Alister McGrath, Professor of Science and Religion at Oxford University, earned a doctorate in molecular biophysics in 1977, a doctorate in divinity in 2001 and was awarded a third doctorate in 2013.

In this interview, Dr. McGrath discusses his journey into the study of science and theology, his discovery of C. S. Lewis, and other issues.

Edited transcript

Gary Deddo: You have an unusual background – in both science and in theology. There aren’t many people who have that kind of background. Can you tell us a little about how those two things came together for you?

Alister McGrath: I began in high school, studying sciences, and that was my first love. My future was going to be in science and, at that time, I thought science entailed atheism. For me, science and atheism went together. Then I went to Oxford University, studied chemistry, and I went on to the doctorate in molecular biophysics.

Then something else happened, which was while I was at Oxford, I discovered Christianity. This question of how I held together Christian faith and natural sciences became very important. I decided if I was going to do this properly, I would have to do some degrees in theology as well. That’s how I transitioned from the natural sciences to theology, although I tried to keep the two of them together.

GD: Why did you think science was an objection to Christian faith?

AM: I can go with two things. One was that it just seemed to me that science offered an explanation for everything. A kind of reductive explanation, which mean that it gobbled up the space that God might occupy. Also, I felt religion was terribly old-fashioned. Who in their right mind would believe in this stuff? I took the view that people who believed in God were mad, or bad, or sad, or possibly all three. I didn’t want to be like that. It’s both intellectual and cultural.

GD: Somewhere along the way you took an interest in the theology and writings of Thomas F. Torrance. Can you tell me how that came about?

AM: One of the things I was trying to find was someone who would help me think through how I might relate science and theology. I was looking for, I suppose, some kind of role model, someone who had integrated these. I found several good people who had integrated science and the Christian faith, but not necessarily science and Christian theology.

In June 1976, I think it was, I came across Tom Torrance’s book, Theological Science, and devoured it. It was very exciting. As I began to read this, I discovered he was someone who had thought this thing through and gave me an intellectual framework to make sense of the relationship between theology and science. Torrance gave me a mental map, a way of thinking about things, that allowed me to see legitimate, interesting ways of holding science and Christian theology, and mapped out how I might develop my own thinking on this.

GD: Many people consider that science and Christian faith (or any belief in God) are at odds – there’s been some talk about a war between these. You saw past that. Was there some key insight that helped you recognize there’s not a war? Somehow, the writings of Torrance were helping you sort this out.

AM: It’s a cliché, that there’s a war between science and faith. It’s terribly out-of-date. Scholarship has moved on massively, but the cliché still lingers in the media, who haven’t caught up with the literature. Torrance showed me that if you saw them in the right intellectual context, then there was no question. If anything, they complimented each other. Torrance was saying if you see them in the right way, they give you a mental map, which allows you to position them and enable them to have a positive, constructive, and fruitful conversation. That is what Torrance helped me to discover.

GD: That’s wonderful, because I run into people who are stuck in the past.

I know some of your interests as well. You’ve written quite a number of books. Some of them have to do with addressing not so much science and faith, but theology and faith, and helping people grow in their faith. You have a textbook on Introduction to Christian Theology. What’s important there and why have you written these books?

AM: When I was transitioning from natural science to theology, studying theology at Oxford, having come to it from natural sciences, I found it difficult. I was switching from the sciences to the humanities. I was entering into a new discipline. I found it very difficult to pick it up. I thought, “I’m sure I can learn from this difficulty. If only there was a textbook that might help with this,” because all the textbooks I read were useless. They assumed far too much on the part of their readers.

I decided that one day, if the occasion emerged, I’d try to write a book which would have helped me discover theology, because I had a very steep learning curve and I thought, “I’m sure there are many others who are having this experience as well.” I thought, “Supposing I write a theological textbook which begins at ground zero, assumes absolutely no previous knowledge of Christian theology, and gradually introduces them,” which is what I needed myself. I thought maybe my own experience could help others do the same.

I see education, helping others discover theology, very exciting. Because, in effect, I’m saying, “Look, I’ve discovered this. This is really wonderful. Can I help you discover it as well?” My own pain, if you like, has been somebody else’s gain because it means it’s easier for them after that.

