Friday, 24 April 2009

Alister McGrath's 2009 Gifford Lectures: A Fine-Tuned Universe

If there was a prize for the year’s most efficient theology publisher, it would have to go to the hard-working people at WJK. Less than two months ago, Alister McGrath was presenting his 2009 Gifford Lectures in Aberdeen; earlier this week I was surprised to find that the published lectures had already landed on my doorstep! The lectures are published as Alister E. McGrath, A Fine-Tuned Universe: The Quest for God in Science and Theology (WJK 2009), 262 pp.

The material here forms a sequel to McGrath’s recent extended essay, The Open Secret: A New Vision for Natural Theology (Blackwell 2008), where he argued that a new “natural theology” could provide not a causal explanation for the cosmos but instead an “explanatory unification” which makes sense of various (otherwise very strange) observable phenomena. Nature can thus become a bearer of transcendence – not through any inherent capacity in nature itself (after all, there is no mere uninterpreted nature, but only different constructed “readings” of nature); but when nature is seen through the lens of a Christian trinitarian ontology. This whole approach to natural theology is best summed up in C. S. Lewis’s famous remark: “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.”

A Fine-Tuned Universe develops this approach through a particular case study: the so-called “anthropic principle”, which describes the universe’s peculiar and puzzling friendliness towards life.

McGrath’s argument is that the universe’s fine-tuning is consonant with a Christian picture of the world. At the core of the book is a scientific-theological reading of Augustine. In a series of engagements with contemporary science (the constants of the universe; the origins of life; the chemistry of water; the constraints of evolution; the teleology of evolution; and emergence), McGrath argues that Augustine’s creation theology provides resources for making theological sense of both the origins of the universe and the processes of Darwinian evolution. 

There is no notion here of “proving” the existence of God or the truth of Christian teaching; instead, McGrath’s claim is that there is a coherent “fit” between the observable world and the imaginative resources of Christian tradition. “What is observed within the natural order resonates with the core themes of the Christian vision of God” (p. 95). More than that, he also argues that Darwin’s theory of natural selection opens the way to a theological reevaluation of Augustine’s creation theology: read retrospectively in the light of biological evolution, Augustine becomes an important resource for thinking of creation in terms of “both primordial actuality and emergent possibility” (p. 216).

One of my own discomforts with “natural theology” lies in the romanticism with which it is usually undertaken: theologians reflect on an imaginary world of idealised peace and harmony and perfection, instead of taking seriously the apparent blindness and ugliness and brutality that is so easily perceived in the created order. Even a thinker as probing and sensitive as T. F. Torrance – with his immense ruminations on the order and structure and rationality of the natural world – seems far too little impressed by what Karl Barth called the “shadow side of creation,” the fact that creation’s “goodness” is a difficult and demanding article of faith rather than an observable phenomenon.

So it’s to his credit that McGrath – unlike most exponents of natural theology – underscores the fact that Christian theology must try somehow to account for these “two sides” of nature. Nature is, as Luther put it, simul bona et mala: it is marked by “beauty and ugliness, joy and pain, good and evil” (p. 80). McGrath suggests that nature should thus be interpreted within the context of the economy of salvation, so that we perceive the created world to be “decayed and ambivalent,” a “morally and aesthetically variegated entity whose goodness and beauty are often opaque and hidden, yet [is] nevertheless irradiated with the hope of transformation” (p. 82).

I’m not sure McGrath’s approach – which leans so heavily on notions of coherence, rationality and order – provides a full response to the forceful criticism (as developed, e.g. by Hauerwas and Jüngel) that natural theology tends towards a theologia gloria, leaving no place for the cross of Christ. But his remarks about creation as both bona et mala are surely a step in the right direction, and, hopefully, a step away from any mere romantic “re-enchantment” of the world. (As far as I can tell, nothing could be less “enchanting” than the idea that Christ’s bloody death on a cross discloses the true grain of the universe.)

In any case, this is a significant and very fascinating book. McGrath has been working around the theme of “nature” for several years now – but his best work is found in these two latest volumes, The Open Secret and A Fine-Tuned Universe.


Terry Wright said...

What did you think to his three-volume A Scientific Theology, Ben?

Ben Myers said...

Hi Terry. I think there are all sorts of interesting things in the Scientific Theology; but it was a very uneven work, and I think McGrath was still trying to inch towards his own positive theological position.

(At the time that he was writing these volumes I was very much under the spell of T. F. Torrance, so I was impressed by the way McGrath developed and expanded Torrance's approach. Nowadays I'm more ambivalent about Torrance — but in any case, McGrath's more recent stuff has really moved further from the original Barth/Torrance framework sketched out in the first volume of the Scientific Theology. I had a chat with him about this last year, and he mentioned that he'd been reading Emil Brunner — perhaps illustrative of some larger shifts...)

But anyway, I think these latest two books are on a different level, and I get the impression that McGrath is much more confident about developing his own proposal.

The other big difference, I guess, is that the 3-volume work was entirely methodological, whereas this latest stuff is more theologically constructive and substantive.

