Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Book Review: The Open Secret

I went to Oxford last summer for a conference and now I realize this book was what kicked that conference off. I didn't know that till I got there and heard speakers keep referencing this book, which is kind of unfair because it wasn't published till 2008 and I hadn't read it! But in any case, reading through this book I remembered parts of the conference where I thought "why are they mentioning that person or that idea" and its turns out it's because they were interacting with this book.

Most of my review is that I really like McGrath's writing for how "brisk" it is, to borrow a word from one of the blurbs on the back of the book. He doesn't slow down to engage every argument, but that makes it possible for a busy scientist to actually read this and engage with his argument. So I'm not sure what others in the theology field think of this, but as an out-of-fielder it gave me ideas and, I agree with McGrath and the blurbs, it laid a foundation for a new rethinking of natural theology. Natural theology has always been an interest of mine -- after all, if I spend my time in the lab tinkering with nature and then part of my time in the church, I should be able to bring the two together -- but it's been confined by a nineteenth-century straightjacket in which everyone expects it to provide proofs that God exists. Well, if that's not strictly speaking possible, what's a scientist to do? McGrath gives me ideas, and I'm working on a proposal that incorporates precisely those ideas.

The main points for this new natural theology is that it's humble: it's about resonance, not proof (I've always liked the word resonance as a chemist and music-interested person); it's about the big picture, not the "gaps" of creation (and therefore lends itself well to story-telling); and it's about the suggestive power of things like the anthropic principle, things that could make sense without God, but seem to make more sense with God. It's about Jesus' parables and "I am" sayings, and the call of Samuel (I knew there was a reason I named my first son that ...). It's a gentle theology, but also one grounded in cold hard observation, yet going beyond it. Sign me up.

I'll post my abstract for my proposed lecture later, we'll see if anything comes of it, but I'm pretty sure I'll be writing more about this book's ideas very soon.

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