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Science, faith and the big questions: interview with Alister McGrath

Alister McGrath

Alister McGrath

The often troubled relationship between science and religion was seemingly damaged further by the rise of the New Atheism, which insisted that science had essentially disproved not just God but also the value of religion. But there is increasing scepticism towards its often glib and superficial answers; and the big questions about faith, God and science haven’t gone away – in fact, we seem to talk about them more than ever. In his new book, ‘Inventing the Universe’, leading scientist and theologian Professor Alister McGrath engages with all the big questions that Dawkins and others have raised, including origins, the burden of proof, meaning, the existence of God and our place in the universe.

Buy ‘Inventing the Universe’ for £13.50 (RRP £20.00)


Do you still encounter opposition or scepticism within academia when discussing the relationship between science and faith?

Not so much in the academy, but certainly in the media, which is still locked into the hopelessly outdated “warfare” mindset! Scholars don’t take this seriously, and it was discredited years ago, but it still gets repeated on the BBC and in many newspapers. Most academics realise that there is far more to the relation between science and faith than you find in the writings of Richard Dawkins. My approach is to say that, provided you understand both faith and science correctly, they have the potential to enrich each other. That interests lots of people!

What role do you think the rise of religious fundamentalism, and especially Christian fundamentalism, has in the apparent antagonism between science and religion?

A lot. The hallmark of any kind of fundamentalism – whether religious or antireligious – is that it is a response to a threat. Many conservative Christians feel threatened by science, and react against it by retreating into their own little world, from which science is excluded. Many atheists feel threatened by the resurgence of religion, and react against it by depicting all religious believers as irrational and dangerous. They think that the survival of science depends on religion being excluded from the scientific community. One of the things I try to do in this book is show how there is a middle ground, and explore how this opens up all kinds of interesting ideas for both scientists and people of faith – and especially for religious believers who are scientists.

Buy 'Inventing the Universe' for just £13.50 (RRP £20.00)

Buy ‘Inventing the Universe’ for just £13.50 (RRP £20.00)

You write in the introduction of the desiderium sciendi, the ‘longing to know’. Is there a danger of deconstructing wonder to the point that it no longer holds any fascination?

Yes. There are many things that cause us to lose our sense of wonder at the beauty of the natural world. One of them is overfamiliarity. We get so used to the wonder of the night sky that we take it for granted. Many professional scientists – especially astronomers – find that their professional study of nature causes them to lose that sense of wonder at nature which made them want to be scientists in the first place! And the same is true of God. One of the things that Christian worship is meant to do is to help rekindle and recover this sense of awe or wonder at the beauty and majesty of God.

You make the point that many scientists, including the biologist Stephen Jay Gould, argued that science is agnostic and compatible with both religion and atheism. Who is to blame for the current discord – the ’New Atheists’ or religious ‘creationists’?

Most scientists realise that science and faith can coexist quite happily, and that there are certain groups in our culture who have a vested interest in portraying them as incompatible and locked into perpetual warfare. One of my favourite stories concerns Thomas H. Huxley, the great champion of Charles Darwin’s ideas in Victorian England, who once declared that science “commits suicide when it adopts a creed.” Huxley was worried about science becoming the servant of a doctrinaire atheism, or being seen as a weapon in a war against religious belief. Science, he argued, when at its best and most authentic, has no creed, whether religious or anti-religious. That’s what I think. But that doesn’t mean that a scientist can’t be a Christian. It just means that science doesn’t force a particular worldview on us. We are free to choose how we amplify and enrich our science!

Has science developed to the point where it is beyond the grasp of the non-scientific lay person? 

Unquestionably. It has become very specialised, and difficult for lay people to understand. That’s why scientific popularisers – such as Brian Cox – play such an important role in our culture. In fact, many scientists now find it difficult to understand other areas of science, because they are so specialised. Few physicists that I know feel at home in the world of psychology (and vice versa). In writing this book, I had to make sure that I explained both scientific and theological ideas so that lay people would be able to get the most out of reading it.

In the chapter Stories, Pictures and Maps: Making sense of things you use the language of warfare to describe these conflicts. Why do you think there are some in the scientific community so antagonistic towards religion?

