Alister McGrath: Both Science and Stories Declare God’s Glory

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The relationship between Christianity and science is hotly debated, and both believers and skeptics have appealed to Albert Einstein to buttress their positions. Believers point to Einstein’s many references to God while skeptics note his rejection of revealed religion. Alister McGrath, Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at Oxford University, has written a new book on the famous physicist, A Theory of Everything (That Matters): A Brief Guide to Einstein, Relativity, and His Surprising Thoughts on God (Tyndale).

McGrath also recently published Narrative Apologetics: Sharing the Relevance, Joy, and Wonder of the Christian Faith (Baker), in which he argues that stories are an important but often overlooked resource for commending Christianity. In both books, he contends that the Christian faith has a better story to tell than secular alternatives and offers great explanatory power.

Christopher Reese spoke with McGrath about the interconnected topics of faith, science, and apologetics.

You stress in A Theory of Everything (That Matters) that Einstein sought to integrate his scientific knowledge with religion, philosophy, and other disciplines. What can we learn from Einstein’s approach to seeing the bigger picture of reality?

Einstein is emphatic that science is only able to give a partial account of our complex and strange universe. It may help us to understand how our universe functions, but it does not engage deeper questions of meaning and value. For Einstein, it was essential to have a rounded view of this matter, enabling reflective human beings to appreciate new insights into the structure and functioning of the universe, working out what is good and trying to enact this in their lives, and finding meaning in their lives and the universe. Einstein is a very helpful role model for Christians as they try to integrate these different aspects of their lives.

Some prominent intellectuals still hold to the idea that Christianity and science are natural enemies, even though historians of science largely reject that characterization. Why does this view still persist?

Historians of science have decisively rejected the so-called “conflict” narrative of the relation of science and religion. It’s now widely recognized that the relationship between science and religion over the centuries is complicated and that no single model is able to do justice to this. At certain points there are degrees of tension; at others, there are genuine areas in which synergy and mutual enrichment are possible. The disturbing question is why New Atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens persist with this outdated and discredited narrative, given that they emphasize the importance of evidence-based beliefs. Some scholars suggest that New Atheism has become dependent on the warfare narrative and so is locked into that framework.

How would you describe your approach to relating Christianity and science?

My own approach is to emphasize the importance of dialogue between science and faith, recognizing that this dialogue will involve both disagreement at points and possible enrichment. Some might suggest that this approach is discredited by the fact that science and religion are incompatible. I will point out in response that they are only incompatible if science is allowed to determine everything that we believe, thus undermining political, social, and ethical beliefs. Science and religion are different, but they can talk to each other!

Einstein, for example, was a very active socialist and saw no tension between his political views and his love of the natural sciences. Others would, of course, draw different political conclusions. But I’m not aware of any serious thinker who argues that scientists should disengage from ethical and political reflection, despite the fact that these three areas of human thought, science, ethics, and politics, use quite different methods in reaching their conclusions. The argument that religion is incompatible with science is simply a rhetorical strategy designed by aggressive secularists to silence religious voices and eliminate them from popular discussions.

Briefly summarize for us what Einstein believed about God and Christianity.

Einstein is noted for his impersonal conception of God as a mind behind the universe. He is critical of the idea of a personal God, because he believes it’s a human construction. Some atheist writers have read his criticisms of a personal God and drawn the false conclusion that he believes in no God. Einstein’s very abstract and impersonal conception of God stands at some distance from the personal and relational God so characteristic of the Christian faith. However, Christians can see Einstein’s ideas as a starting point for a deeper discussion of the nature of God. One of the core questions I explore in this book is how Christians can engage in dialogue with Einstein while developing an apologetic route leading from Einstein’s conception of God to a more Christian approach.

What are some common myths about Einstein’s beliefs?

Perhaps the most common myth I uncovered is that Einstein was an atheist who was constantly embarrassed by being described as a theist. This interpretation of Einstein is found in some writings of Richard Dawkins, most notably in his book The God Delusion. I have not been able to find anything in Einstein’s writing that supports this conclusion. If anything, Einstein’s concern was that he was being misrepresented as an atheist by those who had some kind of grudge against God.

Today, science is popularly seen as the final arbiter of truth for all questions. In your opinion, what are the limits of science?

Science is outstanding in helping us to understand how our universe functions. A number of atheist writers have suggested that, since science is so successful in its own field, it ought to be allowed to extend its authority to just about every area of human thought. I think this is a seriously flawed argument. As the philosopher Mary Midgley points out, we develop different tools to investigate different aspects of reality.

