Why do humans wonder so deeply about the nature and purpose of the world? And what does this tell us about what it means to be human? In this episode, Sean and Scott interview Oxford professor Alister McGrath about his latest book. McGrath makes a powerful case that naturalism is insufficient to account for the universal human sense of wonder and that this feature of the world points us to Christianity.
More About Our Guest
Dr. Alister McGrath teaches in the areas of theology and science at Oxford University. He specializes in issues of natural theology, historical theology, and has written a popular biography of C.S. Lewis. His latest book is Born to Wonder: Exploring Our Deepest Questions–Why Are We Here, and Why Does It Matter?
Sean McDowell: Welcome to the podcast, Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. I'm your host, Sean McDowell, professor of apologetics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University.
Scott Rae: And I'm your cohost, Scott Rae, dean of faculty and professor of Christian ethics, also at Talbot School of Theology here at Biola University.
Sean McDowell: We're here today with a guest that I have been looking forward to having on this show for a while. He's the author of multiple books. You'll recognize his name. It's Dr. Alister McGrath and he's a professor in science and religion at the University of Oxford. He's written a wonderful new book and the pun is intended because it's called Born to Wonder. I can't wait to unpack this with him. Dr. McGrath, thanks so much for joining us today.
Alister McGrath: Well it's great to be with you. Thank you for having me.
Sean McDowell: Yeah, you betcha. This is a book about wonder which I love. Yet, you include in it some of your journey from atheism to Christianity that was initially intellectual and then it seems that this fascination and this intrigue with wonder kind of takes off from there. Would you mind sharing your journey, your conversion to Christianity, and then how it shapes the writing of this book?
Alister McGrath: Sure. I'd love to do that. When I was in high school, I was doing the natural sciences and it just seemed obvious to me that science was about atheism. You couldn't be a good scientist and be a religious believer. Then when I went to Oxford to study science, I began to realize it wasn't that simple. I hadn't really understood what Christianity was all about, one of these classic examples of someone who thought he knew what Christianity was but got it wrong. At Oxford, I discovered what it really was thanks to CS Lewis. So I had what I have to describe as a purely intellectual conversion. This way of thinking, Christian way, it makes so much sense of things.
Then as I began to grow in my Christian life, I began to realize that well yes, it does make sense of things, but it does more than that. So I began to realize how important worship was in opening my mind up. I began to realize also how important this theme of wonder is because in effect, wonder undergirds science. That's why you start wanting to look at the natural world and wonder also lies at the heart of Christian worship. So in many ways, this book is about, if you like, almost like a recovering rationalist beginning to realize that there's much more to life than reason is able to take in, but reason's great. It just doesn't go as far as we would like. So that's how I began to really move towards appreciating the importance of wonder.
Scott Rae: So Alister, tell us a little bit more. Given your background both in the sciences and in theology, how does your background in the sciences, how does science help us in our search for meaning and in our search for wonder? What are the different strengths and limitations of science in that search?
Alister McGrath: I think science helps us to understand how wonderful, how vast, how complex, and how ordered our universe is. When I read Psalm 19, "The heavens declare the glory of the Lord," when I turn to science if you like, it expands my vision of just how amazing this universe is and of course helps me to appreciate God all the more. So if you like, science helps me to understand just how complex our world is and also makes me ask some rather deep questions like, "Why are we able to make so much sense of it? Why is there this resonance between the way in which we think and the way the world seems to be? How do we explain that?" Of course the Christian doctrine of creation has a lot to say in that respect, but for me, a very important point is this. I mean I think science is great, but it has its limits.
For me, one of the most amazing things about Christianity is it helps us to understand why science works so well, but it also helps us to understand why it has limits and what those limits are. To me, that is a very important point because when I say to my scientist friends, "I really like what you're doing," I'm also saying, "But we need more than this to be Christian, to be human beings, to be able to make sense of our world and inhabit it meaningfully." So if you like, Christianity creates intellectual space for natural sciences, but also helps us to realize that there's much more that needs to be said.
Sean McDowell: So what are some of those limitations of science when it comes to meaning and value and purpose in the universe?
Alister McGrath: Well I think one of the things we need to say is that meaning and purpose simply aren't empirical ideas. They're not things that we can, so to speak, read off from the universe. I think that is an important point because when I read someone like Richard Dawkins, he seems to be saying something like this. Well you can only engage with the empirical and the empirical is about how the universe functions and therefore, there's no meaning in the universe. My response to that is going to be that we need a different angle of approach to our universe if we're going to be able to see that. Now, one of the points I think is really interesting is to follow through on CS Lewis's suggestion that we think of Christianity as being like a lens that brings things into focus. If you use the wrong lens, you don't see things properly. Everything's blurry and out of focus.
