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Alister McGrath | Journey of Science, Story of Faith

A conversation that ranges from Einstein’s religious beliefs to the importance of storytelling for Christian Apologetics.


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A conversation that ranges from Einstein’s religious beliefs to the importance of storytelling for Christian Apologetics.

Description

Alister McGrath is one of the iconic voices in the dialogue between science and faith. After receiving his doctorate in biological sciences from Oxford University he decided to pursue theology with the same gusto that he approaches all of his intellectual work. Today, he brings his wisdom on these topics that is backed up by multiple doctoral degrees, many books on the subject, and several decades thinking, teaching, and writing about science and faith. 

Jim Stump talks to him about two of his recent books: A Theory of Everything (that Matters) and Narrative Apologetics. The conversation ranges from talking about Einstein’s religious beliefs and how they open a door for exploring the relationship between science and theology to the importance of storytelling for Christian Apologetics.

  • Originally aired on January 16, 2020
  • With 
    Jim Stump

Before You Read

Dear reader,

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Although voices on both sides are loud and extreme, we are breaking through. But as a nonprofit, we rely on the generosity of donors like you to continue this challenging work. Your tax deductible gift today will help us continue to counter the polarizing narratives of today with a message that is informed, hopeful, and faithful.

Transcript

McGrath:

The analogy that I find really helpful in trying to emphasize both the trustworthiness of science but also the provisionality of science is to say science is on a journey. It’s traveling. It hasn’t yet arrived at definitive answers. It hasn’t yet reached its goal. And every now and then, it may take wrong turnings. By that I do not mean being misled. I mean, rather, the evidence being open to multiple interpretations and, sometimes, too much emphasis being placed on one option rather than the other. But the whole point here is that you cannot freeze this journey and say that’s the way things really are. The issue is to appreciate that this is where we are at this moment in time. We believe these are trustworthy, but we also know that it’s very possible that what we believe now will be shown to be either incomplete or, perhaps, even wrong in 49 or 100 years’ time.

Hi, I’m Alister McGrath and I’m the Andreas Idris professor of science and religion at Oxford University.

Stump:

I’m Jim Stump. Welcome to Language of God, a podcast about science and the Christian faith. We begin our 2020 episodes with one of the iconic voices in the science and faith dialogue. Alister McGrath was an atheist when he started studying physics as a young man. But by the time he finished at university he was convinced that Christianity could bring together his scientific passions with many of the questions that lay outside the realms of science. 

Since that time, he’s built up some serious credentials, including doctoral degrees in both science and theology. And he has been teaching, preaching, and writing on the subject for over 30 years. To say he is a prolific author is a bit of an understatement. His author page on Amazon runs onto seven pages. These books run the gamut from scholarly tomes, to pastoral works, to biographies, even some fiction. 

I’ve read many of these, and for a clear, yet nuanced, view of how science and theology relate I particularly recommend his 2017 book Enriching our Vision of Reality: Theology and the Natural Sciences in Dialogue

For this episode, I talked to Alister about two of his new books, A Theory of Everything (That Matters) and Narrative Apologetics. The first is a book about Einstein. Einstein is nearly universally known for his theory of relativity which opened an entire new world to scientists. But Einstein also spent a lot of time thinking about questions that couldn’t be answered by science. Compared to the scientific superstars today, Einstein’s thinking about religion was sophisticated and complex. We ask McGrath about those beliefs and what we Christians might learn from them today. 

In the second book, Narrative Apologetics, McGrath lays out a case for Christianity that is not as much about giving arguments as it is about telling stories. We’re pleased to have him tell some of his own story here, and a bit surprised at his announcement about his story at the end of the episode. How’s that for clickbait? Let’s get to the conversation. 

Interview Part One

Stump:

We like to start these conversations by having our guests look back a little bit at their early life, perhaps. And tell us about some of the experiences that might have been formative for their interest in science. Do you have any of these, Alister, that you’d share?

McGrath:

Well, I think my interest in science really began when I was about, oh, six or seven years old, when a great uncle, who was the head of pathology at one of Belfast’s hospitals, gave me an old brass microscope. And I began to look at pond water, and I began to see all these complex life forms. And, you know, I thought, these are really interesting. I want to know more about this. And then went on, built myself a little telescope, began to look at the night sky, and I thought, you know, science, this is really good. This is about opening up a new world. It’s so exciting. And that kind of vision of the excitement of engaging nature, it still is with me to this very day.

