In The Passionate Intellect author and public intellectual Alister McGrath sets out to both defend and elevate what he calls "mere theology."
"By 'mere theology,' I mean the basic themes that have characterized the Christian vision of reality down the ages."
The result is a hard-hitting, well thought out book that leaves little question, regardless of your worldview, that theology is something worth thinking about.
The Passionate Intellect is comprised of eleven chapters based on previously unpublished lectures and addresses, given in various North American and European locations over a two-year period from late 2007 to late 2009. The book is arranged thematically. Its first six chapters deal with the purpose, place and relevance of Christian Theology. The remaining chapters deal with the importance of engaging the culture with the gospel message, how Christianity interacts with modern science and why the media named "new" atheism is not really new at all. [p. 12-15]
From the opening paragraph, McGrath zeros in on his two-fold purpose for writing this piece:
"Christian theology is one of the most intellectually stimulating and exciting subjects it is possible to study, rich in resources for the life of faith and the ministry of the church. It has the capacity to excite, inspire and illuminate the human intellect, giving it a new passion and focus. Affirming and celebrating the intellectual resilience and vigor of faith is not about downplaying, still less denying, its many other aspects- such as the nurturing of a relationship with God, sustained by prayer, reflection and adoration. This book may be seen both as an intellectual defense of the place of theology in the Christian life, and as a plea for the Christian church to take the life of the mind seriously, especially in the light of contemporary public debates." [p. 7]
The author further explains his goal in defending and expounding "mere theology," a phrase in which McGrath admits he "shamelessly" has borrowed and adapted from the late C.S. Lewis:
"My concern here is to focus on the positive role of theology in shaping, nourishing and safeguarding the Christian vision of reality, and applying it to the challenges and opportunities that Christians face today." [p. 8]
Professor McGrath finishes the introduction with a brief preview of each forthcoming chapter.
Chapter 1- Mere Theology: The Landscape of Faith 1
As one reads through The Passionate Intellect, it is clear that McGrath views theology as something vital to one's relationship with God.
"Our faith can be deepened and our personal lives enriched through theological reflection." [p. 19]
However, McGrath is not naive and acknowledges that theology has developed a bad reputation among some churches and church leaders over the last few decades:
"For some Christian leaders theology is irrelevant to real life. It is about retreating into ivory towers when there are more pressing things to worry about." [p. 20]
But as the author goes on to point out, practiced properly theology should be nothing of the kind:
"Yet rightly understood, theology is about enabling informed Christian action. It makes us want to do things, and do them in a Christian way. It helps us to make judgments about how best to act; it encourages us to engage with the real world." [p. 20]
McGrath closes out this chapter by demonstrating how the Body of Christ needs theology to give a comprehensive, critical account of faith and then explains each of the three major sources of theology: The Bible, Reason and Tradition.
Chapter 2- Mere Theology: The Landscape of Faith 2
McGrath continues to build on the themes addressed in the first chapter, specifically engaging the reader into a discussion about the role of the theologian in the local church setting and culture.
Moreover, the author addresses the link between theology and worship.
Chapter 3- The Gospel and the Transformation of Reality: George Herbert's "Elixir"
Using the theological "richness" found in the poetry of George Herbert, McGrath explains how theology provides us with a framework to see reality in a certain way while simultaneously capturing our imaginations and transcending the boundaries of reason. Further, the author argues that theology transforms our perceptions in the world thus directly impacts our actions within the world.
Chapter 4- The Cross, Suffering, and Theological Bewilderment: Reflections on Martin Luther and C.S. Lewis
In this chapter, McGrath calls upon his own past experiences and the works of notable writers C.S. Lewis and Martin Luther to explore the so-called problem of suffering and the ability of the Christian worldview to address it.
“Lewis’s emphasis on the sense-making capacity of faith can perhaps too easily be misunderstood to mean that the Christian sun illuminates every aspect of the landscape so that no shadows remain. Luther reminds us that many aspects of that landscape remain shrouded in darkness, and that many find themselves called to walk in those shadowlands. Lewis is right: theology gives us a lens through which we can interpret the world, making sense of its ordering and its enigmas. Luther is also right: theology enables us to journey through darkness and despair. Its lens may sometimes yield a picture that appears quite out of focus, but not being able to view a picture clearly does not mean there is no picture to see.”
This reviewer was impressed with the author’s ability to write about the problem of suffering in a manner that proved to be both intellectually and emotionally satisfying while highlighting Jesus’ finished work on the cross.
