McGrath, Alister E. 2011. Surprised by meaning: Science, faith, and how we make sense of things. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.
McGrath, from Ireland, is a theologian, priest, apologist and intellectual. He currently holds the Andreas Ireos 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 has a PhD in molecular biophysics and a DLitt from the Division of Humanities for his work in science and religion.
The book is based on lectures he gave from 2009-2010 at King’s College London, the University of Scotland, the London School of Theology and at Hong Kong Baptist University.
McGrath believes that “We need a mental map of reality that allows us to position ourselves, helping us to find our way along the road of life” (13) and his book attempts to provide one.
We begin by observing certain things about the universe: what do they point to? and how do scientists make sense out of their observations? Darwin, the example of evolutionary scientists par excellence, “limited his view of reality to what could be proved” (18) and constructed a theory of natural selection that scientists go far beyond and have an “aversion to any suggestion that atheists have beliefs” (21).
In Chapter 4 McGrath discusses how we make sense of things: “We observe things on the surface of reality and try to work out their deeper meanings” (22). We look for causes and the “best explanation” for our theory. We also look for “unification,” but cannot find it because there is a level of intelligibility that is deeper than what science can provide.
McGrath, himself once an atheist, examines the “New Atheism,” which makes its appeal to the natural sciences as the sole basis of reliable truth” (33). Yet when the scientific method is applied it “does not entail atheism,” so those who try to pit science and religion against each other need aggressive rhetoric and ridicule, even rewriting the history of science, to do so. In fact, “metaphysical interpretation is being presented as scientific fact, or the same level as empirical statements” (37).
We need to look “beyond the scientific horizon” (the title of chapter 6) because, although scientific proof may be exact, it is incomplete (40). It cannot deal with questions of meaning or value, such as whether God exists. The natural world is malleable and is subject to various interpretations, such as by an “atheist, deist, theist, and many other ways” (47).
The “Christian Viewpoint” (chapter 7) “involves believing that certain things are true, that they may be relied upon, and that they illuminate our perceptions, decisions, and actions” (50). Certain things verify this Christian viewpoint: for example, the deep structure of the universe (chapter 8), with only the earth having the constant elements to provide life, the electromagnetic and gravitational structures that exemplify design and not accident or chance. Our world is indeed fine-tuned to allow “the mystery of the possibility of life” (chapter 9). However, McGrath claims that the “fine-tuning of the universe proves nothing” (72)—it is, however “highly suggestive” in providing a big picture of reality.
In Chapter 10 McGrath considers some of the tenants of Darwinism and recent books by militant atheists. Darwin did not discount design, nor did Thomas Huxley, his main interpreter. However, “the New Atheism vigorously asserts the fundamental moral and intellectual autonomy of humanity” (82), with no appeal to a God, which is simply a human invention. There is no notion of our being made in the image of God. Atheism believes that human progress is inevitable and technology will be our savior.
However, as McGrath concludes and illustrates in chapters 12 and 13, our hearts have a desire for meaning. He refers to C.S. Lewis in some detail in showing that our heart’s desire points toward a homeland but that “a door must be opened so that we can enter into another world, within which our true satisfaction and joy are to be found” (100). It turns out that “meaning is embedded deep in the order of things” (103). The Christian worldview allows us to see reality, confirming the view of Lewis, who said “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it, I see everything else.”
Meaning, as a result of our Christian worldview, gives us identity, value and purpose—how we can make a difference in the world. Our “foundation and focus is the living God, the God and father of our Lord Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 1:3)” (114).
This small book should be required reading for young people who are about to enter college or who are already studying there.