Photo Credit: Wycliffe College
An Interview with Alister E. McGrath
Ian Hauber and Jon Spears
Logos Editor, The Mike Contributor
The Mike Logos Editor Ian Hauber and Contributor Jon Spears sat down on September 25 with Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at Oxford University, Alister E. McGrath, to conduct an interview in light of McGrath’s Public Lecture that evening entitled “Einstein’s God: A Theory of Everything (That Matters).” This piece acts as a sequel to an investigation of science and religion commenced by Jon Spears in the last issue, with his article “Quantum Salvation.” This endeavour was additionally inspired by the Gilson Seminar and USMC students Wei Lau Han and Patrik Pallagi.
McGrath is a Northern Irish theologian, priest, intellectual historian, scientist, Christian apologist, and public intellectual. He holds three doctorates from the University of Oxford: a Doctor of Philosophy degree in molecular biophysics, a Doctor of Divinity degree in theology, and a Doctor of Letters degree in intellectual history. The Mike’s interview with McGrath follows.
The Mike (TM): Reflecting on the story of how you became religiously serious, I understand that things really began moving for you when you were studying your undergraduate degree in Chemistry at Oxford. Would you mind commenting on how that experience moved you towards becoming religiously serious and how studying science specifically informed that movement?
Alister E. McGrath (A): If you read Richard Dawkins, there’s a complete absence of engagement with both history and philosophy of science — and there’s a reason for that. Now that didn’t bring me to faith, but it did make me think, “Look. This needs further thinking.”
And one of the things that I think science taught me was that you cannot have a single method that works for everything, that you have to develop research methods adapted to the specific areas of research. And for me, science was very good at understanding how the universe works, and things like that, but what about questions like meaning and value?
Now that was where I began to think: we need more than science in order to deliver. Or if people say science can answer those questions, it becomes something all on the side, because it doesn’t really have its root in the empirical method anymore. So what I have been receptive towards was realizing that to be a rounded person you needed more than just science, you needed something else as well. And I had assumed that philosophy would provide that, and actually I began to realize it didn’t, and so actually it made me very receptive to what Christianity was saying. But the science bit was in effect this realization that different areas of investigation require different methods, and the method that works well in this area might not work at all in that area. That made me receptive to the idea that there could be other ways of getting at these important questions of meaning and value.
TM: So, along the lines of the history of philosophy of science, I’m thinking of the Roman Catholic priest who more or less came up with the idea of the Big Bang Theory —
A: Georges Lemaître.
TM: So were figures like that sort of informing that —
A: No. I mean, they probably should have been, but actually I didn’t read him. What I did was I read what was in the school library under the history of the philosophy of science — and that was Karl Popper, basically. And that did raise some very interesting questions for me, but Georges Lemaître, no; I didn’t come across him, and in fact I didn’t really know about the history of cosmology, because it wasn’t one of the areas I focused on while I was at school. Basically, this was something which I later appreciated to be very significant, but it wasn’t a sort of deal breaker at the time […]. What I found interesting about Karl Popper — I was very interested in Marxism as a young man — I think one of the reasons was, [he] gave you a big picture of reality. And I thought it was really, really good. And then I began to read Popper, particularly his book, The Poverty of Historicism — I don’t know if you’ve come across that. But he says, “Look, Marxism is pretending to be a science; it makes certain predictions, and actually when you check these predictions out, they are not right.” It’s like it contradicts itself. And that made me begin to realize that I liked the idea of a big picture, but Marxism wasn’t right, and so I began to wonder: “Is there something else that gives a big picture?” That was what made me begin to realize that Christianity might. So that was quite an important development, actually.
TM: So that whole idea of coherence —
TM: is something you see in your book Enriching Our Vision of Reality —
A: Very much so. This whole idea of looking for coherence is a sort of thread that holds things together, respecting their individuality, but saying: “No — there’s some way of linking them up.”
