Last night I had the pleasure of seeing Alister McGrath lecture at the Lanier Theological Library in northwest Houston. McGrath, a professor at Oxford with a doctorate in both molecular biophysics and divinity, is a scholar of the highest order and it was a real pleasure to see him in action.
McGrath’s lecture (entitled “The Lord is My Light”) began with a rather famous C.S. Lewis1 quote:
I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.
Through a series of illustrations, McGrath showed how a mind concentrated on God, concentrated on theology, attempting to comprehend the incomprehensible2 , sees the world in a different way. Our words may not be good enough to do justice to the reality of who God is, but that’s part of the beauty of theology — it’s finite man’s attempt to explain the infinite. By way of illustration, McGrath tells the (probably apocryphal) story of Augustine when he meets a boy on a north African beach. The boy takes a seashell, walks to the sea, fills it with water, and transports that water to a hole that he has dug in the beach. Augustine asks: “What are you doing?” The boy responds: “Trying to move the Mediterranean into this hole.” Augustine: “You’ll never be able to do that.” The boy: “I don’t know. It seems you’re trying to do the same thing by putting God (i.e., the Trinity) into a book.”3 The Trinity is a rich vision of God that forces us to recognize our own limits. It puts us in our place.
After discussing the importance of theology and the life of the mind, McGrath spoke about the importance of Apologetics. He said there were two purposes for Apologetics:
- Negative: Apologetics counters objections to the Christian faith.
- Positive: Apologetics explains the truth and value of the Christian faith to our culture.
It was this second purpose that he focused on. Again using Lewis as a jumping off point, McGrath discussed the importance of “translating” the message to our culture. The intense white light of God shines through a prism, which is theology, and allows us to break God up into various components that we may then translate to our culture. As an example, he translates the notion of “adoption” in Romans 8:15 and compares it to the theme song from Cheers — adoption means that we are in a place where we are wanted, where “everybody knows your name.” McGrath challenged the audience to find ways to translate the Gospel message into our culture.
Finally, McGrath discussed what he called “the limits of making sense.” Again, he uses Lewis as a starting point. Lewis stuck passionately to reason and intellect. In reading The Problem of Pain where Lewis very famously said that suffering is “God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world,” McGrath finds Lewis’s lack of attention to emotion and the experience of suffering disturbing. However, when Lewis’s wife, Joy, died in 1960, Lewis wrote (under a pseudonym) A Grief Observed where he begins to attend to the emotional side of suffering.
McGrath takes Martin Luther as a bit of a corrective to Lewis’s dogged devotion to reason and intellect. Luther does not allow that theology bring everything into sharp focus (the way that Lewis wanted it to). Not all questions will be resolved. In the end, that’s okay. If all of the questions were resolved then we would no longer be able to speak of God as a mystery.
McGrath’s lecture was a challenge to me. His theme really dealt with the richness of the Christian faith and its ability to excite all parts of the human: mind, body, soul.4 As I told one student after the lecture, the lecture was a reminder that theology is not passive; theology is active and leads us to see the world in a different way, leads us to behave differently toward ourselves, our fellowa humans, and our God.
- McGrath is currently working on a book about C.S. Lewis. Consequently, his lecture was absolutely peppered with Lewis. My students are currently reading Mere Christianity, and many of McGrath’s comments about Lewis dealt with ideas found in that particular text. So, it was nice for a couple of them to hear this stuff from someone other than me. ↩
- Cf. the Athanasian Creed. ↩
- We can see why this might be apocryphal… ↩
- Cf. Matthew 22.34–40 ↩