Alister McGrath: Enriching Our Vision of Reality: Theology and the Natural Sciences in Dialogue, London, SPCK, 201

Molecular quantum theorist turned theologian Alister McGrath is a prolific writer with 42 major works to his name in the Wikipedia article under his name which is current only to 2015. He has written several books since that date including this one. The relationship between Christian faith and science is a major pre-occupation of McGrath’s and this book is one of the best of many which he has written in my view. It is more personal than many of his previous works and it describes something of the progression of McGrath’s understanding of Christianity throughout hie eventful career so far.  The book is in three distinct parts:   

i) an opening essay on The Christian Vision of Reality.

ii) a comparison of the work on science and religion produced by three major influences on his life and thinking.. Chemist/physicist Charles Coulson,  Scottish Theologian with a scientific bent Thomas Torrance and  Oxford Professor of mathematics and later Oxford Professor of Theoretical Physics John Polkinghorne who also turned to Christian theology later in life.

iii) a series of “parallel conversations” between theology and science including topics such as ways of seeing reality, the legitimacy of faith, models and mystery, religious and scientific faith and natural theology as well as an interesting study of Darwin’s religious thought. The book has detailed explanatory references and notes, a core reading guide and a more specialist reading guide.

In brief the book’s target is Scientism Enlightenment based understanding of reality and meaning  which takes account only of phenomena which can be currently understood by certain current scientific rubrics.  McGrath is a staunch defender and explicator of science but is critical of current metaphysical interpretations of science (p.177).  This is a passion he shares with English philosopher of the mind Michael Scruton. McGrath notes that neither science nor theology can ever hope to attain or establish a “logically coercive proof of the kind that only a fool could deny”. [p65]  Ways forward include the notions of  “warranted” or “justified” belief (Plantinga) and also “personal knowledge” (Polanyi).  McGrath further notes that both science and theology deal with beliefs that are sufficiently well motivated for us to commit to them, knowing that they may be false but nevertheless believing that they the best explanation presently available to us”. [p66]  Supporters of radical empiricism limit reality to what can be observed. [p81] In the quantum age this sort of approach becomes meaningless.

McGrath further notes  that both science and faith are prone to exaggerate their capabilities. Religion cannot tell us the distance to the nearest star, just as science cannot tell us the meaning of life. But each is part of a bigger picture, and we impoverish our vision of life and the quality of our lives as human beings if we exclude either or both.(p161). McGrath explains that in science, the criticism of a justified or motivated belief is not whether it conforms to rational preconceptions of what things ought to be but whether this is what the evidence requires.”  [p.97] His implication is that the same principle applies to theological beliefs such as belief in the resurrection of Jesus.  McGrath further notes that the first great enemy of science is not religion but dogmatic rationalism which limits the reality to what reason determines is acceptable….quantum physics of course, is counter-intuitive and bears little relation to what reality ought to be like.  The question becomes: who decides when there is enough evidence to justify a belief?. [p.98]  The most popular method today is called inference to the best explanation. [p101]

Another characteristic of McGrath’s writing is his determined distinction between theology and religious studies: Theology is distinct and cannot be collapsed into some generic concept of religious studies.  [p58]McGrath takes particular aim at the term “secular humanism”.  Any form of humanism ultimately rests on an understanding of what human nature is, including what longings, desires, and aspirations are naturally human.  A Christian humanist declares that humanity finds its true goal in discovering God.  A secular humanist declares that humanity finds its true goal in rejecting God. But to pretend that ‘humanism’ is necessarily ‘secular humanism’ is indefensible.(p161). Two recent psychological  explorations in this area include first, Justin Barrett’s work on the cognitive science of religion investigating the natural tendency of he human mind to desire or be inclined towards God; [p168]  and secondly the work begun by Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Heidt on the psychology of awe. [p179]

A strength of McGrath’s writing is his vast research and reading. He digs up quotations and arguments from many quarters including psychology, sociology, the history of science, philosophy and theological writers ancient and modern. Some examples include Einstein, never short of a quote: the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible. [p64).   American theoretical physicist Richard Feynman: the scientific imagination finds itself stretched to the utmost, not, as in fiction, to imagine things which are not really there, but just to comprehend the things which are there. (p81).

