The Passionate Intellect: Christian Faith and the Discipleship of the Mind, by Alister McGrath, Downers Grove, IVP Academic, 2010, 210 pp, hardcover, ISBN: 978-0830836758
Alister McGrath is, arguably, one of the keenest intellectuals in Western Christianity today. A former atheist, he is internationally recognized as a historian, biochemist, and theologian, and is the Chair of Theology, Ministry and Education at Kings College in London. In his 2010 book, The Passionate Intellect: Christian Faith and the Discipleship of the Mind, McGrath encourages his readers to appreciate the power of Christian theology to engender “a deeper appreciation of the capacity of the gospel to engage with the complexities of the natural world on one hand and the human experience on the other,” while recognizing and respecting the inherent limits to theological inquiry. (12)
The Passionate Intellect: Christian Faith and the Discipleship of the Mind is actually a compilation of several lectures given by Dr. McGrath, then edited and updated based on feedback he’d received. This is important to know, or else one may feel that the book lacks a cohesion. Part 1 (Chapters 1-6) encourages thoughtful contemplation of theology, while Part 2 (Chapters 7-11) puts theological reflection into practice by engaging two particular, interrelated, issues important in the increasingly secular climate of the 21st century – “science vs. religion” and “the new atheism.”
In the Part 1, the author takes his readers on a journey of theological reflection, emphasizing first the importance of theological reflection as we seek to relate more and more to our Creator (Chapters 1-2). In Chapter 3, God is revealed as “the great alchemist,” as McGrath utilizes the poetry of George Herbert to prompt contemplation of God’s magnificent power to transform what was once “base metal” into gold. The fourth chapter offers a theology of suffering and bewilderment. Utilizing Martin Luther’s theology of the Cross, he reminds the reader that the life of faith is one in which one “recognizes the essential darkness in which faith finds itself.” (64) Chapter 5 views the natural world through the lens of faith as nature, rightly interpreted, points “beyond itself to the divine.” (81) The final chapter of Part 1 relates theology and apologetics, reminding the reader that one must both reflect theologically on the richness of the gospel, and reflect culturally in order to find effective methods of communicating the gospel, in order to engage in effective evangelism.
Part 2 begins with an analysis of whether or not there is actually a natural opposition of the natural sciences to faith. In this section, McGrath’s personal interest in the subject makes the reading that much better. In Chapter 7, he argues that the supposed conflict is really due to scientific atheists’ 1) incorporating metaphysics into their science, 2) being doggedly pragmatic, and failing to properly understand the Christian notion of God. (109-115) “The scientific method,” he states, “is no enemy of faith,” but scientific culture must be engaged “positively but critically.” (118) Chapter 8 contains a recounting of Darwin’s scientific journey with a precision that is usually lacking in the conversations of Christians where, rather than painting the scientist as the enemy of all that is good and true, McGrath praises Darwin’s scientific integrity and posits that he was not the atheistic dogmatist that the likes of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens might make him out to be. “Darwin was aware,” McGrath notes, “that his scientific explanation lacked the logical rigor of mathematical proofs and that any theoretical account of what was observed would always be provisional.”(129) The ninth chapter brings the evolution/creation/age-of-the-earth debate into focus by engaging the thoughts of St. Augustine on the matter. Augustine’s exegesis of Scripture, while accounting for the changing landscape of scientific knowledge, is presented well and, for some, will be a first introduction to Christian thought that does not accord with the six-day fiat creation model espoused by many Western Christian laymen. However, McGrath asserts, “Augustine’s approach to creation is neither liberal nor accomodationist, but it is deeply biblical, both in its substance and intentions.” (145)
In Chapter 10, the question, “Is religion intrinsically evil?,” is answered. At this point, McGrath turns his focus on the purveyors of the “new atheism” movement – particularly Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris. The idea that religion causes all of the ills of the world is examined, as McGrath focuses on the Enlightenment background of atheism. He then discusses some historical examples which, he contends, are ignored by the “new atheists,” and shows that atheism‘s record of violence and oppression is not as pristine as their utopic rhetoric would imply. In his final chapter, the author looks deeper at the roots of the “new atheism,” and critiques their node of argumentation on historical and philosophical grounds, giving his readers an excellent primer for intellectual engagement of this worldview.
Those familiar with Alister McGrath are apt to see him as an astute scientist, historian and theologian. For those who are not, The Passionate Intellect is sure to convince them of such. In its early chapters, the book takes the reader on a fantastic journey of theological contemplation. The latter chapters bring the reader into a fascinating world of intellectual engagement. While the intellectual rigor of some of the chapters may prove daunting for some, the whole of the book is an excellent primer for theological and cultural engagement for those who have the appetite.
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