Through a Glass Darkly

I’ve posted a couple of accounts of miracles recently, which might prompt questions for some readers about the scientific credibility of the miraculous. There is a widespread assumption around in the media that science has more or less disproved God. If that is the case, then we can forget about miracles.

But is it the case?

I’ve just finished reading Through a Glass Darkly by Alister McGrath, who is Professor of Science and Religion at Oxford University. You get an idea of what it’s about from the subtitle: Journeys through Science, Faith and Doubt – A Memoir. McGrath weaves together the story of his own intellectual and spiritual pilgrimage with reflections on the relationship between science and faith.

He grew up in Northern Ireland, quickly demonstrated exceptional ability in maths and science, and as a teenager became a committed atheist (and Marxist) on the basis that science was the only route to true knowledge and Christianity was intellectually incoherent. But then he began to read widely in philosophy and the philosophy of science, which led him to realise that his view of science as the answer to everything had been rather simplistic. He went on to Oxford University to study chemistry where he was surprised to discover that many undergraduates studying science were also committed Christians. He also found that many distinguished scientists were Christians, including Oxford’s Professor of Theoretical Chemistry, Charles Coulson, with whom he had a long conversation. In due course he found his way to a personal faith in Christ.

McGrath’s intellectual pedigree is impressive. Before leaving home to go to Oxford he somehow found time to teach himself Classical Greek, German and Russian. At Oxford he achieved First Class Honours in both Chemistry and Theology, combining his undergraduate theology degree with completing his doctorate in molecular biophysics; this meant spending his day in the laboratory and then having theology tutorials in the evenings. He has been Professor of Historical Theology at Oxford, Professor of Theology, Ministry and Education at King’s College, London and is now back at Oxford as Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion. His output is prodigious. Wikipedia lists nearly fifty books, sometimes produced at the rate of three a year, and this list is not complete. He has written extensively on theology and the relationship between science and faith, as well as several substantial biographies, including a groundbreaking life of C. S. Lewis.

C. S. Lewis is one of his heroes. A key moment in McGrath’s spiritual and intellectual journey was reading Lewis’s essay which ends with the now famous statement (see the homepage of this blog!):

I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it but because by it, I see everything else.

from the essay “Is Theology Poetry?” in They Asked for a Paper

Lewis’s words were a kind of epiphany for McGrath. He caught a glimpse of what he calls “the intellectual capaciousness” of Christianity:

The intellectual capaciousness of Christian theology was such that it could ‘fit in’ science, art, morality and other religious systems.

You don’t have to choose between science and faith. They are fully compatible, complementary ways of looking at the universe:

Science is very good at taking the world apart so we can understand how it works. However, religious faith aims to put things back together so that we can see what they mean.

He uses metaphors to illustrate. The idea of God’s two books (the book of nature and the book of Scripture) goes back to the Renaissance. The metaphor of different “maps” he borrows from the philosopher Mary Midgley. Maps come in different forms for different purposes: political, historical, geological, meteorological, route maps, maps for walking and so on. The kind of map you produce depends on the kind of questions you’re asking.

McGrath quotes some of the giants of twentieth century physics (including Einstein, Max Planck and Werner Heisenberg) to the effect that we can only ever hope to have an imperfect grasp of the complex mystery that is nature. Heisenberg wrote that scientific thinking “always hovers over a bottomless depth”. McGrath comments:

Heisenberg insisted that we do not observe nature itself, but nature “as it is disclosed by our methods of investigation”.

If you use the methods of science you will get scientific answers. But that does not mean that those are the only kinds of questions to ask or the only kinds of answers there are:

The central problem is the natural human tendency to simplify complexities, distorting them in doing so.

We like things to fit into our worldview. Things that don’t fit into our worldview we do our best to discount. That brings me back to the question of miracles. If we start with a dogma that miracles are impossible because science cannot explain them, then we have made up our minds before examining the evidence. If we come to the evidence with an open mind we might conclude that sometimes miracles do happen and our worldview needs sufficient “capaciousness” to account for them.

This is a highly readable book, not least because of its biographical element. McGrath covers much more ground than I have indicated here and opens up a potentially rather dry and academic subject with human interest, lucidity and lightness of touch.

Published by markphilps

Came to faith at university while studying Russian. Brief career with the BBC. Married to Caroline. Ordained in the Church of England. Thirty-five years in parish ministry. Now retired and doing some writing.

2 thoughts on “Through a Glass Darkly

  1. So glad he’s one of your heroes! I loved this book – a brilliant introduction to the science and faith issue for a non-scientist like me.


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