There are several reasons. One is that scientists want to be independent – to do their research and develop their theories without interference from anyone else. It’s easy to see why this could lead to hostility towards religion. But it doesn’t need to. Another reason is that, as Freeman Dyson pointed out in a famous essay, scientists tend to be “rebels” – people who don’t want to be constrained. That means that they often react against authority structures – whether religious, political, or social. But one of the main reasons is simply that there are many scientific opinion-makers who insist that hostility towards religion is an essential part of a scientist’s core identity. That’s just wrong. But we need to work out ways of breaking the power of this myth, which gets recycled all the time in popular science magazines and secularist newspapers.

What conclusions do you hope the reader takes away from Inventing the Universe?

First, I hope that readers will enjoy the book! But more seriously, the book is really about my own narrative of discovery, as I moved from being an atheist scientist to a Christian believer, who had to sort out how to hold science and faith together. It’s about a journey of discovery, if you like, in which I set out ideas and approaches that I have found helpful, and share them with my readers. My hope is that my readers will find lots of food for thought, which will help them think these things through for themselves. Above all, I hope that they will be able to see how science and faith can enrich each other!

Buy ‘Inventing the Universe’ for £13.50 (RRP £20.00)

What do we do when faith gets shaken?

PatrickReganXLP2What do you do when life falls apart, and it feels as if God has left you? How do you keep going when your faith is rocked to the core? With his new book, When Faith Gets Shaken, influential youth leader and national speaker Patrick Regan draws on his own experience to explore some of the hardest and deepest questions of life.

Buy When Faith Gets Shaken for just £5.70 (RRP £7.99)



What was your motivation for writing When Faith Gets Shaken?

I went through a stage in my life six years ago where everything went wrong. My little girl Keziah got a condition called HSP and my Dad got cancer. He was meant to be in hospital for a week for a routine operation but ended up staying for nine weeks due to complications. Every day I’d visit him praying that God would make him better, but every day he got worse. His weight plummeted to 9½ stone and it felt as though he was disappearing before my eyes. During this time I was diagnosed with a degenerative knee condition which means I need to have both my legs broken in three places and an external metal frame put round my leg, with pins going through my legs and metal drilled into my bones. The frame has to be on for between 6 and 18 months so the consultant asked me to decide when the operation would happen. It was a bit like waiting for a pre-destined car accident! My wife and I started thinking about the best timing and what we wanted to achieve I would be out of action for so long. We decided to try for a fourth child but we lost the baby after 13 weeks of pregnancy. It felt like a perfect storm; everything was going wrong at the same time.

Just before I went into hospital for the operation, I wrote a blog called ‘When Faith Gets Shaken’ and in it I was incredibly honest about some of the challenges I was going through and how that was affecting my faith. I was amazed by the response. I had so many Facebook messages and emails saying people really appreciated my honesty and telling me about some of the challenges they were going through. There was a 37 year old who had leukaemia, numerous people who were going through chemo and radiotherapy, people who were caring for elderly parents with dementia. Part of my reason for doing the blog was to show a bit of the behind the scenes of my life. So often as Christians we preach the ‘show reel’. We stand on a stage and tell 25 minutes of spectacular story after spectacular story in order to encourage each other and build faith. I realised that alongside those amazing stories, maybe we also need to also hear the hard stuff. The mundane, painful, normal parts of every person’s life. I wanted to share a little bit of my behind the scenes, not because my life is more interesting than anyone else, but because I wanted people to realise they are not alone.

Buy 'When Faith Gets Shaken' for just £5.70 (RRP £7.99)

Buy ‘When Faith Gets Shaken’ for just £5.70 (RRP £7.99)

Is there a temptation for Churches, and members of a Church, to avoid confrontation with someone asking the sort of hard questions you discuss in the book?

I think the short answer is ‘yes’ but we have to be honest that life doesn’t always go to plan and it isn’t always easy. We all have times where we get sick, hurt, confused and frustrated and we don’t quite know what’s going on. I think it’s OK to be fearful and it’s OK to be miserable, anxious or angry now and again because that’s what being human is. It’s OK not to be OK the whole time. As we connect with those things, as we tell people what’s really going on in our lives, we start to share our common humanity. Someone read one of my blog posts and said, “I’m not a Christian but there is something powerful about someone sharing their common humanity”. Walter Brueggemann (an Old Testament scholar) says there are three stages of faith and three stages of the life of faith. The first is that everything is securely orientated. Then there is a phase of being painfully disorientated, where suffering comes into our life and knocks us off track. Then he talks about the third stage where faith can be re-orientated. Some Christians spend their life in the first phase where everything is black and white and many get stuck in the second phase, struggling to come to terms with their pain. For some, it leads them to drop out of church altogether because they feel like they’re not allowed to ask questions or to feel the way they’re feeling. They end up feeling guilty and anxious instead of being allowed to express themselves. It can feel like faith is broken and there is no way to fix it. But when you read the Bible, you can see many people (such as Abraham, Moses, Job and Hosea) who went through this painfully disorientating phase but it actually led to their faith being deepened. We need to know that God is with us in our times of struggle and times of doubt. As churches we need to be communities that allow people to ask questions; we need to hold of from judging one another and just love each other through the difficult times.