Stump:

And you went on to study science then more formally?

McGrath:

I went onto Oxford University where I did my first degree in chemistry, and I specialized there in quantum theory, which is really interesting. But then for my doctorate I switched into the biological sciences. And so I worked with George Radda here at Oxford on complex biological systems and got my D.Phil in molecular biophysics.

Stump:

And what about your faith story? I know that you went through an atheist phase during university years. Where did that come from? What was the faith environment of your youth like growing up?

McGrath:

Well, I grew up in Northern Ireland, which is a very religiously polarized society. And back in the 1960s, I think it was very easy for me to draw the conclusion that religion was a source of conflict. It was also of course in conflict with science, which I felt was very, very worrying. And, so, I felt that to be a scientist was really intrinsically or necessarily also to be an atheist. And, so, when I arrived at Oxford, I was pretty much a committed atheist. But I think I began to realize when I arrived at Oxford, that things just weren’t that simple and began to review and rethink things and eventually began to feel that Christianity gave me this wonderful big picture of reality, which allowed me to welcome and, indeed, rejoice in science while at the same time being aware of its limits. It said some very important things, which I welcome, but there were more things that needed to be said that lay beyond the scope of science.

Stump:

Was that a gradual process or were there any stark movements in that, in your coming to accept Christianity?

McGrath:

I think there were points of crystallization where, suddenly, I saw something that I hadn’t seen before. And I remember one of these, in particular, when I was talking to Charles Colson, who was an Oxford professor of theoretical chemistry, and he was explaining how he held his faith and his science together and it was like someone turning a light on. I suddenly saw, this works, I could make this work for me. And there are other moments as well, but I think that was a very important pivotal moment, where I suddenly had this intellectual or imagined framework given to me, and saw it worked, and saw I could make it my own.

Stump:

So after your work in science at the university, you then went on to do more formal work in theology too. Is that correct? What was that timeline like?

McGrath:

After I gained my doctorate in molecular biophysics, I began to study theology. In fact, I took a first degree in theology here at Oxford and then went on to do theological research, theological teaching. I think after about 20 years of studying theology, I felt I was in a position to begin to make connections between science and religion. So it took a long time. But it did mean that I had a very good familiarity of two fields, science and theology, and could actually begin to make the connections with integrity.

Stump:

So you’ve combined these two interests, then, science and theology, into a good, long career now that has spanned a couple of decades, at least. Do you have any reflection on this academic discipline of science and religion over that time? Perhaps how things have progressed? How, maybe, the focus has changed or topics have changed in the field and how things might have progressed?

McGrath:

To begin with, if I can put it like this, it was some very enthusiastic amateurs. It was scientists who had interest in religion or theologians who had a vague familiarity to science, in effect beginning to map out some possible areas of study. But what I’ve seen of late, I think, is an increased professionalization, or realization, that you do need to master two fields if you’re going to make them come together in a serious, informed dialogue. So there are lots of people now with two doctorates, both in science and theology, who are able to make these connections. Now, I think, and indeed I hope, this means that we now have a richer and deeper conversation.

Stump:

Does it make sense to even ask if we are progressing at all? Is the field making progress in the kinds of questions that it’s answering?

McGrath:

I think in the field of science or religion it’s difficult to talk about progress. I think that what we’re seeing, rather, is a realization of the complexity of the issues. And I think one of the things I’ve noticed is that people are becoming much more aware of the provisionality of our responses, that we cannot give definitive answers in this field. But, actually, the process of exploration itself is really helpful in that it begins to open up certain lines of inquiry to indicate certain lines of response, which may actually have long term significance. So, in that sense, there is progress. A conversation continues even though it’s a long way from coming to any determined goal.

Stump:

So that’s interesting. And outside of the Academy there’s a tremendous interest in science and religion too, among laypeople, and, sometimes, the lack of definitiveness, I think, can be frustrating for people who want to know answers. You’re a Brit, but you know our American context pretty well too. I wonder if you have any reflections on the differences you may encounter outside of the academy as you speak with people in churches and in other settings about science and religion, and, maybe, if there are differences between the two cultures that you notice.

McGrath:

I notice a number of things which I think are well worth reflecting on. One of them is this that a lot of people are aversive to any kind of uncertainty. They want simple, straight answers, and of course, in both the fields of science and religion and of course at their interface, there’s this real need to recognize the complexity of the questions. And, very often, we’re giving tentative and slightly uncertain answers. And, so, some people really want simple answers and, for that reason, they will go to people who give them simple answers even though those answers are sometimes extremely unreliable. So, for me, there’s a real need for people to recognize the complexity of these issues. 

