Bringing Beauty Back to Science

Alister McGrath
Recently, Dr. Ashley Moyse has asked a few big questions of Interface contributor Dr. Alister McGrath. Read below to find out how natural theology might bring beauty back into the sciences.

Ashley Moyse (RC) is the McDonald Postdoctoral Fellow in Christian Ethics and Public Life, Christ Church, Oxford. From January 2017 to July 2018, he served as Postdoctoral Fellow in Theology and Science at Regent College.

Reverend Professor Alister McGrath (AM) is Andeos Idreos Professor of Science and Religions, University of Oxford, the Director of the Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion, and a Fellow of Harris Manchester College. He teaches and researches in various fields, with expertise in science and religion and systematic theology.

RC: I’m glad for this opportunity to speak with you before you come to Regent College in September. Let me begin by asking you to introduce yourself to our audience.

AM: I am a former atheist and I have an interest in seeing how bringing science and Christian faith together might create a dialogue that can give us a richer and deeper vision of our world and our lives.

RC: This autumn you will be participating in a lecture series that extends through the fall with several voices speaking into the interface of the sciences and theology. Could you begin with a bit about the nature of the sub-discipline, telling us why you continue to come back to questions at the intersection of the sciences and theology?

AM: Many of us are worried about what this world means: what do we mean? … In many ways the whole engagement of science and faith, or theology and religion with the natural sciences, is very much about enabling us to engage at the deepest levels with this world—not simply understanding how it works, but what it actually means. This chimes in with the deepest concerns of human beings and it is why discussions of science and religion are such a popular field here at Oxford. People are interested in engagement with the deepest questions of life.

RC:Could you give a more specific sense of the pressing questions that students might ask themselves?

AM: It depends on who you are and which people you are talking to. One of the recurring questions is this: What does it mean to be a human being? How do we achieve authenticity?

Science helps us to live longer, to function better, but for many people these ends are welcome yet they don’t seem to be the questions that really are at the heart of life. We want to live well, not just to live long. We want to lead a good life. It is important to open up questions about goodness, about meaning, about value, about identity, which lie beyond the ability of the sciences to engage. The whole reason why science and faith is becoming such an important field for so many people is that it allows us to respond to natural sciences and to take the light from what they are doing, while at the same time learning to realize there is more that needs to be said.

Maybe science fills in part of that picture but it certainly does not fill in all of the picture. We need to be able to address deeper questions of meaning and value. That is what the Christian faith does so successfully.

RC: In your book, The Open Secret, you suggest that natural theology “can bring together the poet’s imaginative engagement with the world, the scientist’s meticulous observation of nature, and the theologian’s vision of God, leading to a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.” Can you elaborate on that provocative claim?

AM: The reason why I wrote those words back in 2008 is that I was very concerned that science had become what Max Weber describes as “disenchanted.” In other words, it has lost sight of anything special about nature. Instead, it learned to view nature as something that can be quantified, that can be cerebralized, that can be reduced to mathematical categories. Earlier generations saw nature as something special and beautiful in its own right. And the general area that I have described as natural theology is about restoring nature to something special again. I am trying to recapture a vision of nature as something that is wonderful and beautiful, not just something that we have reduced to the categories of mathematics for the purposes of understanding it. One of the ways that Christian theology can serve us very well is by providing us with richer and deeper vision of nature than that which we might find in a reductionist or materialist natural science.

Obviously, the term “natural theology” means different things to different people. People have very rigorous and very, how shall I say this, pre-determined understandings of what natural theology is. I have to say natural theology is much wider and much broader than what such persons have come to understand. Even if we think of natural theology as the broad sense that there is some connection between the Christian vision of God and the beauty and wonder of our world, then clearly that is something really exciting, which demands deeper engagement.

