Alister McGrath is a strange old fellow. Utterly prolific, a renowned historical theologian, a brilliant apologist and debater, a skilled and highly trained scientist with an unparalleled ability to write about science and theology and about natural theology. Yet there is very little love for Alister.
There is on my bookshelf though. I have more books by McGrath than by Hauerwas or NT Wright, by Barth or Bonhoeffer (in fairness, Bonhoeffer only wrote about 7!). The only person who has more shelf space dedicated to him is Lewis. And that includes the volumes of freaking diaries and letters of Lewis that I own because if I could procure his corpse I’d probably do that; my love of his corpus is that obscene!
I once invited McGrath to Maynooth, on a whim almost. He responded within 30 minutes. He’d be honoured to, he said. He came. 100s showed up to hear him. You can find out about that event there.
I think he doesn’t get the acclaim because in part he is so eminently reasonable. His encyclopedic grasp of theology means he is brilliant at editing encyclopedias and not so brilliant at making rash statements that attract attention. In that, he reminds me of my friend Dr. Patrick Mitchel from the Irish Bible Institute. He is almost too engaged in the life-pursuit of God that is theology for him to make sensationalist statements. (Patrick will no doubt be disgusted at this sensationalist comparison!)
I am just a few pages into his most recent book, the award winning Mere Theology (called The Passionate Intellect in America) and he is already getting my juices flowing. He cites William James who in his famous Varieties of Religious Experience notes that religious experience “defies expression”. He goes on to say:
Its quality must be directly experienced; it cannot be imparted or transferred to others.
Now my only point on this for today is this: Hard atheists want to disregard religious experience as wish fulfillment, delusion or evolutionary side-effect. Yet they are genuinely running up against a harder problem than they would ever wish to acknowledge. Religious experience is universal in all cultures and at all times across humanity. A sceptic may rush in and say to me, “Well Hargaden, if a Buddhist thinks he has achieved Nirvana, that reduces your claims for the supremacy of Christ.” And indeed it may well do that.
But my theology may well have space for the validity and richness of spiritual experiences outside of the Jesus flavours. We never get to expound such theology because the hard atheists are desperate to rule religious experience inadmissible.
It is a however a universal experience. It is a universal experience that is universally over-determined. It cannot be approached except in terms of poetry or liturgical prose or music. No religious tradition has yet emerged that uses journalistic reporting as its genre. Such an idea is hard to imagine.
The hard to imagine-ness of that is worthy of reflection. I do not for a moment expect for you to consider religious experience as anything but subjectively compelling. My experience of God cannot hope to sway you in your stance towards God. But my experience of God must shape how you consider my experience of God.
I want to propose that the new atheist desire to ignore this huge and fascinating anthropological event exposes their deep fear that if we were to take it seriously, the conversation might have to shift from silly positions of polemics to the terrifying prospect that Christianity, Buddhism or Islam do not represent irrational delusions but fertile traditions of some of the most creative and fruitful responses humanity has yet produced to the questions posed by our troublesome experience.
Your Correspondent, In an earlier life he actually wrote all of Prince’s rude songs.