Chapter 5- The Theater of the Glory of God: A Christian View of Nature
The author challenges the reader in this chapter that it is the Christian view of the world that best “fits” what we actually observe around us. Moreover, not only does the Christian faith “offer an approach to nature that is grounded in its empirical reality but transcends the empirical.” [p. 82]
Ultimately, McGrath contends, it is the Christian worldview that aids us in interpreting nature properly.
Chapter 6- The Tapestry of Faith: Theology and Apologetics
In this chapter, McGrath reminds the reader that “the Christian faith can be viewed as a tapestry, in which a series of threads are woven together to yield a richer, more complex whole” [p. 89] and that a theology that informs one’s apologetic approach is vital in helping others understand the truth of the gospel message. Further, one must not only communicate the fullness of the gospel, but also consider the audience one is speaking with.
What this reader most appreciated about this chapter was the author’s willingness to remind the reader that apologetics must be more than simply winning arguments. For apologetics to be most effective, surely arguments must be presented rigorously and preciously, but there must be more to it than this.
“True apologetics engages not only the mind but also the heart and the imagination, and we impoverish the gospel if we neglect the impact it has on all of our God-given faculties.” [p. 88]
Apologists would do well to read and apply the challenges Professor McGrath sets forth in this chapter and to remember his potent words- “There are many times when it is just as important to show that Christianity is real as it is to show that it is true.” [p. 96]
Chapter 7- The Natural Sciences: Friends or Foes?
McGrath’s main aim in this chapter is to explore the claim that the natural sciences contradict or are at odds with religion.
It is here that the reader learns of the author’s accent to atheism as a young man, viewing God as a “baleful relic of the past.” [p. 102] I couldn’t help but to think of the writings of Oxford Professor Richard Dawkins as McGrath described his once held atheistic views:
“However, I remained obstinately convinced that the metaphysical severity and existential dreariness of this position were confirmations of its truth. Nobody would believe this morose and morbid stuff because it was attractive; therefore they believed it because it was right. It was axiomatic that science demanded atheism, and I was willing to be led wherever science took me.” [p. 103]
The author goes on to explain that after reading the works of writers such as Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn he realized that perhaps there was more to the world than what a few decent experiments could teach him. He began to understand that “one can be a ‘real’ scientist with or without being committed to any specific religious, spiritual or anitreligious view of the world.” [p. 105]
Ironically, it seems that it was McGrath’s discovery that there were other ways of viewing nature than atheism that allowed him to open his mind to other possibilities. This, ultimately, as the author explains in detail, led to him becoming a Christian and a theologian.
It is at this point McGrath takes aim at Richard Dawkins’ repeated assertion that science and faith are enemies and that scientists who believe in God are a type of “traitor.”
This reader appreciated the author’s eloquent mix of gentleness and boldness throughout the book. While systemically dismantling many of the main claims made in Dawkins’ The God Delusion, McGrath manages to do so with a gentleman's tone.
Examples of this include:
Dawkins’ claim that religion and science are at war:
“Historians of science have long since discredited this “warfare” model of he relation of science and religion, as well as most of the alleged evidence in its support, pointing out that the truth is far more complex than this simplistic stereotype suggests. Yet it seems to be integral to Dawkin’s defense of is atheism in The God Delusion. Surely it’s time for the new atheism to move on and catch up with current scholarship.” [p. 110]
Dawkins’ claim that science support or promotes atheistic conclusions:
Here, McGrath masterfully points out that the real problem with science and religion is not with the scientific evidence itself, but “has to do with the smuggling in of atheist metaphysical assumptions, which the sciences themselves neither demand nor legitimate.” [p. 113]
Dawkins’ claim that belief in God is caused by “memes:”
The author argues that Dawkins’ idea of “memes,” while being accepted and presented as scientific orthodoxy by Dawkins himself and some of his peers (Daniel Dennett) utters fails in explaining anything useful and ultimately proves to be nothing more than a metaphysical assertion.
As Dr. Bruce Edmonds puts it (whom Dr. McGrath quotes):
“[Memetics] has been a short-lived fad whose effect has been to obscure more than it has been to enlighten. I am afraid that memetics, as an identifiable discipline, will not be widely missed.” [p. 118]
I was impressed with McGrath ability to convincing argue that science is not an enemy of faith.
Chapter 8- Religious and Scientific Faith: The Case for Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species
In this chapter, the author addresses the complex legacy of Charles Darwin on both science and religion.
