Books: Not quite what’s on the tin

Written By: Nigel Nelson
Published: November 21, 2017 Last modified: November 26, 2017

The Great Mystery: Science, God and the Human Quest for Meaning
by Alister McGrath
Hodder &?Stoughton £20

Alister McGrath is arguably Britain’s best popular theo­logian. His textbook Christian
Theology: An Introduction is the finest beginner’s guide both student and interested general ready could hope for. His Dawkins Delusion took apart Britain’s leading atheist Richard Dawkins masterfully and his biography of CS Lewis was a delight. So I was hugely looking forward to reading his new book.

And I was hugely disappointed. It is largely a continuation of his savaging of Dawkins, although he does it ever so politely. But if you have been following the argument then most of it you will have heard before. There is also a tendency to state the bleeding obvious. It is hardly a revelation that science is morally neutral and in human hands can be used for evil as well as good.

McGrath recounts how as a young chemistry student his heroes were Louis Frederick Fieser and his wife Mary Peters Fieser for their work on the artificial synthesis of the steroid cortisone and the blood coagulant Vitamin K, which meant they could be produced more cheaply. He had to revaluate his hero worship when he later discovered that Fieser had also been part of the team which invented napalm.

Perhaps the fault lays in that this book is an expansion of a lecture, and it feels like McGrath has been shoehorning material in to pad it out. That is not to say there are not some gems here. He finds common ground between Christianity and Marxism in that both Jesus and Karl Marx not only required their followers to understand their narratives but to participate in them. Both were revolutionaries who wanted us to join their revolutions.

My real problem with this book is it does not do what it says on the tin. McGrath is the Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at Oxford University. The Great Mystery promises to examine “science, God, and the human quest for meaning” so that is what I was expecting, but science rarely comes into it.

It was Augustine of Hippo 1,700 years ago who said that Christianity must be in synch with science if the religion is not to lose its credibility. The moment of creation as described in the first verse of Genesis is now known as the Big Bang. Before it there was no space, no time, nothing. Just as Genesis says. World-respected physicists such as Paul Davies and Stephen Hawking acknowledge this.

The weird world of quantum physics in which sub-atomic particles can be in different places at the same time, where there are more than the four dimensions we experience in our daily lives, and where there might be an infinite number of universes so that everything that can possibly happen is happening somewhere, turns reality on its head. And it makes God more probable. Which is why so many quantum physicists keep an open mind on the issue.

There is a fascinating book to be written here, and McGrath is ideally qualified to do so. But The Great Mystery is not it.

About Nigel Nelson

Nigel Nelson is political editor for The People