Book of the Month: December 2016

Enriching Our Vision of Reality by Alister McGrath

Post-truth was the Oxford English Dictionaries’ 2016 Word of the Year. Given the level of debate around the UK’s EU referendum and the US presidential election, you can see their point. Against this background, an author who thoughtfully engages in conversation between two disciplines is surely to be welcomed.

The author is Alister McGrath, and the disciplines are Christian theology and natural sciences. McGrath holds Oxford doctorates in biology and theology: he is a respected author and debater, and acknowledges the ‘collegiality’ of the latter-day trinity of Dawkins, Dennett and Hitchens. Enriching Our Vison of Reality is written for scientists interested in theology, and theologians interested in science. McGrath uses Ben Nevis to illustrate how two perspectives can illuminate the same phenomenon: a ‘huge grassy slope’ from the south and ‘rugged rock buttresses’ from the north.

The Ben Nevis illustration comes from Charles Coulson, theoretical chemist and Methodist lay preacher. He is one of three figures, whom McGrath uses to approach his subject. The others are the Scottish theologian Thomas Torrance and John Polkinghorne, theoretical physicist and Anglican priest. The biographical exploration of the developing views of these figures is one of the book’s great attractions.

McGrath then explores six topics through his two disciplines. The first chapter explores the interplay between theories and reality. Subsequent chapters look at questions of faith and proof, and of models and reality. The biographical approach reappears with Charles Darwin. A chapter on human identity touches on neuroscience, before a final chapter returns to more traditional ground with natural theology.

The book is rounded off by thirty pages of notes and suggestions for further reading, which makes the absence of an index all the more surprising.

Throughout, McGrath is scrupulously polite. One of the few occasions when his guard slips is when he criticises Ian G Barbour. The source of this irritation is Barbour’s search for an integrative approach between science and theology, rather than the enriching interplay favoured by McGrath.

Having started with the contemporary ring of post-truth, McGrath’s book is a throwback to an earlier era. For those inhabiting a rational Cartesian world, whether in Faculties of Science or Theology, there is plenty to stimulate their thinking. For those looking for something more exploratory, Catherine Keller’s Face of the Deep: A Theology of Becoming is a good departure point.

Reviewed by Tim Harle, Programme Leader for Sarum’s MA in Christian Approaches to Leadership.

Buy Enriching Our Vision of Reality at the special price of £9.50 in the shop or buy online for £7.50 + postage until 31 December 2016. Please note if ordered after 22 December 2016 it will not be posted until January 3rd 2017. RRP £10.99.

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