The Territories of Human Reason

Science and Technology in an Age of Multiple Rationalities

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Alister E. McGrath
Ian Ramsey Centre Studies in Science and Religion
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , January
     304 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Towards the end of The Territories of Human Reason: Science and Theology in an Age of Multiple Rationalities, Alister E. McGrath notes that “we may live in a world that is an ontological unity, but this world is investigated and represented on the basis of an epistemological pluralism, offering us a bricolage of unintegrated insights and perceptions arising from different disciplinary or cultural perspectives on our world, or scientific engagement with its different levels” (222-23). In this sentence he summarizes the problem which he has explored throughout the book. While the world that we experience may exist as a unified whole, the fields of knowledge through which we seek to understand that world are fragmented, with each field or discipline providing a particular viewpoint, not all of which can be readily joined together.

Earlier work in the science-religion conversation focused on the relationship between religious thought and scientific knowledge, often using Ian Barbour’s four-fold typology of conflict, independence, dialogue, and integration—or similar categories to describe the relationship. (Some of McGrath’s previous work fits this broad description.) Discerning this relationship was a relatively straight-forward matter of determining the degree to which religious thought and scientific reasoning could each accommodate insight from the other. More recently, various scholars have challenged such understandings of the relationship between religion and science as simplistic ones which fail to recognize the complexity of relationships between both science and religion and other disciplines, such as history, psychology, and the social sciences.

McGrath begins his latest work by asserting that concepts of reason vary across disciplines, and no method of reasoning is universal. This holds true even within the natural sciences where no single methodology is universally accepted. McGrath’s book seeks to map these various means of reasoning across disciplines, with particular attention given to the natural sciences and Christian theology. According to McGrath, all human reasoning occurs within specific historical and cultural contexts, which introduces further variability to his attempt to describe these rationalities. Citing Isaac Newton as an example, McGrath argues that it is possible to engage with both science and theology (as McGrath himself does) while utilizing separate methodologies and rationalities for each. In doing so, however, one must acknowledge that both science and theology may provide incomplete descriptions of the world. The natural sciences are based in the natural world, while Christian theology is based on God’s revelation to human beings in that world. The forms of reason that can be applied to those objects will differ. The question that arises is whether and how the insights provided by such rationalities can be integrated with one another to produce a broader vision of reality than the visions produced by either science or theology alone.

After a chapter discussing the social and communal contexts in which both science and theology are embedded, McGrath devotes the second half of the book to this question of the production of a vision of reality based on both science and theology. He argues that both science and theology produce “theories” that attempt to provide coherent explanations of the world based on available evidence. The success of such explanations can be judged by their acceptance or rejection within their respective communities. Scientific explanations present either descriptions of causal relationships within the world or unifying descriptions of the world as a whole. Theological explanations (which McGrath notes may not be fundamental or central to Christian faith) present an underlying framework of the world which renders meaning to human experience. While the purposes of scientific and theological explanations may differ, they may nonetheless share some methodologies. McGrath argues that deduction, induction, and abduction – three methods of reasoning commonly utilized in the natural sciences – are also found within Christian theology. Finally, he claims that both science and theology are limited by mystery – there is a complexity to the world which cannot be fully understood by human rationality. In science this is demonstrated by the tendency of scientific discoveries to produce as many new questions as they answer, while in Christian theology the central mystery is the nature of the Trinitarian God which has defied rational attempts at explanation for over two millennia.

In his conclusion, McGrath borrows E.O. Wilson’s term “consilience” to suggest a way to bring together outcomes and insights from different territories of rationality, this time relying on transdisciplinarity as the cohesive principal rather than Wilson’s privileging of scientific methodologies. McGrath suggests that this “rational consilience” will produce a web of relationships connecting the knowledge of various rationalities into a panoramic view of reality as humans have experienced it. Using both science and socialism and science and Christian theology as examples, he argues that such disparate fields of knowledge can nonetheless connect with one another and inform each other. In particular, rationalities of science, though they excel at explaining the physical world, must look to other rationalities for explanations that give meaning to human experience. Such a transdisciplinary view will never be fully completed, since there will always be room for one more rational thought, one more new discovery or new application of long-held knowledge.

The book is impressive in its comprehensiveness – covering ground from early Greek philosophy and the beginnings of Christian theology to the latest scientific theories. The bibliography includes over nine hundred entries, each of which appears to be directly referenced at least once in the main text. If the work has any weakness, it lies in this very comprehensiveness. Readers with a casual interest in the religion-science conversation may find themselves frustrated as McGrath frequently devotes only a paragraph or two to topics that might be the subject of an entire chapter or major chapter section in a less ambitious work. Such readers are unlikely to be his target audience, however. The book aims to summarize the current status of the religion-science conversation and suggest a way to move forward that respects the rational territories of each.  McGrath succeeds admirably on both counts. While he has focused on the relationship between Christian theology and science, given the increasing volume of contributions to the religion-science conversation from the point of view of other religious traditions, one looks forward to the development of McGrath’s “rational consilience” web as the participation of additional religious rationalities increases.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jim Sharp is Adjunct professor of Religion and Philosophy at Colorado State University – Pueblo.

Date of Review: 
January 28, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Alister E. McGrath is Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion and Director of the Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion at the University of Oxford.


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