The Great Mystery
by Alister McGrath, Hodder, £20
Alister McGrath reminds us that the big questions about life’s purpose and meaning take on special urgency in “a time of crisis and disenchantment”. We should have moved beyond crackpot Enlightenment optimism and faith in the “crystalline clarity of rationalist certainties”. If, after the chaos of the past couple of centuries, you still believe in the inexorable course of progress, then you’re deluded. The age-old, nagging question remains: “if human beings are so wonderful, why is the world such a mess?”
McGrath worries that the philosophers aren’t much help any more. He grumbles that most of them are obsessed with minutiae and technicalities, so the discipline has largely become “an exercise in academic introspection and professional self-reference”. This is a useful but exaggerated point. These days, even the loftiest Senior Common Rooms sometimes allow entry to thinkers who actually engage with the wider world without compromising their scholarly rigour.
A wiser point made by McGrath is that, when pondering the human condition, we tend to become fixated on specific factors rather than recognising that contrasting viewpoints offer different, mutually enhancing, descriptions. McGrath’s aim is to narrow such gaps, while respecting the autonomy of particular intellectual bailiwicks. He is utterly mesmerised by the achievements of science, for instance, but realises that test tubes have their limits. We can’t hope fully to understand ourselves by declaring that it’s all about the genes, or the hormones, or the neurons.
Still less should we trust everything to science when it comes to morality. McGrath has little patience for “the great unexamined orthodoxy of our day; that a purely scientific account of human nature and identity is possible, which makes philosophy, religion and the humanities irrelevant and outdated.” (“Orthodoxy” it’s not, but one can forgive the rhetorical flourish.)
Science is a crucial part of the weave and facts are our friends. But a true “narrative of enrichment” also embraces a sense of wonder at the beauty and mystery of nature. And isn’t that one of the roots of scientific enquiry, too? If the “natural sciences are ultimately an act of intellectual homage to our universe”, then any potential conflict between science and religion, another kind of homage to what is greater than ourselves, looms less large.
One of McGrath’s lodestones is to take rival perspectives seriously, so he spends considerable time examining the idea that our search for meaning might be entirely pointless. When we fashion our meta-narratives (religion included) and try to make sense of it all, are we just trying to make ourselves feel better: behaving like narcissists in a universe that simply doesn’t care? McGrath rejects the thought, insisting that meaning is something we discern rather than simply construct: that goodness is there to be discovered, not just invented. He recognises the sense of alienation that many of us can feel in the universe, but perhaps this sense of exile, of not being quite at home, is a hint that we’re bound for somewhere else.
It can be hard to keep the faith sometimes, of course, especially when confronted by evil or suffering. But the “loss of a map of meaning”, or the perennial phenomenon of doubt, is simply part of humanity’s job description. We must also accept that “the dogma of the intrinsic goodness of humanity is a patently false notion”, but we require a vocabulary to cope with that uncomfortable reality: a word like “sin” is a very good place to start. Christianity, for McGrath, is so useful because it understands the enormous potential of human nature but also recognises that it is “wounded, damaged and broken”.
McGrath can be repetitive but in this book he offers both a serious attempt to confront the questions we can never hope to answer and a warning against following the crowd. When people abide by the “prevailing wisdom of their peers”, which these days seems to require an unnecessary bifurcation between religion and science, they are committing an act of “tribal loyalty”.
In our ever-so sophisticated, fragmented postmodern era, it’s sometimes regarded as naïve, even arrogant, to carve out a sense of meaning. The ghettoisation and atomisation of knowledge is all the rage, no matter how frequently the concept of interdisciplinarity is uttered in the academy. “World-weariness”, as McGrath puts it, is also “on the rise again”. It all makes for a dangerous epistemological cocktail: one that is all the more potent because we seem to find a strange self-satisfaction in being rudderless. We like to congratulate ourselves on being the smart alecks who have finally accepted our impotence. Well, that way lies nihilism, and that never did anyone any good.
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