Samuel said...


I've not read McGrath's book version of the Gifford lectures, but I have read the lectures themselves. One of the things that I think is important in McGrath's project is the seriousness with which he takes the world. Prior to Darwin, the vast majority of Christians, even those dead set against natural theology, like Calvin, believed that nature bore plain and obvious witness to God, and that through his works in nature we could gain real knowledge about him. Timidity on this point has been the tune of the day since Darwin, for easily understandable reasons.

What I appreciate in McGrath is that he realizes that timidity on this point is not really acceptable: if Christianity is real and true, it has direct bearing on questions of how we interpret the world.

I find the general disdain for natural theology disturbing, not because I believe in natural theology (I'm Reformed), but because people's rejection of it seems to be rooted in an implicit rejection of the idea that theology is a science, and as such that gives us real knowledge about the world. I don't get the impression that many theologians today really believe that. McGrath's natural theology seems to take seriously the idea that theology gives us real knowledge about the world and therefore matters.

Terry Wright said...

Thanks, Ben. I'm due to review The Open Secret for a journal, and you've whetted my appetite for it!

Brad said...


Does McGrath interact at all with Hauerwas's Lectures, or with Torrance? Or does he address those concerns and criticisms indirectly through his positive claims?

Ben Myers said...

Hi Samuel: thanks, that's an excellent point.

Brad: yeah, the stuff I've quoted on creation as "simul bona et mala" is part of McGrath's explicit response to Hauerwas. And his work on science always involves lots of interaction with Torrance.

Joshua Blanchard said...

Only if all Gifford Lectures were published this quickly. For example, I look forward to the publishing of Plantinga's talks, "Science and Religion: Conflict or Concord" delivered in 2005.

Arni Zachariassen said...

I attended the lectures and the book was actually published on the evening of the last lecture, where McGrath provided all of us fawning undergrads with autographs.

One anecdotal indication about McGrath's moving away from Barth.. I spoke to John Webster before I left that night and he said that while he thought the lectures were interesting, he pretty much disagreed with every single move McGrath made in his argument.

Bobby Grow said...

I just finished T. F. Torrance's The Ground and Grammar of Theology, it sounds like McGrath's thinking may be consonant with some of the themes that Torrance forwards relative to Einsteinian Metaphysics; does he reference Torrance at all?

Ben Myers said...

Bobby: yes, I'd say Torrance is clearly the single greatest influence on McGrath's work in this field. He engages extensively with Torrance throughout his various science books, and the first volume of his Scientific Theology is also dedicated to Torrance.

Bobby Grow said...

Cool, Ben.

I've only read a few things by McGrath (his Iustitia Dei his book on Luther's 'Theology of the Cross'), most recently I read his book against Dawkins' 'popular' book, The Dawkins Delusion --- this is the closest thing of 'science' that I have read from McGrath.

I was turned off to McGrath because of a prof in seminary who couldn't stand him, and then Colin Gunton visited my seminary (back in 2002); and he too didn't have good things to say about McGrath's work (I think it was because of the sheer volume of McGrath's out-put of books that Gunton seemed to be put off by --- i.e. didn't represent careful thought). Suffice to say, I have been reticent, for the most part, since then, to engage McGrath.

Anyway, all that to say, I'll have to take a look at this new book of his; it sounds interesting, at the least I would like to see how he engages with some of the framework that Torrance provided --- like Torrance's Theological Science.

Thanks for the review, Ben.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for a great review, i've ordered a copy.

Jonathan Keith said...

There is a certain resonance, I think, between CS Lewis's statement “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” and Dobzhansky's "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution". The latter statement reveals something important about the way science works - the great scientific paradigms are not proved in a mathematical sense. Rather, their acceptance is achieved because they produce a compelling gestalt.

Yet it is, perhaps, appropriate to refer to such gestalt effects as "proof". When one hears some creationists asserting that evolution is 'just a theory', not proven fact, one can't help but feel that a purely semantic game is being played - that creationists are defining "proof" in such a way that it cannot be achieved. But perhaps there can be no better proof of a theory than that it illuminates.

Samuel said...


Proof is an inherently strong word, and if it is reduced to "that which illuminates" or some variety thereof then "proofs" become subject to losing their status as proofs (e.g. the gradual accrual of discordant data/ Kuhnian anamologies to the point of a crisis in which the illuminating power of the proof has fallen into disrepute, etc.). I don't think a proof can, by definition, cease to prove.

So, I appreciate the distinction you are making, but proof would lose its distinctive meaning if your suggested definition was accurate. Theoria, theory, is a word that covers exactly what you desribe because theories allow us "to see."

michael jensen said...

He's a nice guy, too...

When I was talking to him in Aberdeen a couple of years back, McGrath said to me 'Ah - you are from Australia. Do you know Ben Myers? He's a pretty sharp fellow, isn't he?'

I said 'I do not know the man'...

Ben Myers said...

Michael, I hope you repented when you heard the cock crow...

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