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An Interview with Alister McGrath

by Jenny McGill on December 1, 2012 in Profiles

World-renown for his publications as a scientist and theologian, Dr. Alister McGrath has influenced the discussion about the existence of God, New Atheism, and natural and historical theology. Following a twenty-five-year legacy at the University of Oxford, Dr. McGrath went to King’s College London in 2008 as the Chair of Theology, Ministry and Education, and Head of the Centre for Theology, Religion and Culture. The author of numerous books, his 2011 releases include Why God Won’t Go Away, Luther’s Theology of the Cross, and The Aedyn Chronicles, a new children’s series. Jenny McGill (MACM, 2002), a student in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies there and DTS’s Adviser to Internationals, interviewed him recently.

How can the Christian develop the discipline of suffering as a spiritual discipline?

I don’t think Christians should actively seek out suffering. I don’t see that in the New Testament at all. What I do see in the New Testament and certainly in writers like Martin Luther is this: if suffering comes your way, see it as a privilege given you by God—a privilege that enables you to reflect on the cross and all the more what Christ has done for you. Also, it’s God’s way of making you into a better person. That doesn’t make it easier for you, but it does help you see that something comes out of this. In John 15, we have this wonderful image of the true vine and the Father as vinedresser. One of the key points is that He prunes so the vine can bear fruit. God prunes us. It’s unpleasant, but it does need to be done. Luther tells us that we should think of suffering as a privilege—something that God entrusts to us because it makes us better people and helps us to grow in our faith, while also enabling us to connect more powerfully to the sufferings of Christ on the cross.

What do you see as the greatest challenges facing the church in the United States?

Every generation faces a challenge of how it passes its faith onto the next generation. Here in England, during the 1960s, we didn’t pass on our faith very well, and now we’re in the middle of a mess. My concern would be this: What are American Christians doing to make sure one generation passes on its faith to the next? I don’t just mean telling others about what we believe, but actually showing them what a Christian life looks like.

We need to show them why it matters. Another challenge is this: America plays a leading role in Christianity worldwide. At least to outsiders—particularly in the Middle East and parts of Asia—there is a perceived link between US military power and Christianity, which means that Christianity is constantly portrayed as being aggressive and hostile towards Islam. American Christians need to think about whether American foreign policy actually is always helpful toward Christianity in the world at large.

What are your views on apologetics in the United States?

Apologetics is alive and well in America. But there are points at which further discussion is necessary. A lot of American apologetics is still angled toward to a modern, rather than a postmodern context—I’m thinking of its concern with propositional correctness. I accept that; that’s a very important part of apologetics. But apologetics is also relational. It’s how you become the right kind of person. It’s how you find something you can rely on. It has to do with ethics. It has to do with imaginative visions of the world. Without losing its strengths, can American apologetics embrace these areas as well? I think it can and it will.

What key issues will the Western church face in the twenty-first century?

It’s hard to predict, isn’t it? Here are a few things to watch out for: The center of gravity long ago moved from the West to the developing world. One of the things we’re going to face up to is that forms of Christianity will arise in the West that actually come from the Third World and will have a simplicity about them that in many ways mirrors that of the New Testament. We’ve got to listen to those very carefully. Many of the largest churches here in the UK are African or Asian churches. They are saying some things English Christians need to hear. We need to be aware so that we, the ones who once sent out missionaries to these places, may well receive missionaries from places where we once planted Christianity. That’s a sobering and important thought. Second, the relationship between Christianity and Islam is very troubling. I sense that Christians in many parts of the world are going to find it more difficult in the coming years. We have to work out how on earth we can help them without making things worse. That for me is a very big thing.

To what extent should we rely upon the historical Christian tradition in biblical interpretation and in interpreting contemporary Christian social practices?

The long tradition of Christians wrestling with Scripture and trying to apply it to their own situation gives us guidelines for how we do the same in our day. It doesn’t mean we simply replicate their answers, but it does mean that we see them as a helpful resource. We’re entering into dialogue with them. They’re saying, “Here’s how we did in our day”; we’re saying, “It’s a bit different in our day, but let’s see how and what you did and see if we can learn from it.” It’s like a sort of a community down the ages, people wrestling with the Scripture and saying, “How can we apply this to our situation? What do we believe? What do we do?”

To what extent can we understand and rely upon the context in which any particular passage is set?

I think we always need to know something about the context in which the passage is set. For example, it may say you ought to do something, but clearly it implies that there is a context in which this is being framed. In fact, it might be: “Should you do this in this context?”—not—“Should you do this?” We have to look carefully I think. Most biblical exegetes are careful about that. We must always examine the texts in their contexts to make sure we get the big picture, rather than tearing a text out of its proper context, trying to make sense of it in an atomistic way.