Philosopher Alfred North Whitehead was critical of one-eyed reason, deficient in its vision of depth. (p82)  Noble laureate biologist Peter Medawar was a powerful critic of over-confident science with his book The Limits of Science. McGrath quotes him as follows: Scientific reasoning is therefore at all levels an interaction between two episodes of thought — a dialogue between two voices, the one imaginative and the other critical. [p82f] McGrath also notes Augustine: is comprehendis non est  Deus…”if you can understand it, it’s not God1” [p130]

In the area of biological evolutionary theory McGrath stresses that we are right to be suspicious of reductionist accounts of human beings. [p156] For a start is the fact that humans can [and regularly do] effect their own evolutionary development. [p150] He is scathing about writers who overplay the fact that homo sapiens and Pan troglodytes (chimpanzees) share 98 per cent of their DNA,  pointing out that homo sapiens and Pan troglodytes last shared a common ancestor somewhere between five and seven million years ago [p155].

All in all this is a highly entertaining and challenging book which mounts a powerful case for the legitimacy of Christian theology and Christian experience  as an authentic and truth seeking experience and a valid mode of human expression at the same time as it challenges the claim of some scientists that the only valid form of knowledge is that which emanates from a scientific view of the world   5 stars.

John Polkinghorne: Scientists as Theologians: A Comparison of the Writings of Ian Barbour, Arthur Peacocke and John Polkinghorne,  London, SPCK, 1996.

John Polkinghorne

This is an unusual book in that a commentary on a group of writers would normally be written by someone outside the group. Such is Alister McGrath’s book on the science and faith work of Coulson, Torrance and Polkinghorne, reviewed above in this post. but in this case Polkinghorne includes himself as one of the authors under discussion. On Polkinghorne’s  own admission (Preface p.x)  this is problematic and he admits that inevitably he gives greater space to his own point of view in those areas where there is a difference of opinion amongst the three.

I have been reading all three of these authors throughout most of my academic life, having studied biology and biogeography as a major at the University of Melbourne, sparking a lifelong interest in the natural world and then studying theology through London and LaTrobe universities and the Australian College of Theology as well as co-writing with the late Dr Tony Pepper the book Science and Faith -What is the Problem? The Limits of Science and the Challenge of Faith, Adelaide, DigitalPrint, 2012.

I therefore need to declare my own bias that I find Polkinghorne’s theology far more congenial to my evangelical and Biblical understanding of the Christian faith than the more liberal/process theological approach of Barbour and Peacocke. Having said that, physicist, professor of physics and professor of Science, Technology and Society as well as professor of religion, Ian Barbour was really the doyen and creator of the science and faith dialogue in the C20th and until his death in 2013. His massively influential works including Issues in Science and Religion, London, SCM, 1996;  the Gifford Lectures: Religion in an Age of Science, 1991 (revised and reprinted in 1997 as Religion and Science: Historical and Contemporary Issues, Harper, San Francisco; and Myths, Models and Paradigms: A Comparative Study in Science and Religion, Harper and Row, 1974 are all must reads for anyone wanting to get a handle on the key issues in the science and religion debate. 

 Likewise Oxford  biochemist and ordained Anglican priest the late Dr Arthur Peacocke has been equally active in writing about the life sciences, in particular his two major works: Creation and the World of Science, Clarendon, Oxford, 1979 and  God and the New Biology, Everyman 1986.  All of these books have been referenced in Polkinghorne’s analysis in this book. 

John Polkinghorne himself has been a prolific author in this area since resigning from his position as Oxford Professor of Mathematical Physics and becoming ordained as an Anglican priest.  He has written 34 books on Science and Faith seeking to communicate the notion that there is no fundamental difficulty for Christians in the world of Science.