What advice would you give someone when their already tenuous hold on faith is further shaken by rejection in the Church for asking hard questions?

Hang in there and look to Jesus. He treated people who had doubts and questions with dignity and respect; he engaged with them. When we have questions our first reaction can be one of guilt. We say to ourselves: ‘I shouldn’t be questioning. I should be OK; I ought to be over this by now. I’ve got to have my life together.’ But it’s natural to ask questions. We see this is in the story of Job where he moans and groans, swinging between faith and despair but refusing to give up on trusting God. Right at the end of Job we see he comes to his knees and, even though he’s been angry with God, he realises that getting angry with God is actually OK but allowing pain and bitterness to take root in your heart is only going to lead to more pain and destruction. Engaging with God is where we find release. Pretending that we’re not angry means we don’t engage with him in a real way. Emotions like anger can drive us into the presence of God, looking for answers and deepening our relationship with him as we understand that he loves us no matter what we feel or what we do. His love is unconditional; he can handle our questions.

Is there a danger that the Church emphasises temporal happiness or success, at the expense of an eschatological hope?

We’re always living in a tension between the culture we live in now and heaven – the kingdom that is to come. That’s why they always describe the Kingdom as the ‘now and the not yet’. God’s kingdom has come in the person of Jesus but has not yet been completed. I think the key is what type of person are we meant to be in the now and not yet? Oscar Coleman talked about living between D Day and VJ Day. Allied forces had effectively won World War II on 6 June 1944 but it wasn’t until 2nd Sept 1945 that the enemy surrendered and victory was finally secure. We live knowing that Jesus has won the victory between life and death and our eternal future is secure but we continue to live in a battle before the kingdom is fully realised. For me the question is what hope is there in the now? The Bible is very clear that it’s ‘Christ in me the hope of glory’ and I believe that we can’t say ‘Oh well, it will all be good in the end. We’ll all get to heaven’. Shane Claiborne says we need to be people that believe so much in another world that it is possible to start enacting it now. So we refuse to give up on hope. We don’t place our expectations too low. Isaiah 65 talks about a ‘new heaven and new earth’ and I think that he is probably saying that we don’t hope too much but we hope too little and we miss out. When we talk about what successes is, what are we hoping for? Are we hoping for a bigger church? A bigger youth group? Or is it for God to invade our streets and our schools? Is it to see the end of poverty, the end of injustice, and the end of disease? That is a bigger picture of God’s kingdom and it is important that we hang on.

Ultimately God will wipe every tear away from peoples’ eyes; there will be no more pain, no more addiction, no more homelessness, no more poverty, no one wandering trying to find a home, crossing dangerous seas, living in fear of their lives. All that will end when this new heaven and new earth is created. But until that day we get on with doing the work of the Kingdom. God’s ultimate intentions for human history are his intentions for us now. So we’ve got to hang on to that belief. Hope is the refusal to accept a situation as it is.

What should our response be to someone who is struggling with these sorts of questions?

A really good example to me is Elijah. After Carmel he ran for his life and we find him in the desert in 1 Kings 19 v 4 where it says he came to a bush and sat down under it, praying to die. “I’ve had enough Lord”, he said “take my life”. Most of us have been in a place where we thought life was going to work out differently to how it has. For Elijah he probably thought everything was going to be OK and instead he got a death threat from Jezebel and had to run. It’s interesting how God responded to Elijah. He didn’t say, “Cheer up mate”, or criticise him for losing his faith. He didn’t remind him of the great victory he had won and question why that wasn’t enough for Elijah. He didn’t tell him better days are ahead. He sent an angel to care for him tenderly, providing him with food to give him strength. Elijah was exhausted. He didn’t need a pep talk, he needed compassion. And of course, Elijah thought he was the only one. Sometimes when we’re going through struggles we think we’re the only ones in that situation. But just like God said to Elijah that there were actually 7000 other prophets, there are others going through the same things as us. One thing I’ve learnt again through writing this book is how many other people are in similar situations. It’s as we journey together, support each other and love one another that things start to become a little bit clearer.