How do you view good works in relation to our final justification? 

The New Testament uses the image of a tree. If the root is sound, you bear fruit. If you are really rooted in Christ, which is a very good way of understanding faith, then you are going to bring forth good works naturally. We must never think of these works as proving we are saved. It’s like someone pointing to a tree and saying, “Look, it’s bringing forth fruit—that means it’s living, it’s alive.” Good works are the natural outcome of a true living faith. It’s just the way things happen. You love God, He loves you. You want to do good things, not for your own sake, because this is what you know God would like you to do.

How do you respond to the radical feminist objection to God being referred to in masculine metaphors (e.g. God the Father, Christ having the male gender to inhabit male form)?

 We must avoid thinking of God as being male or female. God creates male and female. It doesn’t mean He’s either or both. Sexuality is a part of the created order, and God is above that. He is the origin of both, but He’s neither. Scripture does use predominantly, not exclusively, but predominantly male imagery. Those were the role models of the day, and in effect, the biblical writers are making appeals to the familiar world that ordinary people can make sense of. It’s important not to reject biblical language. I affirm it. I take delight in it. It’s important we make sure we tell the full story. But let’s not forget the parts of Scripture which do talk of God in more maternal ways, such as God can no more forget Israel than a woman can forget the child she nursed (Isa. 49:15). That’s a wonderful image, and we need to cherish that. I would never stop referring to God as Father; I would not start referring to God as Mother. I would certainly be very happy to use language like God’s parental care which makes the point that both our earthly mother and father in some way help us understand what the love of God looks like.

To the person who considers Christianity and evolution incompatible, how do you respond?

The question is, “How do we interpret Scripture and above all, how do we interpret the opening chapters of Genesis?” Certainly, in recent years, many Christians have come to think that only a literal reading of Genesis does justice to the text. I can understand where they are coming from. For me, the issue is not about the authority of Scripture, but the interpretation of Scripture. My specialty is historical theology, which means I’m always asking how Christians read these biblical passages in the past. What I noticed in the earlier period of the Christian church is that people didn’t read Genesis in that way. I think we have more freedom about how we interpret these passages than some might think. There is no doubt [the Scriptures] teach God made all things. I don’t think they necessarily teach that God made all things instantaneously at one moment in time so that what we now see is the way things always have been. I think it’s more complex than that. Augustine of Hippo gives us a useful theological framework, which means we can begin to engage questions of evolution. You can’t simply say, “It’s the Bible or evolution.” Certainly, I would challenge certain interpretations of evolution—above all, Richard Dawkins’ idea, which is atheistic. I think we need to understand both evolution and Scripture rightly.

Do you take Adam and Eve then to be literal persons?

We need to take that text very seriously, and try and work out how best to make sense of it. Certainly, the book of Genesis is saying that we all come from the same stock. I’m still thinking how exactly we make sense of that. The text emphasizes the corporate identity of humanity. We’re all in the same boat. That’s a very important biblical insight. We’re all in the same mess, and we need someone to get us out of this mess, and that’s why salvation is such good news.

What is your take on Intelligent Design (ID)? You are a founding member of The International Society for Science and Religion (ISSR), which published a statement that ID is “neither sound science nor good theology….”

Let me tell you what I think as opposed to what they think. I think Intelligent Design does make some good points. It is right to say there is a degree of complexity in nature that can’t be accounted for in any natural mechanism. That needs to be said clearly. But I get worried that the Intelligent Design movement sometimes is a bit like the “God in the Gaps” approach. In effect, you say, “Look, you can’t explain this—that’s God.” Take Michael Behe’s book, Darwin’s Black Box (1996), which often says “We can’t explain that by science, therefore…” But actually, fifteen years later, some would say that we can now explain some of that. It’s absolutely right to say evolution doesn’t tell the full story. The conclusions we draw about the adequacy of evolution as a narrative of who we are, and so on, are very important. They [ID does come] close at points to saying, “Because science can’t explain this, that’s a good reason for believing in God.” It’s not that simple. Nevertheless, the complexity is real and is a pointer toward God.

Can a person have a “double belonging” or a multiple religious belonging? That is, can a person sufficiently be a follower of two or more religions with competing truth claims?

I don’t think it is. One of the things we do find in our postmodern culture is a kind of “pick and mix” mentality. For example, one might say, “I have this from there and that from there, and if they are inconsistent—well—I like them both, so I’m going to bring them together.” You do find people adopting very eclectic ways of thinking, very often without realizing what they are doing. We need to challenge this idea that you can have a multiple religious identity. We need to realize that when Christians talk about meditation, they are referring to a very important Old Testament theme, as in “I will meditate on your law” (c.f. Psa. 1:2, 119:15; 119:97). They don’t mean meditation as a Buddhist means mediation. The same word is being used but with quite different meanings. You can see why this would confuse people. There’s a real need for us to discover what Christianity means by its vocabulary and avoid the simplistic thinking that says, “This religion talks about this, and so does this one, so they’re the same, or we can belong to both.” It’s not like that at all. It is important to understand other religious belief systems because we’ve got to reach out to them.