Polkinghorne notes that Ian Barbour identified four models in the area of joint reflection on issues of science and religion: (i) conflict (eg creationism – Henry Morris et al;  the new atheism- Dawkins, Dennett et al., p5) (ii) independence ( eg Stephen Jay  Gould..”non-overlapping magisteria), p5; (iii)  dialogue eg Barbour, Peacocke; the cosmological anthropic principle etc: religion has to do what science has to tell it about the nature and history of the physical world but also, religion can offer science a deeper and more comprehensive account of reality, p5f (iv) Integration ..a still closer relationship eg Theilhard de Chardin (p.6). Polkinghorne prefers a two-fold classification of (i)  consonance ( Science does not determine theological thought but it certainly constrains it. Physics provides the ground plan for the edifice of metaphysics; Polkinghorne seeks to find a ‘causal joint’ of providential interaction between science and theology(p6f); and (ii) Assimilation (a greater degree of merging of the two disciplines). Polkinghorne would place himself in the Consonance category and Barbour in the assimilation camp with Peacocke somewhat unhappily in the middle.

Polkinghorne also notes, however (p12f ) that all three authors agree that science and theology are indispensable partners, together with other forms of enquiry such as aesthetics and ethics, in the even-handed exploration of reality and in the search for a unified account of resulting human knowledge. All three are opposed to the reductionism  that often emerges with unbelieving scientists who often espouse a covert scientism that attributes subjective experiences of beauty and moral imperative to the contingent ‘hard wiring’ of the human brain, developed to implement a portfolio of strategies for survival.  He notes with approval philosopher Nancey Murphy’s contrast arising from the difference between widespread participation in the common Christian life and the specially contrived experience created in the scientific laboratory. ‘In physics, nearly all knowledge comes from the professional to the amateur. In the case of theology…knowledge of God begins with the amateurs..and the professional theologian is dependent on the findings of this community.’ (p13f)

Polkinghorne identifies his philosophical position as “critical realism” (p14) ..the rooting of knowledge in interpreted experience treated as a reliable guide to the nature of reality…motivated belief is held to afford an insight into what is actually the case and cites Barbour: existence is prior to theorising. Polkinghorne notes that epistemology models ontology…intelligence is the key to reality …God is not available for inspection but then neither are quarks or gluons…entities with explanatory power are candidates for acceptance as components of reality. 

Polkinghorne notes the stable existence of diverse faith traditions (p18) amongst many cultures which could be said to contrast with the constant changing of scientific theories as new discoveries, approaches and evidences are developed and observed. Science appears to describe an all-embracing and self-contained causality a work in forming the future from the present…religion, on the other hand,  wishes to speak of divine activity in response to prayer …there must be a way out of this dilemma ..while philosophers may question free will, it seems to me to be the basis for rationality as well as action…What would validate human utterance it it were merely the mouthing of automata. (p30).

In the area of mathematical quantum physics Polkinghorne’s major research area, he notes that the existence of intrinsic unpredictabilities within the account of the observable world which does not permit the determination of a specific outcome on numerous occasions  (p34).  When combined with the discovery of  chaotic  systems the two developments challenge the notion of scientific certainty. Equally,  early church thinking on the two natures of Christ arose out of the struggle with experiences of the divine; not as outsiders might think, out of unbridled speculation without evidence.

Polkinghorne wrestles with the problem of differing religious approaches to God in the world religions and accepts that some elements of religious faith are culturally limited and determined.  Whilst Barbour and Peacocke are happy to find God’s truth in other religious faiths, Polkinghorne is in favour of an inclusivity which he describes as recognising the salvific presence of God in non-Christian religions while still maintaining Christ as the definitive and authoritative revelation of God. (p60) 

In relation to the Bible Polkinghorne recognises the efforts of outstanding Biblical scholars over the years nevertheless he has a view that the meaning of the Biblical text cannot be left in the hands of the scholars..(who in any case often disagree with one another). (p67) He notes ..Like Peacocke, I incline to “an a priori more “trusting” attitude to the scriptures, though neither of us wishes to be credulous. (p67).