Now this of course is made worse by the different cultural climates in United Kingdom and United States. Now in the Kingdom, I think we can live with this uncertainty. It’s something we don’t really worry about too much. But in a very polarized culture like the United States, you find people wanting to take sides in complex cultural debates. And very often that means being able to say with certainty, this is right, and you guys are wrong. And, of course, in this field you can’t say that. And therefore if you want to say that, you’re going way ahead of what the evidence allows. So I think there’s a real need to, in effect, impress on people that we are, so to speak, really fumbling a little bit in the dark here. It’s not always clear what the best way of understanding something is or, indeed, how reliable the answers that we’re giving actually are.

Stump:

At BioLogos, as you know, we do our best to show, in the primarily the American culture here, that it’s possible to take science seriously and the findings of Christian faith, or the commitments of Christian faith, seriously. One of the issues we constantly face, particularly as we’re speaking to more conservative Christians, is that they see this tension between accepting what science has found, accepting the findings of science, versus realizing that science is fallible and sometimes makes mistakes. I wonder if you have any reflection on the best way to communicate the trustworthiness of scientific findings while, at the same time, admitting that it is a work in progress itself and subject to error.

McGrath:

The analogy that I find really helpful in trying to emphasize both the trustworthiness of science, but, also, the provisionality of science is to say science is on a journey. It’s traveling. It hasn’t yet arrived at definitive answers. It hasn’t yet reached its goal. And every now and then it may take wrong turnings. By that I do not mean being misled. I mean, rather, the evidence being open to multiple interpretations and sometimes too much emphasis being placed on one option rather than the other. But the whole point here is that you cannot freeze this journey and say that’s the way things really are. The issue is to appreciate that this is where we are at this moment in time. We believe these are trustworthy, but we also know that it’s very possible that what we believe now will be shown to be either incomplete or, perhaps, even wrong in 40 or a hundred years’ time. 

I mean, think, for example, about the massive changes in our thinking about the origins of the universe. A hundred years ago, the scientific consensus was the universe has always been here. Now the universe has a beginning. Science does change its mind, but that does not mean it’s arbitrary or whimsical. It means it is driven by the evidence available. And that means you trust it even though you also know it may change its mind. Because it changes its mind for good reasons.

Stump:

Good. All right, so we’d like to talk about a couple of your recent books. One of those is on Einstein, the other is called Narrative Apologetics. Let’s start with Einstein. So we’re recording this conversation almost exactly a hundred years after Einstein’s launch into the public eye. It was November of 1919 that newspapers in London and New York wrote headlines about the empirical confirmation of Einstein’s theory of general relativity. Einstein very quickly became a celebrity, one of the greatest scientists who ever lived. But you say in the introduction to your book that his greatest achievement was, arguably, to become admired, even adored, by the wider public. What was it about this man that led him to become a worldwide celebrity and led you to write a book about him?

McGrath:

I think one of the reasons why Einstein is so remarkable and, indeed, why he stands out for so many people is not simply that remarkable hairstyle, it’s this ability to bring things together, to make connections between things that other people thought were completely disconnected. And also to set out this big vision of reality. And that’s certainly what we see in his general theory of relativity. So, for Einstein, there was this bigger picture, and his role was to try and communicate this to a wider public. And for, I think, many people in that public, they found Einstein may be difficult to understand, but, at the same time, they had this sense that he had seen something which nobody else had seen, and they were willing to listen to him and see if they could get their heads around what he had seen. In many ways, Einstein was almost like a scientific prophet or a cultural figure who was able to enrich people’s understanding of the world in which they lived.

Stump:

So you’ve called your book A Theory of Everything (that Matters). I think often in scientific parlance, at least, a theory of everything is usually used more specifically about how science might be able to explain everything. But I think you mean it differently, right? And that Einstein himself recognized that there are limits on what science could ever explain.

McGrath:

Well, Einstein was very clear that the quest for a theory of everything was very important. And, in fact, during the 1940’s began to realize that he wasn’t going to find this. But, and this is a really important point, Einstein felt that science was wonderful, but that it had its limits. And, therefore, there was a need to find a broader vision which included what science was able to tell us as well as about deeper questions concerning values and the meaning of life. Hence the title of my book, A Theory of Everything, in brackets, That Matters. Because Einstein was very clear that what really matters in life lies beyond science. And he saw his task as bringing together what science could disclose and what could be gathered from other sources, including ethics and religion.

