Enriching Our Vision of Reality: Theology and the Natural Sciences in Dialogue. By Alister McGrath. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2016, West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Press Edition, 2017. Kindle.
Alister McGrath holds Oxford doctorates in the natural sciences and in Christian theology. He has written what is considered the classic work on the relationship of theology and the natural sciences, namely Christian Theology: An Introduction (Wiley, 2016). He is the Andreas Idreos Professor of Theology and Science at Oxford University and director of Ian Ramsey Center for Science and Religion.
His purpose in writing this book is to help especially scientists to understand the importance of theology for a grasp of the “big picture” of the world in which we live, which cannot be done without a knowledge of theology. He also wishes to help theologians to understand the contribution of science to the knowledge of the modern world. A further purpose and reason for choosing to write a more popular treatment rather than an academic presentation is because there is a special need to counter the popular belief that science has demonstrated that religion is not necessary because science answers all questions about the world in which we live. The new atheism of our post-modern world does not realize how limited the view of science is for what Albert Einstein calls “something more than a purely rational conception of our existence.”
McGrath begins his book with an overview of his goal in the preface and Setting the Scene, the first part of his book, in which he describes the intelligibility and coherence of the Christian vision of reality. The author chose to go to Oxford because it was the best university for his serious study of science in 1970. During his first year at Oxford, he realized:
“Much to his surprise and irritation” that Christianity made much more sense of things than atheism. “I began to see things in a new way, as if my eyes had been opened. Science and Christian theology could be seen as two different ways of exploring a complex and wonderful reality. Sometimes they might be in tension with each other; more often they could enhance each other’s grasp of reality and open up a deeper vision of life. It all depended on how you placed them on a mental map.”
His book is a traveler’s guide to the new world he discovered in the 1970’s. It aims to help the scientists and the theologians to integrate their ideas into a richer whole; to go into what Isaac Newton called “the ocean of truth” enriching our vision of reality through an informed dialogue between Christian theology and the natural science. He highlights the importance of changing public perceptions about science and faith, a big picture of the world that holds these together in a winsome and rationally plausible manner.
Part 2. Science and Theology: Three Practitioners
In the second part of his book McGrath introduces the contributions of three authors, two scientists and one theologian who are experts in both theology and science. He chooses them among many, because he is indebted to them for their contributions to the field which McG represents and who support his view of the mutual relationship of theology and natural sciences.
Part Three is the dialogue between science and theology which we will summarize as best we can in a book review. We list the topics of the dialogue and highlight the argument that natural sciences and theology have much to contribute to each other. This section of the book is entitled: Theology and Science: Some Parallel Conversations
- Theories and doctrines: ways of seeing reality
- The legitimacy of faith: proof, justification an intelligibility
- Analogies, models and mystery: representing a complex reality
- Religious and scientific faith: the case of Charles Darwin
- Human identity: scientific and theological perspectives
- Natural theology: the interface of science and theology
Theology and Science
One of the important observations of the author is that science is limited in its perception of reality. It is restricted to what can be seen, touched, measured or in some other way is observable in a scientific fashion. While mathematics begins to move into the world of abstraction, science does not include the good, beautiful and true. It does not judge miracles or prayer. It has nothing to say about these very important topics. Moreover, the world of theology deals with some of the most important questions which human beings ask: what is existence, how did it start, what is its purpose, is it a person or a power?
On the other hand, faith must be reasonable, rational, it must not be childish or anthropomorphic. Theology must be “adult” in what he says about God, creation and after life (does it exist?) How would we describe it to a scientist or to a scientifically astute person or group? Can we seriously do what St. Peter says: give an account of the hope which we have? (1 Pt 3:15)
It is important to recognize the different perspectives or “tools” that are used by theology and science. The dialogue McG proposes is an enrichment which will contribute to a larger grasp of reality and intelligibility as we appreciate the unique and complementary contributions which the different disciplines give to each other in a dialogue that is respectful and representative of the complex reality of our world – scientific in the broadest sense, human and guided by natural theology.
This is a serious work and recommended to theologians and scientists as well as those who can appreciate the depth and breadth of its scope.