Our latest interview in the Wonders of the Living World series is with Prof Alister McGrath of the Oxford University, who started his career in science before moving to theology. Over the last few years Alister has been thinking about how wonder at the natural order can lead to questions of meaning and purpose, including theological questions. Here he explains how he came to Christian faith while a student at Oxford, and shares some of his own experiences of wonder.
What got you into science?
I became a scientist because of my sense of wonder at the beauty and immensity of the world. I felt that I was about to begin a journey of discovery which would answer all my great questions about life and the universe. I had no idea where this excitement about the beauty of the world would lead me. I just knew it would be worthwhile and satisfying.
Can you tell us a bit about your faith journey?
As a teenager, I believed that science and religion were at war with each other. Because I loved science, I had no option other than to reject and ridicule religion. Initially, I was quite excited about being an atheist, as it seemed to be terribly trendy. Yet I began to have doubts about it. After all, I couldn’t prove that atheism was true. I found this to be a real source of concern. I rejected Christianity because it was a position of faith that could not be proved to be right. But I couldn’t prove my own atheism. I went up to Oxford to study chemistry, and discovered that Christianity was a much more interesting and attractive intellectual option than atheism. And since then, I have taken delight in exploring the landscape of the Christian faith, especially the way Christianity creates intellectual space for the natural sciences. I talk in some detail about my own move from atheism to Christianity in my book Through a Glass Darkly: Journeys through Science, Faith and Doubt.
What role does wonder play in your own research? My research these days focusses on the relation of science and religious faith, and I find that both are deeply affected by wonder. After all, Christian worship is a sense of wonder at the beauty and glory of God, which draws us into a deeper and more fulfilling vision of faith. One of the major themes of my recent writing has been how a sense of wonder at the natural world can become a gateway to faith. It’s really about an area of theology known as “natural theology”, which sees the beauty and vastness of the natural world as pointers to God. It is a truly wonderful thought that even the beauty of an Alpine landscape or the night sky can be transcended by the greater beauty of God.
Preliminary data from a recent study show that biologists tend to find complexity beautiful, while physicists are more likely to admire simplicity. Which aspects of the living world do you find beautiful?
I find myself responding to both the simplicity of Einstein’s mathematical representations of the world, and the complexity of the living world around us. It speaks to me of the many levels of our world, and the need to find a way of holding these together. One of the reasons why I have become so interested in the world of the British public philosopher Mary Midgley is that she gives us a set of tools to hold these multiple aspects of nature together, and appreciate the greater whole to which they point. It helps me connect these thoughts with that rich statement that “all things hold together” in Christ (Colossians 1:17).
The same study found that 66% of scientists feel a sense of reverence or respect about the things they discover, and 57% feel as if they are in the presence of something grand, at least several times a year. Can you describe a time when your experience of the living world gave you a similar sense of awe?
I’ve had this experience many times, but perhaps most memorably in 1976, when I found myself in the midst of a vast dark desert in Iran in the middle of the right, and saw the stars with a brilliance that I had never seen before. It blew me away, overwhelming my imagination. I don’t think I could ever recreate that experience of awe. Somehow, I knew I could never express in words that sense of immensity and vastness that I experienced, which suggested that I was a very small part of something much bigger. It helped me understand the limits of words when speaking of our universe – and, of course, God.
When Wonders of the Living World was written you mentioned some big questions about meaning and purpose that science raises for us all. Are you still asking similar questions today, or has your thinking moved on in any way?
I still think that questions of meaning and purpose are of central importance. Science may raise these questions, but it can’t answer them. I love the comments of Neil Postman, who was a powerful critic of people like Richard Dawkins who think that science can answer all of life’s big questions. Here’s what he says: “To the question, ‘How did it all begin?’, science answers, ‘Probably by an accident.’ To the question, ‘How will it all end?’, science answers, ‘Probably by an accident.’ And to many people, the accidental life is not worth living.” Paradoxically, science helps us to appreciate how important meaning and purpose are to human wellbeing – but it can’t itself tell us what that meaning and purpose are.
What sorts of questions do you think you will be asking, or would like to be asking, in your work in ten (or twenty) years time? Might future scientific discoveries raise even more big questions of meaning or purpose?
I don’t know! I often find myself circling old questions, gradually giving better answers than those I found ten or twenty years ago. I have no doubt that new questions will arise about human nature and destiny, and our place within the natural world – questions that we need to engage, rather than to avoid or hope that they will just go away. But I am confident that Christianity will be able to offer us ways of engaging these new questions, and helping us to think them through.
Alister McGrath is Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at Oxford University. He will shortly publish What is the Point of Theology? Wisdom, Wellbeing and Wonder (SPCK, 19th May 2022).