Do you think there is a ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sort of doubt?

Yes. I remember Jim Wallis talking about the difference between being sceptical and cynical. He was saying I understand why people are sceptical. Sometimes scepticism is questioning things you’re not sure about when something doesn’t feel right to you and it’s OK to be sceptical sometimes. But he says cynicism is dangerous. Because cynicism often says I don’t believe anything will change. It’s OK to ask questions, as long as that doubt drives us into the presence of God and doesn’t make us completely cynical.

What do you hope people take away from When Faith Get’s Shaken?

In many ways I was very nervous about writing the book. I didn’t want to pretend to be an expert in any of the areas that I’ve talked about. I’m just a very ordinary guy who’s very much on a journey of working things out. In some ways it’s been the most difficult book I’ve written and it’s certainly felt the most vulnerable. I’m passionate about loving God, loving others and learning to love myself so I just wanted to be honest about some of my struggles. I wanted to show some of the behind the scenes of my life because I know there are many people who are facing similar difficulties and I think it helps if we are honest about that. Church and Christian community shouldn’t be somewhere where we have to plaster on the ‘everything is great’ smile, it should be a place where we can be real. What ultimately led me to put pen to paper was meeting with others on a similar journey to me and I genuinely hope they’ve found it helpful as they’ve read some of my story.

My prayer is that whatever people are going through they will know that they’re not on their own. That God is with them. I pray that they would be able to trust him and know that in their brokenness they are held together by his love. I pray that they will continue to show courage and vulnerability, allowing others close enough to them to share in their journey. I pray they find peace that allows them to feel safe in the midst of a storm. I pray that they would learn to be kind to themselves and exercise some self-compassion, giving themselves a break when they need it. I pray they won’t internalise anger but where necessary would be able to forgive others, themselves and God for the suffering they may be experiencing. I pray they would be able to dream again, aligning their dreams with God’s big dream and that they would know in their hearts they are very special people and they would learn to live in the Father’s love which knows no bounds.

Buy ‘When Faith Gets Shaken’ for just £5.70 (RRP £7.99)

Eve: Wm Paul Young retells the Creation story from a new perspective

When Wm Paul Young first wrote The Shack, he did it as a Christmas gift for his family. He barely had enough money to make photocopies of it to give to them. Fast-forward to today, after the gift was published, sold millions of copies and now is in production to be a major motion picture (coming spring, 2016). No one ever could have imagined such a future for Paul, especially Paul himself.

But his story was far from complete. Now with his third novel, Eve, coming out this September, Paul has created what he considers to be the greatest story of his life. Forty years in the making, Eve engages the creation story of Genesis from a new perspective. I asked him about his newest creation, as well as how he feels about placing The Shack in the hands of Hollywood.

Here’s what he had to say…

Eve by Wm Paul Young

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You’ve said that your new book, Eve, has been decades in the making, and also is your best written work so far. Why was this such a challenging story to tell?

I have often talked about writing The Shack and Cross Roads as ‘jumping into an empty river and being swept downstream’ but when I plunged into the work of Eve, I found the river already full of people and boats and this required unusual care and respectful navigation. The most arduous challenge was how to keep a deeply researched work, which is a true attempt at respecting a vast existing scholarship, inside ‘story?’ I want a teenager to read Eve and not get lost but I want an academic to read it and recognise how carefully I have chosen my words. Eve is not an agenda-driven work of non-fiction, thinly veiled as fiction. It is first a story, but one grounded in the text and traditions. 

Why do you think it’s worth so much time and effort to re-frame the Genesis story of creation from the feminine perspective?

In my opinion it is an error to think that this is a re-framing of the Genesis story from a feminine perspective as if we were engaged in either/or explorations. Instead, I think Eve is written from a human perspective; the spectrum of God’s expression in humanity that includes the full circle of the maternal and paternal nature of God. Having said that, most of the existing assumptions we have of the Genesis story have been told from an either/or, and dominantly male, viewpoint rather than holistic and human, and I believe that has had a devastating impact on our view of God and our relationships, one with the other. This novel is not intended to add to the existing adversarial divisions but look for something deeper and truer about us as human beings that will bring freedom to us all.

