Belief in God in an Age of Science: John Polkinghorne, Part 3

| By Ted Davis on Reading the Book of Nature

Hans Sebald Beham, Fortuna (1541), the Roman goddess who brings good and bad luck. As Polkinghorne points out, Richard Dawkins goes beyond science when he interprets the universe in terms of “blind physical forces” in which “some people are going to get hurt, [and] other people are going to get lucky…”

This third excerpt from John Polkinghorne’s book, Belief in God in an Age of Science, focuses on biology rather than cosmology, moving (as he says) “from natural theology to a theology of nature.” I explained that distinction some time ago. Where natural theology tries to demonstrate God’s existence from reason or nature, apart from the Bible, theology of nature starts from God and seeks to understand nature in light of God’s existence. A central topic in this part of the book is theodicy, the problem of reconciling divine goodness and power with evil and suffering in the world. I talked about this at some length last year in my series on “Science and the Bible,” especially in columns about Concordism and Theistic Evolution (part 2 & part 3). Readers who want more background for this excerpt should review those columns before going further.

Theodicy is hard enough to tackle by itself, but it can’t really be separated from another difficult subject—divine action, understanding how God acts in the world. Christian views on theodicy and divine action are quite diverse, even among those Christians who do not accept evolution. There simply is no consensus on how best to formulate conceptions of God and nature in light of these challenges, which often arise in the conversations about science but are not answered by science (whether or not evolution is true). As the variety of viewpoints expressed in columns on our site suggests, BioLogos does not endorse one given position on theodicy or divine action. We believe in a God who is both immanent and transcendent—a God who acts in & through, but also sometimes apart from, “natural” causes—but we realize that multiple positions on theodicy and divine action are consistent with this core commitment. Few have thought as much about this as physicist and theologian Robert Russell, whose careful analysis is well worth reading in full.

Like BioLogos, Polkinghorne sees God acting both transcendently and immanently. As we have already seen (in the four columns starting with part 1), his view of the Resurrection makes sense only if God sometimes acts transcendently. At the same time, he is a “bottom-up thinker” (as he likes to describe himself) who also believes in “top-down agency” (as he calls it) that takes place immanently, within the created processes of nature. He elaborates on this in the third chapter of Belief in God in an Age of Science (not presented here), entitled “Does God Act in the Physical World?” There he unambiguously affirms that “the Christian God is not just a deistic upholder of the world” (p. 49) and explores how we might understand this claim in light of modern science.

Polkinghorne’s specific position on theodicy, however, takes readers into some of the more controversial aspects of Theistic Evolution (or Evolutionary Creation). His conception of nature as a “free process,” rather than “the puppet theatre of a Cosmic Tyrant,” finds significantly less support among proponents of TE, who often share his enthusiasm for cosmic design arguments and his affirmation of the bodily Resurrection. For Polkinghorne, however, it is a consequence of the self-limiting love that God has for the creation.

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

Belief in God in an Age of Science (part 3)

Physical scientists, conscious of the wonderful order and finely tuned fruitfulness of natural law, have shown significant sympathy with the attitude of the new natural theology. Biological scientists, on the other hand, have been much more reserved. Their attention is focused on the process of the world (particularly, the evolutionary processes of developing terrestrial life) and they pay scant attention to the fundamental physics that underlies that process. [Polkinghorne cites two works by Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker and River out of Eden.] They seem to regard it as unproblematic that the chemical raw materials for life are available in our universe. Instead, they look to the variety of life, both in its marvelous fecundity and ingenious strategies for living and also in its wastefulness and suffering, exemplified by the extinction of species and the existence of painful parasitisms. Beneath it all some of them discern no more than the strife of selfish genes struggling for continuing survival. Joy in nature and sorrow at its apparent tragedies are alike, to them, vain human musings on the meaningless tale of cosmic history:

If the universe were just electrons and selfish genes, meaningless tragedies like the crashing of a bus are exactly what we should expect, along with equally meaningless good fortune. Such a universe would be neither evil nor good in intention. It would manifest no intentions of any kind. In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. [Dawkins, River out of Eden, pp. 132-33]

Whatever this bleak judgment is, it is clearly not a conclusion of science alone. It was not his knowledge of genetics that enabled Richard Dawkins to make this pronouncement. Rather, it represents his metaphysical judgment on the significance of the scientific story which is presented to us. In fact, it is science that is “blind,” for as a self-defining methodological strategy it has closed its eyes to the possibility of discerning evil or good or justice or intention. Those who construct metaphysical theories of wider meanings, or lack of meaning, must take science into account, but there is certainly more than one way in which to do so.

The theologian’s response to the biologist’s unbelief must lie in proposing an alternative interpretation of the history and process of the universe. Here we are concerned, not with metaquestions about the pattern and structure of the physical world, but with metaquestions about how its historical process is to be understood. This shift of attention corresponds to a transition from natural theology to a theology of nature. [For more on this, see my comments in the introduction to this column.] We are not now looking to the physical world for hints of God’s existence but to God’s existence as an aid for understanding why things have developed in the physical world in the manner that they have.

