Here’s a quote from that section of the book I’d like to ask you about then. You say, “we need to grasp the big picture of the universe and position ourselves within it, yet we seem unable to grasp this full picture by ourselves. We need help if we’re to see beyond the frustrating limits imposed on us by being human.” But then later on the same page, “for Christians this capacity to see things as they really are rather than as they are glimpsed from the surface is a gracious gift of God. There is indeed a big picture of our mysterious world, but it’s not one that we discerned on our own, still less one that we invented. It was one that had to be shown to us.” So my question to you here now is whether revelation can kind of definitively settle this question of the big picture, give us that view from the balcony. 

McGrath:

I think revelation is able to speak to us under the conditions of our existence, if you’d like, to adapt it to our limitations, to our abilities, and it is able to show us something that is not irrational, but something that goes beyond the limits of our rationality. Let me tell you a story, which I find quite helpful in thinking about this. When I was about 13, I was an amateur astronomer, and I found it fascinating. And I remember once watching the motion of the planet Mars, in the night sky. And if it kind of went forward, then it went back and then went forward again. I couldn’t make sense of this. So I asked one of my teachers at school to tell me what this is all about. And he explained it to me. And the minute he’d given me that framework, I could make perfect sense of it. But I could not have developed that framework by myself. In other words, I was being given a bigger picture. And once I used it, once I stepped inside it, suddenly, things made sense. And if you’d like, revelation’s a bit like that. It’s not irrational. It’s something that is given to us, when we step inside and suddenly say, “ey, this works, it really is helpful.” And I find that very helpful in thinking about the nature of Revelation.

Stump:

Is there a kind of tension though, on this point, in which we see that Christians—we Christians ourselves continue to have a lot of disagreements and see things differently. The sheer number of Christian denominations must testify to some limitation of revelation? Or is it just not in that degree of specificity that perhaps I’m looking for, that revelation is given to us? How do we understand—what I’m asking is how do we understand the ongoing disagreements among Christians, if we have this gift from God, this revelation that gives us the big picture,

McGrath:

We have this gift from God, but if I can put it like this, we unpack it, we see it in different ways. And I think there’s always this friendly, I hope, discussion amongst Christians by how best to understand this, how best to apply this. But certainly, if I look at my own thought, over the decades that lie behind me, I can see myself moving as I’ve grasped certain things more deeply. And I think one of the things I strongly want to encourage is civilized conversation between Christians about how best to make sense of this, how we bring together the worlds of faith and science, how, if you like, we develop a lens that allows us to see both of these in focus at the same time. And that’s not something I think any one person can do on their own, which is why it’s so important to talk about these things respectfully and see if that leads us all to a better place for thinking about these things.

Stump:

Good, yes. Another aspect to the subjectivity, which is emphasized in your book, is that of personal experience that’s involved in the life of faith. And you said for you personally, even initially, you fell in love not with the person of God, but with the pattern of Christian truth an eros of the mind, not the heart. But it didn’t stop there. You say, “I slowly came to appreciate the relational, aesthetic, emotional and imaginative aspects of the faith.” Can you describe what that process was like for you personally, any further than that?

McGrath:

I think everyone who discovers Christianity, like me, discovers a part of it. In other words, there’s something about the Christian faith that speaks them very powerfully and, if you’d like, it’s the doorway. That’s how they come in. And it’s always tempting to come into the doorway and stop and say, “that’s it.” And what drew me in was its remarkable ability to make sense of things. And for a while, that was all I wanted to know. Then I began to realize, through talking to other Christians, and also beginning to read books by people like C.S. Lewis, Augustine and others, that there was rather more to Christianity than this, that if you’d like, there were other doors leading off. And I decided it was time to explore these. So, if you’d like, what I discovered was that Christianity was far richer, far more expansive than I’d realized. I had discovered part of it, and that was welcome, but there was so much more to discover in the process of growth, development and discipleship. So for me, this was, if you like, I use the image quite often now, of arriving on an island and discovering the beach in which you land. And then begin to realize there’s a hinterland, that there’s a whole area to explore. And I have found that process of exploration fascinating and personally enriching. But the danger is, you come in one doorway and you stop. And what I did was to keep going. And you know, I’m so glad I did.

Stump:

Further up and further in from The Last Battle. 

Alister:

Indeed.

Stump:

So there are some strands of the Christian tradition that emphasize a personal relationship with Jesus. Is that language that you find helpful?

