Belief in God in an Age of Science: John Polkinghorne, Part 5

| By on Reading the Book of Nature

The Last Judgment, 11th or 12th century Byzantine-Ravennate mosaic, Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, Torcello, Venice (source). The angel rolling up the starry scroll as the trumpets sound illustrates Revelation 6:14, “The heavens receded like a scroll being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place.” (NIV)

Our final excerpt from John Polkinghorne’s book, Belief in God in an Age of Science, is about hope—an essential component of Christian faith. On reading these words freshly once again, I immediately think of the text in Revelation depicted so strikingly in the mosaic above. It is indeed from biblical revelation, not from science, that the Christian hope originates. As Polkinghorne says elsewhere, “science cannot tell us the whole story, for it does not know about the everlasting faithfulness of God. In that steadfast love of the creator for creatures lies the only possible ground for the hope of a destiny beyond death, either for ourselves, who are condemned to futililty on a timescale of tens of years, or for the universe that is condemned to futility on a timescale  of many tens of billions of years. We shall die, and the cosmos will die, but the final word does not lie with death but with God.” (p. 9)

In the modern “dialogue” of science and religion, Polkinghorne has been up front about his eschatology, and out in front of the conversation, blazing a path that several other leading Christian thinkers have followed. Here and in other works at much greater length, he links our own hope for resurrection with the resurrected universe: both we and it will be made new, just as God raised Jesus by transforming his dead body into a new form of embodied life. These are profound ideas. Those who want to see more of his eschatology are encouraged to read The God of Hope and the End of the World or The End of the World and the Ends of God, but be prepared to do some hard thinking. The latter book, which Polkinghorne edited with German theologian Michael Welker, is a collection of 16 essays by leading Christian thinkers, including Walter Brueggemann, Janet Soskice, Jürgen Möltmann, and Miroslav Volf. I recommend Catholic theologian Mark Wynn’s well-written review of the essays by Polkinghorne and Welker, who approach the relation between science and Christianity from quite different starting points.

Two other matters ought to be mentioned before diving into the selection. First, I’ve sometimes heard people say casually that Polkinghorne is a process theist, and then they will dismiss him without bothering to read him, because they believe process theism is fundamentally mistaken. Process theism is difficult to explain clearly and fairly in a short piece, and I won’t attempt it here. However, it should be understood that Polkinghorne is not a process theist, and in this selection he states one of his basic disagreements with that position: “it gives a diminished description of God’s love for Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, for you and me,” basically because the god of process theism is not in the resurrection business. Elsewhere in the book he offers further objections to process theism, but I won’t review them here.

Polkinghorne’s conception of the soul also calls for some commentary. In his opinion, humans are “psychosomatic unities,” and “the soul” is “understood in an Aristotelian sense as the ‘form,’ or information-bearing pattern, of the body.” This is philosophical language, but philosophy has always mediated the conversation between science and theology, so we mustn’t be put off by it. Here’s what he’s getting at: a person’s soul is what makes someone a unique person, and it can’t be reduced to material things. His position is not equivalent to Platonic dualism, in which each person has an innately immortal soul that survives death and can be re-embodied in some other material body. (Plato himself believed in the transmigration of souls, such that your soul or mine could be reincarnated as an animal or another person in a future existence. Christian Platonists don’t believe that, but they still believe in an immortal soul as an entity independent of the body.) Rather, it’s a version of what is called “dual aspect monism,” another idea that is difficult to explain clearly and fairly in a short piece, so I will leave it aside. The bottom line, for Polkinghorne, is this: God remembers us after death, and God will give us a new, embodied existence that preserves our unique identities for eternity. A similar view of our ultimate fate has been advanced by N. T. Wright, who calls it “life after ‘life-after-death’.”

What I said in an earlier column about theodicy and divine action applies once again here: Christian thinkers hold various philosophical and theologial conceptions of the soul, and BioLogos does not endorse any one conception over others.

My editorial policy for these excerpts is explained at the bottom of this post.