Anglican clergyman Charles Kingsley, photograph by Robert White Thrupp (1860s), National Portrait Gallery, London (source).

It has been an important emphasis in much recent theological thought about creation to acknowledge that by bringing the world into existence God has self-limited divine power by allowing the other truly to be itself. [Polkinghorne cites Ian G. Barbour, Religion in an Age of Science(chap. 6, subsequently revised); Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation, chap. 4; Arthur R. Peacocke, Creation and the World of Science, chaps. 2 & 3; W.H. Vanstone, Love’s Endeavour, Love’s Expense; and his own book, The Faith of a Physicist, chap. 4.] The gift of Love must be the gift of freedom, the gift of a degree of letting-be, and this can be expected to be true of all creatures to the extent that is appropriate to their proper character. It is in the nature of dense snow fields that they will sometimes slip with the destructive force of an avalanche. It is the nature of lions that they will seek their prey. It is the nature of cells that they will mutate, sometimes producing new forms of life, sometimes grievous disabilities, sometimes cancers. It is the nature of humankind that sometimes people will act with selfless generosity but sometimes with murderous selfishness. That these things are so is not gratuitous or due to divine oversight or indifference. They are the necessary cost of a creation given by its Creator the freedom to be itself. Not all that happens is in accordance with God’s will because God has stood back, making metaphysical room for creaturely action.

The apparently ambivalent tale of evolutionary advance and extinction, which Dawkins sees as the sign of a meaningless world of genetic competition, is understood by the Christian as being the inescapably mixed consequence of a world allowed by its Creator to explore and realize, in its own way, its own inherent fruitfulness—to “make itself,” to use a phrase as old as the Anglican clergyman Charles Kingsley’s response to Darwin’s Origin of Species. The cruciform pattern of life through death is the way the world is, not only in the familiar tale of biological life on Earth but also cosmically. We are here today because some five billion years ago a star died in the throes of a supernova explosion, scattering into the environment those chemical elements necessary for life, which it had made in the nuclear furnaces of its interior.

The Crab Nebula, the remnant of a supernova explosion from the year 1054 (source).


The suffering of the world is such that we might be tempted to think that less freedom would be a worthwhile cost to pay for less pain. But do we really wish we had been automata? The well-known free will defense in relation to moral evil asserts that a world with the possibility of sinful people is better than one with perfectly programmed machines. The tale of human evil is such that one cannot make that assertion without a quiver, but I believe that it is true nevertheless. I have added to it the free-process defense, that a world allowed to make itself is better than the puppet theatre of a Cosmic Tyrant. [Polkinghorne cites his book, Science and Providence, chap. 5.] I think that these two defenses are opposite sides of the same coin, that our nature is inextricably linked with that of the physical world which has given us birth.

The fact that we wrestle with the problem of pain and suffering shows us that the cold scientific story of a universe of some losers and some gainers, as presented to us by Dawkins, is far from sufficient to satisfy our human longing to understand to make sense of the world in which we live. Questions of meaning and justice cannot be removed from the human agenda. The success of the apparently objectified account of science should not tempt us to commit the Enlightenment error of rejecting the subjective as a source of real knowledge. We are thinking reeds, and our thoughts far exceed impersonal evaluation of logical entailment. In fact there seems to be a principle of mutual exclusion between what can be established beyond a peradventure and what is of real significance for the gain of understanding. Kurt Gödel has taught us that even pure mathematics involves an act of intellectual daring, as we commit ourselves to a belief in the unprovable consistency of the axiomatic system under consideration. The Cartesian program of seeking to found knowledge on the basis of clear and certain ideas has proved to be an unattainable ideal. “Nothing venture, nothing win” is the motto of the intellectual life.

I do not think that this realization of the necessary precariousness involved in human theorizing, condemns us to a post-modernist belief in the personal or communal construct ion of a variety of views from which we are free to make our a la carte selection. There is a middle way between certainty and relativism, which corresponds to the critical adherence to rationally motivated belief, held with conviction but open to the possibility of correction. Michael Polanyi spoke of such a way when he set out to describe and defend “a frame of mind in which I hold firmly to what I believe to be true, even though I know that it might conceivably be false.” [Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, p. 214.] Significantly, he called this epistemological stance “personal knowledge.” One of its most striking exemplifications is science itself.

Looking Ahead

When I return early next month, Polkinghorne will discuss aesthetic judgment in science, our moral instinct, and briefly reply to Richard Dawkins’ idea of “the selfish gene”. Overall, he will argue that “Theism presents an adequately rich basis for understanding the world in that it readily accommodates the many-layered character of a reality shot through with value.” There is plenty to discuss in the interval, but my schedule will probably limit me to the role of occasional listener rather than active participant. 


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.


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