The Great Mystery

by Alister McGrath, Hodder, £20

Alister McGrath reminds us that the big questions about life’s purpose and meaning take on special urgency in “a time of crisis and disenchantment”. We should have moved beyond crackpot Enlightenment optimism and faith in the “crystalline clarity of rationalist certainties”. If, after the chaos of the past couple of centuries, you still believe in the inexorable course of progress, then you’re deluded. The age-old, nagging question remains: “if human beings are so wonderful, why is the world such a mess?”

McGrath worries that the philosophers aren’t much help any more. He grumbles that most of them are obsessed with minutiae and technicalities, so the discipline has largely become “an exercise in academic introspection and professional self-reference”. This is a useful but exaggerated point. These days, even the loftiest Senior Common Rooms sometimes allow entry to thinkers who actually engage with the wider world without compromising their scholarly rigour.

A wiser point made by McGrath is that, when pondering the human condition, we tend to become fixated on specific factors rather than recognising that contrasting viewpoints offer different, mutually enhancing, descriptions. McGrath’s aim is to narrow such gaps, while respecting the autonomy of particular intellectual bailiwicks. He is utterly mesmerised by the achievements of science, for instance, but realises that test tubes have their limits. We can’t hope fully to understand ourselves by declaring that it’s all about the genes, or the hormones, or the neurons.

Still less should we trust everything to science when it comes to morality. McGrath has little patience for “the great unexamined orthodoxy of our day; that a purely scientific account of human nature and identity is possible, which makes philosophy, religion and the humanities irrelevant and outdated.” (“Orthodoxy” it’s not, but one can forgive the rhetorical flourish.)

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