McGrath:

I find it helpful, but I don’t find it helpful if people say that is the end of the matter. It is important. It’s about this relational, it’s about this personal, this existential side of faith. And that really matters. But it’s also about a way of seeing the world, not simply how I relate to God. And it’s trying to, in effect, develop this bigger picture, not just my personal relationship with God or with Christ but the difference it makes to the way I think about myself, the world, the way I investigate the world, the way I behave in this world. And again, the danger is that a very helpful emphasis can accidentally become something very exclusive, shutting down other conversations. So for me, I welcome this, but it’s not the full picture in itself.

Stump:

Are there particular practices or disciplines that you’ve found helpful for pushing beyond merely intellectual faith?

McGrath:

I think talking to people or reading people who clearly take different perspectives is really helpful, because you begin to realize, maybe they have seen something that I have missed. And therefore you are drawn into thinking about things or seeing things in a different way. And as you explore these, very often you realize they’ve seen something I’ve missed. Now, that doesn’t always happen. There are times when I think actually, these guys are seeing something that isn’t there. I’m not going there. But in other times, it’s very much a question of realizing these guys are helping me to see something important that, up to this point, I have not fully appreciated.

Stump:

I seem to recall that you have spent at least at some times in your life, out on the speaking circuit, preaching in smaller country churches outside of academia. Is that true? 

McGrath:

It is indeed.

Stump:

What do you gain from conversations with such people there?

McGrath:

I speak to very small congregations and they have agendas like will my crops be alright, or how do I cope with unemployment or things like this. And I begin to realize that I have the task of being able to take the Christian faith and apply it and interpret it to these people’s situations. It’s not my situation. But my task is to be the interpreter, the one who tries to, if you’d like, take the Christian faith, and speak it into that situation. So I find it very challenging, but also very important, because it helps me see that very often I limit Christianity to what I think matters and what I see. And C.S. Lewis, in one of his later books, talks about the importance of seeing things through other people’s eyes. That’s an experiment in criticism where he says, I will see through other eyes and in doing so I see more not contradicting but expanding my existing vision of reality.

[musical interlude]

BioLogos:

Hi Language of God listeners. We wanted to take a quick break from the episode to tell you about the BioLogos resource centers found at our website, biologos.org. You’ll find articles, videos, and other resources curated for pastors, educators, youth ministry, campus ministry and small groups. Help bring the science and faith conversation to the places that are important to you. Just click the resources tab at the top of the page. Now back to the show. 

Interview Part Two

Stump:

Well, let’s come back to your book here. I found a chapter seven particularly engaging and profound. It’s titled, When Meaning Fails: doubt, trauma and disbelief. And in it you say, “doubt is just part of the intellectual and emotional routine of life. There is a sense in which we are all agnostics in some sense, and to some degree, the beliefs in life that really matter lie beyond proof. These points are not controversial. They are, however deeply unsettling to those who are attracted to worldviews that offer them certainty.” I think there are some passages of Scripture that may lead to some people’s mind that seem to stand in tension with this, as when Jesus tells Doubting Thomas, “do not doubt but believe,” or James 1, “ask in faith never doubting for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea being double minded and unstable.” What do you make of these passages? And how is what you’re emphasizing different?

McGrath:

I think it’s very helpful to think of doubt as having two possible orientations: not being sure about something and not being sure about someone. And I think in many ways, what Christianity is saying is here is someone you can trust. In other words, I don’t doubt God. God is, if you like, the one we can trust. But that doesn’t satisfy or resolve all the intellectual issues we have to wrestle with. And so for me, you know, James is very much saying, don’t doubt God. You know, there may be debates about how best to understand this, but God is the one who can be trusted. But I think the bigger point I’m trying to make here is really addressed to the new atheism. Because in my debates with new atheists, I have noticed they get profoundly uneasy when I say, look, you’re calling on me to prove my beliefs. I wonder if you could do the same for me? Can you prove you are right? And the answer is, well, no, of course we can’t, you can’t prove a negative, or whatever it is. But when I press and say you are using a criteria of judgment to evaluate me, and you refuse to apply it to yourself, they get very, very anxious indeed and want to shut the discussion down. And the bigger point I’m making here is it doesn’t matter whether you’re an atheist or a Christian, you cannot absolutely prove your beliefs. You in effect, are saying, I’ve arrived at this position, I believe it to be right, I believe it to be trustworthy, but I cannot deliver you the knockdown certainty that the Enlightenment thought was normative in this situation. And to me, that’s a very important point.

Stump:

And I think some people are relieved, in a sense, aren’t they, to hear that they don’t have to have that absolute certainty all at the time in order to be committed to the faith.