TM: So following your undergraduate degree, you continued your studies at Oxford in Molecular Biophysics, you later achieved a Ph.D. in that, and then I understand you also were studying for the… I’m not sure exactly what this is… but the Oxford University Final Scholarship …
A: I’ll talk to you about that. I mean, basically, Oxford undergraduate courses are called Final Honours School, and what that means is that you do this course in three years. I did the Final Honours School in Chemistry, which is a four-year course. Theology Final Honours School is three years. So what happened was […] I won a major scholarship to Merton College because I published an article as an undergraduate and it gathered a lot of interest — and I noticed the small print of the grant said, you can either do a research degree or a second first-year degree. In other words, another undergraduate degree. And I wrote and said: “Would you consider allowing me to do both? You know — continuing with my doctorate and at the same time doing undergraduate.” And they had a special meeting of the governing body to discuss this. They said, “All right! Do it!” They thought this was going to be interesting to watch. And that’s how it happened, but really [when] we look at the time frame, in 1976 I was doing my doctorate, and so in September 1976 I also began to study Theology. So I did what was, in effect, a three-year course in two years, as well as doing my doctorate… So, I wouldn’t recommend it. It was rather demanding, but the outcome was that, in the summer of 1978, I had secured my doctorate and also got the top first-class honours degree in Theology in the university that year. So, it was a strange thing, and actually it’s unusual — that sort of thing didn’t normally happen.
TM: Did you view that as rather providential?
A: Yes. If I hadn’t got that award, I couldn’t have done it — because somebody has to fund you to do an Oxford degree, because it’s quite expensive because of tuition and things like that. And Merton didn’t have to say yes, they could have said, “Well look, I’m sorry — but on the other hand it says so.” But no, they said: “All right, we’re going to let you do this.” [laughing] “We’ll see how it goes, right?” And it worked out very well.
TM: So, moving on to your intellectual influences, specifically C.S. Lewis, so much of your work is inspired by Lewis — a number of your works…
A: Yes. You can see Lewis’ influence everywhere.
TM: So what was it about him and his work, and maybe his life, that inspired you above your acknowledged influences?
A: Well, there are several things. The first thing I want to say is actually that I discovered Lewis quite late. I converted to Christianity when I was 18. I began to read Lewis, I think, two years later. The first book I can find in my library, the date is February 1973. That’s some years after my conversion — and I didn’t read Lewis until someone suggested him. And basically people got fed up with me, because I kept saying, “What about that?” And then they couldn’t answer my question. And so I suppose in complete frustration it’s almost as if someone said, “For goodness sake, go and read C.S. Lewis. He might help you.” I hadn’t actually heard about C.S. Lewis. I mean I heard of a book about “lions” or something, but he hadn’t really come across my radar screen. So I thought, “Right. Let’s give it a try.” So I bought some books by C.S. Lewis and began to read them and thought, “This is rather good!” And to cut a long story short, I enjoyed reading Lewis, I read a lot more Lewis, and I just keep reading Lewis to this day. And the thing is about Lewis, you read him one time — you miss stuff! Next time you pick up some stuff and you keep doing it, and it just gets better every time. So he really has been significant for me. Now I suppose you could say that looking back on it, I should have found Lewis interesting because he was born in Belfast like me, he was an atheist as a young man like me, and he discovered Christianity at Oxford, like me. But actually, I didn’t make those connections. I made those connections once I began to read him, but Lewis played no role in my conversion. Lewis was someone who — if I put it like this — he helped me grow in my faith but did not bring me to faith. And actually if you read Lewis’ later works, The Four Loves in particular, one of the things he tries to say is that as an apologist his role there really is to speak to people of faith to help them grow in their faith, rather than to speak outside the church. There’s a certain sense in which actually I began by admiring Lewis’ later writings. […] Lewis and I both have this sense that we used to be atheist, we know why we became Christians: Therefore we can do apologetics — we both had that same form. It’s very clear in the preface to Lewis’ The Problem of Pain, he said, “I can do this. My life history qualifies me to do this.” I felt something quite similar because I was an atheist, and knew why I was an atheist, and knew why I was a Christian. I could actually say something of help that would be helpful to atheists who were wondering, “Why are so many people Christians?”