GD: Another obstacle that people run into is the dichotomy between head and heart. They’ve said there’s a gap between the head and the heart. That’s generated some negative idea about theology and what it’s good for. It seems to me that’s another gap that isn’t really there, but many people assume it is. How do you address the head/heart gap?

AM: That’s a real issue, and there’s a danger that theology is seen as very cerebral or very dry, very academic – almost as if it has no connection with the vibrant life of faith or, indeed, Christian worship. One of the things you have to try to do, it’s said, when theology is done properly, it doesn’t simply inform you – it creates a vision of God. It makes you want to respond in prayer and in worship. It brings together the head and the heart, even though it is focusing on trying to make sense of the fundamentals of the Christian faith.

For me, it’s about intellectual engagement without losing that essentially relational activity of loving God, wanting to praise God, and so forth. It’s a danger, you’re quite right. It’s very easy to see theology as simply as an obsession with words, losing any connection with the life of faith, evangelism, worship, and so on. That’s a risk, but it doesn’t need to be like that. I think the challenge is to make sure that theology nourishes both head and heart.

GD: How do you go about that? In your books, how did you approach it differently to overcome that problem?

AM: The way I approach it is to say that you need to think of God as being so radiant, so majestic, that we cannot possibly hope to do justice of him. You’re very grateful you can make so much sense of God and things of faith, and that’s why it leads to theology. On the other hand, the fact that it’s so immense, overwhelming, that naturally leads you to worship, because you realize, “These things are so wonderful I can’t put them into words,” so the appropriate response is to get down on your knees and pray and worship. I think holding those two perspectives together stops them falling apart.

GD: James Torrance, who I studied with, used to emphasize, “We need to talk about who God is – God’s character. Not just whether he exists or abstract concepts, but the nature and character.” It sounds like you’re saying something similar to that, getting at the majesty and the glory of God, the character of God, not abstract descriptions of his attributes or things that don’t help people see head and heart together.

AM: Right. Theology does its job best when it makes people want to worship God.

GD: In Christian teaching today in the church, are there any topics or theological themes that you think are undeveloped or misunderstood? You did quite a bit of work early on on the issue of justification. That’s a detailed study that I’m sure you found helpful. Perhaps that’s a theme, you think, or is there some area that you see Christians are missing it and we might need to review this and bring this back?

AM: That’s an interesting question. There’s a general point to make first: I worry that Christians have less inherited knowledge of their faith. That might have been the case a generation or two beforehand. Maybe we need to say that perhaps across the board, there’s a need for Christians to develop their understanding of their faith, perhaps through catechesis or something like that.

There are areas where there are lots of misunderstandings. The doctrine of the Trinity is a good example. Many Christians are nervous about that because they say, “Hey, one in three? That’s bad mathematics, you know? Where does that take us?” They almost hold back from engagement because they’re frightened that if they open this can of worms, they’ll find all sorts of stuff there. Of course, if they do it properly, they will be excited and so forth.

Justification is a good example. Most Christians, to give a simple example, misunderstand what justification by faith is. They think it means that, “If I start believing in God, I am justified.” That’s not what it means at all. You need to go back a long way.

Every Christian is on a journey of discovery. The creeds of Christianity give us a framework for discovery. They say, “Here is the landscape of faith. You probably know that little bit very well, but there’s more to discover. Please engage and discover.” We need to encourage them to discover their whole realm of faith, because often they know little bits very well, but the rest remains undiscovered.

GD: You’ve written a little book based on the Apostles’ Creed. That’s what you’ve attempted to do in that book a little bit, right… [AM: Absolutely.] open up the whole of the Christian faith. You mentioned a misunderstanding about justification. Could you give us a short, brief definition?

AM: For Luther, who I agree with on this occasion, what justification by faith means is not, “I choose to believe in God and as a result, God says, ‘Oh, you are justified.’” It’s much more: Even the faith I have by which I embrace God is God’s gracious gift to me. It’s about God reaching his hand out towards me, not me reaching my hand out towards him. It’s this wonderful idea of God, in effect, providing all we need. That’s such an important emphasis because we often feel that there are certain things that we need to achieve in order to be right with God. Luther is saying, “No, no. God does it.” We need to trust God and get on in the knowledge that that relationship with him is secure.