Belief in God in an Age of Science (part 5)

The fourth general aspect of contemporary belief in God which I have identified is that there is one who is the ground of hope. At first sight this might seem the most difficult claim to substantiate in an age of science. Transience and death have always been part of the world of human experience. Today, moreover, we realize that mortality characterizes the whole universe itself. Not only has it looked very different in the past from its appearance today, but eventually, after many more billions of years, it will change again, ending either in the bang of cosmic collapse or the long-drawn out whimper of an ever expanding dying world. In my view, the desperate implausibility of Frank Tipler’s scenario of “physical eschatology” does nothing to modify the bleakness of this prognosis. [Tipler, The Physics of Immortality. For a critique, see Polkinghorne, Faith of a Physicist, pp. 164-66; he cites this book several times more in the rest of this selection, especially chapters 6 & 9.]

I wish to take with considerable seriousness the implications of this prediction of eventual cosmic futility. In the challenge it presents to belief in God, I do not think it differs greatly from the even more certain assertion of individual human mortality. I have never felt that the perpetuation of the race, or of life itself, or—least of all—of selfish genes, represented sufficient fulfillment to make sense of the history of this world. The fact that we now know that all these carbon-based entities will one day perish, only makes the point more clearly. If cosmic history is no more than the temporary flourishing of remarkable fruitfulness followed by its subsequent decay and disappearance, then I think Macbeth was right and it is indeed a tale told by an idiot.

Max Horkheimer (source)

Yet there is a deep intuition of hope within the human spirit which revolts against such a nihilistic conclusion. The atheist philosopher, Max Horkheimer, expressed a profound longing when he said that the murderer should not triumph over his innocent victim. [“Theology is—and I consciously phrase it carefully—the hope that injustice, which is typical of the world, will not have the last say… a yearning that in the end the hand of the killer will not remain on top of the innocent victim.” (Horkheimer, “Die Sehnschucht nach dem ganz Anderen,” Gesammelte Schriften, VII., s. 389, as quoted here.)] But if mortality is the final fate of all, then the murderer has a temporary triumph, though he gains but a little of what he has totally denied to his victim. Only God, it seems to me, can take from death the last word. If the human intuition of hope—that all will be well, that the world makes ultimate sense—is not a vain delusion, then God must exist. I would go beyond the Kantian assertion that belief in God, and in an afterlife, is necessary in order to confirm the moral order of the world, to the claim that the integrity of personal experience itself, based as it is in the significance and value of individual men and women and the ultimate and total intelligibility of the universe, requires that there be an eternal ground of hope who is the giver and preserver of human individuality—the God, as Jesus said, of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, “the God, not of the dead, but of the living” (Mk. 12:27)—and the eternally faithful Carer for creation.

Is such a hope a coherent possibility? Here I can only sketch some considerations which I have sought to develop more fully elsewhere. If we regard human beings as psychosomatic unities, as I believe both the Bible and contemporary experience of the intimate connection between mind and brain encourage us to do, then the soul will have to be understood in an Aristotelian sense as the “form,” or information-bearing pattern, of the body. Though this pattern is dissolved at death, it seems perfectly rational to believe that it will be remembered by God and reconstituted in a divine act of resurrection. The “matter” of the world to come, which will be the carrier of this re-embodiment, will be the transformed matter of the present universe, itself redeemed by God beyond its cosmic death.

That resurrected universe is not a second attempt by the Creator to produce a world ex nihilo [out of nothing] but it is the transmutation of the present world in an act of new creation ex vetere [out of the old one]. God will then truly be “all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28) in a totally sacramental universe whose divine-infused “matter” will be delivered from the transience and decay inherent in present physical process. Such mysterious and exciting beliefs depend for their motivation not only on the faithfulness of God, but also on Christ’s resurrection, understood as the seminal event from which the new creation grows, and indeed on the detail of the empty tomb, with its implication that the Lord’s risen and glorified body is the transmutation of his dead body, just as the world to come will be the transformation of this present mortal world.

The Anastasis, 11th-century mosaic, Hosios Loukas Monastery, near Distomo, Greece (source).