For me, using science to try and find meaning or indeed value is like using the wrong lens. You don't see anything. It's out of focus and you say, "Hey, it's not there," but no, it is there. It's just that the lens you're using doesn't disclose it. So for me, Christianity is so important here because otherwise, we have an impoverished view of our world which simply can't address this deep question of why are we here and why is life so important. What are we meant to be doing?
Sean McDowell: So how would Dawkins respond to this? How would he ... Obviously, he wouldn't point to something spiritual, but you write in the book that he agrees with you about that we kind of are made to wonder, so to speak. How would he answer this sense of wonder in a naturalistic framework?
Alister McGrath: Yeah, that is a very good question. I'm not sure I really got an answer from him, but let's try and tease out what he would say. He would say that in effect, wonder is just a kind of natural response on the part of a small human mind to a bigger reality beyond it and that's it. I agree that wonder is about the response of a small human mind to something great that's beyond it, whether we're talking about the universe or indeed God, but what I'd want to say is the fact that that experience is there is really very important because it's a gateway. If you like, it's one of these clues to the meaning of the universe that CS Lewis talks about in Mere Christianity. It's not something accidental. It's something that is meant to make us ask questions. What's this all about? Is this experience a wonder, simple a dead end, or is it a gateway to a deeper understanding of this world and also why we're here and what we're meant to be doing?
Dawkins will say, "Well science can't tell you that and therefore it can't be right because science is the only reliable tool we have at our disposal." My response is going to be that reality is so complicated we need multiple tools of investigation if we're going to uncover all its rich aspects. So science is great in its own area, but we need other tools if we're going to start talking about value and meaning. For me, that is why Christianity is so important. It gives us this set of tools, this toolkit that allows us to in effect be able to talk meaningfully about value and meaning.
Scott Rae: Alister, in addition to the questions of why are we here and what does this all mean, you also approach the question of who are we as human beings. What is our human nature? It seems to me your multifaceted approach to human nature is a good example of this being so complex that we need multiple sources of investigation to understand what human nature is as well. Could you spell out a little bit more what you mean by this multifaceted approach to human nature? What are the different avenues of investigation that we need to really understand the complexity of human nature?
Alister McGrath: Yeah, that's a great question and it's really rich. Richard Dawkins says science is the only reliable source of knowledge. So therefore, we just do a scientific analysis of human nature and that's all we can know. I say to Richard Dawkins, "All you're doing is saying this kind of knowledge is scientific knowledge and there are other kinds of knowledge available." What I'm saying to Dawkins is, "You need to expand your vision, realize that knowledge is richer and deeper than narrow segment that you allow us to have." So looking at human nature, you can see immediately that you could offer a very narrow scientific account of human nature. For example, I think of Francis Crick's very famous one-liner: "We're nothing but a bunch of neurons." In one sense, we could say that we are made up of atoms and molecules. We could say we are a bunch of biological components and science is able to tell us that. I agree.
It's just that we are more than that. That's really one of the points I emphasize time and time again in this book. We can in effect offer scientific accounts of human nature and that's helpful, but these are only partial insights. They do not tell the full story and we need to tell that full story and that means using other ways of understanding who we are. I think that is so important because very often scientists accidentally or deliberately offer a very reduced, a very reductionist account of human nature. I'm sitting here at my desk and I have in my hand a glass of water because my throat's going dry, but here's a point I want to make. I'm made up of atoms and molecules. This glass of water is made up of atoms and molecules, but if your understanding of human nature can't tell the difference between me and a glass of water, something is seriously wrong.
So what I'm saying in this book is we need multiple approaches which builds up a rich, complex, and coherent understanding of who we are and what we're all about. Science is part of that picture and it's most welcome, but there's more that needs to be said and there is ample room for Christianity to come in and say, "Let's talk about some other things that science isn't able to disclose."
Sean McDowell: One of the really interesting examples you gave in your book to support that point was that Sam Harris, one of the most outspoken atheists today, has this interest in Eastern mysticism. What do you make of that in light of your larger project about what it means to be human and our search for wonder?
Alister McGrath: Yeah, that's really interesting. When I read Sam Harris talking about this, I thought initially this guy, he's just contradicting himself. He's being inconsistent. Then I read him more closely and I saw something really interesting. This isn't about Sam Harris contradicting himself. It's about Sam Harris realizing that the new atheism on its own can't answer our ultimate questions. We need more than that. What Sam Harris is hoping is that in effect he can present Eastern mysticism as some kind of philosophy so he doesn't have to use words like religion or faith, but the key point is simply this. Sam Harris has realized that atheism on its own doesn't do the job. It doesn't engage our deepest anxieties and concerns. We need more. He turns to mysticism. Well enjoy, but I turn to Jesus Christ because I find in there, in him, something which really engages the deepest questions of life. So I think Sam Harris is actually being very helpful here by simply showing us that atheism on its own leads to a very impoverished and inadequate and I would say unlivable way of thinking about life.
