Titlu: Science and Theology. An introduction
Autor: John Polkinghorne
Editura: Fortress Press
Anul apariţiei: 1998
Recenzie de Valentin Teodorescu
In his book Christian Theology: An Introduction, Alister McGrath affirmed that there are three main approaches to the relation between Christian theology and natural sciences today: one that affirms the continuity between science and theology (the Christian faith should be reinterpreted in terms consistent with the accepted wisdom of the age), a second one that affirms the distinctiveness of theology and science, and a third one that affirms the opposition between theology and science .
The position of John Polkinghorne, whose ideas I will try to evaluate in this essay, seems to be the second one (theology and science are distinct, each of them having its own sphere of competence); but he also considers that they can mutually interact, to the benefit of both.
Polknighome himself, in Science and Theology, the book to which I will especially refer, calls the first position „assimilation” the second position „consonance” considering himself a consonantist.
In the present essay, I intend to show, using some examples from his book, that generally he achieved his goal: the ‘intermarriage of scientific and theological insight’ to which he refers is cogent and elegant, and any open-minded reader will find it extremely compelling.
However, in my opinion (which I admit that is corrigible), there are some cases when his proposed solution may not be in perfect agreement with what the Scripture says, or when, at least from my point of view, the supposed agreement is debatable.
My essay is divided in two parts. The first part refers to the insights that theology offers to science, and connected with that, to the possibility of a natural theology. The second part refers to the insights that science offers to theology: on the one hand to the way in which some scientific theories such as quantum mechanics, quantum cosmology and chaos theory may give insights to biblical doctrines such as Creation, Fall and God’s Attributes; on the other hand to the way in which the scientific epistemology (especially) may give insights to the doctrine of Christ.
Insights that Theology Offer to Science
Generally when speaking about natural theology, one may say that rather the science offer insights to theology than the theology offers insight to science. In that case, it seems that the subtitle I used for this part of my essay is wrong.
However, I chose to discuss about natural theology here because Polkinghorne affirms that the meaning of natural theology today was changed; the traditional form of natural theology is no more in existence today. He believes that natural theology is now an insightful rather than a demonstrative discipline. The arguments no more refer to particular occurrences, as in the old-style natural theology of William Paley (for example the apparition of the eye to the mammals), but on the character of the physical fabric of the world (it appeals to cosmical rationality and the anthropic form of the laws of nature).
In that way, the natural theology in no way seeks to be a rival to scientific explanation, but rather it aims to complement that explanation by setting it in a more profound context of understanding.
The argument from cosmical rationality refers to the ‘unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics’ in uncovering the structure of the physical world. The rational beauty of the cosmos (as revealed for example in the scientific and mathematical discoveries of Einstein or Dirac) reflects a Mind that holds it in being.
The anthropic argument refers to the fact that in order to be compatible with the appearing in history of the humans, the constraint on the physical fabric of our world (on the constants of the universe) is very tight; that situation implies the involvement of a designer in its appearing.
However, there is also an attack against this conclusion, coming from the biological scientists, who see in the living world, beyond a marvelous fecundity and ingeniousity, a lot of wastefulness and suffering too, that are incompatible in their mind with the existence of a loving and intelligent creator.
To this attack Polkinghorne answers by offering an alternative interpretation to the history of the universe: considering that by bringing the world into existence God has self-limited His divine power by allowing ‘the other’ truly to be itself. As God created the human beings with the ability to choose between good and evil, in the same way he created the nature with freedom to shape itself.
This idea of a freedom granted to an impersonal reality (the nature) seems a little strange to me, but Polkinghorne has an interesting argument for this: our nature is so inextricably linked with that of the physical world that our freedom demands world’s freedom too. In that way, not all that happens in the world is in accordance with God’s will, because He made room for creaturely free action. This is in fact the main solution of Polkinghorne’s theodicy, about which I will make some comments later.
To this answer to the attacks of the biologists, he adds also another positive argument, which I find compelling: that the value-laden character of our world is a proof for the existence of a supreme Source of Value too. For an evolutionist atheist it is a mystery the fact that there are in our universe eternal values, and that some beings (the hominids) were able to perceive them at one moment in the history of their evolution.
A little critique that I would bring to this discussion about the arguments for the existence of God is that Polkinghorne does not seem to be entirely consistent with his initial position (that natural theology is no more a demonstrative discipline): although in his opinion each of the arguments presented makes the existence of God only a presupposition that rivals other scientific options, (and as a result is not a positive argument for His existence), however they constitute together a good cumulative case for the existence of God. A slight shift seems to have occurred here from a presuppositional kind of apologetics to a moderate evidentialist one (the Cumulative Case method).
Polkinghorne also maintains in this context that theism offer the best explanation to the character of human encounter with reality (a fact that again suggests a probabilistic proof for the existence of God).
Also, it seems to me that one can make a case that the anthropic principle may constitute also an appeal to the ‘God of the gaps’ argument, as it is the case with the design in the particular occurrences (maybe the science will sometime discover a ‘secular’ explanation why the constants of the Universe are so well-tuned).
However, as we will show, Polkinghorne is the adept of a critical-realist position in epistemology, and will probably see his position on the arguments for the existence of God only more verisimilitudinous than other alternatives, nothing more.