Belief in a human destiny beyond death stems not only from the value of individual creatures, but also from the recognized incompleteness of our lives in this world. All of us will die with business unfinished, hurts unhealed, potentialities unrealized. The vision of a continuing process of purification leading to the inexhaustible experience of the vision of the living God, as set out in Dante’s Purgatorio and Paradiso, is a necessary part of the fulfillment which alone makes total sense of the assertion of individual value. I cannot think that mere remembrance, such as process theology’s notion of our lives contributing to the filling of the reservoir of divine experience, is an adequate account. It confuses the preservation of the past with the perfection of the future and it gives a diminished description of God’s love for Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, for you and me. [In many versions of process theism, God remembers us after we die, but we ourselves do not experience immortality in any traditional sense. This is essentially a modern version of an idea taught by the medieval Islamic physician and philosopher Ibn S?n?.]

The human paradox is that we perceive so many signs of value and significance conveyed to us in our encounter with reality, yet all meaning is threatened by the apparent finality of death. If the universe is truly a cosmos, if the word is really intelligible through and through, then this life by itself cannot be the whole of the story.

I have tried to write of belief in God today as offering us a way of making sense of the broadest possible band of human experience, of uniting in a single account the rich and many layered encounter that we have with the way things are. I have forsworn false attempts at demonstration and instead I have chosen to rely, as honesty requires, on the persuasiveness of an intellectually satisfying insight. I have suggested that we need to explore with profound seriousness all avenues of our meeting with reality as they open up for us. The impersonal is not to be preferred to the personal, the quantifiable to the symbolic, the repeatable to the unique. All are part of the one world of our experience. I am a passionate believer in the unity of knowledge and I believe that those who are truly seeking an understanding through and through, and who will not settle for a facile and premature conclusion to that search, are seeking God, whether they acknowledge that divine quest or not. Theism is concerned with making total sense of the world. [Here Polkinghorne cites Bernard Lonergan, Insight.] The force of its claims depends upon the degree to which belief in God affords the best explanation of the varieties, not just of religious experience, but of all human experience.

The considerations which I have presented in support of that affirmation in this chapter have been of a general character, concerned with our insights of rational beauty, finely-tuned fruitfulness, a value-laden world, and human hopeful defiance in the face of mortality. In the following chapter I seek to continue the defense of Christian belief in a scientific age, by addressing some matters of more specific particularity.

[Readers who want to see that fascinating chapter, exploring parallels between the ways in which modern physicists wrestled with the dual nature of light and the ways in which early Christian writers wrestled with the dual nature of Jesus, must obtain a copy of the book.]

Looking Ahead

When I return in about two weeks, I’ll begin a new series of historically-based columns. Please plan to join us in conversation again then.


References & Credits

Excerpts from John Polkinghorne, Belief in God in an Age of Science (1998), copyright Yale University Press, are reproduced by permission of Yale University Press. We gratefully acknowledge their cooperation in bringing this material to our readers.

Editorial Policy

Most of the editing for these excerpts involves breaking longer paragraphs into multiple parts, altering the spelling and punctuation from British to American, removing the odd sentence or two—which I indicate by putting [SNIP] at the appropriate point(s)—and sometimes inserting annotations where warranted [also enclosed in square brackets] to provide background information. Polkinghorne uses footnotes a bit sparingly, and I usually find another way to include that information if it’s important for our readers.

About the Author

Ted Davis

Ted Davis is Fellow of the History of Science for the BioLogos Foundation and Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. A former high school science teacher, Ted studied history and philosophy of science at Indiana University, where his mentor was the late Richard S. Westfall, author of the definitive biography of Isaac Newton. With the English historian Michael Hunter, Ted edited The Works of Robert Boyle, 14 vols. (London: Pickering & Chatto, 1999-2000), but his interests include the whole 2000-year interaction of Christianity and science. Author of dozens of scholarly articles and essays, Ted is one of few historians who have written extensively about both the Scientific Revolution and modern America. He and his wife Kathy enjoy theater, music, and traveling to new places.