The Unknown God: Searching for Spiritual Fulfillment,Alister McGrath, Eerdmans, 123 pp., $18.00

Evangelical apologetics is a genre littered with historical proofs of the Resurrection, philosophical arguments for the reasonableness of the Christian faith, and feisty critiques of secular culture and postmodernism—which is exactly why I don't give such books to my unbelieving friends. I've discovered they no longer care much for proofs or arguments, and they're rarely in the mood for harangues against the culture they've embraced or the latest spirituality book they've dipped into.

Fortunately, I now have another choice, because into this apologetic cacophony speaks Alister McGrath, offering one of the freshest approaches in decades.

It's not that McGrath can't argue with the best of them: he is, after all, a theologian at Oxford University and author of books both scholarly (e.g., Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification) and popular (e.g., J. I. Packer: A Biography). Over 40 McGrath titles are currently in print, and he has deservedly earned a reputation as one of evangelicalism's most thoughtful writers. Yet in this book he chooses not to argue; instead, he invites readers to consider their experiences—in particular, their spiritual longings—and the unique promise of the Christian faith to satisfy them.

McGrath has timed it right: we're a culture long on spiritual longings. Type spiritual into's search engine, and you'll find over 9,000 titles. With such offerings as 100 Ways to Keep Your Soul Alive and Amazing Laws of Cosmic Mind Power, it's all too easy to poke fun (as, unfortunately, some evangelical apologists do), but McGrath will have none of it. Instead, he finds something deeper in the spiritual dead ends many searchers find themselves in:

"If there is something that has the power to fulfill truly and deeply, often for many it is something unknown, hidden in mystery and secrecy," he says early on. "We move from one thing and place to another, lingering only long enough to discover that it is not what we were hoping for before renewing our quest for fulfillment."

Then he teases readers to consider, "What if our sense of emptiness is like a signpost, pointing us in a certain direction? What if we were to explore what that direction might be, and what might await us?" From there he skillfully moves back and forth between our common experiences and the contours of the Christian faith, always pulling human experience into the larger truth of the gospel.

Article continues below

For example, take the "most wonderful thing" people say they experience: for some, it's falling in love; for others, it's making a scientific discovery; for others still, it's walking on an unspoiled island. McGrath does not condemn the shortsightedness of those who think such are "the most wonderful" things they can experience, but instead remarks, "Each of these experiences is real and important. Yet they are to be seen as pointers, indicating an analogy between the temporary joy and fulfillment we experience on earth and the profound and permanent fulfillment that we can have by knowing God."

The book's title and approach derive from the apostle Paul's speech recorded in Acts 17:22–31. Paul begins by acknowledging the Athenians' spiritual longing ("I have seen how extremely scrupulous you are in religious matters … ") and their despair, as evidenced in the statue dedicated to "an unknown God." In this setting, Paul proclaims, "What you worship as something unknown, I proclaim to you."

After rehearsing the story, McGrath says, "There are many today who are aware of a spiritual dimension to reality. … Many are aware of a 'sense of divinity' within themselves or nature. … Yet this spiritual reality is often conceived as an impersonal force. For Paul, this unknown spiritual reality is a personal and living God who can be known."

He then rhetorically asks, "What if that 'unknown god' chose to make itself known? We so often hear about 'the human quest for God.' But what if that God chose to come and find us?"

From there McGrath moves into chapters on the Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection, and eternal life—discussing not abstract theology but the biblical images associated with such themes, like the biblical metaphors of ransom and healing: "In many respects, the gospel is like medicine—something which heals us, even though we do not fully understand how it works."

His emphasis on metaphors, rather than on rational arguments, is not merely an apologetic method but a foundation for what he is trying to communicate. To ex plain, McGrath uses Plato's image of the cave, where shadows cast by a fire have become the only reality its inhabitants know.

If someone from this cave were to escape, see the world as it is, and return to explain that world to cave inhabitants, she would be forced to use analogy and metaphor, says McGrath, since the inhabitants would have no other reference point to understand words like green or mountain. Such is the nature of Christian revelation, he continues, especially as it culminates in Jesus of Nazareth, who in parables and signs reveals to us the reality for which we ultimately long.

Article continues below

Some will criticize McGrath for not addressing more directly traditional evangelistic themes such as sin or discipleship. Foolishness. McGrath lays out enough of the ransom and salvation metaphors to help readers understand what they are saved from. And he writes that faith begins "the long and painful process of learning to live with and for God. Why should it be painful? Because we have tried to live without God for so long that when we finally come to make room for him, we find it very difficult to make the adjustment."

He doesn't begin with nor dwell on sin and guilt, because he understands that in today's climate many unbelievers think little about sin and guilt and a whole lot about personal fulfillment.

The weakest part of the book occurs early, when Professor McGrath falls into philosophical argument with adherents of the Grand Projection Theory (which argues that those who long for or believe in God are deluded, "projecting" their wishes onto a fantasy deity). Granted, it is the principal philosophical objection to McGrath's approach, but the audience McGrath assumes elsewhere in the book finds experience (not philosophy) authoritative; they don't need to be assured their experiences are genuinely spiritual.

That aside, McGrath's metaphorical approach is aided by the engaging photographs, classic paintings, and thoughtful boxed quotations scattered throughout the book. In the end, not just the writing, but the book as such gently invites readers to consider its theme: "In the end, only God can satisfy—precisely because we are made to relate to God, and luxuriate in his presence."

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.