TM: The way you talk about Lewis as an influence really conjures an image of Joseph Ratzinger [Pope Benedict XVI], and how he speaks a lot about Christianity being like a life-long conversion and that you’re never really…
A: …always on the journey…
TM: …always on the journey, yes, and so Lewis, I suppose, would have played a very significant role in that.
A: What I think it is, is that Christianity is a journey, and we have travelling companions. And sometimes travelling companions stay with you for a while and then drop away, because you just go on to something else. Lewis is a travelling companion who’s been with me most of my life as a Christian, and I expect shall remain so for the rest of it, because I find him so satisfying. But there are others, I mean I’m sure you will have picked up lots of influences on me, but very often it’s a question of, “This person really spoke to me about this issue at this time,” whereas Lewis is a perennial presence; he’s always a resource for me. He writes so well. I don’t write very well — clearly, but that’s not the same thing as writing well.
TM: Could you identify some of the influences that did move you to Christianity and were part of the actual conversion rather than the journey?
A: Well I think one obvious influence was just other Christians — students. At school I was aware of some very intelligent people who were religious and that irritated me because “they shouldn’t be.” But I didn’t really talk to them. So when I got to Oxford, it’s in a kind of way like an intellectual bizarre: people are talking about what they think and why. And Christian students were more than happy to talk about their faith, and they knew why they believed it. And so they were incredibly articulate and informed. And that’s where I began to realize, there’s a serious option for a thinking person. And actually, they helped me to begin to make some connections. Not all of them. There were a lot of times where I think I came to faith thinking, “Well this makes a lot of sense, but there are an awful lot of questions.” I thought I could come to faith with unresolved doubts. I felt I did not have to wait until I had sorted everything out. I thought, “If this is right I will discover so in the process of exploration. But at some point I have to say, ‘I think I’m ready to make that commitment.’” And then the rest is kind of like exploring it from within. The image I found very helpful, that is to say, is like arriving on a strange island and beginning a personal discovery. The guys who are already on the island help you with that process. So that’s the kind of thing it is. And actually I found in Mere Christianity, Lewis talks about the church as a sort of community of discovery. He’s right, you know. And it helped that there were people there who helped you see things that otherwise you’d miss.
TM: So what advice would you have for students today that are pursuing studies in science but would also like to remain religiously serious?
A: I think what you want to do is read religiously serious scientists who know what they’re talking about. If we look at an older writer like Charles A. Coulson, who knew […] his physical sciences very well, and also could see how he could hold that and his faith together, he was a major influence on me. Or John Polkinghorne. John Polkinghorne — some theologians think he’s a bit like me, but actually he does a lot of very good stuff and the reason I like Polkinghorne so much is that he takes you thus far, and then you can go further. And he gives you a very good kind of framework for thinking about the relationship of science and faith, which you can then develop further yourself. His best work in my opinion is an earlier book called One World, which is short and maps out his approach. Everything else he wrote really is an amplification of that. So that’s a starting point.
TM: Before we go to the last question, I think we should open up a little bit and try and pick some of the fruit we may have been growing here. I’ve been considering Étienne Gilson, who was a philosopher at St. Michael’s College. One of his articles about higher education concerns the relationship between theology and the other disciplines, and about how theology in a sense does not overbear on the other disciplines, but the other disciplines may need theology in order to remain within their limits and be properly their own discipline. Can you speak to the way the university works within these different frameworks that you’re working in?
