Alister McGrath’s Parchman Lectures at Baylor’s Truett Seminary (November, 2015)
As I recently announced here, British evangelical theologian-philosopher-scientist Alister McGrath delivered the annual Parchman Lectures at Baylor University’s Truett Seminary the week of November 16-20, 2015. McGrath is, in this blogger’s opinion, one of the most important voices in contemporary Christian theology and philosophy. (If you are unsure about this claim, go back to my previous blog post entitled “An Evangelical Superstar Scholar: Alister McGrath.”
Unfortunately, due to my teaching schedule, I was not able to hear all of McGrath’s lectures and have not yet been able to watch/listen to the one I missed. However, all three are available to watch and hear at the following web site: http://www.baylor.edu/truett/parchmanmedia .
The focus of McGrath’s talks was religious epistemology and specifically Christian apologetics. His approach to epistemology is (in these lectures) post-foundationalist. That is, without embracing a radical postmodern epistemology that denies objective truth, McGrath has apparently embraced a perspectival view of knowledge. His main point was the reasonableness of faith without rationalism (evidentialist or logical proof).
I was especially interested in his third lecture that focused on the category of “imagination” in theology and apologetics. By “imagination” he clearly did not mean “imaginary” but rather the ability to express truth in winsome, appealing ways through stories. He referred often to C. S. Lewis as an example of this approach to apologetics. Several times he quoted Lewis who said (paraphrasing here) that he did not believe in the sun so much because he could see it (one dare not look directly at the sun) but because he sees everything else in its light. So he believed in God not so much because he could prove God’s existence but because without God all of life is obscure, shadowy, dreary, meaningless.
Although he only mentioned it once or twice, McGrath’s approach now seems to be that of what earlier philosophers of religion such as R. M. Hare called “seeing as.” That is, Christians are people who “see the world [life, experience] as this rather than that.” Atheists are people who “see the world [life, experience] as that rather than this.” However, this is not sheer “Wittgensteinian fideism” in which “seeing as-es” (perspectives on reality) are incommensurable. There is such a thing as common human experience that forms common ground and the Christian can appeal to that to invite non-Christians to see the world as Christians see it. And, ultimately, the thinking Christian is a person who has come to add reasonable criteria to his or her life and world perspective (e.g., comprehensiveness, consistency, explanatory power or “empirical fit”) as justification.
In other words, so it seems to me, McGrath was arguing that natural theology and rational apologetics “work” mainly for people of faith. They may have explanatory power but that explanatory power does not prove the truth of Christianity. Somewhere in the process of becoming and being a Christian one has to have faith (a kind of God-given perspective on truth and reality). But every worldview, metaphysical vision of reality, explicit or implicit, involves faith because there are no knock-down, drag-out proofs of or falsifications of basic worldviews. They all involve something like faith.
However, it is good for Christians, or just theists, to have rational arguments for what they believe. On the other hand, few people come to hold the Christian-theistic worldview by arguments alone. For those open to belief in God and to faith in Christ there are rational arguments for them. However, there are no foundationalist proofs of them. But that’s not a problem because foundationalism is a dead or dying epistemology.
In his final lecture McGrath called on Christians to use imagination to appeal to unbelievers to consider Christianity. He referred, for example, to Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles as an example. They are imaginative parables that display Christian truth in story forms. Human beings are naturally inclined to grasp metaphysical visions, none of which can be empirically or logically proven or falsified, through stories.
McGrath recently published an excellent intellectual biography of Swiss theologian Emil Brunner, one of my favorite Christian theologians. Just this week my students and I were reading and discussing Brunner’s Dogmatics 3: The Christian Doctrine of the Church, Faith and the Consummation Chapter 13: “The Misunderstanding of Faith.” Here is what Brunner wrote back in the 1950s: “In his famous book The Christ of the Indian Road British missionary Stanley Jones tells how in India it is not the doctrinal witness to Christ but the gospel stories that awaken faith. They have plenty of doctrines and discuss them endlessly. It is the simple story of Jesus which opens men’s hearts to Him and creates faith.” (179)
Now, McGrath and even Brunner do/did not mean that Christian belief is fantasy. Their point is that conversion to Christ always involves some element of faith—the arriving of a new perspective on ultimate reality and the meaning of life. Reasoning, argument, can play a role in that conversion and it certainly can play a role in justifying Christian doctrines as not against reason and even more reasonable than alternatives. But rational argument alone rarely, if ever, has convincing power when it comes to life and world perspectives.