GD: Are you saying that we’re justified by our belief in the doctrine, of itself? That’s not where we want to go.

AM: It’s not where we want to go at all. If I could coin a phrase, that’s justification by words rather than justification by faith.

GD: Right. I know you’ve had some interest in C.S. Lewis. Tell us about that. How did you encounter Lewis and what have you taken away from him?

AM: I was born in Belfast. Lewis was born in Belfast as well. But when I was growing up in Northern Ireland, I always thought Lewis was English. It was one of those things I had never really made that connection, but I didn’t read him. What happened was when I discovered Christianity, I began to ask all kinds of hard questions. My friends got fed up and eventually one of them said to me, “Look, why don’t you read C.S. Lewis?” I said, “Oh, well, okay.”

I bought my first book by C.S. Lewis, in 1974 I think it was, and thought, “This is good,” and bought more books by C.S. Lewis and thought, “These are good.” Kept on reading them. I began almost a lifelong relationship with C.S. Lewis because he is so good. He’s so clear. He is very good at explaining things. When you read Lewis the first time, you see some things. When you come back to the same work later, there’s something else you missed. It’s a journey of discovery.

I wrote a biography of him to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his death [in 1963]. In researching that biography, I came to appreciate the man all the more simply because I began to discover more of him as a man, as a deeply-flawed, damaged human being who nonetheless achieved remarkable things. That gave me hope for myself.

GD: I’ve had a similar experience. Lewis is known as an apologist. He was more than that, but a lot of people concentrate on his apologetics and things like that. You have an interest in apologetics as well. Do you approach that task, that ministry, in a similar way, or do you approach it a little differently than Lewis did?

AM: There are differences between me and Lewis, but I think the similarity between Lewis and myself is we’re both atheists who became Christians and know why we did it. We’ve inhabited another place and we understand the patterns of thought in that place. We’ve moved to a different place and know why we made that transition. Now we’re both well placed to be able to say to people who are still in this place of unbelief, “Here are some problems you have, and here are some things about Christianity you probably haven’t grasped.”

For me, apologetics comes very naturally. It’s about me trying to set out some of the reasons that brought me to faith, but also I think engaging with some of the questions our culture is asking. For example, Richard Dawkins and others are saying, “You can’t believe anything you can’t prove. That’s just right, isn’t it?” I take great pleasure in exposing all his hidden beliefs that are unjustified, trying to make the point that we believe an awful lot of things that cannot be proven and yet we have good reason for thinking are right.

For me, apologetics is important to support the cultural defense of the Christian faith. Going back to a point we were talking about earlier, I was just suggesting to you maybe people don’t know their faith as well as they should. All of us probably have to have some kind of apologetic ministry, trying to explain what Christianity is, and also why it makes so much sense.

GD: As you’ve interacted with people who are outside the church and outside the Christian faith, is there a general sense of what those outside the church and Christian faith don’t get, and what Christians need to be aware of, sensitive to, and address first? Are we missing the boat in some ways? Where would we focus conversations with those who aren’t in the church?

AM: There are a lot of important points here. One is that many people don’t see what the point of belief in God is. They think that believing in God means believing there’s some extra item in the universe, like an extra planet orbiting the sun. It may be there, but makes no difference. Why get excited about that?

What you have to try to do is something like discovering meaning, or being loved. It’s something that’s not simply cognitive, but relational. It’s something that changes life. Trying to bring out the fact that belief in God is about discovering what life is all about, that’s very important.

Moving on from that, many people outside the church are puzzled as to why people should believe in God at all. Often we have to say, “There are some good reasons for this,” and try to set out what some of these are. Often, people are not being hostile when they say, “We can’t see why you believe in God.” They’re actually curious and inquisitive.

