Finding insight in Alister McGrath’s Mere Apologetics
Apologetics aims to convert believers into thinkers and thinkers into believers. – Alister McGrath
Prove it. Prove that God exists.”
This challenge is not uncommon from a generation weaned on the make-believe T.V. world of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation where cases resolve neatly after hot shot investigators simply collect “evidence.” The “evidence doesn’t lie,” the audience is instructed weekly.
But is that true? Doesn’t ALL evidence have to be interpreted? And is the evidence found under a microscope or in a lab the only evidence that counts? Are the New Atheists correct when they insist there is no “proof” for God?”
In Mere Apologetics: How to Help Seekers and Skeptics Find Faith, theologian and scientist Alister E. McGrath addresses this challenge as he lays out an A to Z pathway for becoming a skilled apologist for the Christian faith.
It turns out, many of humankind’s dearest and most heart-felt causes, including our beliefs about the fundamental rights of humans, cannot be “proved.” McGrath writes in his chapter “The Reasonableness of the Christian Faith”:
In 1948, the United Nations reaffirmed its ‘faith in fundamental human rights.’ Important though this belief might be, the statements of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights cannot be proved, logically or scientifically. Nor can the belief that oppression is evil, or that rape is wrong. You just can’t prove these things.
Others agree. McGrath points out that atheist philosopher Richard Rorty—whom he calls the greatest American philosopher of the twentieth century—said when addressing the American Philosophical Society years ago that it would be hard to believe in anything, even physics and democracy, if philosophical grounding was required.
Rorty’s point? “That we can commit ourselves to the great worldviews of our time without absolute proof,” McGrath explained.
Justice, democracy, and beliefs about human nature, values and purpose are all ideas that cannot be proved logically or scientifically, yet are reasonable to believe. And we do. Countless people have devoted their lives to these causes because they believe them to be right and important, McGrath points out.
Atheism, as well, stands on beliefs that cannot be proved.
McGrath writes that atheist Christopher Hitchens often charged that “God is not good” and “religion is evil,” yet both statements are moral values that ultimately rest on unproved beliefs (such as the idea that the physical, material world is all there is).
To answer the challenge of “proving God exists,” McGrath offers two approaches that complement each other: 1) showing that there is good evidence to believe the Christian faith 2) showing the Christian faith “fits” with our experiences and makes sense of life. He explains:
To demonstrate the reasonableness of faith does not mean proving every article of faith. Rather, it means being able to demonstrate that there are good grounds for believing these articles are trustworthy and reliable—for example, by showing that the Christian faith makes sense of what we observe and experience
The chapter that follows (“Pointers to Faith”) gives starting points for conversations about faith and clues to God’s existence, such as: the origin, design, and order of the universe; humankind’s longing for justice and the innate sense humans have that God exists; beauty and its meaning; and the human intuition that something exists beyond this life.
The book provides answers to tough questions and helps the reader incorporate those answers as he or she develops a personalized approach.
Why this book is helpful
Years ago, I sat in a room in Wycliffe Hall, Oxford University, and heard McGrath speak. Though I cannot quote it now, McGrath said that he was drawn to the Christian faith because it was intellectually stimulating, deep, and satisfying. The challenge he issued that day to explore the depths of scripture was electrifying.
McGrath writes to help each believer discover an approach that is real and genuine based on answers they, too, found satisfying and that led to faith. In the conclusion, McGrath explains that his book is more about helping each Christian develop a method that suits him or her rather than giving answers to “all the big questions of faith.”
What sets this book apart are the credentials of the author and the story behind the book. McGrath, once an atheist himself, is the Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at the University of Oxford, Director of the Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion, and Fellow of Harris Manchester College Oxford. McGrath holds doctoral degrees in molecular biophysics (DPhil) and in historical theology (DD)) from the University of Oxford, Oxford, England. His faith is grounded and well thought out.
In case study 2 in the chapter “Questions about Faith,” McGrath addresses the charge often made that Christianity “offers consolation to life’s losers.” McGrath’s credentials give credence to the claim that Christianity is philosophically rigorous, intellectually solid, and is a coherent and logical belief system.
Secondly, this book is easy to read and is one that will benefit every Christian. In chapter 1, McGrath explains that apologetics (finding and addressing the barriers to faith) is crucial because it can “clear the ground for faith in Christ.” McGrath does some road clearing of his own by examining where the culture is, how we got where we are, and what that means for sharing the Gospel.
McGrath summarizes his approach with these steps: 1) understand the faith. 2) understand the audience. 3) communicate with clarity. 4) find points of contact. 5) present the whole gospel. And finally, 6) practice, practice, practice.
True to what McGrath wrote in his introduction—“Apologetics is to be seen not as a defensive and hostile reaction against the world, but as a welcome opportunity to exhibit, celebrate, and display the treasure chest of the Christian faith”—he leads the reader to discover the richness of the faith as well as learning how to defend it.
Mere Apologetics: How to Help Seekers & Skeptics Find Faith, by Alister E. McGrath, was published by Baker Books, Grand Rapids, Mi, 2012. Visit Dr. McGrath’s website here.
Alister McGrath is a highly published scholar for both the academic and general readership audiences in the fields of theology and in the intersection of faith and science. He is well known for his acclaimed biography C. S. Lewis – a Life: Eccentric Genius,, Reluctant Prophet and his bestselling Christian Theology: An Introduction by Wiley-Blackwell.