Alister McGrath is well-known as a theologian, but he started out as a scientist. After becoming a Christian as a student, he wanted to learn about his new faith so he studied theology at the same time as completing his PhD in molecular biophysics. He has not lost touch with science, but has continued to write and speak about how science and Christian faith work together. In this series of videos from the Wonders of the Living World project, he shares his experience of being a scientist and a Christian, and his views on science and scripture.
How can a feeling of awe and wonder prompt people to ask questions that science can’t answer?
I think my most vivid experience of wonder took place in the 1970’s when I was on vacation in Iran. We were travelling on a bus in the middle of the night because it wasn’t hot then, and the bus broke down. We found ourselves in the middle of this solemn black desert, and the night sky shone with a brilliance like I had never seen before. That just overwhelmed me, it made me think there is something really wonderful here. Now I was a Christian by that time and I knew how Christianity could answer that but it just struck me, that sense of wonder has two possible outcomes. One is science – this universe is wonderful, what’s it all about? But of course it is also about religion, the deeper levels of things that science can’t really engage. I think one of the things I have discovered over time is that maybe this sense of wonder both opens the gateway to science and to faith, and that those two together are able to answer questions which on their own they simply couldn’t.
I think science is wonderful at asking questions. Some of those questions can be answered, but very often when you do answer them they simply open up yet more questions. But of course there are some more fundamental questions I think science simply cannot answer – they transcend its capacities to answer, and you might think of non-empirical questions like, “Why am I here? What is the meaning of life? What is good and how do I live a good life?” These are real questions and they’re good questions but they’re not scientific questions. And the psychologists tell us that we really need answers to those questions if we are to lead a fulfilled human existence. You find some scientists who say, “Well because science can’t answer them there are no answers to be given”, but actually most realise that there are answers waiting to be discovered – it’s just that science can’t deliver them. Science fills in part of a big picture but there are parts of the picture you have to fill in from somewhere else. Science is part of the answer but only part, and faith supplements it, giving us a vision of life that is exciting and reliable and also something that we can inhabit meaningfully.
What can we learn about God from science?
I find it very helpful to think of theology as a lens, now it’s not an original idea I get this from C.S. Lewis okay, but it really is helpful because what does a lens do? It brings things into focus. And we all need lenses I mean a theory is basically a way of looking at something, it’s a lens through which you look and if a lens is out of focus you don’t see anything or you see something amorphous and so you say there is nothing there to be seen. And one of the things that excites me about Christianity is it’s a lens that brings my experience, my observations of the world into far sharper focus than anything else I’ve discovered up to this point. We need that clarity, we need that sense of being able to see things properly and for me the Christian faith is all about the healing of our vision so that we see things as they really are, not as we’d like them to be.
So what can we learn about God from science? Well I think lots, actually, I mean for example I often think of Psalm 19 verse 1 “The heavens declare the glory of the Lord” and if you’re a Christian you know God made the universe but actually being presented with a rich deep vision of what the universe is like, that gives you an imaginative enrichment of this, so in other words you know God made this but actually it becomes even more real, even more exciting by having this amplification of what it means to think about the world.
Why do you think a faithful interpretation of scripture can also be faithful to science?
The reason I hold the position I do is, first of all, because it seems to me to fit in with what the Bible actually says. Secondly, it fits in very well with what early Christian writers said about how they interpreted the Bible, and they stand much closer to the text than we do. For example, Augustine writing about the year 400, in other words, you know, 1600 years ago just saying, look I read Genesis, it’s obvious what it is saying, there’s an initial moment of creation and then there is a period of growth, development as God achieves what he wants to be there through a process of development. He doesn’t use the word evolution, but there’s a developing creation. Creation is about an event and a process. And thirdly, you have to look at the science. I mean science, in one sense, is neutral, it’s not anti-Christian. What I want to say to you is, look, I found a position which I think holds all of these things together – faithful to scripture, faithful to the Christian tradition, faithful to science.
So what do I think is the really important message of Genesis, say Genesis 1 to 3? There are so many things there. There are some things that are not important at all, we may fuss about them – chronology, who cares? The point that Genesis wants to make is this: this world is God’s creation, it owes its existence to God and in some way the goodness and wisdom of God is expressed in the created order. Then secondly, we are part of that created order, but we are not identical with it. We are made with God’s image, that means there’s something about us which means that we are able to discern God, but above all, we are accountable for the use we make of the creation. To in effect say we bear God’s image is not about privilege, it’s about accountability and responsibility. And then thirdly, of course, Genesis 3 tells us we’re messed up. You know, in effect, we are, there is something about us that means we are intrinsically inclined to do wrong, to seek the lesser good, and it means we need God’s grace if we’re going to become the people we’re meant to be, and also, look after this world as we’re meant to.
Suffering, and our sense that things should be better
I think many people are puzzled, perhaps even distressed, by the presence of suffering within nature. I think there are many people who’ll look at this messy world full of suffering and death and say, “look, how on earth can God use things like suffering and death to bring about something that we believe to be good?” I mean, if we believe in evolution, I mean, think of how long the process of suffering and death is to bring us to this point! I think what we have to say, really, is we don’t fully understand this. And I think I’m very suspicious of slick and simple answers. There is some fundamental human instinct which makes us say, “look, surely it could be better than this? Surely we don’t have to suffer?” But actually we don’t know that at all. I think that this innate suspicion that there has to be a better world is actually very significant because where does it come from? It’s in effect saying we have this deep moral sense that something is wrong with this. It’s almost as if we anticipated there is a better world in which there won’t be suffering. We’d like to see it now but maybe one day we will. And you can see how that maps on to a Christian vision of things which actually is all about the hope of a transformed future – a world in which there will be no pain, no suffering. It doesn’t resolve things now but I think it does make a connection with something else which is a very important part of the Christian way of thinking.
Number one this is not what God intended for his creation and it is something that is going to be changed. There is this vision of a future hope in which we will live in a world where there is no suffering any more. And secondly, and I think much more importantly, we are dealing with a God who, according to the Christian faith, entered into this world through suffering in Christ and redeemed us through suffering. In other words, look, if there is suffering in the world I take this burden on my shoulders and I offer to transform it. One day this will be gone and you will be with me where this is no longer. And then, a very important point, because we know what the new Jerusalem is going to be like, we do ask this question. Is there anything we can do now to make this world more like what we believe the new Jerusalem will be? Can we alleviate suffering? Can we help people? Can we do something to alleviate suffering of animals? So the new Jerusalem, paradoxically, informs our thinking and our acting right here and now.
More videos, articles, and information about the book Wonders of the Living World: Curiosity, awe and the meaning of life, at wondersofthelivingworld.org.