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Prof. Andy F. Sanders: ‘Theologian McGrath sows confusion in debate between science and religion’

08 September 2009

With his new book "The Open Secret. A new Vision for Natural Theology", the world-famous British theologian Alister McGrath does neither religion nor science a service. That’s the opinion of University of Groningen professor Andy Sanders. In his view, McGrath is presenting his Christian theology as a kind of super science. ‘All he’s doing is creating confusion in the debate between religion and science. I’m expecting a lot of criticism when McGrath comes to Groningen soon to present his book.’

Knowing God via reason and nature, reality as created by God, that’s what natural theology is all about. This kind of theology does not try to rely directly on the Bible or other revelationary writings but tries when pondering God to take human understanding and experience as its starting points. The ancient Greeks and Romans were already involved in natural theology. In the Middle Ages natural theology took off, but after the Enlightenment and 19th century religious criticism it came increasingly under pressure. Advances in natural science also played an important role in this development. Alister McGrath, an acclaimed theologian from Oxford who gives lectures and interviews all over the world, is attempting in his newest book to bring natural theology up to date. He will be coming to Groningen on 16 and 17 September to give a lecture on Darwin and to present the Dutch translation of his book.

Physical versus metaphysical

Philosopher of religion Andy Sanders is not unequivocally enthusiastic about the British theologian’s work. ‘Between the lines, McGrath is sounding an evangelical and rather right-wing orthodox note. It seems as if he wants to go back to postmodernist times, the time of the great stories. That’s perfectly legitimate, of course. However, it can easily cause confusion in the debate between religion and science, which is to nobody’s advantage.’
Dawkins and other atheists only want to discuss the nature and creation of the universe on the basis of scientifically verifiable statements and physical explanations. McGrath also pretends to be presenting explanations – not scientific ones, however, but metaphysical ones, according to Sanders. ‘Because he is constantly talking about “explanation” and “explaining”, an unwary reader may quickly – and unjustifiably – get the idea that they are the same type of explanations. But scientific and metaphysical explanations are not interchangeable and are not on the same level.’

Absolutist tinge

Sanders also finds something to criticize in McGrath’s attempt to present his theology as a step in the direction of ‘an all-encompassing theory’ and as ‘something that unites religion and science’. ‘McGrath is a specialist in the history of theology – and I have no criticism to find in that field. However, when I read his new book I wondered why he was completely ignoring the process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead and the natural theology based on that. This is an existing alternative for the theology that McGrath wants to develop himself. In process theology God is not only the absolute basis of the cosmos but is involved in creative exchange with it, too. Apparently this alternative does not fit into McGrath’s theological agenda.’
Sanders also thinks that there is a ‘suspiciously absolutist tinge’ to the position taken by McGrath. By immediately presenting his natural theology as the best all-in explanation, he is positioning it above – and thus opposed to – other approaches. Sanders: ‘Some believers will welcome this standpoint, but leaving aside the fact that it is all worked out rather programmatically, you can also wonder whether such pretention in the current cultural context can make a fruitful contribution to the discussion with believers or non-believers who have other opinions – and there are plenty of them.’

Curriculum vitae

Andy Sanders is professor by special appointment, in particular in the philosophy of present-day multi-religious society, at the University of Groningen. He has worked for the University of Groningen since 1979. In 1988 he was awarded a PhD for his analytical reconstruction of Polanyi’s epistemology and the concept of ‘tacit knowledge’. He has published on subjects in the field of theology, philosophy of science and religious epistemology, and more recently on contemplative religious philosophy in the line of Wittgenstein and D.Z. Phillips.

Last modified:04 January 2018 3.45 p.m.

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