The life and ministry of Alister McGrath is a fascinating and inspiring one:
We are meant to encourage one another, and reading biographies and autobiographies of great Christians can really help in this regard. Here I want to look at one such volume, although it will not be a proper book review. Instead, it will include some of my own personal interactions with the subject of the book.
I find that a good biography or autobiography of an important Christian figure can have several impacts on me. On the one hand I can get inspired, stirred, and motivated. But on the other hand I can feel a bit deflated, discouraged and downhearted. This is especially the case when I find some similarities between my own journey and that of the one I am reading about.
I so often refer to the title of Muggeridge’s autobiography, Chronicles of Wasted Time, when I have the latter sort of reaction. I think I have wasted so many years, and not put my life to very good use. And when I discover that the person I am reading about is around the same age as I am and has many of the same interests and experiences, I can feel even more despondent as I see the contrasts between our lives.
A book I have just read is a case in point: this man has done so much for Christ and the Kingdom, and I seem to have done so little. But I am also inspired and encouraged to keep pressing on in my remaining years. The new book I refer to is by Alister McGrath: Through a Glass Darkly (Hodder & Stoughton, 2020).
It is a brief (200-page) account of his life, and his dual interests in science and theology. I have long followed McGrath and his work – I have 45 of his books, although he has penned perhaps a dozen other volumes. I should have known this earlier, but I did learn about at least two significant dates that we share in common: he was born 4 days before I was, and he became a Christian in 1971, just like I did.
And he was – also like me – a lefty and a Marxist in his youth, only to shake that off at age 18. And although we pursued many similar interests over the past half century, including theology and apologetics, that is where we begin to part ways. He also had a livelong interest in science, something I never really had (although we both appreciate the philosophy of science).
But his career comprises one academic achievement after another. While I did go on to get a BA in philosophy, and an MA in theology, and an incomplete Phd, he studied and taught at Oxford and Cambridge for his past 50 years, with advanced degrees in both science and theology. While I have done some lecturing at Bible schools and the like over the years, my main Christian calling has been a bit different – including what I do at CultureWatch.
One last point of similarity is how we were both so very greatly influenced by C. S. Lewis early on. McGrath even went on to write an important biography of Lewis back in 2013. And there have been some times where we actually intersected, albeit briefly. I have reviewed several of his books, including his 2005 volume, Dawkins’ God: Genes, Memes, and the Meaning of Life.
Two things happened around that time, although I forget in which order. One, an angry atheist sent in a comment, telling me that McGrath did not really know about Dawkins, and I did not really know much about McGrath’s book. I also got a note from McGrath, thanking me for my review and saying he appreciated how I properly captured the essence of his book. My review is here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2005/02/02/a-review-of-dawkins%e2%80%99-god-genes-memes-and-the-meaning-of-life-by-alister-mcgrath/
And shortly thereafter he was speaking here in Melbourne so I went to hear him. I introduced myself briefly and told him of my appreciation for his work. But enough about me, and more about him and his book. It is not a proper autobiography, but more a set of reflections on his spiritual and intellectual journey, and how he managed to bring together his two loves of science and theology.
Let me discuss a few snippets from it. Born in Belfast, he was an avid reader from early on. He became fascinated with science – especially chemistry. But while science informed him of how things functioned, the bigger ‘why’ questions eluded him. Marxism seemed to provide a larger ‘grand narrative’ to make sense of life.
He was reading Das Kapital around 1969 (as I was), but he found it “stunningly dull” (as I did). But Marxism seemed to offer a way of looking at the world. In 1971 he began his studies in chemistry at Oxford, but there he met others who loved science yet also professed the Christian faith: “Oxford, I soon discovered, was awash with highly intelligent science students who took their Christian faith very seriously.”
What ultimately led him to abandon both atheism and Marxism included not just interacting with these Christians, but reading important philosophers of science such as Karl Popper and Michael Polanyi who showed him the limits of science, and that science cannot account for everything. It can deal with the ‘how’ questions, but questions of meaning and ultimate value go beyond what science alone can discover.
These readings and his discussions with others had a real impact on him: “It was as if the foundations of my world were being systematically dismantled.” But it was reading Lewis that really rocked his intellectual and spiritual world.
He says, “Looking back, I now wonder why I didn’t discover C. S. Lewis much sooner than I did. After all, we were both born in Belfast, were fascinated with atheism as teenagers, and discovered Christianity at Oxford.” It was the essay “Is Theology Poetry” by Lewis that really struck him, especially its last line: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”
Says McGrath: “It was a moment of epiphany, of enlightenment and illumination.” With all this happening, he went on to earn degrees not only in his beloved chemistry, but then in theology. After seven years at Oxford he went to Cambridge, only to return late in 1983 to lecture at Wycliffe Hall, among other things.
He also became quite interested in apologetics, and with his deep understanding of both science and theology, he soon became an in demand debater, especially when the New Atheists burst on the scene, including Dawkins, Peter Atkins, and others. In 2004 he established the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics. He is currently the Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at Oxford University.
Plenty of other details of course are recounted along the way, and the final third of the book revisits his longstanding concern to bring together his interests in science and his interests in the Christian gospel. But as mentioned, what did stand out for me was some of the similar paths we had taken, and what we each managed to achieve in the same amount of time.
We of course have taken rather differing directions since becoming Christians. And despite being the same age and having similar backgrounds and interests, the roads travelled by him – especially in academia and the like – were much less travelled by me. The same with his prodigious literary output.
But I finish where I started in this piece: While I so often wonder if my half century of being a Christian has had that much of an impact on others, we certainly can see the impact McGrath has had. Countless individuals would have been helped by him along the way – no question about it.
Simply consider his theological textbooks, such as his 1994 Christian Theology: An Introduction which is now in its 6th edition. This has been one of the world’s most widely used theology texts. That and some 50 other volumes is quite an achievement for 50 years.
My achievements are much less on every level. But again, God has called me in some different directions, and while we can take heart from the work and ministry of others, at the end of the day we must be content with doing what God has called us to do.
So a moral of this story is that we are all different, and we all have different things that God has directed us to do. Nonetheless, looking at the lives of other Christians can inspire and motivate us, or perhaps at times challenge and reprove us.
That has been my reaction here. I often still think that I have wasted so much of my time and could have been much more productive for Christ. But any good I have done in the long run will all go down to His working, not mine. And I am sure Alister would feel the very same way about his lengthy career and ministry.