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Scientists Tell Their Stories: David Wilkinson

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April 10, 2012 Tags: Lives of Faith
Scientists Tell Their Stories: David Wilkinson

Today's video features David Wilkinson. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

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.

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Roger A. Sawtelle - #68931

April 10th 2012

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.

This is a very good point.  Theologians that he is talking about are Modernists, stuck in Newtonian physics, as are many people.  It seems to me that this is the basic view of Creationists.  On the other hand we have Postmodernists who have accepted the physics of the 20th century and are generally theologically liberal.

The problem I have with this is that Postmodernist Relativism does not properly represent either the scientific reality or the theological reality.  The viable alternative to clockwork mechanism is not random selection, but organic teleological development.  This is the reason why ecological evolution works, while atomistic evolution does not. 

This is the reason why the Christian faith needs to be modeled around the Logos, Jesus Christ, Who is the Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the Teleos of all that is.  

peter.r.kirk - #68933

April 10th 2012

Wilkinson is not correct that Polkinghorne was “head of the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge”. I also studied under Polkinghorne in Cambridge, but I studied astrophysics, just before he left to become a priest. At that time he was a professor at the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, which is separate from the Cavendish Laboratory.

sy - #68941

April 11th 2012

Like Roger, I was struck by Wilkinson’s characterization of many theologians as being stuck in the clockwork model of physics. This is a problem not only for Christian theologians, but also for the newer crop of militant atheistic “theologians” (or I suppose “anti-theologians”) as well. A good deal of the arguments of the scientism based philosophy of Coyne, Harris et al, is based on concepts of “rational” and “logical” science, being a superior way to understand reality compared to faith based notions that cannot be proven. What this entire approach is missing is the reality that modern science has long departed from either logic or rationality (at least in a human sense), and that proof in science is exceedingly rare.

Biology, as usual, is lagging a bit behind physics here, but I think the same sort of mind bending complexity has become clear in biology as well. Newtonian physics was not supplanted, but extended by modern physics, In a similar manner, Darwinian evolution will always remain the bedrock of biological theory, but it is inadequate (in my own view) to explain those aspects of human existence that transcend it. We don’t have a good biological analogy of quantum physics or relativity yet, and my own guess is that when we do have one, it will be as utterly complex, and as open to theological inferences, as  is modern physics.   

Roger A. Sawtelle - #68942

April 11th 2012


It is very good to hear from you.  Thank you for your confirmation.

You make an excellent point, which is that atheist fundamentalists, like their Creationists brothers and sisters, are caught up in the same legalistic, mechanistic format.  I call it Modernism, because it insists that life and reality isw based on absolutely right or wrong liomits or forms.  For the followers of Scientism it is “science” or “reason,” while for Creationists it is the Bible. 

Looking at the problem this way we see that the issue is not Science vs Christianity, because the Scientism view is only marginally scientific and the Creationist view is only marginally Christian.  What we have is two competing absolutisms, fighting for the same ground based on a modernist worldview which has loong been out moded.

The problem with Darwinism is that it is bad science based on a outmoded Modernist simplistic view of life, while the problem with Creationism is that it is bad theology based on an outmoded Mosernist view of reality that says that the Bible is the Absolute Word of God. 

I do differ with you on your analysis of science.  You say that Newton was not supplanted by the new science of physics.  I disagree following Thomas S. Kuhn concept of scientific models.  The Einsteinian model of relational reality is very different from Newton’s model of a mechanistic reality. 

Part of the problem is that science, theology, and philosophy have not caught up to Einstein yet.  In other words, the implications of his Theory have not completely sunk in yet, which is normal because serious changes in our world view take time to be understood and accepted. 

The “natural sciences” have made some of these adjustments as they must which is probably why they seem open or more open to cosmological, theological questions.  Ironically biology which seems to want to follow after physics and be a hard science is less open to these ideas, because it is based in Modernist absolutes, which for Dawkins & Co. is the Selfish Gene.

My solution is to replace Darwinian natural selection, which is a myth based on Malthusian population theory, with ecological natural selection which is not modern or monistic, thus bringing evolution into the 21th century.  At the same time we need to a better theology for Christianity to being us all past Modernism and Postmodernism into the 21 century.              


GJDS - #68955

April 11th 2012

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.

I do not favour a view that Faith somehow explains science, nor that science can provide proofs to matters of faith. The argument that now seems between atheists/evolutionists, and theist with science (if I may use such terms) stems from the general arguments that have been around for centuries - some people cannot understand, for example, why there is suffering in the world, so they decide the God of the Bible is a cruel god, or there is no God. Science has been virtually highjacked for this enterprise.

On proving God - simply put, I need to construct an object (physical or intellectual) to enable me to follow the methodology required to prove the thing in question. Orhtodox Christianity teaches we cannot define nor provide the attributes of God, and that God in his fulness is revealed in Christ. This is the teaching of faith. If others do not believe it, it is so - as all matters pertaining to Salvation in Christ are through the Grace of God. Non-belief is not the issue, but rather the issue is to claim that those who believe must answer to atheist. It is clear that if anyone seeks to show what and who God is, they msut be equal to or greater than God.

On the scientific method, the laws and theories that are given authority in science must, and have, gone through rigorous critisisms, scrutiny, repeatability and amthematical treatments. Even after this, every theory of note must be subjected to defining its limitations (my take on falsification). No theory is considered absolute - we have the interesting notion of Universal constants, and it is these that make some wonder if the Universe is anthropic. This is again a continuation of ancient Greek thought and not proven. Thus scepticism underpins the scientific method, with the expecation that we can arrive at a clearer and more accurate understanding. It is here that I as a scientist find evolution inadequate and the proponents such as Dawkins are ones who propose a belief system and not a science - certainly not one with the fantastic claims made by evolutionists. 

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