Stump:

So, in a theory of everything, that seems to imply a coherent big picture of some sort that may lead us to think a kind of realism is true according to which there’s this objective world existing independently of us, right? Contrary to what some of the postmodern or constructionist views might claim. But these disciplines that Einstein’s had such an important role in founding, quantum physics and relativity, do these seem to push against that kind of realism? Because it’s so difficult for us to imagine as real, how photons could go through two different slits at once, or how time can be different if you’re traveling at different speeds. Is there any kind of tension there between the aspiration to have a theory of everything and these very difficult sciences that push us in the opposite direction?

McGrath:

I think Einstein was misunderstood by many people as being a relativist because of the use of this word relativity. And, indeed, at one point, Einstein said I wish I’d called it a theory of invariance because then that misunderstanding would not have arisen. But Einstein’s a realist. He’s saying there is a universe beyond us which is open to our interpretation, but it’s not something that we create. But one of the points Einstein is very, very clear about is that there is a certain element of mystery to our universe. And that means that although we can represent this rationally, we cannot reduce it to purely rational concepts. And that means there will always be a tension between our natural ways of thinking and the way the universe actually is. So, if you like, there are some mental discomfort caused by our engagement with the universe. Not because realism has failed but because our minds are simply unable to take in the universe in all its fullness. And for Einstein, we just had to learn to expand our own capacity to engage the world to try and take this in, even though it was difficult to do.

Stump:

So Einstein never identified as a Christian and even denied belief in a personal God. And, so, there are some obvious differences we would have with him theologically. But you say that he has been, and I’m quoting, “An important influence in helping me navigate my way toward what I consider a workable and meaningful account of how this strange universe works and what it, and we, might mean. Einstein opens the way to trying to develop a theory of everything that matters.” How is this particularly, for you as a Christian, how has Einstein helped?

McGrath:

I think there are many people who point in certain directions, who open up ways of thinking, who give me intellectual toolkits. And I use these in my own way, but I’m borrowing these. These people have helped me move on, and Einstein is one of these people. I’m not saying for one moment I agree with Einstein on everything. What I’m saying is he kind of gives me a vision for engaging this world. He opens up ways of thinking, and, in many ways, I’m traveling further down some roads than he does. But, nevertheless, he’s opened them up for me. So all I’d want to say is: Einstein and, indeed, many other scientists are not delivering us complete answers, but they are beginning important conversations. They’re giving us cues, they’re giving us pointers, which can lead to us having this enriched vision of reality which results from engaging with them even if we end up going further than they do in our explorations.

Stump:

Can you speak at all about what his religious beliefs may have been like?

McGrath:

Einstein’s religious beliefs were rather eclectic and, I think, difficult to categorize. Mainly because we have our own ideas of what religion ought to be, and it doesn’t really map very well onto what Einstein meant by the term. Einstein didn’t believe in a personal God and didn’t really like the idea of any kind of religious ritual or anything like that. For him, religion was really a part in appreciation of the complexity of this universe, its mystery, and, above all, the fact that there is a mind behind the universe. Now that’s not any kind of orthodox religion, but you can see how you could build a navigable path from what Einstein is saying to, in effect, what, for example, Christianity or Orthodox Judaism is saying. In effect, Einstein is more to be valued for what he affirms than what he denies. He’s a wonderful catalyst for these kinds of conversations.

Stump:

And then what about his understanding of the relationship to these extra scientific beliefs or disciplines with regard to science? So, sometimes he sounds like what we today might categorize as an “independence theorist” of trying to keep these separate, perhaps even close to Stephen Jay Gould in the non-overlapping magisteria. But, in some of that, just the fact that he was reacting to people who had the conflict model more in mind?

McGrath:

I think Einstein’s view of science, of religion is very much that of these are different, and we’ve got to respect that difference and, in many ways, he compartmentalizes them. He doesn’t really allow for much in the way of overlap or, indeed, all that much in the way of dialogue. So I would tend to place him on a map which sees science and religion as distinct entities, but, in our minds, we can construct a relationship between them. And that’s Einstein, and I’m very happy to accept what he says. In my case though, I would want to say Einstein helps me to begin to create a constructive, enriching dialogue between science and religion. Partly by identifying what they are, but also—and Einstein doesn’t do this as well as I would like—beginning to enable a conversation that can lead to an enriched understanding of where these two things take us.