McGrath:

I think that’s right. I think there are two issues here, if I can put it like this. One is the limits placed on our human minds by the fact that, a.) we’re human, and b.) we’re messed up by sin. And secondly, the fact the universe is rather bigger than we are. And so actually, we struggle to take it in fully. And therefore I think there’s always going to be this imperfection of vision, this seeing things in a slightly fuzzy way. And that’s part of the condition of being human. And as I’ve got older, I just got used to this. I’ve lost those false expectations of certainty, which I think come from a very naive way of looking at the world.

Stump:

You say a little further in this section, if we’re to cope with life and not merely make sense of it, we need answers to the question why, not merely to the question how. Can you describe first further this distinction between making sense of life and coping with life?

McGrath:

Making sense of life is very rational, very objective, it’s saying, I think I can see how these things hang together. Coping is something very different, is in effect, enabling me to live in a world, which very often seems to be complex, where things don’t always seem to make sense. How do I keep going in life when sometimes things seem to be shadowy, murky, uncertain? I think that’s a very important distinction, because for me, one of the things that Christianity is very good at is helping us to cope with suffering. Not necessarily seeing things with intellectual precision but knowing that we can keep going partly because of course of the example of Christ, which is a very important matter, we ought probably to talk about more, in due course. But for me, that is the problem. If you look at people who write about theodicy, very often this is, in effect, a purely rational attempt to make sense of suffering. That’s interesting, intellectually, but it doesn’t engage where most people are, which is they need something or someone to keep them going as they pass through the valley of the shadow of death. And my point there is that Christianity is very good at helping us to cope with this messy and complex world.

Stump:

Well, lest we get lured into thinking there is no rational basis for Christian faith, you come back in the book then and bring up the practice of natural theology. But whereas it’s sometimes been used by Christians to attempt to prove the truth of the Christian faith, you think there’s a better way of understanding natural theology.- Can you describe that?

McGrath:

I think natural theology does mean different things to different people, indeed if you look at the history of the idea, it’s all over the place. There are multiple ways of thinking about it. So I personally don’t think we should limit it to, in effect, trying to prove God’s existence. It’s rather saying there is something about the natural world as God’s creation, which points us to God, and also means because it’s God’s creation, we can actually rejoice in nature, appreciating its beauty and its wonder and the fact that we are here to observe and appreciate it. Now for me, this is all about, you know, appreciating nature to its full, but also realizing the rationality of faith. In other words, realizing this makes sense. As you rightly say, I’m very clear that Christianity makes sense of nature, but it does more than that. It gives us this lens for looking at nature up close and personal, and exalting and delighting in what we see, not simply because it’s interesting in itself, because if you’d like it’s a pointer to the one who made it.

Stump:

Yeah, so you list several of the things you mention there in what you call three main elements to a Christian appreciation of the natural world. I’d like to get just some further brief reaction or commentary on these, where the first one you list is an immediate sense of delight or wonder at the beauty of nature. But is that a particularly Christian response in itself?

McGrath:

Nope, nope. That is just a human response. And if we take two people who have completely different worldviews, and you suddenly put before them a beautiful landscape, they’ll both go, “oh!” because they haven’t had time to think about what they’re seeing, interpret it. In other words, the interpretation comes in later. So for me, that is common human experience but I think Christianity gives you a better interpretation of that sense of wonder, than alternatives.

Stump:

The second of these then too has room for a Christian interpretation, the mathematization of nature. What is this and how might Christians interpret that?

McGrath:

Well, one thing has always struck me is that when you start writing down how nature behaves mathematically, the resulting equations are often very beautiful. So in other words, it’s not just nature is beautiful, but it’s the representations of nature are really very elegant as well. And if you go back to someone like Galileo or Kepler, they will both say this is because the universe is written in the language of God. In other words, mathematics, if you like, a way of helping us to discover that God’s rationality is displayed in the world. And we are able to uncover this by bearing God’s image. It’s a very significant theological motif in the early scientific revolution. 

Stump:

And finally, the third of these main elements to a Christian appreciation of the natural world, you’ve already alluded to, the natural world is embedded with signs pointing beyond itself to its creator. So these are different from definitive proofs, but also not just wishful thinking, right? There’s something substantial to these signs. 

McGrath:

There certainly is. Richard Dawkins and I debate and discuss many things and at this point, we are different, because Dawkins would say, “nature just is,” that is it, it doesn’t point beyond itself. Whereas my position, of course, is it does point beyond the self. And in doing so, it does not diminish itself. It simply says we appreciate even more by realizing it is a signpost pointing beyond it, to something even more wonderful. And so we appreciate the beauty of nature, knowing it points to the even greater beauty of God, which in effect leads us to anticipate that, but at the same time, welcome nature, because of this wonderful signpost it gives us

Stump:

Can you give us any more concrete examples of this, of what these pointers are, what the signs are, and how they might work, from what we first observed to how it points towards something bigger than itself?

