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.


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