Saturday, May 17, 2014

The Living God (Alister McGrath) -- Review

THE LIVING GOD: A Guide for Study and Devotion (The Heart of Christian Faith)  By Alister E. McGrath.  Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2014.  Ix + 111 pages.

                Who is God?  There are those, a significant minority, who would say that there’s simply no evidence that God exists and so they pay no attention to the question.  But, even most religiously non-affiliated humans embrace some sense that there is more to reality than meets the eye.   Thus the question of God’s nature is worth pursuing.  There are, of course, many answers to the question.  Each of the major religions has answers, and even within these bounds there are usually differences of opinion. 

                As a Christian, I am most interested in the definitions provided by fellow religionists.   While I’m not given to dogmatism, I do believe that there should be some substance standing behind my confession of faith.  That is – dogma without dogmatism (a point made in a new book by Addison Hodges Hart in his book Strangers and Pilgrims Once More).  Among the many definitions of God, some are more coherent than others.  Ultimately, as a Christian, I recognize that God is bigger than any definition, but that doesn’t preclude pursuing answers to the questions of God’s nature.

Theologians willing to offer answers abound.  Some are more accessible than others.  One of the more accessible published theologians of recent years is Alister McGrath, a British theologian and author.  Back when I was teaching undergraduate theology classes, as a historically oriented theologian, I used his textbook from Blackwell to good effect.  The Living God is a more popular introduction to theology.  It’s part of The Heart of Christian Faith series from Westminster John Knox Press.   This book is the second in the series, with Faith and Creeds: A Guide for Study and Devotion (The Heart of Christian Faith)being the initial offering.  While the earlier book is an exploration of the creeds, here he focuses on the first article of the historic creeds – the nature of God.  Later volumes will take up the person of Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and the church.

McGrath is an evangelically inclined Anglican.  British evangelicals are not always of the same mind as American versions, and McGrath is deeply orthodox in his thinking, but he is not narrow in his thinking.  While well trained in theology, he also has significant training in the sciences.  Since any exploration of God will touch upon the concept of creation, it should not surprise anyone that he delves into scientific questions and their relationship to God’s role as creator.   From his perspective there is no necessary conflict between confessing God to be the creator and affirming the findings of the natural sciences.  That is, they’re not enemies.    

In many ways McGrath is more theologically astute (better educated) version of C.S. Lewis.  He has spent his career writing about theology, science, church history.  He’s the author of a biography of Lewis (C. S. Lewis - A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet), and in this book at least, he appeals to Lewis regularly.

In the spirit of his spiritual muse, McGrath writes as an apologist for the Christian faith.  In this brief theological study – written for a general/lay audience – he seeks to offer a reasonable account of the nature of God.  He speaks of a “personal God,” one who loves and is faithful.  He affirms the premise that God is almighty – that God has power.  And yet he affirms that God is compassionate and capable of understanding human suffering.  He writes of creation – and the creator.  And he speaks briefly to the Christian affirmation of the Trinity.

Regarding the Trinity, he notes that when he was an atheist, he thought that religious people believed all sorts of “ridiculous nonsense.”  Among this nonsense was the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.  He acknowledges the difficulty that Christians have had in defining and understanding this doctrine that has stood at the center of the faith from well before Nicea.   He recognizes that God can’t be reduced to a simple formula – to do so would domesticate God.  Recognizing the complexity of the doctrine, he tries to deal with the variety of “solutions” presented down the ages – noting the tendency to fall into either tri-theism (three gods) or modalism (one person with different masks/roles).  The Trinity is the bigger picture of God and God’s relationship to us.  He sees the Trinity as “the conclusion of a long process of reflection about faith – the keystone in the arch of Christian beliefs, the final piece in the jigsaw” (p. 101).  It’s the glue that holds the Christian faith together.  The message that he seeks to communicate is that God lies beyond our attempts to form a definition, but nonetheless God is present and in relationship to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.   
Much like his hero, C.S. Lewis, McGrath addresses the non-specialist in this book.  It’s not a fully developed theological treatise.  That would take more than a hundred pages or so.  It’s readable and accessible, but due to the subject matter, it’s not necessarily light reading.  If you live to the left of McGrath theologically, you’ll not be satisfied with his answers.  But I think he still provides a good foundation upon which to build – even if you do move toward Process or Tillich or Feminist Theology (to name a few possibilities). That’s purpose of the book – to offer the serious student a good starting point for a conversation about who God is and how God is relating to us today. 

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