In relation to the incarnation Polkinghorne rejects Barbour’s idea that the human Christ was simply a human being in whom the Holy Spirit was intensified to the highest possible degree, arguing that Christian experience demands divine presence rather than divine inspirationso that the incarnation must be expressed in ontological rather than functional terms. However mysterious and difficult to articulate …it seems to me that an indispensable Christian insight is that in Christ the Creator actually shared in the travail of his creation. (p70), Thus Polkinghorne ends up stressing the importance of Chalcedon and the doctrine of the two natures of Christ (p71) and further notes it is the work of Christ which is the key to the nature of Christ. (p71)

All of this starts to sound very complex and Polkinghorne remarks disarmingly that like quantum theory Christian thought cannot be reduced to the banalities of common sense. (p.74). Likewise regarding the resurrection, Polkinghorne remarks, accurately I think, that it seems entirely possible that if Jesus had not risen from the dead we would probably have never heard of him. (p74). Polkinghorne and Peacocke both grapple awkwardly with the actual nature of the resurrection body as to an extent Paul also does in 1 Corinthians 15. Polkinghorne notes that Peacocke’s view is effectively totally reliant on the American theologian Phoebe Perkins who writes of the resurrection body as a new kind of reality, previously unknown. (p74)  Polkinghorne himself notes that in Christianity there is a a destiny for matter as well as humankind. (p77).  He is not troubled, unlike Peacocke, by the problem of different atoms in the resurrection body escaping the issue by the simple statement we shall be resurrected, not reassembled. (p78.)My own view of this is that our personal “atoms” are regularly changed over many times in our lifetime and it does not seem to affect who we are so I doubt it will trouble the resurrection body! Re the virgin birth and X and Y chromosome problems Polkinghorne’s view is that it was a miracle, Peacocke’s that the story was a myth. Barbour does not deal with it.

In general this is an engaging, if at times quite difficult read.  Polkinghorne does not have McGrath’s fluency of expression but on the other hand he gets right down to real details that real questioners would ask about apparent conflict between science and Christian faith.  In particular, he writes especially for  those who, like me, want to hold on to both the validity of a scientific world view as well as a faith in Christ centred on the revelation of God’s incarnate Word in faith experience, the life and history of the church universal and in a written scripture inspired by God.

This book comes with an excellent index and some notes along with copious references to the primary sources of the three authors. (which is a difficulty if the reader does not have ready access to them). A minor weakness is that there is no separate list of books referred to. Much ground covered with three major authors in view and much to think about.  5 stars. 

Colette: Gigi, London, Vintage, 2001 (1953 England; 1944 French original).

Arguably France’s most successful female writer of fiction,(Sidonie Gabrielle Colette,  (1874 – 1954) , was forced by her first husband Henry Gauthier-Villars, publishing entrepreneur and notorious libertine,  to put his name on her first four “Claudine” novels. Claudine became a sensational style icon following Colette’s huge success with these novels.  Divorced after a stormy relationship Colette eventually won the legal right to publish her original novels in her own name and went on to make her literary reputation with Chérie and La Fin de Chérie.  Gigi, one of many “short, intense récits which she made her speciality” (Drabble) was later a hugely successful motion picture in 1958.  The brief narrative delicately describes the emerging friendship and eventual love affair between 151/2 year old schoolgirl Gilberte and 25 year old millionaire and  likeable playboy Gaston Lachaille.  Largely ignored by her depressed second fiddle opera obsessed mother Gilberte is chaperoned by her fiercely protective and severe but loving grandmother but groomed by her well-connected and manipulative Aunt Alicia. The emerging delicately formed friendship is entrancingly told in just 57 pages. Roger Senhouse, who has translated many of her works into English seems to have managed not to interfere with Colette’s elegant, sardonic and slightly titillating style.  Keira Knightley has played Colette in the recent (2019 release) movie of her life with good reviews in Melbourne. The film sensitively highlights Colette’s genius in both writing and vaudeville, her determination to overcome humiliation and despair and her eventual iconic fame. 