I have a very secure religious identity. It is because I know who I am and I know who my Savior is. I find multiple religious identities quite troubling.

What is your view on the efficacy and consequences of classic liberalism?

 Classic liberalism, as I understand it, is an ethos of tolerance. It is an ethos of saying, “This is what you think; this is what I think, but we can get on together in a civilized way that enriches us and our society.” I understand where they are coming from. But I have problems with this. It’s that kind of ethos that let Hitler get away with things. I fully accept that we should work hard to get on with each other. Yet as a matter of principle, we have to say sometimes, “This is just wrong. We can’t allow this. We need to do something about this.” In effect, classic liberalism makes toleration its normative foundation. Therefore, it finds itself in a difficult situation where it has to tolerate that is intolerable. Classic liberalism in many ways is admirable in certain parts of the West, but when it’s confronted with someone like Hitler or Saddam Hussein, we can’t maintain the classical liberal approach. There has to be a point at which you have to say, “This applies under some circumstances, but we are beyond that now. It just doesn’t work. This is wrong. We can’t tolerate it. We need to do something about it.” A weakness of classic liberalism is that it lacks the capacity to say, “This is wrong; it needs to be opposed.” The issue for me is, “Where do we draw the line?” Liberalism says, “What line?” I’m sorry, but we have to draw lines every now and then. Oscar Wilde’s famous joke is “Art is a bit like ethics. It’s all about drawing a line somewhere.” I think that’s quite a good line. 

How would you address the theory of religion that God is “human projection”?

 Ludwig Feuerbach (1804–1872)’s main theory is that there are certain things we would like to be true, and we then kind of make them true. I agree with him. The whole idea of wish fulfillment is scary because it means often we invent a world of what we’d like to be the case. In responding to Feuerbach, we could consider the conversion of C.S. Lewis. Lewis said, “All of this stuff about man’s search for God—it’s like saying the mouse is looking for the cat!” He did not want there to be a God. He did not want to discover God. In the end, Lewis had to say, “This is the way it is, I’ve got to react to this.” It’s not about wish fulfillment. It’s about responding to reality when you encounter it. Christianity is not a wish fulfillment; it’s a discovery of the reality that begs us to take it into account. Second, Feuerbach’s account also applies to atheism. The New Atheists clearly do not want there to be a God; therefore, there is no God. In other words, the wish is a father to the thought. Feuerbach illustrates how the New Atheism is really a form of wish fulfillment. We don’t want to there to be a God. It’s inconvenient. So, there isn’t one. Surprisingly, therefore, Feuerbach actually gives us a weapon to use against the New Atheism.

Nietzsche attacked Christianity as an evil of humanity corrupting our perceptions and pursuits. Would you say this is the refrain of the New Atheists?

 The New Atheists seem to think that if you say something often enough, people will believe it. They constantly say, “Faith is a delusion; religion is bad for you. God is a delusion,” until people begin to mimic these [statements] without thinking. But all of these are very, very questionable statements. Nietzsche’s assertions about Christianity are very weak evidentially. People mustn’t be frightened by the intensity and the aggressiveness of what the New Atheists say. They need to challenge these assertions. They need to ask, “What is the evidence? Can we check this out?” For example, “Christianity is bad for you.” Who says that? For most Christians, it’s very good for them. I think we do need to challenge their dogmatic statements. I’m sure we should do it graciously, but we mustn’t be frightened. One of my favorite classical writers is Cicero, the great Roman orator. He said, “Nothing convinces like conviction.” In other words, if you say something with total confidence, people say, “Oh, maybe they’re right.” Likewise, New Atheists make these very bold, confident overstatements. People aren’t challenging them. We need to say: “Can I stop you there? What’s the evidence for this?”

For those who are not theologians or ministers by profession, what three recommendations would you offer for theological reading?

Sometimes the best books of theology are the simplest. C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity is a sensible book, and it phrases theological questions in a simple, gracious way. Second would be Jim Packer’s, Knowing God. It is still worth reading, especially by a younger generation who need to understand the spiritual seriousness of the Christian faith. I suppose I ought to mention one of my own. I suggest A Passionate Intellect. It describes what theology is, why it’s useful, and how it helps us engage with society. But there are many more to discover. There are so many good books on theology these days.

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