Taking Rational Trouble

Photo by R Bancewicz

There is a vast literature on wonder in science, but what about wonder in theology? When we encounter beauty and complexity in the world we often respond in one of two ways. We might wonder about the mechanisms that produced such a sight and want to find out more – wonder can lead us to science. Or we might start asking deep questions about the meaning of things: Why am I here? Do I have any significance in this vast place? Why is the world so beautiful and so terrible? Wonder can also lead us to theology. I would argue that while these two responses are different, they are not mutually exclusive.

To take this further, theologian Alister McGrath has identified three different sorts of wonder at the natural world.

  1. Innate or intuitive ‘awed wonder’. This is our immediate reaction to the beauty and complexity we see in nature. You don’t need any special knowledge to feel this sort of wonder.
  2. Derived wonder at a mathematical or theoretical representation of reality. So as wonder leads us to do science, we have the privilege of experiencing even more wonder as we see how incredible it all is: more highly organised and even more beautiful than it seemed at first.
  3. Derived wonder at nature pointing to God. This is that feeling of having experienced something transcendent that many scientists would call ‘spiritual’, and a Christian would understand as creation reflecting something of the personality of the Creator.

McGrath described Christian theology as ‘taking rational trouble over a mystery – recognising that there may be limits to what can be achieved, but believing that this intellectual grappling is both worthwhile and necessary.’ I find this, and the quote below helpful as I navigate my way through the concept of wonder in science and faith.

It just means being confronted with something so great that we cannot fully comprehend it, and so must do the best that we can with the analytical and descriptive tools at our disposal. Come to think of it, that is what the natural sciences aim to do as well. Perhaps it is no wonder that there is such a growing interest in the dialogue between science and religion.

Alister E. McGrath, article in Science & Christian Belief, 2005

6 thoughts on “Taking Rational Trouble

  1. norma peralta September 10, 2012 / 7:33 am

    la religion nos enseña de este dialogo con la ciencia que es dada por su Creador Dios


  2. Bill Saunders September 10, 2012 / 4:04 pm

    Of course any short article must be limited in its compass, but I would put in a plea to extend a comment made: “McGrath described Christian theology as ‘taking rational trouble over a mystery”. An old saint described a theologian as, “A man of Prayer in whom God’s truth has been set on fire” – he followed a good precedent in King David describing himself as, “a man of prayer”. May we not then hint at increasing the rainbow spectrum of beauty in science and faith by taking [super]rational trouble over a mystery, thereby including-hinting at knowledge in the realm of the contemplative and of Biblical mysticism?

    Eternal Regards, Bill Saunders


    • Ruth Bancewicz September 11, 2012 / 9:41 am

      Absolutely – though I’m sure there are lots of definitions of ‘Biblical mysticism’, but in general yes. I think that’s what point 3 on experiences that might be called transcendent was about, and McGrath’s hint in the following paragraph. There may be limits to what may be achieved – not that we should stop trying, but that we need humility to recognise things that are bigger than ourselves.


  3. Richard Hosking September 14, 2012 / 12:17 pm

    Hi Ruth, Did you see Jonathan Sacks’ discussion about science and religion with 3 non-believing scientists – Susan Greenfield, Jim Al-Khalili and Richard Dawkins? I thought it was very well produced – even managed to find common ground with Professor Dawkins regarding human rights, human dignity and the use of critical intelligence in the collaborative pursuit of truth! (30 minutes, available in UK on BBC iPlayer until 19.09.12)



    • Ruth Bancewicz September 17, 2012 / 9:27 am

      That looks like a fantastic book, thank you for the recommendation!


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