The Passionate Intellect – Personal Thoughts

This is the third and final installment of my review of The Passionate Intellect: Christian Faith and the Discipleship of the Mind by Alister McGrath from IVP-Academic.  You can read the author info here and find an overview of the contents here.  Thanks again to IVP-Academic for sending a copy.

Let’s start with the good – McGrath makes very important points about apologetics throughout the book. This is assessment comes from a person (i.e. me) who, though once enthralled by apologetics, has developed a serious disdain for the field, especially at the popular level. I’m sure others have made similar points to McGrath elsewhere, but I have simply stopped reading apologetics books, in general. I find the tone of most “debates” an utter turn off.

I think the most important point he makes is that an inability to explain one aspect, or even several aspects, of your worldview doesn’t necessarily invalidate the whole thing. Interestingly, he communicates this point most strikingly by quoting Charles Darwin as saying:

A crowd of difficulties will have occurred to the reader. Some of them are so grave that to this day I can never reflect on them without being staggered; but, to the best of my judgement, the greater number are only apparent, and those that are real are not, I think, fatal to my theory (p. 137).

That is a profoundly helpful statement. Immediately preceding this, McGrath discusses this point, namely the inability to adequately explain a particular aspect of one’s worldview, in relation to the Christian’s struggle to explain the issue of pain and suffering in the world.  I like McGrath’s approach to apologetics; it gives a person room to breathe. Rather than looking for “linchpin” arguments he encourages us to look at matters more holistically. Thus, with regard to pain and suffering in the world, it is not that we may find any one particular explanation completely satisfying. However, when we take several explanations together, we might still find a theistic worldview convincing, even though we still may consider anomalies.

In addition, the book contains some very helpful articles on science and religious faith, in particular. The first part of the book contained some helpful thoughts concerning theology, in general, but I didn’t really find those chapters as stimulating as those in the second part of the book (see the post overviewing the contents). I particularly enjoyed the chapter entitled “Does Religion Poison Everything?” He ends with this bit of invective, which I do think is appropriate considering the approach to “apologetics” taken by many of the new atheists “The belief that religion poisons everything is simply childish.”

As I think I’ve made clear, I like a great deal about this book. Yet I will offer two points of critique.  First, the book was not really what I expected from a book entitled The Passionate Intellect.  As I hinted in the previous post, the book had more of a feel of Collected Essays of Alister McGrath: 2008-2010, or something to that effect.  With that said, if you like Alister McGrath, you will like this book. I like reading about science and religion, but this is not really my intellectual passion.

Second, I thought the book was a little too dispassionate to be titled The Passionate Intellect. I guess this is not really a knock. Everyone might display passion differently. Only, I was expecting something a little more along the lines of David Ulin’s The Lost Art of Reading, where he describes reading as rebellion against all of the other things that vie for our attention. The tone of The Passionate Intellect just didn’t communicate passion to me.

With that said, I do think the book is worth reading. It’s a fairly short, easy read. And, for those who like Alister McGrath, I think you will enjoy it.  For those, like me, who are unfamiliar with McGrath, it is a good introduction. Only, recognize that the title may set up expectations that do not coincide with what you experience reading the book.

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