One of the leading theologians of our time, Alistair McGrath, spoke about how he returned to Christianity from the “distant land” of Marxism and scientific atheism. And also about how Albert Einstein combined science, religion and ethics.
Professor McGrath was born in Belfast, UK in 1953 and was baptized in the Church of England in Ireland. In the 1970s, Professor McGrath studied chemistry at Oxford University before switching to theology.
He is currently Professor of Science and Religion at Oxford. From under his pen came out the books The Dawkins Fallacy?: Atheistic Fundamentalism and Denial of the Divine, which became bestsellers. In them, he challenged the ideas of atheist biologist Richard Dawkins.
Christian Today reporters asked Professor McGrath a few questions:
CT: You started your book (Returning from a Faraway Land) by stating, “I never planned to become a Christian theologian, mainly because I never planned to become a Christian.” What was the main thing that attracted you to Christianity at Oxford in the 1970s?
AM: I was an atheist when I came to Oxford, although I had doubts about whether atheism was really as simple and rational as I thought. My doubts intensified when it became clear that my atheist friends from Oxford could not prove that their beliefs were correct. Gradually, I came to the conclusion that atheism is a matter of faith, not something that can be proven.
One of the reasons for my adolescent atheism was that I thought God was completely irrelevant. God was in Heaven; but I was on earth, in the midst of time and space. God had no connection or presence in my world and could not say or do anything related to me.
But my Christian friends at Oxford told me about the Christian doctrine of the incarnation. I realized that this is a game changer.
God was not something distant and irrelevant, but the one who decided to enter my world of space and time through Christ. I suddenly understood why Christians put Christ at the center of their faith.
If we are asked what God is like, we can point to Christ, who shows us the nature and face of God. We can see the face and not just know the character of our God. God is like Christ, who is “the image of the invisible God.”
CT: You write: “For me, theology is a reflection of the Christian faith, rooted primarily in the Bible and in the long tradition of correct handling of this text, as well as in the practice of worship and in prayer.” Some modern theologians seem to place themselves above the truth revealed by the Lord in the Bible. How did you try to avoid this in your ministry as a Christian theologian?
AM: For me, the Bible is the starting point of theology and the life of faith. I have read the Bible with Christians for centuries who have passed on their wisdom to us in their writings, helping us understand the Bible and making connections with the way we think and live.
Theology is humility. It is about abstracting from the ideas about God that we have learned from our culture and letting the biblical idea of God shape our lives and thoughts.
This is why public Bible reading in Christian sevices is so important. This reminds us that we are not making up our own ideas about God or Christ. We get to know them by reading the Bible, and then we try to bring our lives and thoughts in line with what we find there.
For me, theology is about revealing the wealth of Holy Scripture and drawing up the “Big Picture” that underlies it. It’s not just about focusing on individual verses. It’s about seeing them as threads that we can weave together so that we can see this big picture.
It is, of course, true that some theologians do not pay enough attention to the Bible. But anyone who studies the history of Christian theology will soon realize how important the Bible is to previous generations of Christian theologians, especially in the first few centuries of the faith. One of the most common forms of theological writing at that time was biblical commentary, in which theologians developed their ideas in close and constant dialogue with the Bible. Here is what I am trying to do.
CT: What can you say to Christians who say, “I find theology boring. I am worried about the vivacious experience of my Christian faith ”?
AM: I fully understand this concern. Over the years, many Christians have told me how they are turned off by theology because of its “strange vocabulary”, “intellectual introversion” and its “disconnection from the life of faith.” I know exactly what they mean.
Theology often uses language that has little to do with everyday life and seems far removed from the language of the New Testament.
At its best, theology seeks to present a compelling vision of God and life that underlies our faith. It helps sustain our worship, strengthen our evangelism, and deepen our personal faith. It must be preplexing for us, forcing us to strive to dive deeper into our faith, to learn more about it and how we can communicate this to the whole world. This is what we find in the writings of early theologians such as Athanasius and Augustine.
Throughout its long history, Christian theology has been primarily created by reflective practitioners – bishops and pastors seeking to educate their communities and helping them grow in their faith, as well as monastic writers interested in developing an authentic Christian prayer and spiritual life.
They have a lot to learn.
CT: In your book, you talk about how you often wondered in the 1970s how the natural sciences and the Christian faith could be combined. What do you say to people who argue that Christianity and science are incompatible?
AM: That’s a great question. I used to be a scholar at Oxford before I changed direction and became a theologian. When I was a teenage atheist, I believed that science and faith were incompatible. But I don’t think so anymore.
I would start by pointing out that Christianity and natural sciences are different, but this does not mean that they are incompatible. After all, science and ethics are completely different ways of thinking, but that doesn’t mean scientists can’t take ethics seriously and try to live a good life!
Albert Einstein, perhaps the most famous scientist of the 20th century, brought together science, religion and ethics, considering different aspects of his life. All of them were necessary to allow him to understand our world and live meaningfully in it.
Science is great at helping us understand how our world works. Christianity focuses on the meaning of life and how we live. Both science and Christianity are important, but they are different. They look like two different lenses.
The real problem begins when a scientist or theologian tells us that they know everything that matters, and there is no need to know anything else. Philosopher Mary Midgley helped me a lot here.
She explains that we need different toolboxes to make sense of our complex world, and that none of these toolboxes can answer all of our questions. We need to use these different toolboxes and find a way to combine their ideas.
If we limit ourselves to one set of tools – say, science – we get a truly limited and inadequate vision of life. Science helps us understand how we humans function, and this is medically important.
However, theology helps us understand our deeper needs – and this is important from a spiritual perspective, as we learn to glorify God and rejoice in Him forever.
Based on materials from Christian Today