It’s important to tell your own story, which is, “Here is how I discovered faith, or here is how I grew in my faith, or here is how I was in a household of faith and discovered its inner meaning,” and so on. It’s important to tell those stories and help people grasp that believing in God is not just about one extra item in your mental inventory, but it is much more about having discovered what life is all about, and that’s a cause for celebration. It gives you a big picture of life, which helps you figure out how to behave, how to live, and how to hope, which is very important.

GD: That seems to put aside arguments for the existence of God or abstract proofs. You’re talking about something that talks about relevance, meaning, and significance. Some apologetics sounds pretty arid, a line of argument and things like that. It sounds like you’re talking about a different approach.

AM: Right. Pascal, many years ago, said, “You should try to make people wish that there were a God, and then show them that there is.” The danger is we often start off by saying, “Let me tell you why there is a God.” People aren’t interested in the question. You’ve got to, in effect, make them want to ask the question because this sounds interesting.

GD: You do a lot of speaking. I suppose there’s a mix of Christians and non-believers in the audience. What have you learned in that context? Are there certain questions that regularly come up? What’s that been like?

AM: It’s a wonderful experience, because people will often want to ask questions. Often some timid person will put up their hand and say something like, “What difference does Christian faith make,” or something like that. There are a lot of other people who wished they’d asked the question, but hadn’t. When you’re talking to a large audience, people are often anonymous. You can say some things and you’re not saying them to any specific individual, and so it’s actually easier for people to hear them.

It’s a great privilege to be able to talk about the difference that faith makes to people and trying to explain what some key Christian ideas mean. The response I often get from people is, “Now we get it. We see what this is all about.” That is so exciting when that happens. A penny drops or a light gets turned on.

Often, I think what gets the most response from people is simply when I talk about my own transition from atheism to faith, why I did it and the difference it makes. People begin to realize this isn’t just about some mental adjustment. It’s about something that really changes your life and gives you hope and meaning and so on. I find that very exciting. I’m glad I’m able to do this kind of thing.

GD: You’ve entered into formal debates with individuals. A couple of what we refer to as the new atheists: Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens, and such. I viewed a couple of these on YouTube. What was that like to be with them? That’s an extraordinary event.

AM: They were quite extraordinary events, and I had the feeling that this was like people talking past each other. It was almost as if there wasn’t really all that much engagement. They were almost like set pieces.

Often the debate was invariably, “What is the problem in believing in God,” and it was very difficult to get the new atheists to talk about what their proposed alternative was. If you don’t believe in God, then what is your basis for morality? Christopher Hitchens, when pressed on that particular issue, will say, “I don’t know.” In effect, “I just believe certain things and I don’t see the need to give a reason for them.”

It’s important to have these civil debates, if only to show that answers can be given to the questions these people are asking. I don’t think the debates necessarily are very productive, but it’s important they take place and, in effect, faith is shown to be able to stand up to some of these interrogations and make some good points in response.

GD: It sounds like your approach in these debates was not to win the debate, but to have a conversation, and to listen, and show responses. Yes, civil debate. Sometimes debates don’t go in that direction.

AM: No, they don’t. What I found myself doing is talking to Richard Dawkins, or Christopher Hitchens, or Daniel Dennett, but actually talking through them to an audience beyond, trying to say, “Look, we’re going to get excited about this. They’re going to be angry about it. It’s a simple, but very important question: what are the reasons for believing God and the difference it makes?” Trying to get people to see that there were some important questions here, which were being hijacked in the name of an aggressive atheist agenda, but good answers could be given to the questions being asked.

GD: In my conversations with people, sometimes it seems the defensive questions and attacks on Christianity and all, actually there are other often personal issues, backgrounds, bad experiences, and things like that that don’t necessarily get brought up, but their responses seem so personal and so full of energy and even vitriol. It seems to me that if you don’t recognize that, if you just think it’s an intellectual problem, that we’re missing the boat, especially in a personal situation of having a conversation and dealing with them as full human beings, not just brains or ideas. Did some of that come out in some of these interviews?

AM: Very much so. Often, particularly very angry atheists, have a personal history. It’s not an intellectual issue at all. A parent may have died and they’ve been angry with God for allowing that to happen. Or they may have had a bad experience in the church. Or they may feel that, as Richard Dawkins does, that Christianity tells lies. Of course, that’s a very bad thing to do.

