Curriculum Vitae God’s riddle It doesn’t start out spectacularly: Alistair McGrath (1953), a now well-known theologian and writer, receives a light Protestant Christian upbringing as a boy, distancing himself from it both as a high school student and as a student altogether. It follows the path of many a baby boomer generation, who erase the last vestiges of the faith they were born with, only to call themselves an atheist.
Perhaps this “slightly Protestant upbringing” is special, given McGrath’s birthplace, Belfast in Northern Ireland, where the “unrest” began in the 1960s between Catholics and Anglo-British Protestants. There was no question of any “lightness” at the time.
Meanwhile, Alistair McGrath turns out to be a gifted student, with a clear talent for science subjects: he leaves for Oxford as a student to become skilled in molecular biophysics. And now he calls himself not only an atheist, but also a Marxist – this, too, was not far from conceivable at the end of the sixties. He believes that he can effortlessly transfer scientific evidence from his field to the humanities, and thus “scientific socialism” is a logical choice. He considered himself a “thinking man” at the time, and “Christianity’s view of God (as summarized in the remarkable doctrine of the Trinity) was hopelessly irrational.”
Looking for “Weltbild”
But since the 1970s his ideas have changed: first, better late than never, the horrors of “already established socialism” penetrated him, and at that time it was still widely available in the countries of the Eastern bloc. McGrath not only rejected the scientific claim of socialism, but noted that he is looking for a different “Weltbild”, an idea of the whole world: this is inescapably about giving meaning and certainly about “the meaning of being.”
And so God returns to the life of a promising McGrath, who no longer believes in “the clarity with which science had to show what was right: everything else was just opinion or deception.”
McGrath himself speaks of an “unexpected turn”. In addition to his scientific work, he now makes time for church visits, receives his doctorate as a chemist, but his “journey of discovery” to God is becoming increasingly important to him. He decided to study theology at the same Oxford. The student excels there as well, and also gets his Ph.D. in the field. Thus he ascended two “mountains” according to his will: the two mountains of science and theology. The last unexpected piece: In 1981, McGrath was ordained a priest (Anglican), for whom pastoral work is not a mandatory number, but akin to his “vocation.”
As he put it, his religious conversion cannot be understood without taking into account the influence of the Irish-British writer C.S. Lewis (1898-1963). McGrath dedicates a chapter to him in this book, calling him radiantly a “travel companion!” As an example he cites Lewis’s thesis on the “doctrine of distorted desire”: Lewis’s thesis opened my eyes to the fact that I had resisted belief in God in part because of the “universal pressure of desire that constitutes God.” ”
According to Lewis, atheism was to be considered “the masterful fulfillment of one of our most oppressive desires: the desire for complete independence and freedom to pursue whatever suits us.”
Father Freud’s character
With Lewis, McGrath overturned the usual logic: it is not religious desire that indicates something else (the figure of a Freudian father), but atheism masking an unspoken desire: the desire to be “the master of my destiny, my spiritual leader,” put forward by the nineteenth-century poet William Ernest Henley. .
McGrath no longer accepts this claim of personal autonomy, because “we must come to terms with uncertainty without being overwhelmed by it.”
As a public thinker, McGrath also engages in discussions with the likes of British ethicist Richard Dawkins (a man of the ‘selfish gene’) and American scientist Daniel Dennett: two pioneers of what would become known in the early years of the twenty-first century. to stand for “new atheism”. The “new” thing about this atheism is that not only does God not exist, but belief in him is very bad for humanity and morality.
McGrath writes in this book — “the last” in his own words — that “the new atheism has since fallen victim to its ups and downs, predictably.” This last comment is not without any triumph. He himself does not see any contradiction in the natural sciences and faith.
According to him, embracing skepticism and suspicion, also in science, is crucial. He cites Nobel laureate and medical scientist Sir Peter Medawar who claimed in 1963 that “the imaginative or inspired process is an integral part of scientific debate”. Because, McGrath concludes: “We are at the mercy of our limited ability to see and understand. We have to deal with the fragility of the facts on which we build our lives. We really see in a darkened glass mirror – so the title in English is Through darkened glass, referring to 1 Corinthians 13.
In this regard, the “God’s riddle” in the Dutch translation is not only less poetic, but also ignores the mystery of the world and the universe.
It is McGrath’s deep conviction that he does not have to choose between God and science, as he so clearly explains. He seems less detached when he describes his personal experiences, an almost unbearable comfort creeping into his prose. Example:
“My parents saw with amazement and even some concern that I had brought some textbooks with me when I came home from Christmas holidays.” Young McGrath is a student, and that’s pretty obvious, but self-enjoyment is hard to overlook. When the elder McGrath does research, it never goes well but is “remarkably thriving”. or: “I felt I owed it to my intellectual integrity to investigate these ideas…”
God and Rida: This is a difficult combination.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC on the morning of August 13, 2021