A: I think that it’s a very good question. At Oxford it’s a very important question, because as you could imagine, at Oxford we have lots of very able natural scientists, very active in research, but aware that their scientific research is raising deeper questions, and that the research methods don’t answer those [questions]. So you find them in effect raising more clearly theological questions and [they] are very happy to talk to theologians. They tend to seek out theologians who have a background in science, because they speak the same language. There are lots of those conversations going on and they’re very productive, but they’re not formalised things. It’s much more very significant individuals having conversations and then moving on from there. Oxford is actually just very, very rich in this — I don’t know whether that’s a historical accident, but it certainly is true. But your colleague is quite right. If I can put it like this: these days, theologians wouldn’t dream of imposing their ideas on others, but they can certainly say, “Look. Can you see if our ideas connect up, with where you are and the questions you’re asking?” The language I like is that of enrichment, in effect not trespassing, it’s not making the sciences become theology or theology become science; it’s about respectful dialogue that respects the distinct disciplines but nevertheless sees “there’s a productive conversation that can happen here.” And that’s really the kind of approach I love indulging in and encouraging.
TM: So you were talking at the beginning about how there is meaning and value, and science — especially meaning and then the sciences and how to reconcile those two kinds of values. And Christianity offered you an opportunity to have both of these disciplines, both of these parts of the world, in one kind of horizon. Now there are other systems today who claim that kind of ground. For example, the kind of cosmology, the kind of immanent cosmology, of Jungianism or other things like that. And this is growing in popularity it seems, and perhaps in the academy as well — I don’t know about Oxford. But could you comment perhaps on why Christianity may be superior or how it works in connection with this other option?
A: I think in one sense I welcome this development because it is making the point that people really are looking for a cohesive bigger picture which they can fit things in. And I think that it’s a very clear recognition that the hard sciences on their own really don’t answer some very significant [questions]. In fact, when I talk about Einstein tonight, I am making the point that he had a big problem there. I explain what it is and why it is so interesting. But it is a point. And therefore the rise of these schools of thought is actually a significant indication of this deep human perception that we need more than simply an understanding of how our universe, or indeed how we as human beings, work. You know, functionality is great — if I don’t function well, I talk to a doctor. But we need more than functionality; it’s about why. Why, what are we meant to be doing? These are deeper questions and they’re important questions. And so one of the things I would say is that to be a human being is to ask these deeper questions, and we’ve got to respect that. Now why I think Christianity is so good is that this kind of way is not something we just say, “Right. Let’s just tack this on. Let’s just build this on.” It’s all there. That’s why Lewis is so good. Lewis saw that. And so Lewis is very good at in effect opening up a way of thinking and saying, “Look. I’m not a scientist but science is a welcome guest here. It fits in.” And that’s so important because it means you can have a way of thinking that holds all of these things together in a way that’s not simply intellectually opportunist. You know, there’s a deep vision of reality. When you look at it, you say, “Actually, it lets me do things. It just happens.” It’s not a question of, “Let me just try and invent a way of thinking which holds all of these things together.” It’s about looking and saying, “Hey! It works! Look at that!” And that, for me, is what’s so exciting.
TM: John Henry Newman said something like, “It doesn’t matter how many problems you have – a hundred problems does not make a single doubt,” or something to that effect. Does that resonate at all with you?
A: I don’t know the quote, I have to say. But it makes sense to me — because when I was younger, about 18 or 19, I took the view that you had to believe things with certainty. And at that stage I was a sort of transitional atheist, but one of the books I read, and I think I was about seventeen, was one of Bertrand Russell’s books, A History of Western Philosophy. I liked it because it was very anti-religious, and I thought: “This is great.” But in the front matter he wrote something which was like a time-bomb. He said, and I’m making this quotation wrong, but you need to check it out: “The reason I study philosophy is that it enables us to live with uncertainty without being paralyzed by hesitation.” And what it said to me is, “Russell seems to be saying we can’t be sure about things, but actually we can live with that.” And that sort of way stayed with me. And that’s where I am today. In many ways I’m saying, “Look. We cannot hope to know things with certainty. There are always going to be things that puzzle us and confuse us, partly because we’ve got limited intellectual capacity, partly because the world is complicated, but actually uncertainty is not a bad thing. It’s about a realistic recognition of the limits of the human intelligence to make sense out of everything and a willingness to work within those limits. So I think Newman is probably hinting at that — and there are going to be — you used the word problems, by which I think he probably means something which seems intellectually troublesome, and what he’s saying is, “Look. Actually what Christianity does, and this certainly is what you’ll find in Lewis, is it gives you a framework; a way of looking at things which enables you to see that although some of these things are troublesome, they actually do cohere together better than an alternative worldview allows.” In other words, Lewis is not saying that Christianity can resolve all the doubts, in the kind of way that gives you a crystal clear vision of reality; he’s saying it’s going to be blurry at points, there’s going to be fuzziness, there’s going to be uncertainty, but actually you judge it not by whether it’s absolutely right but by whether it’s better than anything else. And that’s the key point. And again you could make a connection here with “inference to the best explanation,” which I think is a very helpful approach for a Christian apologist, because it gets you away from this idea of having to say, “I can prove this is right.” But you’re saying, “Look. There are multiple explanations, but this one’s better than all the rest for the following reasons.” That doesn’t necessarily mean it is right, but it means I am justified in saying, “That’s the one for me.”
