Oxford Scholar Alister McGrath on How Both Science and Stories Declare God’s Glory

Image: Courtesy of Alister McGrath

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.

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Source: Christianity Today