As this reviewer read through this chapter, I could not help but to be impressed with Charles Darwin’s work as a scientist and his openness to revising his work when the evidence demanded it. Further, scientists will appreciate McGrath’s mini-history of the scientific method and whether or not predictive potential is a necessity in considering a hypothesis worth pursuing.
McGrath goes on to explain in detail the relationship between Darwin’s theory of natural selection, the scientific method, and Darwin’s belief that his hypothesis offered the “best explanation” of nature’s observable evidence. Moreover, the reader is given an inside look at Darwin’s religious beliefs and how he came to hold them.
This chapter gave this reviewer a deeper appreciation for Charles Darwin and his contributions to science.
Chapter 9- Augustine of Hippo on Creation and Evolution
One of the most fascinating points the author makes in this chapter relates to how the early Christian Bible Scholar, Augustine of Hippo, understood and interpreted the six days of creation.
In short, Augustine was not a young-earth creationist. Building on this point, McGrath writes:
“Augustine interpreted Scripture a thousand years before the “Scientific Revolution” of our modern period and fifteen hundred years before Darwin’s Origin of Species. There is just no way Augustine can be considered to have “accommodated” or “compromised” his biblical interpretation in order to fit in new theories about the big bang or natural selection. He set out to interpret Scripture on its own terms, faithfully and carefully. In fact, he even criticized those who tried to adapt their biblical interpretation to the latest scientific theories. The important thing was to let Scripture speak for itself.” [p. 139-140]
Augustine’s ultimate goal, the author reports, was to answer the question, “What way of articulating the doctrine of creation make sense of all the biblical statements on the matter and not simply the first chapter of Genesis?” [p. 143]
McGrath goes on to defend the right of the church to interrupt the six days of creation in different manners.
This reader appreciated McGrath’s willingness to challenge the assumption that every old-earther must be “accommodating” in some manner. I believe this view to be false. However, I would have appreciated it if McGrath would have argued for a theistic evolutionary interpretation of Genesis instead of simply hinting at it.
Chapter 10- Does Religion Poison Everything?: The New Atheism and Religious Belief
The New Atheism insists that “religion is intrinsically and necessarily dangerous, poisonous, and evil.” [p. 148] Moreover, the author admits that this is the objection that seems to have gained the most “cultural traction. In this chapter, McGrath demonstrates that is not the case. Not only does he take issue with this popular claim, but he goes on to defuse much of the popular rhetoric used by such authors as Christopher Hitchens.
The author writes:
“…based on the surveys of every known case of suicide bombing since 1980, religious belief of any kind does not appear to be either a necessary or a sufficient condition to create suicide bombers. The infamous “suicide vest,” for example, was invented by Tamil Tigers back in 1991, leading to a large number of suicide attacks from this ethnic group…analysis of the evidence suggests that the fundamental motivation for suicide bombings appears to be political, not religious…” [p. 153]
So much for Hitchens’ claim that suicide bombings are entirely faith-based!
This reviewer was impressed throughout this chapter with the author’s ability to dismantle the shallow arguments of the new atheists while simultaneously asking all the right questions:
“Why is it that so many atheists apply moral standards to their critique of relgion that they seem reluctant to apply to atheism itself? It has often been pointed out that the new atheism applies one set of evidential criteria to its own beliefs and a more rigorous and demanding set to those of its opponents. Is the same also true of its moral critiques of religion?” [p. 161]
Other topics dealt with in this chapter include atheist violence, the problem of human nature, and “the Brights.”
Chapter 11- Atheism and the Enlightenment: Reflections on the Intellectual Roots of the New Atheism
As the book comes to a close, McGrath briefly points out some of the major problems with the historic Enlightenment period and further demonstrates why atheists such as Paul Kurtz and Christopher Hitchens are mistaken in believing that a return to Enlightenment ideas would be useful or even possible.
Some of the major themes dealt with in this chapter are the limits of reason, what history teaches us about the Enlightenment period, and the apparent return of the idea of transcendence within different cultures around the world; even those cultures who seek to suppress any talk of transcendence or “God talk” as harmful.
The Passionate Intellect is appropriately titled because it is written by someone who possesses preciously that. One senses in some parts of the book that Professor McGrath is almost pleading with his fellow believers to realize the importance and relevance of theology and the role it plays in culture and to engage themselves in studying it.
This reviewer highly recommends this book to those seeking to understand the importance and practicality of theology and for those who want a sound critique of the shaky pillars that the New Atheism is built on.
Moreover, those already passionate about theology will find the book a pure delight.
Courage and Godspeed,