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The meaning of life

Many find theology dusty, but McGrath makes a pitch for it as the centre of our world

Artillery Row

I am getting old and, as winter comes, I start to feel it in my bones. There are so many things I could have been and done, but in the end we must reckon with what we are, what we have amounted to, don’t we? 

Even Oxford professors do. Return from a Distant Country may be the most beautiful autumnal book about theology you will ever read, its power in the personal insights and gems that live herein.

Return from a Distant Country, Alistair McGrath, 1517 Media, 2022

Many find theology rather dusty, but McGrath makes a pitch for it being much more central to understanding the world we live in and asking the kind of questions that matter. You might ask, who sets out to be a theologian surely better to be a fisherman or potter or something? McGrath has the same thought. He tells us, “I never expected to be a Christian theologian, mainly because I never expected to be a Christian.”

This starts a journey of discovery as we follow his unexpected path from youthful Marxism and Scientism (the belief that only science can explain the world). McGrath still has a sneaky admiration for Marxism but it didn’t quite explain the world well enough to be liveable although it did position us all as victims of history, which is helpful.

McGrath’s story is told modestly, but he has had a gilded career. The grammar school boy from outside Belfast who won a scholarship to Oxford must have been a ferocious intellect. He did his BA in Chemistry and his Doctorate in Molecular Biophysics while reading for a BA in Theology at the same time. Prestigious teaching posts and professorial chairs followed.

McGrath explains his epiphany and great sense of purpose: to be a public voice in opposition to the noisy and strident New Atheism. He debated with, among others, Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins. I was at Oxford during some of his talks and debates, and they were not for the fainthearted. He covers these skirmishes and explains that it is his theology that drove him to debate with the intransigent and the certain. 

Why? Here he runs against the grain: it isn’t to discredit opponents of Christianity but more to offer an alternative view, to invite people to find out more. In a world that wants to fight, it isn’t easy to advocate good manners and civility. McGrath believes theology can play a part in the public square, to encourage civilised debate and to make us ask questions. 

Every great question about God has already been asked

Certainly, he has been heavily influenced by C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton and Karl Popper. He asserts that just about every great question about God has already been asked and answered, and we would be remiss not to want to find out how. In the Church as it is now, many emphasise experience and emotion, but how many advocate the hard graft of book learning? I wonder how many pastors in that tradition have delved into the riches of St Augustine. McGrath argues after Augustine’s insight that faith is about “healing the eye of the heart”. He says we must acknowledge our own historical biases. 

McGrath quotes Marcel Proust: the “only true voyage of discovery”, he suggested, is “not to travel to new landscapes, but to possess other eyes, to behold the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others”. 

McGrath goes on to explain how he managed to reconcile his love of science and his faith in God. Theology and science are not at war; they are both ways of seeing the world and making those insights that help us to realise the wonder of the planet we live on. 

Yes, occasionally the language does tip into a forest: “fundamental recognition of the ontological unity of our complex world, which entails a methodological pluralism” might send us into a darkened room. But these moments are rare. Instead, McGrath usually writes with a restrained simplicity. His journey to being a theologian was a calling, not a case of ivory towers. 

He drives a gentle dagger into the heart of prominent Christians

But he must skate on thin ice at times. He rejects Richard Dawkins’ intellectual imperialism, that there is only one way of seeing the world. He also drives a gentle dagger into the heart of those prominent Christians (and I heard it argued at theological college) who say we should withdraw from the big bad secular world because it might pollute us. There is room between these viewpoints, but we do well not to underestimate the gentle power of McGrath’s position, even though it is so modestly put.

When all is said and done, there is a wistfulness at the heart of this beautiful book. All that academic promise, the years sharpening the mind and the like, and what can be done with it all? 

As the book ends, McGrath reveals his real passion: passing on knowledge to younger clergy and others (a teacher’s eye-view) helping theologians at the start of their journey to see the wood for the trees. He reflects:

So will I be remembered as a theologian? I doubt it, except perhaps in one sense. Future theologians will need help in getting started as I did. Maybe my legacy will turn out to be helping young theologians find their feet, so that they can develop their own visions of theology. I’m very happy with that modest thought. It’s good to have been useful.

That’s the thesis here: theology is useful. Modest gains can be had.

As a young man I longed to go to Oxford University. But people from my comprehensive didn’t go, and I probably wouldn’t have fitted in anyway. Instead, I went to UEA in East Anglia and studied English. I did my MA, but an adviser took me aside and sadly told me that I might make more of a success of my life as a journalist rather than an academic. I was totally crestfallen and in grief. 

We all need to take stock of what we have amounted to. Alister McGrath helps us to understand that theology can help us here.

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