Stump:

So one of the quotes of his that you note and that often gets used in these contexts is him saying science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind. Can you unpack that a bit for us? What is he meaning and pointing toward in a statement like that?

McGrath:

Well, he’s pointing out something I think very important. First of all, he’s saying that, actually, the ultimate motivation for science is this religious sense of mystery and awe. This sense of there is something vast and wonderful to be discovered and that animates, gives impetus to, in other words, it stimulates the scientific enterprise. And the reference to being lame is simply saying, you need a motivation to keep you going. And, for the scientists, for Einstein, at any rate, that motivation lay in what Einstein called religion, the sense of awe, mystery, wonder in the presence of this mind behind the universe. But Einstein was also clear that religion needed content that actually it needed to be explored, opened up. It wasn’t simply some amorphous mass of sentiment. It actually had certain cognitive beliefs, and that’s why it’s so clear that science, in effect, stops religion being blind. In effect, it gives it something to get its mind around. And I think that’s a very helpful way of thinking even though, personally, I’d want to take it in a slightly different direction.

Stump:

Is it worthwhile us speculating at all about conversations with Einstein now? And, perhaps, what might open him up further to understanding a more personal God or the religious perspectives that we have. Are there any of these notions that he has that he just seems like he’s on the brink of coming to accept some of the doctrines of Christianity even, or is this not worthwhile even speculating about?

McGrath:

It’s always worthwhile speculating about these things. First of all, because it was interesting, but also it might end up opening up some interesting lines of discussion. Why did Einstein not believe in a personal God? He gives two reasons. Reason number one because it’s an anthropomorphism. We are constructing this mystery as if it was a human being. And, secondly, because he, in effect, argues that if God is a person, then the laws of nature are not going to be respected. God will tinker with the structure of the universe. 

I think both of those can be successfully challenged. For example, talking about God as a person is actually really dealing with this idea of relationality. It is not so much anthropomorphism. It’s finding an analogy that helps us to grasp the idea that God is not simply something we apprehend rationally. It’s something that we can relate to at a much deeper level. And, also, I mean, okay, so we don’t want a God who messes around for laws of nature, but that, in effect, does not necessarily follow from the idea of God being personal. So my own view is that Einstein is very welcome to make these statements, and they are very interesting. But I think there’s more that can be said. And so that’s a conversation I would love to have had with him sometime.

[musical interlude]

BioLogos:

Hey Language of God listeners. If you enjoy the conversations you hear on the podcast, we just wanted to let you know about our website, biologos.org, which has articles, videos, book reviews, and other resources for pastors, students, and educators. We also have an active online forum, which you heard about at the top of this show. We discuss each podcast episode, but it goes far beyond that, with lots of open discussions on all kinds of topics related to science and faith. Find it all at biologos.org.

Interview Part Two

Stump:

Well, we’re getting into the territory of your second book, here, that we wanted to chat about a little bit called Narrative Apologetics. Let’s start with the noun, apologetics, which sounds to many people like you’re apologizing for your faith, but that’s not what you mean here, right?

McGrath:

Right. Apologetics sounds awfully like saying sorry for things. And, of course, we need to be clear that apologetics may indeed end up saying sorry about certain things but as much more fundamentally about trying to say, look, let me try and explain to you what Christianity actually is and let’s look at some of the very good questions that culture is asking and see what responses we can give. So for me, there are three elements to apologetics. Number one, there’s a sense that we have to respond to good questions our culture is asking: difficulties, objections, concerns. We need to show the good answers can be given to these good questions. 

Secondly, apologetics is about trying to help people to see why people might get interested in religion in the first place. What is it, for example, about Christianity that might make somebody say, this is worth thinking about, this is worth following through. And then, thirdly, there’s this issue of translation. That’s a major theme in the writings of C.S. Lewis. It’s about, in effect, taking religious language and trying to explain it using the language of our culture. So all those things taken together. That’s what apologetics is.

Stump:

And now your book is called Narrative Apologetics. So how is narrative apologetics different than other kinds of apologetics?