Scott Rae: Alister, you know the ... You mention in your book that the postmodernists will tell us that things like meaning and purpose and design for the universe are just human creations. They're not inherent to the world. The world just sort of is what it is and that meaning and purpose is something that human beings invent for themselves perhaps because we can't tolerate the alternative that we live in a universe that's meaningless. How do we know that meaning isn't simply a human invention, that we all invent our own meaning, and why isn't that sufficient?
Alister McGrath: That's another really good question. When I was an atheist back when I was about 16 or so, I thought I was an atheist because in effect it was scientifically right, it was progressive, and all these things. Looking back on my teenage years, I can see I was an atheist because I didn't want there to be a God. In other words to use Freud's idea of wish fulfillment, I didn't want there to be a God because that would kind of in a way make life complicated. Therefore, I adopted a worldview which said there isn't a God. You don't need to worry about this. So you're absolutely right that people do tend to adopt worldviews that they want to be right, but I've got news for atheists. A lot of them, that applies to them. They're atheists because they do not want there to be a God. So they simply adjust their way of thinking about the world to resonate with that.
So in my own case, I began to realize simply that Christianity made an awful lot more sense than atheism and if it was right, I had to enter into a new way of living and a new way of thinking, what the New Testament calls metanoia if you like, a sort of radical mental realignment. But your question is good. How do we know that we aren't simply making things up? I think that in many ways is the core question which lies the heart of this book. Atheists, I think as I dialogue with them, like to think that they are talking about fact and I'm talking about faith. In other words, they can prove they're right. I have to in effect say, "Well I think this, but I can't prove it's right."
One of the most interesting conversations I've had with people, and maybe this will resonate with people listening to this discussion, is that when you say, "Well that's really interesting. Now, tell me. Can you prove there is no God," and the answer comes back, "Well actually we can't, but we don't need to because we know it's right," but when you press, you begin to realize that actually atheism is a faith commitment. In many ways, the question we are asking is not what's fact and what's faith, but actually in regard to all of the big questions of life, we all take faith positions, even the atheists. So we have to ask, "How do we decide which of our faith positions is intellectually the most reliable but also existentially the most significant?" So that's very important.
In my case, it's because I see Christianity making so much sense of what I observe in the world around me, but also what I experience within me. As you all know, that's very typical of CS Lewis and as you can guess, I began to read CS Lewis shortly after becoming a Christian. I found him very, very helpful. So in many ways, my answer to your question would be very similar to his, but the key point is to emphasize that atheism is a faith whether atheists like this or not. The debate is about which faith makes most sense of things and answers our deepest question.
Sean McDowell: I love the way you frame that. When I talk to students, I often say, "How do we know Christianity's true? Well let's look at the world and see if it describes the world as it is. But second, does it tell a story that just kind of marinates with our deepest desires?" That's where, in the book, you talk about how JRR Tolkien believed that Pagan stories ignite in us a desire for the true myth. Could you talk about how kind of our storytelling nature and the use of stories that both CS Lewis and Tolkien utilized in their apologetics in writing is actually a kind of apologetic that points us towards the Christian faith?
Alister McGrath: Well yes. This is a great topic to explore because both Tolkien and Lewis approached the world with a theological perspective. If we're made in God's image, that's a Christian assumption, then we would expect there to be some kind of imaginative template, some kind of propensity to tell stories that are not stories we've invented, but rather something that reflects who we are and where we ultimately come from. In other words, both Tolkien and Lewis are saying that the fact that Christianity is able to explain why we tell these stories and why these stories have got this remarkable tendency to point beyond themselves towards a transcendent world, towards God is an indication of the truth of Christianity.
But their point is really good because they in effect say to us, "Look, we can talk to people about their own stories." We can talk to people, as CS Lewis so often did, about the great myths of the Scandinavian countries or Ancient Greece and say, "I wonder if that story is actually pointing to something very deep that we have missed." That, I think, is a really helpful way of doing apologetics, in effect telling stories. Here is a Christian story. Do you see how much sense it makes of things? So for me, this is a very fertile, very helpful way of thinking which A) connects up with people and B) helps us to appreciate the intellectual resilience of the Christian faith.