RC: You mentioned Max Weber and the idea of disenchantment, which I want to probe a bit further. Some suggest that a return to enchantment remedies the problems encountered in the disenchanted late modern world and the violence against nature—including human nature—such a world pursued and justified. Yet there are scholars who point toward examples in the enchanted past where such violence against nature was also pursued and justified. Dr. Kimbell Kornu has shown the violence [demonstrated in] the dissection and vivisection performed by Galen of Pergamon (130–210 CE) as a case in point. It is precisely their enchantment that goads Galen to pursue his occasional violent research methods to gain knowledge of self and of the Divine. Is your call toward wonder and beauty, to the study of rich and deep theological categories, sufficient to guarantee a remedy to the problems incumbent to the materialist, reductionist, disenchanted world-pictures you mention?

AM: I think it is the beginning of a solution. It is the beginning because it gives us a new way of looking at nature and the natural order. If you make sure that your natural theology is a Trinitarian way of reading nature, it allows you to begin to bring into the picture not only an understanding of nature, but also the status of humanity and our position and responsibility within nature. So, if Christian theology as a whole is giving you a very rich vision of what the world is and who we are, this gives us way of positioning ourselves within that world by which we can appreciate it and our responsibility toward it. It seems to me, that this offers a way of recalibrating our responsibilities and indeed the possibilities we have of trying to do something about the way our world is going. There is a very strongly ecological element to a richly Trinitarian vision of nature.

RC: I bring a question that Jeffrey Greenman, President at Regent College, is curious about. In addition to your scholarly work, you are also an ordained Anglican priest. Might you comment on the ways that your Anglican formation has impacted your studies at the interface between the sciences and theology? Are there particular Anglican theologians whose work has influenced and deepened your understanding of the sciences, of theology, of their interface?

AM: I’m very conscious of the fact that some of the most interesting work in science and religion took place in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and mainly by Anglican theologians in England. Certainly people like Boyle, Newton, and others offer us resources toward finding some very important solutions. That is not to say that they give us those solutions. I think they themselves were trailblazers, but they never did get to the end of the road.

But the Anglican tradition does give a rich anchoring in Scripture and tradition. It also gives you this impulse which makes you want to engage with the natural sciences. That has always been part of the deal. That is why I am not at all surprised that people like John Polkinghorne are Anglicans, precisely because they continue this tradition today. I’m sure that others from different ecclesial traditions could say their resources are just as good as those of the Anglicans, and I accept that. But I am conscious that, here in England, the kind of questions that are classically discussed in the field of science and religion really had their origins in the late Renaissance. And, actually, in the Church of England there were some really significant conversations which can enrich and stimulate our conversations today.

RC: You will be joining us here at Regent this September for the Interface Lecture Series in Theology and the Sciences made possible through a generous grant from the John Templeton Foundation. Without spoiling the fun, might you give us a brief précis of these two lectures to whet our appetite and pique our curiosities?

AM: The first lecture, [Science and Faith: Conflicting or Enriching?], is setting the scene. It is trying to say that science and religion are very different in many ways, yet they are both asking very good questions and we need answers to them both if we are to live out meaningful lives as human beings in the world. All of us have the responsibility to try and construct some kind of intellectual framework, which allows us to bring science and faith into [our] ways of thinking about ourselves in the world. What I do in that lecture is to map out some ways of thinking I’ve found helpful and, in effect, say to my audience, ‘Does this help you to think this through?’

As for the second lecture, [God, Science & the Meaning of Life: C.S. Lewis and Richard Dawkins], we will look at two interesting and very well-known representatives of different approaches to science and religion: Richard Dawkins and C.S. Lewis. I’ll be, in effect, allowing them to have a conversation that never happened in real life—they never talked to each other—and say here are some claims Dawkins makes, sometimes wrong or sometimes right, and we have to learn from that. Likewise with Lewis. I allow these two figures to be dialogue partners as we think through how we might develop a sustainable and helpful way of thinking about the relationship between theology and the sciences.

This interview was made possible through the support of a grant from the John Templeton Foundation. The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the John Templeton Foundation.

Alister McGrath
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