The Big Picture is subtitled An Honest Examination of God, Science and Purpose, and for once you would be absolutely right to judge a book by its cover. It is an account of an intelligent, inquisitive, scientific mind asking itself how the world hangs together. Chapter 1 examines, at a popular and accessible level, the basics of logic and epistemology—without ever using the word—paying special attention to unspoken assumptions and the ways in which our thinking can be led astray.
Chapter 2 looks at the science of the universe with wonder and surprise. It shows both the strengths and the weaknesses of the author’s approach. The results of scientific inquiry are accepted as true, but not uncritically so. We are taken on a whirlwind tour through physics and biology: you will not find a moral inquiry into reality here as, say, a Ravi Zacharias might do. Covering such a wide sweep of knowledge, there are inevitably statements one could quibble with (e.g., “neither [entangled electron] has a spin until we measure it”—they do certainly have spin, but it will be a superposition of spin states until measured, p32). No such detail can however detract from the overall solidity and thrust of Phil’s argument: the universe is a stranger and more wonderful place than most of us realise, and we have by no means exhausted its depths yet.
The next chapter builds on the preceding by examining the fine-tuning of physics and the role of chance in biological evolution, concluding that these are “indicative of, or at least consistent with a goal or purpose to the universe” (p120). This leads straight into Chapter 4, “Not Everything Can Be Explained By Science,” where Phil (rightly) notes that we cannot assume that the scientific method uncovers everything that is worth knowing, and negotiates a truce between science and faith. Again we cover a wide area of topics from the origin of the universe through evolution to subjective experience and free will—including a theistic-evolutionist rewrite of Genesis 1 (p128ff). I would have appreciated a deeper exploration of scientific truth vis à vis other kinds of truth, though to be fair that might have detracted from the focus of the book.
This line of reasoning is followed through to the end in Chapter 5, “Reason Leads to a Sound Definition of God.” The big question left by the previous chapters—why the universe looks the way it does—is taken to God with a bit of help from Anselm of Canterbury. The danger here is that you might arrive at a “God of the gaps”. The author clearly senses this, because he now also explores arguments based on morality and meaning. These could have benefited from a solid foundation laid in a separate chapter ; as it is, we are not plumbing the sort of depth we reach on the scientific side.
Having arrived at a God who looks remarkably like the God of the Christian Bible, the next chapter covers his revelation in the figure of Jesus as described in the gospels, covering historicity, the synoptic problem (why Mark, Matthew and Luke look the way they do), apocrypha and other extra-biblical sources. “The most rational conclusion of who Jesus was and what he did,” he writes, “is that which is recorded in the gospels” (p191).
Having settled the fundamental reliability of the New Testament, we explore its contents in Chapter 7, with a clear emphasis on Jesus’ teaching and authority. What we get in this 20-page sketch is “red letter Christianity,” majoring on purpose and love but light on the atonement and apocalyptic elements. Phil’s Christianity isn’t mine, but it has its own integrity. He rounds this off with a more personal reflection on his own journey from atheism to life as a “minimalist Christian.”
This book covers an considerable amount of territory in its 253 pages. If you are attracted to one or two aspects that you’d like to explore in great depth, this is probably not the book for you—though it might offer you useful starting points: it’s got footnotes and an index. If you are precious about scientific or religious orthodoxy, you will be challenged and annoyed. But if you are an ordinary human being, with no specific expertise but a lively curiosity about faith and the natural world, sharing the author’s scientific mindset, and wanting to go on an intellectual journey more likely to stimulate your own thinking than to simply force the author’s viewpoints on you, this is a wonderful little book.
Disclosure: Phil and I organised a series of “Science and Faith” discussions together in Rugby.