Think Theologically: A Review of Alister McGrath's The Passionate Intellect
- Thursday, January 13, 2011
McGrath, A. (2010). The Passionate Intellect: Christian Faith and the Discipleship of the Mind. Downers Grove: IVP Books. 210 pp.
Alister McGrath's The Passionate Intellect provides an excellent introduction for believers who want to know more about how theology both impacts Christian living and provides responses to contemporary objections against Christianity. McGrath (b. 1953) is a former professor of historical theology at Oxford University and now president of the Oxford Center for Christian Apologetics.
The first half of the book demonstrates two key concepts. First: theology is not simply an academic enterprise, but a devotional one as well. Second: the ability to think theologically prepares believers for engagement with non-Christian culture. Theology is thus an intellectual discipline with highly practical consequences. And these consequences benefit both those who embrace Christianity and those who question it. The second part of the book then applies this claim by considering the relationship between faith and science, particularly by exploring Darwinian evolution (a lightning rod concept in Evangelical life). This is followed by a response to 21st-century criticisms of faith.
Chapters one and two discuss "Mere Theology" (a concept borrowed from the title of C. S. Lewis' Mere Christianity). And chapters three, four, and five then borrow from George Herbert, C. S. Lewis, and Martin Luther to demonstrate how theology works practically - transforming our vision of reality, including our understanding of nature and our ability to reconcile the concept of suffering in a world overseen by a supposedly good and powerful God. The concluding chapter of part one (chapter six) then begins the practical applications of part two, introducing readers to the role of theology in apologetics.
McGrath introduces part two with the story of his own conversion away from an atheist committed to philosophical materialism as the only intellectually responsible worldview. So what challenged the supremacy of McGrath's materialist worldview? Contrary to what some readers might expect, it was not a growing familiarity with scripture (although that did come later), instead it was an introduction to the philosophy of science. McGrath explained that while preparing for his studies at Oxford University, he stumbled across a small section of books in his school's library, covered with dust: "This History and Philosophy of Science." This section of often-ignored books introduced him to Thomas Kuhn and Karl Popper, and their questions about the limits of scientific knowledge. After reading about the philosophy of science, he realized that the natural world was "conceptually malleable" (p. 105), and could be interpreted in a variety of different ways. Therefore, one could be true to the scientific method and yet hold a variety of worldviews. He also discovered that Christian faith was "intellectually capacious," meaning "not merely was it materially and evidentially well-grounded, it was also enabling and enriching." Additionally, "the Christian faith both made sense in itself and of things as a whole" (p. 106).
This newfound respect for Christianity developed alongside an interest in what McGrath called "the big picture" - "the overall patterns of ordering discerned within the universe" (p. 108). One such pattern included the universe's apparent "fine tuning" for intelligent life. Though such fine-tuning was not proof for God per se, it was an example of how reality was consistent with a Christian worldview.
Chapters eight and nine provide two case studies relevant to Christian apologetics - Darwin's Origin of Species, and St. Augustine's The Literal Meaning of Genesis. Chapter eight then considers Charles Darwin's Origin of Species. The chapter goes beyond merely the facts of Darwin's work. McGrath considers the larger question of how one develops and then confirms a hypothesis. For example, humans must make a number of decisions with neither all the facts nor total proof. McGrath cites William James' argument that humans need "working hypotheses" because much of life lies "beyond total proof" (p. 120). While Christian faith may lack the benefit of so-called, "total proof." Darwin's evolutionary model is equally lacking.
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