Interview: Alister McGrath

The best-selling author discusses his Oxford journey from Marxist and atheist to Christian theologian

“I was a student at Wadham, and I was drawn there partly because it had reputation for being a really Marxist place in those days. I was a Marxist-atheist in those days as well. Back in the 1960s, that’s what every young person was.”

So Alister McGrath, Professor of Science and Religion at Oxford University, leading Christian apologist, and author of over 30 books including The Dawkins Delusion, described his early days studying Chemistry at Oxford. It was here, he told me, that he made the transition to Christianity. “Coming to Oxford, I suddenly realised the world was bigger than I thought, and it made me do a lot of rethinking. To cut a long story short, I moved away from atheism towards Christianity, basically because Christianity seemed to me to offer a better way of looking at the world. It was a very intellectual conversion.”

As we talked, sat in opposite armchairs in a room above the Harris Manchester College Chapel, McGrath elaborated on how this change was woven with doubts about the principles of his youth. “If you’re locked into an intellectual way of looking at the world, it limits what you see. If you read Arthur Koestler’s works, he talks about his own experience where the world seemed very simple but also very limited, and he came to the view that the world cannot be taken in by any single theory. That was really what I experienced. I still use Marxism – it’s very good at social analysis – but there seemed vast areas of life where it didn’t give good answers.”

“If you want to be cynical”, McGrath smiled wryly, “You could say that what I’ve done is substitute one big picture for another. What I think I realised was I’d stepped into the wrong big picture and it wasn’t big enough.” One important influence on this conclusion was the student community he found in Oxford. “In the Oxford intellectual environment, people talk about things a lot: over lunch, over dinner, in the pubs. I found myself being exposed to ideas I had not thought through before. Oxford is that kind of catalyst.” Another was a revaluation of what science could offer. “I started to read about history and philosophy of science, and though I had thought science gave very simple, crisp, clear answers to questions, looking at the history and philosophy I found science was much more malleable and open-ended than I’d realized.”

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This debate over the role of science became one of many that McGrath would grapple with in both academic and apologetic capacity for over 30 years. Asked about the state of Christian apologetics today, he continues in his measured tone. “Apologetic literature needs to be acutely alert to the questions people are asking, to the anxieties they are expressing. It must be constantly asking how the Christian faith can be interpreted and explained to really highlight the way it connect up with these questions. It not about reworking Christianity; it’s much more about trying to say, look, there is this big theme in Christianity which connects very will to this and to this, and hasn’t been explained very well. So apologetics needs to be immersed in the deep structures of Christianity, but exquisitely sensitive to the questions people are asking.”

In a word, what is the biggest question Christianity faces right now? “Relevance. It’s a ‘so what’ question. Lots of Christian apologists are very good at defending the rationality of faith, but so what? You’ve got to show there is existential traction, that it really relates to them.” He frowns slightly, before continuing slowly. “Partly, this is because we live in a post-modern situation, and post-modernity often asks not ‘is this right?’ but ‘does this work’. That’s actually a very important question to ask: what difference does Christianity make to my life?”

In his teenage years, growing up in Northern Ireland, McGrath described how the main difference Christianity seemed to make was dividing society. “I was there in the late 1960s, and it was a time of rising religious tension; what we euphemistically call ‘the Troubles’ kicked off  after I left. To my way of thinking, this illustrated that religion was divisive, a source of violence, and it reinforced my Marxist concerns about religion, that it was something which sedated people and prevented them from asking big questions. Northern Ireland reinforced my sense that atheism was the obvious option for any thinking person.”

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Is anything unique, then, about the Oxford environment which set McGrath thinking differently? “Having spent some time as an academic in London, I’ve noticed Oxford is very good at forcing students of different disciplines to talk to each other: the college system creates those cross-discipline friendships and conversations. I think it also helps research, bringing people of different backgrounds together and producing innovation across disciplinary boundaries. Oxford has this capacity to generate ideas, spark people off .”

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