An Evangelical Superstar Scholar: Alister McGrath
This week (November 17-18) I am privileged to meet, hear, and interact with British evangelical superstar theologian-philosopher-scientist Alister McGrath (b. 1953). Here is his brief description according to Wikipedia: “Alister Edgar McGrath is a Northern Irish theologian, priest, intellectual historian, scientist, and Christian apologist. He currently holds the Andreas Idreos Professorship in Science and Religion in the Faculty of Theology and Religion at the University of Oxford, and is Professor of Divinity at Gresham College. He was previously Professor of Theology, Ministry, and Education at King’s College London and Head of the Centre for Theology, Religion and Culture., Professor of Historical Theology at the University of Oxford, and was principal of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, until 2005. He is an Anglican priest and is ordained within the Church of England.” He is the author of numerous books of historical theology, evangelical theology, apologetics, philosophy of religion and science. He is almost without doubt one of the two most influential living evangelical Christian scholars the other one being fellow Brit N. T Wright.
He is currently delivering the annual Parchman Lectures at Baylor’s Truett Seminary in Waco, Texas. The focus of his lectures is the reasonableness of faith—not a new idea but presented in a way that takes into account the demise of foundationalism in this postmodern cultural and philosophical era. In other words, McGrath does not believe God’s existence (theism) or Christianity (belief in the incarnation of God in Christ) can be proven by standards laid down for “proof” by modernist positivism. However, he does believe that theism makes more sense of life as a whole, universal human experience, than atheism (naturalism). He admits, however, that all worldviews, including theism and naturalism, are at least partially perspectival. The argument for theism is indirect, not direct proof. But no worldview is provable. The indirect proof of theism is the ultimate incoherence of alternative worldviews.
If you are interested in reading McGrath on evangelical theology I suggest you read A Passion for Truth: The Intellectual Coherence of Evangelicalism (InterVarsity Press). If you are interested in his apologetics I recommend The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World (Doubleday and Waterbrook Press). McGrath has debated Richard Dawkins publicly and an excellent example of his approach to “the new atheism” and especially Dawkins is Dawkins’ God: Genes, Memes, and the Meaning of Life (Blackwell).
I like McGrath’s approach to apologetics; it resonates with my own adopted “postliberal” approach to Christian-theistic epistemology which perspectival but without sheer fideism. It is not, in other words, infected with “Wittgensteinian fideism” like, for example, D. Z. Phillips’s. McGrath believes Christian theism is public truth without foundationalist proof, but he argues there is no comprehensive life and worldview amenable to foundationalist proof (irrefutable). Christian theism is true for both subjective and objective reasons, but McGrath is not interested in enforcing it on people via some political agenda. He depends solely on persuasion, not coercion.McGrath’s Parchman Lectures are not yet publicly available, but when they are I will announce that here and provide the information needed to watch and/or listen to and/or read them. Eventually, I assume, they will be published in some form or at least posted to Baylor’s Truett Seminary’s web site. I see they are being video recorded.
One of the great sadnesses of my life is that “evangelical” and even “Christian” have become words often associated with ignorance, anti-intellectualism, intolerance, obscurantism, fundamentalism, aggressive right-wing politics. McGrath has done so much to undermine, even explode, those stereotypes and caricatures, and yet he remains largely unknown even among evangelical Christians because his books, many of them popularly written, are not best-sellers in the popular “Christian bookstores” that instead devote entire endcaps and special displays to, for example, “Duck Dynasty.”
Personally, I do not blame Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchins or other promoters of “the new atheism” for anything except misrepresenting Christian theism (which I think they have done in some of their writings and speeches). The decline of evangelical Christian intellectual life is evangelical Christians’ own fault. We, especially in America, have done it to ourselves. On the popular level “in the pews” and on the pastoral level “in the pulpits,” too often, Christianity has been presented and believed in as a “Don’t confuse me with the facts; my mind is already made up” fideistic obscurantism. (I actually heard an evangelical Baptist pastor use that line in a sermon as an example of what a Christian should say to an atheist!)
McGrath’s tribe should increase and movers and shakers of evangelical Christianity ought to promote him and people like him to television talk shows when they want an evangelical spokesperson. He is extremely articulate both on a scholarly level, when speaking within a scholarly context, and on the popular level, when speaking within that kind of context. And his books cover the spectrum—from popularly written for mass consumption to highly scholarly and even technical.
Church libraries and bookstores (which most large churches have on some scale) ought to carry his books—alongside of if not instead of Amish romance novels and books about “God, guns and guts” (not a real title so far as I know) by evangelical celebrities in the political sphere of the religious right. Church small groups and book discussion groups should read and discuss McGrath instead of books about how to become rich through positive thinking.