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Alister McGrath: Surprised by Meaning

Through a discussion about the existential quest for significance mediated by the grander narrative of Christianity, McGrath leads the reader to his conclusion. Here he takes the big questions of identity, value, purpose, and agency and provides a biblically supported account of how Christianity makes sense of these issues. Somewhat unsurprisingly, McGrath argues that we cannot actually find the meaning we seek, but we have to have it shown to us (104). This disclosure, or revelation, is the Gospel.

This book is an important synthesis and update of the status of the faith-science-atheism conversation, even though many of its sparing partners are dated as well as its contemporary supporters. Nonetheless, a more updated version of the same conversation may require a degree of technical, scientific, and philosophical knowledge so as to preclude the popular reader. McGrath, on the other hand, understands that cutting edge science or scientism as it is distilled to the masses is years behind actual science and rightly, in my opinion, seeks to engage older articulations and arguments.

For Pentecostal and Charismatic Christians, McGrath’s argument is pneumatologically weak. Even though he mentions the Spirit as the One Who “creates, redeems, and sanctifies” (53), he does not go on to apply the Trinitarian formula to his ideas of providence, fine-tuning, revelation, and so on. Concerning revelation and imagination, McGrath overlooks the Spirit’s role in disclosing meaning and sourcing vision within the Christian imaginary. Nor does McGrath consider the Spirit’s role as an intercessor on the behalf of creation. This, to me, helps provide an account for the immanence of God’s involvement in the project of creation suggested by the anthropic principle.

McGrath, perhaps for reasons of time and space, does not engage with the issues related to natural theology. Nor does he investigate some of the newer scholarship concerning Romans 1 and the soteriological inadequacies of theologies (or even supplements to theologies) derived from observation.

In short, McGrath’s work serves as a close mile-marker on the long road through late modernity. It is not essential reading but helpful.

Reviewed by Benjamin Crace


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Category: In Depth, Winter 2016

About the Author: Benjamin Crace, Ph.D. candidate (University of Birmingham), lives and teaches in Kuwait City, Kuwait. He is also a distance learning graduate student at the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Pentecostal and Charismatic Studies.

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