Much the same point is made by the quantum theorist Werner Heisenberg, who remarks that we only know nature as it is disclosed by our different research methods. A tool that works well for one purpose will not necessarily work for anything else. The suggestion that science has privileged access to the truth may be true in a wide range of empirical areas, but it’s not true in relation to ethics or the deep questions of meaning that many now regard as being so important to authentic human existence. That’s why Karl Popper introduced the idea of “ultimate questions,” which have deep existential significance for human beings but lie beyond the scope of the scientific method to answer.

Let’s talk now about your other new book, Narrative Apologetics. What is narrative apologetics, and how does it differ from traditional apologetics?

In an increasingly secular culture, apologetics is of increasing importance for the ministry of the church. It takes many forms, including arguments for the rationality of faith in general and the existence of God in particular. Narrative apologetics is not to be seen as an alternative to these older approaches. It has its own distinct strengths, which can complement or supplement those other approaches.

The core element of narrative apologetics is the recognition of the importance of stories or narratives in helping people to grasp theological ideas, connecting with the core themes of the Christian faith, and allowing individual believers to “tell their stories” as an apologetic strategy. Although we find this approach in many Christian writers, it is particularly important for CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien, and Dorothy L Sayers. Lewis, in particular, argues that God authorizes the use of stories as a way of communicating the vitality of the Christian faith and exploring some of its key themes.

What are the unique advantages of narrative apologetics?

Narrative apologetics, like narrative theology, tried to remain faithful to the biblical emphasis on telling stories as a way of explaining what the Christian faith is all about. For CS Lewis, Christianity is able to out-narrate the dominant narratives of our culture. In other words, Christianity tells a better story than its secular alternatives—a story that is more truthful and trustworthy, which is capable of capturing the imagination and serving as a gateway for Christian truth.

We can find many examples of these stories in Scripture. Think, for example, of some of the parables of the kingdom. Yet narrative apologetics also invites us to think of what other stories we might tell. One point I make in this book is that we can use our own stories for apologetic purposes.

In my case, I can tell a true story about how a trenchant atheist was challenged by the rich Christian vision of reality and so left atheism behind and embraced Christianity. That story is interesting, but it’s also important in that it demonstrates that Christianity was not simply true but real. In other words it had the capacity to change my life. Anyone listening to that story will realize that it is implying that others might be transformed by the Christian gospel in the same way.

You note that people in the 21st century are more concerned with whether Christianity works than whether it’s true. In shifting to a narrative approach to apologetics, are we in danger of embracing pragmatism?

I think there’s a real danger that Christians will adopt a very pragmatic approach to apologetics, focusing on whether a particular technique works, rather than carefully examining its theological presuppositions. That’s one of the reasons why I spend so much time in Narrative Apologetics laying the biblical and theological foundations for this approach to apologetics. Pragmatically, it does work really well! But the more important point is that it can be rigorously justified at a theological level.

Although I spend quite some time in this book exploring the theological foundations of narrative apologetics, there’s more work that needs to be done, and I look forward to further explorations and examinations of this approach. It needs more calibrating and road testing.

On a practical level, what are some ways that Christians can use narrative apologetics to share and defend the gospel?

The simplest way of using narrative apologetics is to tell stories in response to questions asked by our friends and family. For example, if someone asks me how believing in God could change someone’s life, I will say “let me tell you my story.” Stories tend to be more interesting than arguments. Yet very often, telling stories makes people want to explore things further, raising objections for further discussion, because they’ve realized there was something serious on offer here. And at this point, more traditional approaches to apologetics can come into play, often to great advantage.

I find it very helpful to work through all the parables of Christ and ask how I would use each of these apologetically. I often use the story of the pearl of great price from Matthew 13 to illustrate the point that people are very often searching for something that really matters and really satisfies, and then I explain how, in my own case, the gospel changed me and met my deepest needs.

Or suppose someone asked me what the love of God is like. I could try giving a definition—for example, telling this person that the love of God is so great and so wonderful that I can’t really describe it. But a more effective apologetic response is to turn to the gospel passion narratives and tell the story of Christ laying down his life so that those who he loves might live. That aspect of the gospel story, it seems to me, communicates the truth of the love of God in a memorable manner.

Christopher Reese is a freelance writer and the managing editor of The Worldview Bulletin. He co-founded the Christian Apologetics Alliance and is general editor of The Dictionary of Christianity and Science (Zondervan, 2017) and Three Views on Christianity and Science (forthcoming from Zondervan, 2021).

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