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Alister McGrath, The Great Mystery. Science, God and the Human Quest for Meaning, 2017

The author is very well known as professor of Science and Religion at Oxford University, with many works to his credit which relate to the science-theology dialogue. Perhaps best known are his discussions with another Oxford scholar, Richard Dawkins, both in writing and face to face. According to its cover, the book asks: “Who are we? Why are we here? What is our future? Are we alone? And what can religion bring, alongside biology and anthropology, to these important questions?” The author notes that such questions of meaning are nowadays seldom asked by philosophers, but more often by empirical psychologists. A recent double review by Lluis Oviedo bears out his observation. The book promises to tackle the questions in three parts with 13 chapters. The first part “Wondering about ourselves” has three chapters, which address a “sense of wonder” as part of the conditio humana. and as a root of science, and which emphasise that “multiple perspectives”, including religion, are needed for the understanding of human nature. The ingrained habit of humans to deceive themselves is pointed out in some detail.
The second part has six chapters and comprises the book's focal message under the title “Wondering about life: The human quest for meaning.” Basic epistemological principles are addressed, again leading up to the necessity of different perspectives, including subjective ones. The human “instinct” to give meaning to life by telling stories, up to “grand narratives”, is described sympathetically. Then the argument returns to the limited reliability of human reason, and to a critical view of constructivist concepts of meaning. The third part “Wondering about our future” has four chapters and begins with an appeal to include the biblical concept of sin in the understanding of human nature. Accordingly, secular humanism is seen critically, and Christian humanism (e.g. that of the renaissance sages) is vigorously defended. In this discourse, the New Atheists loom large as opponents. Then the “myth of progress” is discussed as the “dominant narrative of Western culture”, and realism is advocated instead of optimism. Finally, the vision of Transhumanism is critically scrutinised.
McGrath does not present a specialist book; it is supposed to be accessible to all educated readers. He achieves that goal; his style is attractive and entertaining. The leitmotif of all three parts is a critical view of reductionism, especially the scientism of the New Atheist kind, and of shallow forms of enlightened rationalism. Christian answers to these positions are provided at some length. In other words, it is a thoroughly apologetic book. The style is meditative, the arguments orbit around the questions without following a compelling sequence. It is also repetitive, because similar observations and conclusions are put forward repeatedly. The purport of key terms (meaning, religion, science, knowledge, truth, fact etc.) is not initially discussed, but appears piece by piece. Also the book is full of scholarly allusions and quotations from the history of thought and from general history, including 28 pages of notes. Most of them (but not all) are short. Many are like historic “thumbnails”; they explain why this mode of thinking in the past lead to that one later on, or which circumstances caused which intellectual responses. However, to sketch causal connections between historical phenomena is risky. Historical developments are immensely complex and often incoherent, far more so than the works of philosophers and theologians.
A remark on p.139 attributes the 19th century's faith that “science and rational thinking” would lead to a time of lasting peace and prosperity to “the virtual absence of global conflict during the period 1815 - 1914”. Yet the author would probably agree, although he does not mention it, that the 19th century's belief in progress was fuelled by the rapid increase of scientific and technical knowledge on the material side, and by the profanization of Christian eschatology on the religious side. The absence of large wars might have contributed. (But what about the US? The terrible Civil War seemingly did no dam-age to the belief in progress there.) On p.76 one reads that “in Germany in the 1920s everything was reduced to conformity to the latest intellectual fashions and 'transitory values of the day'.” The communists and right-wing nationalists fighting in the streets would have been surprised to hear that, as well as the committed Protestants who saw themselves involved in a “Weltanschauungskampf” (battle of world views). The source of that remark is Hermann Hesse, a great poet and novelist, but also an otherworldly introvert incapable of appreciating the concerns of contemporaries outside his circle of artists. In my opinion, the best part of the book is ch.9 “At home in the universe?” It is almost free of sketchy history; its tone is appellative, sometimes even poetical, and goes very well with the meditative form of the argument. I was moved by it. The worst part is, I think, the following chapter, 10. It discusses a many-sided question (Is humanity fundamentally good?) by arguing against sanguine positions of the most superficial kind. The author contents that one cannot understand humanity without understanding its sinfulness. He may be right; I think he is right. But the biblical idea of sin is singularly alien to our secular culture and cannot be made plausible without careful clarification. (The topic is much better treated in ch.12.)