Scott Rae: Alister, you talk in your book about a particular dilemma that particularly the new atheists like Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, others face when they say that God is evil and religion is destructive. Yet, they also acknowledge that God and religion are human inventions. Tell us a little bit about that dilemma that they face. How do they attempt to extricate themselves from that?
Alister McGrath: Well this is a really interesting question and I think I have to say that neither Dawkins nor Hitchens really engages with at all and I can understand why they don't because it's very bad news for them. Let's just go through their argument. What they say is though that human beings are good. There's this thing called religion. It's awful. It's horrible. it's evil. Of course, there isn't a God. So religion is a human invention. My question to them is if we've invented religion, what does that say about us as its inventors if religion is so evil? For example, do you remember that very, very overplayed section in Dawkins's God Delusion where he talks about the God of the Old Testament being the most malevolent, et cetera, et cetera? It goes on and on and on, but it's really fun. But the point is that what he fails to say is if this is fiction, we invented that fiction. If that fiction is evil, what does that say about us?
For me, if religion is as bad as they say it is, it's in effect saying that we are evil. Now, they just avoid this. Other philosophers are more open about this. I mention, for example, Bernard Williams and others who basically say, "Look, we have to face up to this." In effect, the worlds we create tell us something about ourselves. If religion is evil and we've invented it, we need to look at ourselves and ask what does that say about us. That's a very important point. I don't think Dawkins really faces up to it. He's so obsessed with saying religion is evil, he seems to fail to realize its retrospective important, but I think actually what I see him doing is something like this. There are two kinds of human beings. There are people like Richard Dawkins who are enlightened, intelligent, and good. Then there are these awful people called religious people who are evil and stupid, and they're the ones who invent religion because we intelligent people know it's all wrong.
In effect, it's a form of Manicheism. It is in effect an atheist Manicheism. Humanity is divided into two and I think it really reveals something very deeply incoherent and unsatisfactory about their way of thinking. So I think it's a very good point at which to press people who talk about the religion being evil but human beings being good. There's a problem there and it's a problem that can be pressed home, I think, with great advantage.
Sean McDowell: Let's talk about this a little bit more because it struck me that in a book about wonder, you might expect to talk about the wonder of beauty and the wonder of rainbows and science. You spent a good amount of time going into original sin and the broken state of human beings. So my questions are why did you go into that in the book and what's the atheist response to this, a secular response, and why don't you buy it?
Alister McGrath: I do talk a little bit about wonder at rainbows, the beauty of nature, and these things really matter to me. I'm here in Oxford looking out a window. It's a beautiful view and I can appreciate that fully, but I'm trying to say also that part of the natural world is human beings. There's something about us that raises some difficult questions. One of the reasons I talk about original sin is because I feel that we need to be intellectually honest about the fact there is something wrong with us, that in effect our judgments, our ways of thinking, our actions very often show that we are damaged or broken or wounded and we really need help. The reason I place so much emphasis on this is that I am fed up with very kind people saying we're all nice and we can all live happily together while failing to realize that beneath a veneer, beneath the surface, there's something much darker.
So for me, the thing about Christianity is it is deadly realistic. It tells the truth. It, if you like, strips away delusions. Again, I talked earlier about atheism is a kind of wish fulfillment. Part of that wish fulfillment is that we are wonderful, we are intelligent, we always get things right, we're always kind, and I'm afraid that's a delusion and we need to say that because the first thing we need to do before we try and improve our world is to understand what the problem is. We're a big part of that problem. For me, original sin is in effect saying we are a problem which is why that problem needs to be engaged. It's why Christianity is so important. What I'm saying is that when you look at human nature through a Christian lens, what you see chimes in, resonates with what actually is the real situation in the world.
What I'm trying to say in this book is that many Christians feel uneasy about this idea of original sin particularly in the postmodern culture. What I'm saying is, "No, no, no. Hold on to this. It's biblical, it's right, and it says something that needs to be heard if we're going to avoid a dystopianism which we see in some of these secular ideologies which are so influential in our culture."
Scott Rae: Alister, let me go back to what I would call the honest atheist who doesn't want there to be a God. One of the things I appreciate about people like NYU professor Thomas Nagel who I think recognizes the limits of atheism to explain a number of different things like consciousness and moral properties and things like that, but is also desperately hoping that his atheism is right because he doesn't want there to be a God. What are the reasons why atheists don't want there to be a God?