TM: At this point we have a gift for you.
A: Oh, a gift!
TM: There’s a little bit of a story with this one. The flagship seminar at St. Michael’s College is the Gilson Seminar. Part of the Gilson Seminar is a trip to Rome at the end of the year after studying various ways that faith and ideas can intersect. While we were in Rome I collected a coin, the Italian two Euro coin, which has Dante’s face on the head. While I was trying to clean that the other night, I guess I didn’t pay attention in organic chemistry, but I seem to have used the wrong concoctions of solutions to clean it and now the flip side has some staining.
I’ll ask the question and then I’ll finish the story about the coin.
The question is: One of the central readings of the Seminar is your book, Enriching Our Vision of Reality. In the class, it’s read alongside the first five cantos of Dante’s Inferno. What are your thoughts on your work being read in context with Dante and what advice might you have for future students of the seminar who will read your work?
A: Well let’s take the opening of the first canto, “Entering the dark wood.” “Losing your way.” “Needing someone to guide you.” To me that is what the Christian life is all about. You find yourself immersed in a strange place called the world — you’re wondering why you’re here — and someone comes along and helps you to find your way, to the point at which he then stands back and says, “You can go on your own now.” But for me that actually really is quite important. It’s part of a realization that we are in this dark wood. Now the image doesn’t occur in Dante, but the thought is there because if you compare that with the closing canto which is very much about being overwhelmed by light, it’s very interesting. But for me, Dante is a very important writer. I really like him, because of the way in which he uses strong visual analogies. It’s all about light versus darkness; it’s all about illuminating the landscapes, about seeing clearly. And one of the things I really find about Dante is that more than some philosophers he does articulate very, very clearly the idea that there are certain things that you can see but that you cannot articulate verbally. And he makes that point especially in the closing canto of the Paradiso. But you can see traces of that earlier. For me, Dante is very interesting as kind of mapping the idea of a journey of discovery. I’ve made that journey. I mean not identical to Dante at all. But the metaphor is very good and very strong. So I would say that there are lots of interesting parallels that are definitely worth following through.
TM: And so the rest of the story about the coin: I realized after I stained it — and was really mad at myself — I realized after, that in a sense this coin sort of represents you —
TM: — and that the one side is the chemistry, in a very shallow sense: the chemistry on the one side and on the other side, the Dante.
TM: Some of the nicest moments of our Seminar […] some of the best moments we spent talking about our readings, we read Forster’s book A Room with a View –
A: Oh yes!
TM: — in the same combination with the entire experience —
A: Yes. That’s 1908, something like that. It describes very well how in effect the rather parochial vision of the English middle classes are expanded by Rome — or Florence — and it’s wonderful. That happens.
TM: It is quite wonderful, and it does happen. And we spent a lot of time drinking espressos and talking, so perhaps next time you’re in Rome, you could buy an espresso for us [pointing to the coin] and continue the tradition…
A: No — I shall keep this! I shall keep this, and chemically you almost certainly used metallic cleaner that’s really designed for, possibly, copper — and this is almost certainly a sort of low-grade form of copper and something else. And so it’s interacting …