McGrath:

I remember when I was a student, friends and I went to Iran, and we were on a bus late at night, because it’s cooler then, and the bus broke down in the middle of a desert. And we had to get out while they fixed the engine. It was pitch black, but the stars were brilliant. I’ve never seen them so bright. And I felt the sense of being overwhelmed by the beauty and grandeur of the night sky. And of course it brought to my mind Psalm 19, verse one, that in effect, the heavens declare the glory of God. Now I already know about God. But I tell you, that sight brought home to me the immensity of the majesty of God far more than any theological textbook. And I’m sure many listening to this discussion will say, I could give an even better example and I’m so glad because this is a really important phenomenon.

Stump:

And of course, Dawkins would respond of well, that’s just, you know, you’re somehow wired to think that way or that you’re imposing something that isn’t really there.

McGrath:

He might say that, in which case, I would want to know why are we hardwired to think in this way, because it almost is some kind of homing instinct for God embedded within us. And to me, that’s really interesting.

Stump:

Good. Well, the third part of your book then is called Wondering About our Future. And in it you confront some of the secular hopes for our future in terms of transhumanism and various other humanisms. But prominent in this section is a term that’s not always very popular these days, and that is sin. How is it that sin gets at our peculiarly human situation and is a term that you think ought not be forgotten?

McGrath:

If you go back to the enlightenment of the 18th century, leading enlightenment writers were very critical of the idea of sin. Looking back on that, I think we can now see that in effect sin was the big problem they wanted us to ignore. If there is something flawed about us, if we are wounded, if we are imperfect, if we are damaged, then I’m afraid there are big question marks about the reliability of our judgments and everything else. And for me, sin is saying that we are imperfect, we are not what we’re meant to be. We need somebody to bandage us up and put it back together again, to put it very, very crudely. And therefore we have to learn to live with bias, with imperfection, with selfishness, all these things. And for me, sin is not about, in effect, improperly being negative about human nature. It’s simply saying, let’s be realistic. Sin is telling things the way they are and then saying let’s be realistic and go forward in that knowledge. And I find people unwilling to face up to this, except, of course, when we have a crisis. People say, “well, I suppose we ought to learn from this.” But the problem is, if you look at, for example, the First World War afterwards, everyone was saying, we have to learn from this, we made big mistakes, and they kept on repeating the mistakes.

Stump:

So along those lines, you say the term sin is used in a theological sense to designate a flaw within human nature which prevents us from achieving our true goals. I think one of the obstacles, though, for a lot of Christians, in engaging more substantially with science is trying to understand where this flaw could have come from in God’s good creation. Were we created with a flaw?

McGrath:

Well, this is an area where Christians will disagree. And I think it’s important to begin by making the point that we have to be careful to treat sin as a theological idea. In other words, it’s not saying you are immoral, it’s really saying you are not the person that God wants you to be, yet. And I think that’s an important perspective to bring. But of course, Christians do disagree about this. If I think of Augustine, Augustine has this very important idea of original sin. And what he means by that is that it’s not as if we discover sin or acquire sin as we grow up, it’s actually we are already predisposed towards sin, by virtue of being human, right from the word go. And again, some feel nervous about this. But again, to me, this is about being realistic. This is the way things are. And it’s not necessarily making a negative judgment. It’s simply saying, we’ve got to face up to the way we are. If we know that we mess things up, we are more likely to try and do something about and also to be accommodating, to be understanding, to those we know are sharing the same problems. And that is actually quite an important point in reminding us of the need to be forbearing towards others.

Stump:

So at BioLogos, we have made no bones about accepting the view that the sciences have given us of the history and the origins of our species. And I think you accept that in broad strokes as well. Is there any virtue or value in us attempting to integrate this theological conception of human beings we have as sinful with that view that is afforded from the sciences and trying to understand our natural history? How do we bring those two views together into one picture?

McGrath:

I think that’s a really important question. I gladly tell you what I think, but of course, this is an area where Christians will take different positions. You used the word integrate. That’s a good word. I would want to use the word correlate. In other words, these are not a single narrative. If you like, they are different narratives, but we can perhaps weave them together or understand how they interconnect. And I think one concern I have is that we tend to blend these ideas. I’d like to try and keep them distinct, but nevertheless say it’s really interesting to try and see how they interconnect. And to me, that is an important issue. And the issue of how we actually address this is complex, but that’s why I’m so glad that people like you at BioLogos are here to stimulate this conversation and also to say it’s important, and we need to have this conversation.

Stump:

Do people sometimes react with that of fear of non-overlapping magisteria, as Stephen Jay Gould pitched, when you say you want to keep them separate?

