Thursday, November 03, 2016

Inventing the Universe by Alister McGrath

Hodder & Stoughton, 2016, 247pp

Many people believe that science has disproved the Christian faith, or at least that science and Christianity are in conflict, with science the hands-down winner. As a teenage atheist the author of this book would have pretty much agreed with that scenario. But then he began to have doubts. It dawned on him that while science has helped us understand the workings of the natural world, it cannot provide a framework for living a fulfilled and purposeful life. For that kind of thing we have to go beyond the confines of empirical research and scientific theory.

The likes of Richard Dawkins seek to perpetuate the conflict between science and faith, but as McGrath demonstrates, a more harmonious relationship between these two perspectives on life can be achieved. Christian thinkers believed that the rational world is capable of rational explanation because it was created by a wise and rational God. That very idea helped to give birth to modern science. In calling in to question the conflict narrative beloved of the new atheists, McGrath explodes some of their dearest myths; Galileo vs the Church, Huxley vs Wilberforce and all that. The facts are quite different to the accounts trotted out by scientistic propagandists. 

Reality is so big and complex that no one perspective on life can give us a glimpse of the whole. When both science and faith are allowed to contribute to our view of reality, a more richly textured picture emerges. Conflicts emerge when science tries to do the job of faith and visa versa. Science can explore the natural world and devise theories on how the world works, but it cannot provide answers to ultimate questions such as; 'Why does the universe exist?', 'What is the purpose of life?' and 'What is a well-lived life?' That is where faith comes in. But faith cannot tell us that the chemical composition of water is H2O, or provide an explanation of how traits are passed on via DNA. Science and faith are mutually enriching, with the former offering answers to 'How?' questions, and the latter to 'Why?' ones. 

Sometimes the boundary between science and faith is not easy to discern. For, example, McGrath cites an experiment designed to prove the existence of the human soul by showing that bodies decreased in weight at death. The experiment was flawed. McGrath concludes that there is no such thing as the human soul, the idea of which he attributes more to Plato than the Christian faith. But if souls exist at all, they are spirit, not matter and are not therefore capable of being weighed. You don't have to be a card carrying Platonist to notice that the Bible speaks of the human spirit existing beyond death in some way, 2 Corinthians 5:8, Philippians 1:21, 23. 

Rather than Christianity acting as an impediment to the scientific enterprise, it has on occasion provided a necessary corrective to the prevailing scientific viewpoint. Many scientists held to the 'steady state' view of the universe. Partly because if the universe has always existed, there is no need to invoke a Creator. However, the discovery of background radiation in the 1960's pointed to the afterglow of a 'big bang'. The universe had a beginning after all, just as the Christian faith had claimed for two thousand years. 

The relationship between the Christian faith and Darwin's theory of evolution has been fraught with tensions. Some Christians have been strongly opposed to the theory, others have tried to reach an accommodation with an evolutionary account of origins. McGrath is in the second camp. Certainly the theory of evolution does not in itself disprove the existence of God, as some have claimed. Few would dispute that some form of evolutionary process helps account for the wide variety of plant and animal species we see today. Sticking points would be whether God created the original 'kinds' of Genesis 1:11-12, 1:20-21, 1:24-25, which then diversified into myriads of different species, and of course, the special creation of human beings depicted in Genesis 1:26-27. McGrath prefers Augustine's approach to Genesis 1 to that of modern day Creationists. He has little difficulty with the idea that human beings evolved from primates. 

But as McGrath stresses repeatedly, even the most widely accepted scientific theories are subject to revision or even rejection as better understandings of the facts are achieved. The shift from the 'steady state' to the 'big bang' account of origins is a case in point. On the other hand, theology sometimes needs to correct its understanding of the Bible in the light of scientific developments. Galileo's discovery that the solar system is heliocentric brought into question the church's overdependence on Ptolemy's earth-centred astronomical model. In that case a model that was alien to the Bible had skewed how people understood its teaching. 

