What is faith? Is it assent to doctrine or is it putting your trust in God? Diana Butler Bass has suggested that the Latin word credo, which we usually translate as “I believe”, should be understood as “I set my heart upon” or “I give my loyalty to” (Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening, p. 117). It has less to do with doctrinal formulations and more to do with relationships. I’m attracted to this idea. At the same time, this embrace of another is not ephemeral. There is substance – not perhaps an abstract scholastic version, but substance nonetheless. Peter Rollins in a recent book speaks of “the idolatry of God," and raises questions about seeking certainty or satisfaction in our conception of God. Although Rollins and Bass come from different angles, both speak from a more postmodern perspective. Alister McGrath, on the other hand, offers a more traditional evangelical take on matters of faith. Affirmation of substantive doctrines is important. Creeds offer definitive, if incomplete, statements about the object of faith.
McGrath is a rather well known evangelical academic and author. He might agree that faith is trust, but it must be an informed trust. His patron saint in this might be Anselm, who spoke of “faith seeking understanding.” Creeds aren’t mere checklists of beliefs; they are sketch maps of the theological terrain or skeletons that “support the life giving organs of faith” (p. 62). Although I hail from a non-creedal tradition (the Disciples, in good Enlightenment, have entrusted to the believer the task of discerning what to believe from their reading of and engagement with Scripture), I find McGrath’s idea attractive. Creeds needn’t be tests of fellowship to provide a starting point for conversation about what it means to follow Jesus.
In this brief book, written with the lay person in mind, McGrath the professor of Theology, Ministry, and Education and head of the Centre for Theology, Religion, and Culture, at King’s College, University of London, sets the parameters for having an intelligent theological conversation. This is the first of five volumes that are designed to address core principles of the Christian faith. His concern is with helping Christians develop an intelligent world view by which they can look at the world and life. His conversation partners in this effort are all lay persons – C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, and Dorothy Sayers – who dug deeply into the wells of the theology and sought to offer a helpful perspective for living the Christian life in a world that was and is less and less defined by the Christian religion. It should be noted that all three were British. None were prototypical evangelicals, though each has embraced by evangelicalism.
In many ways, McGrath, who is much better educated in theology than any of the other three, seeks to write in their vein, to do for the contemporary reader, what they did for an earlier generation. Why is this important? For McGrath, behavior follows belief, not the reverse. What he seeks to offer then is that set of lenses by which one can view the world and see God’s place in it. He writes:
Christianity is about bringing things into focus. For many people, life seems to have no meaning. It appears to be random, meaningless and chaotic, without any underlying order or significance. We are born, we die. And what lies in between in nothing but a “tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” But perhaps there are other ways of reflecting on things. Perhaps they seem meaningless because they are out of focus? (p. 32).
Instead of seeing the human person as the meaning maker, McGrath believes that God is the meaning maker and that God has provided meaningful and authoritative guidance for viewing life, to give it meaning. In other words, Rollins and McGrath view the issues of the day from very different perspectives. You could say that McGrath is more traditional. But perhaps he offers another way of looking at things that even we who are attracted to postmodern ideas need engage with.
One of the reasons why McGrath believes we need to attend to these questions is that there is a significant movement that is challenging Christian ideas and beliefs. He has been an outspoken respondent to the New Atheists. He has sought to take them on directly, challenging their efforts to belittle the intellectual credibility of the Christian faith. His is, therefore, a prime mover in the field of apologetics. His is a response different from that of a Rollins or a Borg, but his concerns need to be taken seriously.
If we assume that the upcoming volumes form a similar pattern, then we will have an updated version of "mere Christianity." But while there’s similarity between their projects, perhaps the person we might better compare him to is William Barclay. Barclay largely focused on the biblical text, and one might suggest that Barclay lay to the left of where McGrath finds himself, but like Barclay, McGrath has found a way to write intellectually credible books that are also understandable to the general reader. I expect that these books will be ideal for group study and personal devotion, but if you’re left of center remember – he’s an evangelical, though of a British sort (and they tend to be less narrow than many of their American counterparts – especially on matters of faith and science).