Colette: The Cat, Vintage, London, 2001 (1933, French original, La Chatte).

Gigi and La Chatte (The Cat)

Engaging novelette about a morganatic marriage between a beautiful and determined young woman and a twenty something heir to a fortune tied to his ageing mother, a beautiful old house and garden and a cat.  Spoiler alert forbids me to discuss the plot but this is literally a difficult book to put down. It has all the attributes which made Colette so famous..wry humour, mismatch in relationships, complex relationships, change through time, and deceptively simple plot line. 5 stars.

Clement Greenberg: Art and Culture: Critical Essays, Boston, Beacon Press, 1965 (1961) and The Art Museum, London, Pantheon, 2011.

Clement Greenberg

Described in the Washington Post review as a tough-minded, rightfully opinionated critic, Clement Greenberg published an outstanding collection of reviews of artists, sculptors, novelists, poets and cultural issues in 1961. Formally published in the US in  Partisan Review, The Nation, Commentary, Arts, Art News and  The New Leader between 1941 and 1959 these detailed and learned essays provide clear evidence that Greenberg had taken over the mantle from the late Bernard Berenson of America’s pre-eminent art critic of the period 1940 to 1960.  Greenberg is remembered particularly for his defence and promotion of the work of Jackson Pollock, well known to Australians through Prime Minister Gough Whitlam’s at the time controversial purchase of Pollock’s Blue Poles for I think around $1.5 million at a time when many Australians had a quite negative view of expressionist and abstract painting. 

The Art Museum produced by Phaidon 2011

I have recently been meandering through the massive 500 page lavishly illustrated  The Art Museum, London, Pantheon, 2011 and trying to teach myself to understand and enjoy C20th and C21st artworks.  The Art Museum is an exceptional resource with individual artists and movements illustrated in “rooms” as in a live art museum or outside space. In the C20th – C21st section, phases and artists include amongst others,  impressionism, post-impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism -Picasso/Braque/Matisse, Viennese Modernism, Klimt, Papier Colé, Futurism, Movement vs Still Life, Du Champ, Delaunay, Metzinger, Gris,  Marc Chagall, Russian Avant-garde, German Expressionism, Kandinsky, American Modernists, Primitivism, Brancusi, The Great War: Man and Machine, Wyndam Lewis,  Dada, Suprematism and Constructivism, Purism, Bauhaus painters, Neue Sachlichkeit, return to Classicism, Morandi, Mondrian, Metaphysical painting, Surrealism, Dali, Ernst, Sydney Nolan,  Miró, the Mexican Renaissance, the Art of the Domestic, Precisionism, Ben Nicholson, Drawing in Space, Giacometti, Art outside the Art School, Collage and Assemblage, American Regionalism, Edward Hopper, De Kooning, Rothko, David Smith,  Land Art, Process Art, Conceptual Art, Early Abstract Expressionism, Pollock, Newman, Klein, Gorky, Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns,  Kinetic Art, Op Art, Colour Field painting, Pop painting and sculpture, Warhol, minimalism, Judd, Albers, Kelly, Ryman, Agnes Martin, Process Art, Weiner, Matta-Clark, Baldessari, Sophie Calle, Henry Moore, Jacob Epstein, Francis Bacon, Arte Povera, Beuys, Body and Performance Art, Serra, Goldsworthy, Studio Ceramics, Kitaj, Kossof, Spencer,  David Hockney, Lucian Freud, Identity Art -Feminism/Post Colonial, Neo-Expressionism, Kiefer, Polke, Photography as Witness and Documentation, Sherman, Wall, Richter, Warden, Mangold, Contemporary Abstraction, Video Art, Koons, Bourgeois,Buren, Kapoor, Installation Art, Gormley, Chilllida, Hirst, Relational Art, Chinese Figurative Painting since the Cultural Revolution, Eliasson, Serra, and  Twombly just to name a few!  This massive book stretches the brain and visual skills as well as the imagination and it makes serious demands on a mind untutored and little trained in C20th art.  The multitudinous authors of the textual annotations in The Art Museum have done a brilliant job in elucidating the period, techniques, and, where known, the intentions of the artists involved from all over the world and I cannot imagine a better resource for student or interested observer. 