What of the discrepancy between the the age of the universe as held by the scientific consensus, and what is apparently taught in the Bible? The Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck regarded the creation days of Genesis 1 as "workdays of God", or "the time in which God was at work creating", which he thought not likely to be the work of a few hours. Unlike the good Bishop Usher, who posited that God created the world in 4004 B.C, Bavinck admitted that the Bible does not provide exact data on the age of the earth. As McGrath points out, Bavinck's contemporary B. B. Warfield did not believe that the antiquity of man was a theological issue. What mattered for him was not the age, but the unity of the human race. Once more, science had called into question a common approach to reading the Bible in terms of the age of the universe. Nevertheless, there are also times when theology needs to hold its ground against the scientific consensus, as with the insistence that the universe had a beginning. Bavinck argues,
As the science of divine and eternal things, theology must be patient until the science that contradicts it has made a deeper and broader study of its field and, as happens in most cases, corrects itself. In that matter theology upholds its dignity and honour more effectively than by constantly yielding and adapting itself to the opinions of the day. 
Perhaps theologians need to exercise a little more patience before giving wholesale acceptance to a Darwinian account of the origin of human beings. The special creation of human life in God's image and the historic fall of man into sin are difficult to square with the theory of evolution. How can they be accounted for in evolutionary terms? Especially as the reality of human sinfulness is a key feature of McGrath's case. 

Criticisms aside, the author makes some telling arguments against new atheist writers such as Richard Dawkins who claim that religion is the root of all evil. If only we could get rid of God in favour of science, they say, all would be well. As McGrath points out, things aren't quite so simple. Anti-God advocates of scientism fail to take into account that science can be harnessed for harmful ends, such as the production of napalm. Besides, notions of good and evil make little sense if there is no God. And if there is no God, then the idea of the divine is but a human invention that has been used to justify all manner of bad stuff. In that case, it's not God's fault, but our own. Religion is the product of our twisted human hearts that are inclined towards evil. Just as the Christian account of human fallenness suggests. John Calvin taught that the heart is a 'factory of idols'. Man-made religion as opposed to the worship of the living God is always destructive and debasing. The fact that new atheists are so outraged at the the impact of 'bad religion' is a backhanded compliment to the standard of absolute good and righteousness may be ascribed to God alone. 

Contrary to what is sometimes claimed, McGrath points out that science in itself cannot adjudicate on matters of good and evil. Such value judgments take us beyond the realms of  empirical investigation or rationalistic theorising. Many of the moral principles that we hold most dear are not the product of atheistic humanism, but the Christian faith. Christianity posits that all human beings are of equal worth and value, and should therefore be treated with dignity and respect. Early adopters of Darwinism advocated eugenics. The survival of the fittest, and all that. Richard  In the light of that Dawkins tells women that they must abort their babies should they be discovered to have Downs Syndrome. We need to look above and beyond science to discover a sense of moral purpose. 

Atheistic scientism is a form of reductionist 'nothing buttery' that offers an impoverished view of reality. The perspective offered by science needs to be supplemented by that of faith. Science has expanded our understanding of the vastness of the universe, in which the earth is but a tiny blue dot. When viewed in that way, human life can seem insignificant and worthless. Those with faith are also overawed by the magnitude of space, but we are assured that this is God's world and he cares for us,

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
    the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
    and the son of man that you care for him?
(Psalm 8:3-4)

McGrath's work will challenge the thinking of those who have been influenced by Richard Dawkins and others. He exposes the inadequacy new atheism's take on science and proposes a more constructive engagement between science and faith. He doesn't so much set out to give a defense of the Christian faith, as offer his readers a compelling vision of the intellectual depth and coherence of the Christian worldview. Inventing the Universe will also prove stimulating for Christians as they reflect on the relationship between science and faith. Not all will agree with every point, I certainly didn't. Tensions between science and faith will always exist to a degree, as there is some crossover between the two perspectives on life. They offer differing origin narratives, which can only be reconciled with some difficulty, for example. But McGrath's main proposal that the 'maps' supplied by science and faith may be combined to provide a more richly textured account of reality is surely welcome. If taken on board it will help provide a way to move on from angry conflict to a more fruitful, engagement between science and the Christian faith. 

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