Saturday, October 16, marks Sir John Polkinghorne’s 80th birthday. In honor of the occasion, we post this reflection on his book Theology in the Context of Science. Sir Polkinghorne’s life and work have been a shining example of the harmony of science and faith, and we at BioLogos extend to him the warmest of wishes on this special day. We invite you to offer your own birthday messages in the comment section below.
Sir John Polkinghorne’s brief survey Theology in the Context of Science should be required reading for anyone engaging the religious implications of contemporary science, regardless of their personal beliefs. I wish all of the “New Atheists” would read this and engage with theology as it is expressed here, rather than in the uninformed babblings of televangelists or wherever P. Z. Myers, Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne get their irrelevant ideas about theology. For religious believers, this small volume provides a great survey of why Christianity need not cower in the shadows, hoping that the searchlights of modern scholarship won’t find it.
Polkinghorne is a remarkable, almost unique scholar. He is a fellow of the Royal Society and former respected mathematical physicist who did important work on quarks. Now 80 years old, he has been an Anglican priest for several decades. His work as a priest included a stint in a parish, where he did the familiar work of a priest—marrying people, burying people, administering the sacraments and counseling parishioners through personal struggles. His reflections on science and religion—articulated in more than 30 books—show an engaging familiarity with both the nuances and the major players of both communities, where he continues to be a respected figure. As a fellow physicist—although one not worthy to sharpen his pencils—I have delighted in his personal anecdotes of interactions with luminaries like Paul Dirac, Abdus Salam, and Steven Weinberg. It has been my privilege to know Polkinghorne over the years in a variety of settings and I have fond memories of his last visit to Eastern Nazarene College when he stayed in my home for a few days.
In Theology in the Context of Science he highlights points of contact where science provides insights and raises important metaphysical questions of relevance to theology. Nominally written for theologians, the book is equally useful for scientists wanting to engage theology. Polkinghorne has long lamented that too much of contemporary theology is done without taking into consideration the scientific view of the world.
Polkinghorne begins the argument in this book by noting that the “methodological context of science” is inadequate for a “world that is too rich in its nature to be contained within such a reductionist straitjacket.” Science, he says, cannot account for a number of critically important aspects of our experience, although it can illuminate them. Take the rational character of the fundamental laws of physics. As a mathematical physicist he understands only too well just how deeply rational the world is, when you drill all the way down to the most basic layers. In this barely accessible world, particles and forces live in splendid isolation from the messiness that makes biology and even chemistry so clunky. Science can find this layer but it cannot explain why the foundations of reality have this character.
Consider also the reality of mathematics. Even agnostic mathematicians like Sir Roger Penrose have argued that there needs to be some kind of “platonic” world beyond the physical where the truths of mathematics reside. Penrose, who I had the privilege of interviewing when I was at Oxford, is as deep a thinker as we have on the planet today. And he is absolutely convinced that a purely physicalist worldview simply cannot account for our experiences. The mathematics that describes the physical world where we live is separate from this world. It “lives” somewhere else. Closely related to this is the unexplained mathematical prowess of our species. Our minds—some of them!— are capable of doing way more math than we needed to get by on the grasslands of Africa where our ancestors first put two and two together, or figured out that parallel lines don’t intersect. Polkinghorne suggests that our minds have developed in a multi-layered reality that includes the non-physical world of mathematics and, just as we have learned our way around the physical world we have, in some sense, learned how to negotiate this other world as well.
Polkinghorne also notes the clarity of our moral intuitions, which he sees as more than just sentiments programmed by natural selection. Evolutionary psychology can explain, more or less, why we care about others and often help them in sacrificial ways. Or why we are so attentive to the needs of children. But these explanations are always in terms of our emotions. We “desire” certain behaviors and they reward us by making us feel good. But is this adequate, asks Polkinghorne? Is there not some larger sense in which “torturing children” is actually wrong, and not just something that we don’t enjoy, like moldy cheese or people with oozing head wounds?
The bio-friendly nature of the universe is another, perhaps overly familiar, example. The finely tuned universe cries out for an explanation that he says is not provided by the “ingenious but highly speculative and uncertain” multiverse hypothesis. Polkinghorne is quite convinced that the motivation for the multiverse is simply to “explain away” this particular argument for the reality of a Creator.
Polkinghorne uses such broad considerations to open the door to consideration of truths beyond the explanatory reach of science. This sort of old-fashioned apologetics argument starts by dismantling the omniscience of science, moving on to highlight pointers toward a Creator, and then introducing theological particularities. Polkinghorne takes the reader down this path into the precincts of theology, where he explores the motivations for traditional Christian beliefs like the resurrection of Jesus and the hope of eternal life.
Polkinghorne’s ruminations on the gospel accounts of Jesus resurrection are particularly interesting. In this postmodern age we hear all too often that such beliefs are just matters of faith now and that we had better not suppose that the New Testament writers are actually providing real evidence for the resurrection. Reminding us that physicists are “bottom up” thinkers who naturally move from facts to generalities, Polkinghorne reads the gospel accounts through an evidentiary lens and concludes that they do provide “motivation” for belief in the resurrection of Jesus.
Theology in a Scientific Context is a great short read. It is also a nice summary of Polkinghorne’s ideas, many of which are dealt with in more detail in his previous books.