Greenberg’s essays, most limited to two or three pages, but some extended writing, cover the distinction between Avant-Grade and Kitsch, “The Plight of Culture”, Monet, Renoir, Picasso, Collage, Georges Rouault, Braque, Chagall, Léger, Lipchitz, Kandinsky, Soutine, the School of Paris, “Primitive” painting, Abstract and Representational art, The New Sculpture, the Crisis of the Easel Picture, Modernist Sculpture, Wyndham Lewis Against Abstract Art, Byzantine Parallels, the Role of Nature in Modernist Painting. and a series of reviews of American artists from the 40s to the 60s including Thomas Eakin, John Marin, Winslow Homer, Hans Hofmann, Milton Avery, David Smith as well as several general essays. The book concludes with four literary reviews of the work of T S Eliot, Trollope, Brecht’s poetry and Kafka.

The visual impact and the combination of having “five hundred annotated museum rooms in your own home” as well as  Greenberg’s expert analysis has been absolutely formative for me and for the first time in my life I feel that I can cope with “modern art” with a degree of knowledge, sensitivity and understanding.  I am now actually looking forward to my next visit to a contemporary art gallery…something I have tended not to do in the past.   5 stars for both!

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Life Together, translated from German Gemeinsames Leben by John W. Doberstein,  London, SCM, 2008 (1954) (German, 1939)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

German Christian pastor, theologian, theological teacher and martyr, left behind some amazing books including his Letters and Papers from Prison and The Cost of Discipleship. This much smaller book is perhaps more important than either because in it Bonhoeffer provides some key insights into the tricky task of living and worshipping in church and home as Christian community.  

The book is full of mature Christian wisdom and makes for salutary reading for Christians and pastors accustomed to being critical of their local church and yearning for some larger, more exciting happening that other people appear to be enjoying.

In five small chapters Bonhoeffer discusses firstly the Christian community largely from a family perspective but which spills over to the church community. The second chapter deals with our daily life as a we begin our day, how we “do” our praying especially with the Psalms, how we “do” our bible reading; then Bonhoeffer moves to our church community …our praying, attending to God’s Word and our singing and the way we “do” Holy Communion; finally in this section Bonhoeffer deals with our working day as Christians.

Chapter three is devoted to our personal spiritual lives …being alone and being in community. This is a particularly challenging and relevant chapter for C21st busy-busy Christians especially today (2019) when many Christians are weighing up weekly church attendance and saying “no”, turning to home churches or even just “personal Christian living”.  Bonhoeffer deals with solitude and silence, meditation, prayer and intercession.

Chapter four is titled “ministry” and focusses on shared leadership, the ministry of “holding one’s tongue”, the ministry of listening.. He who non longer listens to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God! p75]. Next the ministry  of helpfulness and then that of bearing one another’s burdens, finishing with the ministry of proclaiming which is beset with infinite perils (p80) but must be attempted because it is unchristian consciously to deprive another of the one decisive service we can render to him. (p81).Finally, the chapter deals with the ministry of authority in which Bonhoeffer launches a strong attack on “episcopal figures”/ “priestly men” which spring frequently enough from a spiritually sick need for the admiration of men. (p84). For living together in the Christian life I think this chapter might just about be the most significant chapter I have read about the essence of Christian ministry for the individual Christian..pastor or parishioner.

Chapter five briefly discusses confession and holy communion. Interestingly there is no material on baptism.  The discussion about confession places a very strong emphasis indeed on confession to another Christian with all the challenges and safeguards such a system demands. This process is I suspect, seldom practised by most Christians today but here is a very powerful argument to reconsider. 

I would place this little book strongly in my top five all time best Christian books in terms of practical assistance in simply living the Christian life. Bonhoeffer has a beautiful skill of writing succinctly, directly and cogently about things that matter. 5+ stars and rising.