McGrath:

Well, many people would say that apologetics is primarily about giving arguments. Here’s an argument for the existence of God. Here is an argument for the reality of sin. Narrative apologetics is about telling stories. It’s saying the best way of trying to not simply explain, but also to connect with real life, what Christianity is all about, is to tell stories. And it’s very significant, for example, that if we look at the gospel narratives, when Jesus has asked, for example, who is my neighbor, he does not give a dictionary definition. He tells a story. In this case the story of the good Samaritan. So for me, narrative apologetics is about realizing that stories capture the imagination and, in doing so, they make people receptive to or interested in what lies behind those stories. And of course the Christian Bible is full of these stories and these are something that we can use as we think about and explain what Christianity is all about.

Stump:

Why is it, do you think, that a Christian apologetics more recently is tended toward more argumentation? What? What is it that’s made us moderns wary of narrative for the explanation in defense of Christianity?

McGrath:

I think modern American Christianity, until quite recently, has been deeply shaped by the enlightenment, and the enlightenment did not like stories. How could these provisional contingent things convey eternal truths? The important thing was to show that Christianity was rational. And, certainly, that’s why so many Christian apologists, politically in North America, have focused on the development of rational arguments for faith. But you know, we’ve moved on now, and, in many ways, the realization of the importance of narratives has now become so significant in popular culture and, indeed, in the academy that we can change gear at this point. And, so, we might think, for example, of the massive popular appeal of stories, narratives like Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, which really engages people’s imaginations but also opens up deep questions about what life is all about. How do we relate good and evil? Where do we fit into the scheme of things? And helps us see that telling the Christian story is able to begin to answer those questions.

Stump:

So you return over and over to a C.S. Lewis in your book, here, and his narrative based apologetic. One of the things you say is that C.S. Lewis pointed out that it’s impossible to convert mythos to logos without imaginative loss. Can you explain that a little bit more?

McGrath:

I think one of the problems we face is trying to take a story and then give a, kind of, one line synopsis of that story. And in doing so, there are two things we miss. First of all, the appeal is no longer to the imagination, it’s to reason. And secondly, in trying to summarize a story, mythos in words, logos, we end up reducing it. And that means we miss stuff out. And if we talk to people who’ve heard a story, they’ll very often find different things in that story. And, therefore, by trying to summarize, by trying to reduce mythos to logos, what happens is that our rich multifaceted story becomes a single line of argument. And why I’m trying to say in this book is that we need to respect story as story. Stories speak to different people in different ways and draws them into the story itself. And that’s why I think stories continue to have a very important apologetic role.

Stump:

So, uh, perhaps this connects with what we were talking about earlier about our desire to have definitive statements. Stories aren’t often definitive in that way, are they? That they’re open, they can be ambiguous or subject to multiple interpretations. I think, at least in the American evangelical context recently, there’s been such a push toward things like propositional revelation that we want to know exactly what it is that God has said. That that’s the kind of thing that stories resist to some degree, aren’t they?

McGrath:

Very often people present the fact that stories are so open ended as a criticism. It’s not. That’s a criticism of closed down ways of thinking. And what we need to say is that there’s a serious danger that you end up in rationalist tramlines where, in effect, you are in a single concrete, linear mode of thinking. And a story says, look, it’s bigger than this. It’s wider than this. There’s far more to this than you’ve realized. And that’s why I think stories are such a powerful challenge not just to the rationalism of religious people, but to the rationalism of modern American culture. It’s more complex. It’s richer than that. And that’s one of the reasons why I think stories are so important. They don’t just help us communicate what Christianity is all about. They enlarge our vision of reality precisely because they say reason on its own is not good enough.

Stump:

Hmm. So the word myth makes lots of Christians nervous as we sometimes, I think, understand it to mean not really true, at least in a historical sense. But how is it that myth, or story, or narrative, in this sense, how are stories like the Chronicles of Narnia? How are these true? How do we understand the truth of narrative?

McGrath:

I think many people are resistant to engaging narratives because they feel that the word myth, which is very often used in this context means, that something that is deliberately invented, that is untrue. I think we need to just say, no, no, it’s about the character, the narrative structure of a story which captures the imagination but, also, makes you receptive to the ideas that it unfolds and enframes. 

So the reason why, for example, the Chronicles of Narnia or indeed The Lord of the Rings are so successful is that they expand our minds. They make us receptive to bigger truths. They make us realize that the story that’s being told opens up some very deep questions and also begins to frame possible answers. And to me, that’s one of the reasons why stories are so important. Their imaginative appeal. That’s why Lewis emphasizes that, in effect, if the story of the gospel makes us imaginatively receptive, then we can imaginatively embrace God because that makes us receptive towards the greater reality towards which these stories are pointing.