You are dealing with people who are deeply committed for non-intellectual reasons to atheism. When you start to probe, they become extremely defensive because it’s not simply a question of whether there’s a God or not. It’s about my personal history or my personal integrity being called into question.

Often, the anger you find in the new atheism reflects a history. You’re right. We need to be aware of that, but at the same time, you have to say that we cannot be trapped by our personal histories. These are big questions. Somehow, we need to break free from our personal histories to think about these things.

GD: That dimension doesn’t make the task easier. It makes it more complex and more personal. I find prayer is essential for these kinds of breakthroughs.

Now, another question that I’m interested in ... This is the big picture, where you’ve dealt with the personal, but now on larger things. I don’t know if you think of Western culture – Europe, North America – being post-Christian. One of my questions has been, how did we get here? What happened?

You’ve studied intellectual history and all that. What do you think about the big picture? Why is Western culture largely leaving behind the Christian faith, especially the intellectual leadership? There still is faith around, churches are still there, but in the direction of the culture, what do you think about that and how did we get where we are? Are we just going to be on this post-Christian decline? What do you think about that larger picture?

AM: That’s a really big question, isn’t it? There are a number of things going on here. One is a very significant distrust of institutions. Inevitably, that means Christian churches are objects of suspicion. In our culture, there’s a shift towards wanting to talk about “spirituality.” Spirituality, if you like, is non-institutional religion. It’s a personal thing. That’s something we’re going to have to think about. If people are suspicious of institutions, it means that bishops or church leaders will not be well-received because they’re seen as institutionally linked. What we need to do almost is rediscover the early Christian detachment from power, from institutional structures, and see if we can bring that into our way of thinking. That’s one important element of this.

There’s something else, as well, and this is in at least one study of this process of erosion of faith. One of the difficulties is that parents did not take trouble to pass their faith on to their children. In effect, just saying, “You decide what you want to do.” There is an issue there about how Christian organizations, how Christian churches think about the transmission of faith to the next generation. We seem to have failed on that. That’s something we need to come back to.

The third thing I think we need to come back to is this: Perhaps we have failed to understand the imaginative, the moral, the aesthetic vision that Christianity contains within itself. We’ve not helped people to see why it is exciting and important. People find themselves having walked away from Christianity without really understanding what it is. We need to re-unpack the riches of the Christian faith so people can see it.

Another point I would make here, in wrapping this little section up, is a lot of Christians tend to be defensive about this. That creates a perception in the culture that in a kind of way, they’re on the losing side. I think we are on the losing side. We have failed to play our cards properly. Perhaps we need to go back, take our packs out, and look at all the cards and say, “These are wonderful cards – why aren’t we playing them properly?” and begin to rethink how we present the Christian faith, how we teach it, how we live it out. Those are big questions, but it seems to me that we need to come back to them.

GD: Well, make some suggestions. We talked about the problem, but how would you approach it, especially this aesthetic and imaginative? How would we even start taking this new path that you’re suggesting?

AM: In Western culture there are many who are overwhelmed by the beauty of nature, or who love good literature, or who visit art galleries. These people are looking for something significant or looking for something deeper, but might not necessarily think of making any connection with the Christian faith. We need to work at how we can reconnect Christianity with groups of people who we seemed to have disenfranchised. That means we’re going to need people who are able to talk about Christianity and the arts, who are able to talk about Christianity and literature, who are able to say, “This will bring an even greater richness to what you’re doing.” It’s about trying to build bridges, and no one person can do that.

We need Christians who are scientists, artists, musicians, whatever, to say, “I need intentionally to build bridges between my faith and the professional communities I’m engaging with.” That’s something very important, but it can be done. We almost need to think of this as a calling. In the past, you might have thought of a calling towards a ministry. Maybe there’s a calling to be a bridge person between the faith and particular interest groups.

GD: Well, thank you so much.

AM: You’re welcome. Wonderful talking to you.

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Last modified: Tuesday, March 30, 2021, 3:38 PM