In my student days, we spoke admiringly of the "strong readings" that Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida made of past thinkers: readings that to ordinary readers looked like wilful misreadings, if not outright bluffing about things one had not read. Alister McGrath, Anglican theology's best answer to a public intellectual, has certainly cast his eyes over the works that define the history of natural theology.
However, he stands accused of a certain kind of wilful misreading for which the phrase "weak reading" would not be out of place. He makes natural theology appear much less dangerous than it really has been and should remain.
McGrath begins with a quote from a late 19th-century precursor in the distinguished lecture series that provides the occasion for this book: "It is not too much to say that the Gospel itself can never be fully known till nature as well as man is fully known." This is as clear a statement of natural theology's historic self-understanding as one is ever likely to get. However, McGrath quickly inverts its meaning to launch his own project in apologetics.
Instead of interpreting the quote as saying that science is poised to provide the details of the outworking of divine agency in nature, he waxes eloquent about how science points to a reality beyond the reach of its own methods, for which theology then provides a necessary resource, if not an answer to everyone's satisfaction. In this way, McGrath ensures that theology rationalises science, but not the other way around.
To his credit, McGrath concedes that the divines who aligned themselves with natural theology for two centuries after Isaac Newton's grand synthesis of the physical universe were barely distinguishable from Deists and other Christian dissenters who indulged in biblical criticism and anti-clericalism. All of them gravitated towards a calculating and contriving conception of "God, The Ultimate Mechanic".
It was just this rationalistic view of the deity that Charles Darwin came to reject as a result of his studies of natural history. McGrath nimbly argues that Darwin was right to do so, but wrong to have despaired of theology altogether. Here he raises a telling point against Darwin's source on natural theology, William Paley, who still influences today's arguments for intelligent design in nature with his famous example of the watch found on a heath.
A series of parliamentary debates over the use of evidence in criminal law in the 1830s sent a ripple effect throughout the empirical disciplines. Out went the rhetorical demonstrations of self-evidence that were favoured by Paley and, indeed, the early experimentalists of the Royal Society. In their place came a more inferential conception of evidence, one in which facts drawn from disparate and partial sources are collected together and interpreted before drawing an overall conclusion.
Championing this new approach was William Whewell, the natural theologian who coined the word "scientist" and who was Darwin's main source on scientific method.
McGrath would like to see natural theology take up with more gusto the view that Darwinian evolution's overriding narrative of death and extinction exhibits God's capacity to suffer with his creatures. This would vindicate Christianity's official "Trinitarian" view of the deity as including a material aspect, most notably the very human life of Jesus. But cautious as ever, McGrath does not then go on to consider that we might have a divine mandate to relieve or mitigate this cosmic suffering.
Darwinism and the Divine: Evolutionary Thought and Natural Theology
By Alister E. McGrath. John Wiley & Sons. 320pp, £55.00 and £19.99. ISBN 9781444333435 and 33442. Published 11 February 2011