The book quotes C.S. Lewis extensively, less often G.C. Chesterton. The human quest for meaning, the main concern of the book, is frequently analysed from their point of view. I am myself immensely indebted to these authors, and the influence of C.S. Lewis on educated Christians in the English speaking world (and beyond) can hardly be overestimated. But to rely too much on their precepts might be an obstacle for the understanding of our present culture. Much has happened since the 1930s and 1950s. For example, Richard Dawkins is convinced that the authentic form of religion is fundamentalist, and that liberal or “progressive” beliefs are feeble concessions to modernity. Dawkins speaks, I suppose, for a majority of highly secular intellectuals nowadays, who see very well that religious fundamentalism (if one hesitantly includes Islamism and modern Hindu ideologies) appeals to many people outside educated milieus. Christians cannot advocate the gospel as a roadmap for a meaningful life, without tackling the question why so many find meaning not in mainstream Christianity (if there is still a mainstream), but in Christian fundamentalism. C.S. Lewis cannot help us here, because in his time there was a mainstream, embodied by Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Methodists and their venerable traditions. Protestant fundamentalism was an oddity from the other side of the Atlantic ocean, and Islamism was something one had to deal with in Egypt and Arabia, not in the UK. Chesterton cannot help us either, because he was (perhaps under the influence of Hilaire Belloc) blind to the dangers of an anti-modern Christianity. In “The great mystery”, fundamentalism appears only as an intellectual and moral deficiency, which it certainly is. But that does not answer the question.
Much of the book's argument is taken up by criticizing a scientism which insists that science is the only way to truth. That sort of scientism was certainly there two generations ago. It is still present in popular TV science programs, and, of course, in the Richard Dawkins Foundation. But the naïve, omnipresent scientism of our late modern Western societies is no longer concerned with a claim to truth and is almost free of utopian dreams. It has been subjectivized and reshaped as a recipe for individual satisfaction, as a source of reliable prescriptions for a happy life. The New Atheists command much media attention, but little political and cultural fervour. There is no powerful movement to abolish religion and in this way assure a better future for humankind. Again, Christians cannot argue that their faith is meaningful without recognising that for most of their science-believing contemporaries the quest for meaning begins with a quest for personal happiness. For them the question whether truth is found solely through science, or also through “spirituality” or some exotic teachings, is no longer important. They want to know if they work. That is, by the way, the main reason for the worldwide dynamic of the Pentecostal movement. Pentecostalism starts with the promise that Jesus will be there to conquer poverty, disease and strife in everyday life. If all goes well, it leads on beyond the longing for earthly happiness into a deeper, eternal longing for God.
Sure, somebody has to answer the old-fashioned scientism of Richard Dawkins. Alister McGrath does that very well, in this book and elsewhere. But to discuss the meaning of existence with the people around us, one has to address their views not of human identity, but of their own identity, and not of human destiny, but of their own destiny. Nonetheless I strongly recommend “The great mystery”. The book is an offer to participate in the immensely learned conversation of Oxford scholars, to be enriched by its sympathetic mixture of intellectual fairness and critical faculty, to be stimulated by the multiple cues to the noble history of western thought, to the monumental dignity of science and to the redeeming power of faith. Read the book, learn from it and enjoy its slightly nostalgic atmosphere. But then talk with the busy engineer who is inseparable from his tablet, with the intelligent teenager who is frightened by environmental destruction and by the militarism of world leaders, and with the immigrant from West India whose self-worth depends on the closeness to Christ he experiences in his Pentecostal church. Do not ask them what gives meaning to their lives, they do not deal in such abstractions. Listen to their hopes and fears, let them talk about light and shadow on their way. Then, if it is your task, as it has been mine for a long time, concoct the abstractions necessary to analyse what you have heard.

Hansjörg Hemminger

Reprinted from ESSSAT News and Reviews, n. 29:1 (March 2019), pp. 17-20.