Q&A: BioLogos Fellow Ted Davis
As Fellow for the History of Science, Ted Davis contributes essays and scholarly insight to The BioLogos Forum. His latest series looks at the work of John Polkinghorne and what insights it offers to the modern science and faith dialogue. We sat down with Ted to learn a bit more about his series.
1. What inspired your in-depth look at John Polkinghorne’s work?
Mostly from several years of experience teaching some of his books to seniors majoring in science at Messiah College. Many students have appreciated his insights, eloquence, and wide-ranging discussions of various topics related to Christianity and science. I sensed that the audience for BioLogos would respond in a similar way.
2. What makes Polkinghorne such a defining figure in the modern science and faith dialogue?
When he emerged as a significant new voice in the 1980s, Polkinghorne stood out as an almost lonely mountain on the landscape of the modern dialogue of science and religion. When I entered graduate school in the late 1970s, that conversation was dominated by very liberal religious voices—scientists, theologians, and other scholars who tended to be either process theists (an example is Ian Barbour), panentheists (an example is the late Arthur Peacocke), or pantheists (an example is the late Ralph Wendell Burhoe), if they were even theists at all—quite a few were not. This had been true for several decades, going back to the time of the fundamentalist-modernist split of the 1920s. By and large, Protestants in the English-speaking world were faced with a difficult choice that many of them (including me) didn’t want to make: either embrace modern science and jettison orthodox Christian theology, or hold to the theology while rejecting the science. This situation got even worse with the rapid rise in popularity of Young-earth Creationism in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
At the time, Polkinghorne was an outstanding exception to this situation. No one of genuine importance in the modern dialogue was actually more accomplished in science, and he advanced orthodox Christian positions on the three great doctrines that are central to the dialogue—creation, resurrection, and eschatology. If he is no longer quite so exceptional in this respect, it is partly because he has been so influential.
3. You’re often highlighting the importance of “offline” resources to supplement your columns. Do you consider any other books besides Polkinghorne a mandatory read for aspiring science and faith scholars?
Anyone who really does aspire to becoming a scholar of Christianity and science ought to keep in mind this text from Ecclesiastes (12:12): “Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.” Most of the best scholarship is not available for free on the internet, much of that in print books from the past 60 years. In other words: you can’t do serious work sitting at home with a laptop or a tablet; you have to walk into a large academic library and start browsing the shelves. I don’t expect this to change very much for a long time, so younger scholars should get used to working with print and do their best to network with senior people, who know the print sources.
Ian Barbour essentially created the academic field of science and religion, and his work is still the best starting place. Although he is no longer active, his influence is undiminished. So much good material now exists on many specific topics that it’s hard to single out anything else. The bibliographies available at counterbalance are the best that I have yet seen.
4. What one piece of advice would you offer to Christians looking to explore the history between science and faith (especially the modern dialogue with evolution)?
Let me speak especially to evangelical Christians, although it’s also good advice for other Christians: Join the American Scientific Affiliation or the European equivalent, Christians in Science, read their journals (here and here), and start attending their annual meetings—they will meet jointly in southern Ontario in July 2014. It was through the ASA that my deep personal interest in Christianity & science turned into an academic career, partly by introducing me to so many fascinating ideas but also by meeting many of the scientists and scholars who have been “players” in the dialogue. You don’t want to limit yourself only to these two organizations, but they are a great place to get started. Individuals with a particular interest in historical topics may want to do graduate work in an interdisciplinary historical field, such as the history of science or religious history. The bottom line is to make personal contact with people who already do what interests you. Email can be useful, but there is no substitute for face-to-face conversations.
5. Can you give us any teasers about your upcoming columns this summer?
Unfortunately, I can’t be very specific at this point. I’ll be writing about some aspect(s) of the history of Christianity and science, something I’ve already written about in a scholarly venue—that much is decided. But, I don’t yet know precisely which topic(s) I’ll present. I have a few ideas, all of which I hope to talk about sooner or later in my columns, but none has yet jumped ahead of the others in my mind. I’m looking forward to spending some time in a few places where my cell phone doesn’t work, and maybe the change of pace will result in a clearer head. The commandment to take a Sabbath is there for good reasons.