Scientists Tell Their Stories: David Wilkinson
Note: BioLogos is not alone in seeking a deeper and more fruitful engagement between the church and the best contemporary science, and we celebrate the work of other schools, ministries and organizations that share this commitment. Asbury Seminary is such a partner and recently held the last of three annual Q3 Conferences funded by the John Templeton Foundation's Science for Ministry Initiative. This final conference was dedicated to exploring how evangelical faith and science can work together--helping the church "integrate insights from the world of science with our calling to bear witness to God's New Creation for the sake of the world."
We'd like to highlight several videos from the 2010 Q3 conference entitled "Celebrating the Wonder of God's World." Q3 Director Michael Pasquarello III describes the Scientists Tell Their Stories series in this way—“We asked the scientists who participated to give us a few minutes to [share]. . .a personal account of their commitments and work in relation to faith and science. We hope these are helpful, and that you will be able to see more clearly how much we share in common with not only these, but with many other scientists."
My name is David Wilkinson, I teach at Durham University in the department of theology, I used to be a physicist and I still am fascinated by science and theology. I became a Christian at the age of seventeen, and at that point Christian faith was very new and exciting to me. I’d also decided to do a physics degree at university; now I’m not that type of person who built a telescope at the age of four or anything of that sort. I did physics at university, I have to admit, because I was quite good at mathematics and therefore I knew I wouldn’t have to work very hard doing physics. I could spend time doing real things at university, such as cricket and other things-- typically British of course.
However what happened for me as I began to study physics at Durham University was that my new-found faith and this new area of science began to enrich each other, and Kepler of course once said that science is thinking God’s thoughts after him. And I think what was happening in hindsight was that as I was encountering the God of creation in and through Jesus, so what God had created became more and more valuable, more and more interesting to me, just as when our children brought back drawings and paintings from their school class. They weren’t great pieces of art but they were put on our kitchen walls because we knew the person who had created them, and because I was being introduced to the God of creation, so the science itself began to live for me.
Another thing was that the science at university level, particularly as one starts to explore relativity and quantum theory, cosmology, is that as John Polkinghorne would say, “It breaks the tyranny of common sense.” This isn’t a mechanistic world of Isaac Newton and those theologians who think that every question is wrapped up. This is an exciting open world of exploration and questions, of freedom both for God to work and the universe to explore. And this became more and more fascinating to me as time went on. My faith enriched my science, and my science enriched my faith. Now that wasn’t always a process where there were easy questions to answer; there were often difficult questions. But I have to say that continually, the science and the faith have gone together and have enriched each other.
My own particular interest then over the years has been how one takes the issues of science and faith and communicates them to folk who aren’t Christians. As I go around the world these days, I find many people who are fascinated by some of the questions that modern science raises, questions such as the intelligibility of the universe. How can our minds understand the universe back to such an early stage? The fact that the universe is very carefully balanced, fine-tuned for the existence of life. The question of human significance in such a vast universe. The sense of awe and wonder as you look not just at the vastness of the sky but also the fact that underneath the complexity of the universe are rather simple, elegant, beautiful laws. And I find that many folk, whether they are people of religious faith or not, find themselves drawn in by these questions that say “Is there a deeper story to the universe? Are these pointers to something that goes beyond science?” I don’t believe that they can prove God in any way, but I do think that they are pointers towards a God who in Christ is the best explanation for all of these different areas.
Off camera: “Let me ask you one question here: you mentioned John Polkinghorne. You studied with him, I believe. Would you tell something about your relationship to John Polkinghorne, and you might begin by saying, ‘John Polkinghorne was my mentor or whatever’. Just a few things about your relationship with him.”
Wilkinson: One of the most important things for me in the science/faith relationship has been those mentors, those great men and women of faith and science who have helped me along the way. Those have been many for me. One of the key people for me in this area has been Sir John Polkinghorne. John was teaching theology in Cambridge, having retired as head of the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, trained as an Anglican priest, and then started to teach theology just as I arrived in Cambridge also to study theology. And what I found in his thinking was a commitment to the rigor of science, and someone who not only philosophized about science but had a feel for science as a working scientist, but someone who’s prepared to take that science and contemporary science and use it in theology today.
If I have one criticism of my fellow theologians from time to time it’s that they’re often stuck in the physics of the 19th century rather than the 20th and 21st centuries. They’re still dominated by this clockwork universe, whereas Polkinghorne and others have taken seriously that the universe is very different. And Polkinghorne with many others have spent time with me answering my questions, being gracious to the type of questions I’ve wanted to push, but they’ve impressed me by showing integrity both towards Christian faith and to science by holding the two together and not compromising on either.
Commentary written by the BioLogos editorial team.
David Wilkinson is Principal at St. John’s College and a part-time professor in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham College. His background is research in theoretical astrophysics with an emphasis on star formation, chemical evolution of galaxies and terrestrial mass extinctions. He later earned his PhD in Systematic Theology and Christian Eschatology from Cambridge University. His present work focuses on the relationship between science and contemporary culture. His books include Christian Eschatology and the Physical Universe, God, the Universe and Everything, and God, Time and Stephen Hawking.