Book Review: John C. Polkinghorne, One World: The Interaction of Science and Theology

Polkinghorne is an Anglican priest who also taught mathematical physics at Cambridge.  In One World, he argues that science and theology share a similar goal of understanding the reality of the universe.  He does not see them in opposition to each other.  I’ve already made a couple of comments here and here on this book.

As I read, I was able to get a better sense of his theological commitments, although I would not want to pin him down to a certain position from just this short book (in a comment on my first post above, Joel stated that he believed Polkinghorne was an open theist, which seemed consistent with what I read in the book).  He certainly believes in the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ and in eternal life in a resurrected body, and states that the Eucharist truly becomes the body and blood of Christ (perhaps suggesting an Anglo-Catholic view?).  He also had an interesting defense of “natural theology,” or learning about God from nature: it shows God’s work in the cosmos and that he is bigger than our own concerns.  A universe that can be understood by science and natural laws expressed in elegant mathematical equations points to a Creator and reminds us that we are not the only thing that God is concerned about.  Certainly I’d wish to add that God has showed his amazing love for us in Christ in a way that he has for no other members of Creation, but I think Polkinghorne’s point is a good one.

On the other hand, he emphasized human free will and God’s “self-limiting” in love, rather than a more Reformed view of a totally sovereign God.  Indeed, there were points where he did not seem comfortable with a God whose reasoning he could not understand (for example, a God who chooses to work miracles in some cases and not in others).  He clearly respects the Scriptures, citing them throughout the book.  But he did not believe in their total reliability, as evident when he cited two specific stories that he did not believe, the sun standing still for the Israelites to defeat the Amorites (Joshua 10:6-15) and Peter catching the fish with the temple tax (Matthew 17:24-27).  He characterized the New Testament (or any holy book) as a product of a specific culture in which “the gold of eternal truth is mixed with the base matter of contemporary attitudes” (92-93).  Finally, he seemed to have a much greater emphasis on God’s love than on His judgment.

Still, I thought that Polkinghorne showed that science and theology can fit together, even if one doesn’t agree with his theology on some or most points.  One of his best points was that the new understanding of the subatomic quantum world actually helps Christians explain their faith.  For example, he noted that the dual nature of light as both a wave and a particle reminded him of Christ’s human and divine natures:

It is a sign of a mature subject to be able to be true to experience, however hard that experience may be to understand.  Better a confused state of loyalty to the facts than a tidy theory obtained by Procrustean oversimplification.  One cannot tell the wave-particle story of quantum physics without thinking of the God-man duality of Christ.  If Christian experience finds in Jesus elements both human and divine, as I believe it does, then it must hold fast to that experience whatever the intellectual problems involved.  We live in a subtle world, and both science and theology need to be subtle in their accounts of it. (99-100)

Scientific knowledge of atomic structure has shown the limits of the airtight logic of Newton’s universe.  This is often presented as increasing uncertainty.  But according to Polkinghorne, it is a gift to Christians who can show that if we must alter our expectations for electrons, God may not be so easily understood either.  From my perspective as evangelical Christian, I think that he could have taken this line of thinking farther and allowed that God might have performed miracles in a way that seems inconsistent to us or done things as incredible as the events described in the Scriptural stories that he can’t believe.

Finally, I found his sixth chapter, “Levels of Description,” particularly strong.  It discusses the idea of whether we or any life can simply be reduced to atoms.  He argues that science shows the complexity of nature, rather than supporting “reductionism.”  As he summarizes his view of the complexity of nature in his brief seventh chapter:

Reality is a multi-layered unity.  I can perceive another person as an aggregation of atoms, an open biochemical system in interaction with the environment, a specimen of homo sapiens, an object of beauty, someone whose needs deserve my respect and compassion, a brother or sister for whom Christ died.  All are true and all mysteriously coinhere in that one person.  To deny one of these levels is to diminish both that person and myself, the perceiver; to do less than justice to the richness of reality.  Part of the case for theism is that in God the Creator, the ground of all that is, these different levels find their lodging and their guarantee.  He is the source of connection, the one whose creative act holds in one the worldviews of science, aesthetics, ethics and religion, as expressions of his reason, joy, will, and presence. (116)

If you’re interested in the ways that science and theology can fit together, I’d recommend this book.  It’s not an easy read because of the complexity of the science that he discusses and his sometimes challenging vocabulary, but it’s also just a little over 100 pages.  Some may be bothered by his more liberal theology (which I didn’t agree with) or his endorsement of evolution (which didn’t bother me).  But it’s definitely a nice corrective to those who argue that science and faith are incompatible.

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