Stump:

How does this apply though, then, to narratives in scripture, like the narratives of the resurrection, which we have several accounts of in the gospels? Is the sense of truth there different in some way? Or are you happy to describe those as narratives that the truth of which are opening us up, opening our imaginations to a greater reality? Or do we need something stronger for that sense of narrative, for that kind of narrative?

McGrath:

I think the word truth is a very rich word, and some people say, well, truth just means something that’s propositionally true. Others would say, no, it’s about something that is trustworthy, something that we feel we can embrace because it opens up a way of thinking, a way of living, which actually makes sense and seems to be deeply grounded in reality. Now let’s look at the gospels. Let’s look at a theological question. Here’s one. What is the love of God like? So you might say, well, of course it is infinite. It’s beyond human description. So wonderful I can’t really describe it. But that actually is not helpful because it tells you what the love of God is not. 

The gospels do a very different thing. They, in effect, give us a story which conveys what the love of God is like. It’s like someone who trudges to crucifixion willingly, who is on the cross, and when invited by his critics to come down and save himself stays there and saves us instead. In other words, this story exhibits and embodies the love of God not as an abstract concept, but as a lived life which embodies and exhibits this love. And the result is people will look at this story, they will see it in their mind’s eye, and it will speak to them far more deeply, a different level than the propositional statement that the love of God is so wonderful that cannot be described.

Stump:

Perhaps you can apply this further, then, to something like the problem of evil, which is one of the staples of Christian apologetics, where often those propositions seem to fall short, right? How is narrative better suited to deal with something like the problem of evil, and how we might respond in that way?

McGrath:

I think that there are many problems, like the problem of evil, which are so complex that the moment you try to reduce them to propositional statements you realize that you have simplified to the point of distortion what the real issues are. And, for me, a narrative approach to the problem of evil or the existence of suffering is really important because, in effect, it allows us to say, look, here are our personal stories. They’re all about pain and suffering, the encountering of evil. Here is the story of God who becomes incarnate in Christ, who experiences suffering and evil. And we can bring these stories together. The story of us as human beings who are experiencing suffering, bewilderment and so on. 

And the story of a God who willingly enters into this world, who takes on suffering and makes it a means of salvation. And that means we can realize that we can connect our story with this story. That, in effect, the story of our lives interconnects with and is enriched by this bigger story. And, indeed, one of the points of C.S. Lewis makes, which I think is very interesting here, is that, in a certain sense, faith is about allowing our story to become part of this bigger story, to be enriched and deepened as a result.

Stump:

Hmm. So one of the things about argumentation is there are certain rules according to which it proceeds in logical analysis and so on. Are there criteria that we have for judging whether certain kinds of stories are better than others or more effective? Or how do we evaluate the success of different kinds of stories that might be told?

McGrath:

Well, I think a story is a story, and it’s very hard to say this is an authentic story, this is a right story. We can certainly say that if a story is told, we want to know did this really happen? I think that’s a very important point. But very often the significance of a story does not lie simply in its historical actuality. There’s always this issue of interpretation, realization of what this story means. For example, we might tell the story of Christ dying on the cross, and it might be the story of a man being put to death, and that’s the end of it. But, of course, for the Christians, it’s far richer than that. It is a story about a man being put to death on the cross, but it’s all about this remarkable transformation of the human situation so that Christ’s work on the cross becomes something that affects our story. 

And this is why, I think, the whole issue of theological interpretation and, above all, preaching is so important because there isn’t… This is not simply about repetition of the story. It is, in effect saying, let’s open this up and see what we find here. Let’s see the possible connections with our own story. Let’s see how this story may illuminate our story and begin to realize how this may help us rethink things. It doesn’t always mean that the story is right. Think, for example, of David’s seduction of Bathsheba. But it does say this is something from which we can learn. And in the case of the story of Christ, we’re talking about, in effect, an identity giving story for us which becomes part of our own story as we seek to grow in our faith.

Stump:

So one of the things I appreciate about this book is that it offers some very practical pieces of advice and strategies. You give, in the middle section, here, three strategies for narrative apologetics. And I wonder if you might just walk us, briefly, through these, beginning with telling a better story. You were just referring to some of those elements of what makes a story a better story. But what is this as one of the strategies, and how might we tell better stories?

McGrath:

This is one of the strategies that C.S. Lewis adopts, and, in his sermon The Weight of Glory, Lewis asks, how can we challenge the worldview that what you see is what you get, that there is nothing more to reality than what you observe in this material world. And he says, to break this spell, we need to cast a better spell to tell a better story to show that there are other ways of looking at this. 