Alister McGrath: Well I like Tom Nagel like you. Reading his works, I mean it's really interesting. It's almost like a retrospective justification of an idea he arrives at on emotional grounds. He might disagree with that, but that's the way I would see it. Your question is good. I think it's because of the question of autonomy. As I read the history of Western Europe from about 1800 to today, I think I can see a desire for us to make the rules. We don't want to be told what to do. We want to decide for ourselves. We want to tell other people. There's an absolute refusal to accept that there might be someone or something beyond us which in effect shows us the way things really are. So if you like, I think it's because of human pride. It's because of human refusal to accept our limitations. We in effect invent a world which we like and it's a world in which there is no God.
That, if you like, is the minor point. The major point is but we are here and we run this show. We're in charge. We invent the rules. So I think, if you like, it's almost like self-validation. We are the ones in charge and so it's this desire to in effect assert human autonomy lying behind atheism. So for me, that's the big thing. It's a bit like CS Lewis. Do you remember in Mere Christianity, he talked about God as the great interferer? He wanted to be autonomous. He didn't want anyone to be telling him what was right or what to do. That, I think, is an instinct that lies beneath the surface of a lot of atheist writings. We want to be in charge. We don't want there to be a God. So let's figure out some reasons for saying, "Hey, there isn't a God anyway," and the reasons come after the desire.
Sean McDowell: Alister, when you get towards the end of the book, you kind of sum up the key takeaways from your writings. One of the points you emphasize is the importance of living with unanswered questions. I'm wondering why that's so important and I guess it seems to me it's hard for people because we think science can solve everything. So this pandemic hits and we just think, "Why can't we just fix this?" You're saying we need to embrace that a part of life is that we have unanswered questions. Why is that so important?
Alister McGrath: For me, it's important because one of the reasons I abandoned atheism as a teenager and moved towards Christianity was a realization that the kinds of atheism I knew were really very simplistic and in effect offered me very black-and-white responses to big questions. When I pressed my atheist friends and said, "How can you show that's right," they would say, "Look, it's obvious. Any intelligent person can see this." Now, I would keep pressing and say, "No, show me. I don't see this. You need to show me," and they couldn't. I think what I'm really doing is saying I'm becoming, as I get older, increasingly aware that an awful lot of the worldviews in our modern culture are dangerously simplistic. That's why they have appeal, but they in effect offer simple answers to big questions and the answers are inadequate.
What I'm saying is something like this. There isn't a problem is saying we can't fully answer this question. For me, Christianity gives us a wonderful way of looking at the world which helps me see that everything fits into place, but not all of my questions are answered fully. But I've learned to live with that. I say, "Look, when I was an atheist, I had to learn that it could not answer all my questions." What I'm trying to say to people is you mustn't feel oppressed or overwhelmed by a big question which you couldn't answer because when I was younger, I faced that all the time and in the end, that led me to embrace Christianity. That's why, for me, I'm very suspicious of the simplistic approach I find in Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. It's simplistic because in effect it is a superficial engagement with our world which in effect is inadequate.
One of the points I'm trying to make in this book is that we can live with these unanswered questions. We, to use that beautiful phrase from Paul, see through a glass darkly. In other words, we can't see with the clarity that the enlightenment said we ought to be able to have. Therefore, what we very often do is we grossly simplify to achieve that clarity. What I'm saying basically is that Christianity gives us permission, if you like, to say we can't answer all of these questions, but we know we found something which really gives us such a coherent, such a generative and wonderful way of looking at our world that we can cope with this because it lets us see so clearly that in effect we trust it because of that clarity.
Sean McDowell: I was so thrilled when I saw this point at the end that you emphasized it because I teach at Biola in our apologetics program and I worked with high school students for a decade, and some students were just taught that the Christian faith is simplistic. When they come up areas of doubt, it's like the entire thing topples over, but to hear from you in particular that, "Hey, this is okay. Christianity makes sense of the world, but we want to invite these questions and live with them," I think is very, very freeing and powerful for people. It's just a sense of what you're going into in your book. So I want to encourage our listeners if you've been inspired and made to think about wonder today in this interview, pick up a copy of Dr. Alister McGrath's recent book, Born to Wonder. It's the kind of book you're going to want to highlight, circle, share with a friend, share with a skeptic because there's so much material there just to have some great conversations about the world we live in and how the Christian faith applies to it. Dr. McGrath, we really appreciate you coming on the show. Thanks for your time.
Alister McGrath: Well it's been a pleasure being with you. Thank you for some wonderful questions.
Sean McDowell: You bet. This has been an episode of the podcast, Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. To learn more about us and today's guest, Alister McGrath, and to find more episodes, go to biola.edu/thinkbiblically. That's biola.edu/thinkbiblically. If you enjoyed today's conversation, give us a rating on your podcast app and share it with a friend. Thanks so much for listening and remember, think biblically about it.