I discovered Christianity back in 1971. I had been one of those brash and overconfident atheists who happily dismissed people with religious commitments as mad, bad, or sad. Yet I don't think I ever really grasped what Christianity was all about, or the weaknesses of my own atheism.
I discovered Christianity while I was a student at Oxford. It was like entering a strange new world, and struggling to cope with its ideas. It took a long time to settle down in this new place. It was like arriving on an island, and gradually getting a sense of its geography, and learning how to live. I longed for some kind of guide to this island, which would help me learn about it, and settle down there. I knew that there were some wonderful things to be discovered. But what were they? Where were they? Who could tell me about them?
As a boy, I took delight in reading books about faraway places, such as RM Ballantyne's The Coral Island, Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe and Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island. They captured my youthful imagination, setting me alongside people who arrived on mysterious islands with hidden secrets waiting to be discovered. I realised that my discovery of the Christian faith was like being washed up on the shores of one of these mysterious islands, and challenged to explore its landscape. I've tried to rise to that challenge.
So, more than 40 years later, I wrote this book. The Landscape of Faith is basically an explorer's guide to the Christian faith. In it, I try to provide a map of this rich and intriguing landscape, to help others explore it. I share my insights into some of basic Christian ideas, trying to explain why these make sense, and how they help us live our lives well and meaningfully.
My basic approach is simple. Let's listen to (and learn from!) those who have made this island their home. Let's allow them to tell us what they found, and how it can enrich our own lives and thinking. You probably won't be surprised to learn that I use CS Lewis a lot. I admire the clarity and elegance of his writing, and the helpful ways in which he opens up some basic Christian ideas. But there are lots of others I draw on as well.
It's about allowing those who have lived on that island for some time to take us on a journey around the island, pointing out its main features, and explaining how they understood and valued them. As I grew in my faith, I came to value mentors or travelling companions, who would help me to understand particular issues or ideas, passing on their wisdom, so that I could in turn pass it on to others.
The book is organised around the statements of the Creeds. I have to tell you that my own first encounters with those Creeds were decidedly unpromising. Perhaps they even reinforced my atheism! They seemed so dry and dull, lacking any sense of vibrancy or excitement. Who could get interested in them, let alone enthusiastic about them?
Yet as I grew in my faith, I began to realise that the Creeds were like maps of the landscape of faith, helping us to find our way, and telling us what to look out for. There was no way that they communicated the joy and wonder of the Christian gospel. But that's not what they are meant to do. They tell us what to look for – and invite us to discover it for ourselves.
The Creeds set an agenda of discovery as we explore the landscape of faith. They are not, and were never intended to be, substitutes for an experience of the love of God, or capturing a glimpse of the glory of God through contemplating the solemn stillness of the night sky. The Creeds sketch the territory through which we will travel, and invite us to fill in the detail from our own experience of journeying through that landscape, our conversations with fellow travellers, and our reading of the key resources of faith, such as the Bible.
In my own case, I discovered this island of faith. I thought I already knew something about Christianity, and regarded it as moribund and barren. Only later did I realise that I had rejected a caricature and failed to appreciate what it was really about. And having discovered this island, I set out to explore its landscape.
Yet others will want to rediscover this island of faith. Maybe some of us are over-familiar with its vistas, and have become used to them. You may feel the need to renew and refresh your vision of faith, perhaps by seeing things in a new way, or appreciating aspects of the island that you don't know much about. My hope is that this short book might be helpful for those who feel the need to start all over again, and try and grasp the rich vision of our faith.
The Landscape of Faith won't answer all your questions. It's far too short for that. Instead, it tries to do something much simpler, and perhaps more important. It gives you a new way of looking at the Creeds and helps you with the process of exploring and discovering. It is a tool for study, a resource for wisdom in leading an intelligent, reflective, and grateful life of Christian discipleship.
Having now inhabited this world for more than 40 years, I feel confident enough to write this book, aiming to help others to discover, encounter, appreciate, and understand its rich and sumptuous, yet often puzzling, features. My aim is to help my readers develop their own map of the island of the Christian faith by telling them what I have found as I travelled, and how I built this into my own 'big picture' of faith.
I hope that this book will prove useful to those inside the Christian faith who want to go deeper, and also to those outside the Christian faith who are wondering what it is all about.
Alister McGrath is the Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at the University of Oxford, and Gresham Professor of Divinity in the City of London. 'The Landscape of Faith' is published by SPCK, price £14.99.