And to me that’s a very important element of narrative apologetics. To be able to say, look, there’s a better story that can be told about this world, about human beings. And to begin to articulate that story and invite our audience to step inside that story and ask, what does the world look like when seen from the standpoint of that story? Does that make sense? Above all, does that open up new ways of living and existence, which might want you to make that story your own story?

Stump:

The second of your strategies, then, is seeing the Christian story as a meta narrative. Can you explain for our audience what you mean by meta narrative?

McGrath:

One of the great themes of C.S. Lewis is that Christianity tells a grand story, if you like, a meta-narrative, a story which is able to take all the threads of individual stories and connect them into a greater whole. And it’s very important because it’s saying that there is a coherence to our world which is otherwise overlooked. That is, grand narrative, this meta-narrative, enables us to see how things hang together, how they’re interconnected, and how, above all, we fit into a bigger picture. And, for many people, that’s the real issue. Is there just me or my own or am I actually part of some bigger enterprise, some bigger structure, some bigger project? And for Lewis, recognizing that Christianity tells this meta-narrative means that our stories fit into this story without being drowned by the story. They’re individual, they matter, but they gain dignity and depth through being part of this bigger story.

Stump:

And, finally, the third of these strategies you note for narrative apologetics is offering criticism of rival narratives. Is this a part, too, of telling a better story? Or what are the kinds of criticisms that can be given to other narratives in this regard?

McGrath:

I think that one of the apologetic strategies that is really important is to listen to all the people’s criticisms of Christianity, but also to return the compliment by saying, maybe there are things you need to think about as well. And, for me, challenging other stories is really important. I used to be a Marxist. I’m not anymore. And I was very much aware of Marx’s story of, in effect, how human beings came to be entrapped in capitalism and what might be done to liberate this. And, in fact, he told a story about how this happened and a story about how this might be changed. Initially, I found this very captivating and engaging, but I began to realize that actually it was a very vulnerable story. It was open to criticism on many fronts. And, so, I think there’s a need to say you’re telling the story, but it’s not a reliable story for the following reasons. Here is an alternative narrative which I believe is more credible and actually has an explanatory depth, which is missing from yours.

Stump:

Very good. So what do we do next? What are some steps for us to incorporate a narrative apologetics into our spheres of influence wherever we may be?

McGrath:

I think one of the things we can learn from narrative apologetics is, simply, the importance of telling stories. For example, I haven’t time to do this, but, supposedly, I would say to you, I want to tell you the story of how I used to be an atheist and end up becoming a Christian. And, actually, people would listen to that. It might be interesting, but it’s all about wrestling with ideas. 

And, as I tell my stories, I’m, in effect, telling how I evaluated ideas, how I came to certain conclusions. And people find stories interesting. They don’t have to agree with them, but they want to know where they end, what the outcome is. So what I want to suggest is that maybe those listening to this podcast could say, well look, I have a story to tell. What actually might somebody gain from listening to my story that might help them begin to answer some questions about faith, about science, and so on? What resources could you bring that you could, in effect, put into the form of the story of your life that might help somebody else who’s wrestling with those same questions?

Stump:

Well, thank you. What’s the next chapter in your story, Alister? What are the projects you’re working on next or the books that are on the horizon?

McGrath:

Well, I shall write one more book, and then that will be it. And the last book I’m going to write…

Stump:

Oh, dear.

McGrath:

No, no, don’t worry. The last book I’m going to write actually picks up very well the themes we’ve been talking about. I’m going to tell the story of how I moved from being an atheist scientist to someone who still loved scientists, but had discovered theology and Christianity, and began to weave a worldview around that. So, in effect, it’s a story of transition. It’s about loving science and discovering God, but a journey of discovery. How an atheist became a theologian and the kind of vision of reality that this personal journey opened up for me. Sure, it’s not what everybody else will want to read about, but it explores ideas. It identifies possibilities. And I hope it might be an interesting read.

Stump:

Well, we look forward very much to hearing that part of your story. Thank you so much for talking with us.

McGrath:

A pleasure to be with you and I hope we have more conversations in the future.

Credits: 

BioLogos:

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. Our theme song is by Breakmaster Cylinder. We are produced out of the BioLogos offices 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. Finally, if you’re enjoying the show and want to help us out, leave a review on iTunes, we love hearing from and it helps other people find the show. Thanks.


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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