McGrath:

I think people do feel nervous about any conversation between science and religion. And I suppose there are three outcomes of this. One is to say there is no conversation to be had, let’s just, in effect, keep them separate. Or if there’s a conversation, it in effect is an argument, it’s a war. I take the view there can be a conversation which is constructive, but critical. And it can have some interesting outcomes. So I’m into the dialogue model, because I can see how important that is. But it does require mutual respect. I think that’s sometimes where the problems begin.

Stump:

So you’ve been involved in this dialogue among science and Christian faith here for a number of years. And have had a very interesting seat in perspective on it from your work at Oxford there. Do you see hopeful signs of the way that conversation is going? Or are you able to chart out, you know, the course of the kinds of questions or problems that both the academics are engaged in, with regard at the intersection of science and faith where that dialogue is, as well as the concerns of non academics? Or people in the pew that are just wanting to have a coherent view that is informed by both their science and faith?

McGrath:

I think you’ve raised a very important question. And it seems to me that academically there was growing receptivity towards a conversation, I think people are realizing that actually, science and faith are major forces in culture, they need to talk to each other. Even E.O. Wilson, who’s very hostile towards religion, is saying, we need to have this conversation. And I agree with that. But I think at the popular level, that this isn’t really happening as I would have liked it to. And I think it’s partly due to the rise of the new atheism, which is now happily fading away. But for a while, in effect, it was all about a very simplistic mindset that, in effect, science proves everything. Religion is simply running away from reality. And okay, it’s a caricature, but it’s one that resonated with a lot of people who had hidden agendas. So I’m hoping we can get beyond that. But there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done, not simply at the academic level, but preaching this in congregations and also engaging with the public, through media.

Stump:

Do you have any advice for the future generations of people working in science and theology here, of how their time and effort might be most profitably spent?

McGrath:

Yes, that’s a very interesting question. This is my personal experience but of course, this may just be me. I have found that there are two ways I can talk about science or religion. I’ll say, let me look at the academic issues. I’ll say, look, understand, we have a big picture reality science fills in part of it, faith another part. You’ll say, sounds interesting. Then I’ll say, well, let me tell you something else. Let me tell you my personal story about how I moved from an atheist who thought religion was nonsense and science was great to a Christian believer who thought the science was great and actually religious faith is really helpful as well. It’s the second of those approaches that gets people interested and allows them to see, you can in effect hold science and faith together meaningfully.

Stump:

Well, let’s finish with your book here then. We were in part three wondering about our future. And maybe we might end on a hopeful note here, one about the future of humanity. This is not a hope or optimism that comes from our own efforts or from some kind of inevitable progress or from technological solutions to our nature. Where does this hope come from?

McGrath:

I do think we need to draw a very sharp distinction between optimism and hope. Optimism is “oh, everything’s gonna be fine, don’t worry!” But it’s not very realistic. Hope is saying, I have no idea what’s going to happen next. But I do know that I can journey through this unsettling, complex bewildering, world in which we find ourselves placed, knowing that I do not do this on my own, but in the presence of a God who journeys with me. And that is about hope. It’s about journeying not on our own, but in the presence of one who is there for us. And that to me is a very big distinction that we need to make. I have no idea what lies ahead. If we’ve been having this conversation perhaps a year or two ago, we would never have predicted the virus crisis we’re going through now and all that that’s showing about human structures, human societies, and human individuals. I think it does just bring home to us that humanity is rather more complex than some of these rather simplistic theories suggest.

Stump:

Well, thank you so much for your work and helping us see the importance of Christian theology in our world today and for talking to us again on the podcast. I hope we can do it again.

McGrath:

Sounds great. Thanks for having me.

Credits

Language of God is produced by BioLogos. It has been funded in part by the John Templeton Foundation and more than 300 individuals who donated to our crowdfunding campaign. Language of God is produced and mixed by Colin Hoogerwerf. That’s me. Our theme song is by Breakmaster Cylinder. We are produced out of the remote workspaces and homes of BioLogos staff in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

If you have questions or want to join in a conversation about this episode find a link in the show notes for the BioLogos forum. Find more episodes of Language of God on your favorite podcast app or at our website, biologos.org, where you will also find tons of great articles and resources on faith and science. Thanks for listening. 


Featured guest

Alister McGrath Headshot

Alister McGrath

Alister E. McGrath is Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at the University of Oxford. In addition to his work at Oxford, McGrath is Senior Research Fellow at Harris Manchester College, Oxford, President of the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics, and serves as associate priest in a group of Church of England village parishes in the Cotswolds. His personal website can be accessed here.

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