Conflict or Mutual Enrichment? Why Science and Theology Need to Talk to Each Other

by Alister McGrath

Most of us know that heart-stopping feeling of awed wonder at the beauty and majesty of nature. I remember well a journey I made across Iran in 1975. I was travelling on an ancient bus in the middle of the night across the desert from Shiraz to Kerman, when its ailing engine finally failed. The passengers left the coach, and wandered around, waiting hopefully for the driver to fix it. I saw the stars that night as I had never seen them before – brilliant, solemn and still, in the midst of a totally dark and silent land.

I simply cannot express in words the overwhelming feeling of awe I experienced that night – a sense of exaltation, amazement and wonder. I still feel a tingle, a shiver of pleasure, running down my spine when I recall that desert experience, all those years ago.

For some, that sense of wonder – even astonishment – is an end in itself. Many of the Romantic poets took this view. Towards the end of his life, Goethe told his friend J.P. Eckermann that he believed that a sense of astonishment or wonder (das Erstaunen) was an end in itself. We should not seek anything beyond it or behind it, but simply enjoy the experience. But for many, it is not a dead end, however pleasurable, but is rather a starting point for exploration and discovery. The great Greek philosopher Aristotle also knew that experience – and he also knew what to do about it. That sense of wonder (thaumazein), he declared, was an invitation to explore, to set out on a journey of discovery, in which our horizons are expanded, our understanding deepened and our eyes opened.

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There are two main outcomes of this journey of exploration, which leads, not to a place, but rather – as Henry Miller nicely puts it – “a new way of looking at things.” One outcome is science; the other is religion. Let us be clear: these are not both necessary outcomes, in that some are led to one, some to both, and some to neither. They both offer new ways of seeing things – and more.

Science is one of humanity’s most significant and most deeply satisfying achievements. When I was young, I wanted to study medicine. Knowing my career plans, my great-uncle – who was head of pathology at one of Ireland’s leading teaching hospitals – gave me an old microscope. It proved to be the gateway to a new world. As I happily explored the small plants and cells I found in pond water through its lens, I developed a love of nature which remains with me to this day. It also convinced me that I wanted to know more about and understand the natural world.

I never regretted that decision. At high school, I focussed on physics, chemistry and mathematics. I gained a scholarship to Oxford University to study chemistry, and went on to do doctoral research at Oxford in the laboratories of Professor Sir George Radda, working on physical means of studying complex biological systems. I still have that old brass microscope on my office desk, a reminder of its pivotal role in directing the future course of my life.

Yet though I loved science as a young man, I had a sense that it wasn’t complete. Science helps us to understand how things worked. But what did they mean? Science gave me a neat answer to the question of how I came to be in this world. Yet it seemed unable to answer a deeper question. Why was I here? What was the point of life?

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Conflict or Mutual Enrichment? Why Science and Theology Need to Talk to Each Other