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One of the central themes in the Garden of Eden story is sin and temptation. How do you handle these ideas in your new book?

Carefully. I think it is telling that I probably won’t get asked, “One of the central themes in the Garden of Eden story is the Goodness of God…how do you handle that?” But you are right; it is also story of sin and temptation. Even so, I think the story is much more profound than our Sunday school story version allows, including the nature of evil and the blinding power of temptation to independence and isolated individualism. My background is Evangelical Protestant and I will understand it when folks from ‘my family’ read Eve and raise their eyebrows in question or concern. A different narrative changes everything and the implications will be far-reaching. It’s one of those, ‘read it, then we will talk’ situations.

Wm Paul Young

Wm Paul Young

Some people inevitably will accuse you of biblical revisionism. How do you respond to that?

One of my favorite Jacques Ellul quotes is that Jewish scholars believe every passage has 77 proper interpretations, plus the one that God knows. I think the accusation of biblical revisionism often simply means your interpretation is different than my interpretation, and it bothers me. That is not to diminish the rigor of academic work and process, but I think we haven’t begun to realise how powerfully coercive our a priori assumptions (the glasses through which we already look at everything) are in dictating our openness in conversations about interpretations. I did not grow up looking at life and God and humanity as I do now, and it was a bloody brutal battle to challenge my own presuppositions and paradigms. It does not mean that I have now arrived, but Eve is written after forty years of work, is more coherent and impacts deeply how I live my daily life. This matters to me.

This spring, a film version of your bestseller, The Shack, will hit cinemas everywhere. What is it like to watch other people reinterpret such a deeply personal story to you?

It is SO cool and extremely surreal. I was honored to visit the set a couple times and watch a huge crew and cast bring their individual skills to flesh out something that emerged from my own heart and imagination. There are no adequate words for such an unexpected grace. Movie making is a collaboration of many creative people, each arriving inside their own journeys of faith and struggle, of loss and wonder, and all of it matters. I am comfortable with the understanding that no one will interpret life and experience the same as I do. That is not the point. To present something visually is quite different than to paint words on a canvas, and I like both the coherence between the two and the differences. Everyone I met on set was personally engaged, and all of it will go into creating a piece of art that we all hope will bring some healing to the world. 

You’ve said before that, given the chance, you’d change some things in The Shack’s storyline. What would you change, and is that getting addressed in the film?

There are always some things that could have been better or more accurate in retrospect, mostly nuances in word choice. One of the bigger story elements, and it may not even show up in the movie (I truly don’t know but I have talked about this to the movie professionals involved), is the scene in the book when Mack enters the ‘transformed’ shack and looks to the place where Missy’s bloodstain should be on the floor. In the book it is gone, and I think that was a mistake. Just because one has worked through the damages and losses in one’s life does not mean that the evidence of that process somehow magically disappears. There are still nail scars on Jesus’ wrists.

Wm. Paul Young spoke to Christian Piatt (www.christianpiatt.com) blogger, and author of ‘Postchristian’ and ‘Blood Doctrine’.

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Ten of the best: 14th September 2015

EveAs well as some books books that are proving continually popular – including Laudato Si’ by Pope Francis and The Rosemary Tree by Elizabeth Goudge – there are some notable new entries in the bestseller list.

Wm Paul Young, author of the huge bestseller The Shack is back with a new novel, Eve, which promises to follow his previous novels in finding creative ways to engage the reader and explore a deeper spirituality. Tom Wright’s new book, Quiet Moments, is also aimed at helping develop spirituality and is now available for pre-order.

For some lighter relief, the popular Cartoon Church cartoonist Dave Walker is back with his new collection Heroes of the Coffee Rota, poking affectionate fun at the Church and the funny way things are often done.

The Rosemary Tree by Elizabeth Goudge (Hendrickson)
Second Intercessions Handbook by John Pritchard (SPCK)
Live, Love, Lead by Brian Houston (Hodder & Stoughton)   
The Shed that Fed a Million Children by Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow (William Collins) 
There are no Ordinary People by Jeff Lucas (CWR) 
Quiet Moments by Tom Wright (SPCK)
Journey to the Manger by Paula Gooder (Canterbury Press) 
Laudato Si’ by Pope Francis (CTS) 
Heroes of the Coffee Rota by Dave Walker (Canterbury Press)  
Eve: A Novel by Wm Paul Young (Simon & Schuster)