Insights that Science Offer to Theology
Creation and Cosmology
Polkinghorne does not take such stories as that of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, or Noah and the flood as being true in a literary sense. They are for him myths, understood as stories expressing a truth too deep to be conveyed adequately in any more literal way; in any case he does not equates myth with untruth. (The myths are symbols, metaphors that enjoy the power to participate in the reality with which they are related). This definition allows Polkinghorne to agree with the contemporary cosmological theories and the theory of evolution as being good explanations of the way in which God created the Universe.
In principle I tend to agree with the idea that such an approach to Genesis is possible, but I am not sure that this solution can avoid any tension with the general witness of the Bible. Moreover, I am afraid that in some cases the scientists are more optimistic about their theories than they should be.
Regarding the idea of a temporal origin of creation, Polkinghorne seems to accept the opinion of many modem theologians that the traditional picture of creation which suggested a single event at the beginning of time, has been replaced with an understanding of creation as a continuous process through time. He considers that the doctrine of creation is not concerned with temporal origin but with ontological origin. The main question is why anything exists at all, and not how it all began. Moreover, says Polkinghorne, the quantum cosmology of Stephen Hawking may suggest that there was no literally first instant in the appearing of the universe.
On the other hand, there are some Christian astrophysicists as Hugh Ross and philosophers as William Lane Craig who consider that there are still strong arguments for a temporal beginning oft he universe, and that even Hawking’s quantum cosmology points in that direction.
Moreover, even from a theological point of view, in my opinion, it seems a little strange that God should exist from eternity in parallel with a never ending and apparently meaningless cycle of big bangs and big crunches, or even with a fuzzed quantum vacuum.
In any case, Polkinghorne affirms that we should understand creation, given the insights of science, in two ways: on the one hand as a creatio ex nihilo which is the preservation of creation from ontological collapse (the work of the Creator in the mode of divine transcendence), on the other hand as a creatio continua, the continuing creation unfolding throughout cosmic history, (the work of the creator in the mode of divine immanence).
In this list type of creation, God is present in the evolutionary process as the source and guide of its fruitfulness (as I already said, Polkinghorne considers that creation is allowed by its Creator to ‘make itself in some degree, through the explorations of contingency).
Creation and Evolution
God is the source of evolutionary fruitfulness because He has endowed the universe with potentiality for development of life forms, including humans, at creation. (In that respect Polkinghorne shares the same view with Howard Van Till, who calls it ‘the robust formational economy principle’ (RFEP), understanding by that that the formational economy of the universe is sufficiently robust to account for the actualization in time of all material structures and of all forms of life that have ever existed).•
Personally I doubt that the potentiality endowed in the Universe at Creation and the explorations of contingency-in other words the standard neo-Darwinism-are able to give an account of the many cases of intelligent design that are found in the universe (for example the extraordinary combination of biological hardware and software that can be found in DNA and cellular nucleus).
It is interesting that Polkinghorne himself doubts that the simple evolutionary interplay of chance and necessity was the entire story of creation; in fact he thinks that the process occurred with remarkable rapidity for the degree of intricate structure generated, and asks himself if there is not more to tell scientifically than that. He quotes in that respect Stuart Kauffman, who suggested that there might be certain types of order in the biological systems that resulted from a natural propensity of matter to organize in particular complex ways. Kauffman believed that at the borderline between chaotic and regular systems, potential ahistorical universals emerge; and these insights supplement, not supplant natural selection (it is interesting that Michael Behe knew about Kauffman’s alternative to the pure Darwinian explanations, especially about those studies referring to what he considers to be irreducibly complex cellular systems, but he looked to them with skepticism, as unconvincing attempts to avoid an appeal to miracle; in any case, he appreciated these efforts as a recognition-from a well known biologist-that natural selection alone is insufficient to give an account for the complexity of living world).
Referring to Kauffman’s ideas, Polkinghorne suggests that God is not only the source, but also the guide of the fruitfulness of evolutionary process. And here he intervenes with his ideas of the holistic laws of nature and the divine agency in nature through the mediation of chaotic theory.
God’s Action in Physical World; Chaos Theory
I find his suggestions about the ways in which God intervenes in the Creation very interesting, although I am not convinced that this is really the way in which God intervenes in the world; and even if that would be the case, I tend to believe that God has other ways of acting in the world too.
Polkinghorne criticized the theological tradition that speaks of God’s primary agency in the world through the secondary agencies of creaturely causality; he considers this position, in which God acts in the world in an ineffable manner-that can be affirmed only by faith-a fideistic evasion of the problem.
In his opinion, this traditional view should be avoided, because it appeals only to the familiar bottom-up interaction of the parts making up the whole. The human experience of agency is top-down, from the whole to parts; and he considers that in the same way God acts upon His creation, through a kind of holistic causality. If this holistic causality is present, it must be there a genuine novelty; the structure of relationships between bits and parts must be open enough to afford it room for maneuver. In that sense-he suggests-there must be gaps in the bottom-up account which this top-down actions fills in; and those gaps must be intrinsic and ontological in character, not just contingent ignorance of the details of bottom-up process.
There is a theory in physics, the quantum mechanics, which seems to affirm the existence of such kind of ontological gaps, small islands of freedom at the atomic level. But this situation is localized only at the level of microworld, and the ontological effects in which we are interested should happen in the macroworld; the problem is that there is no scientific theory to relate in a convincing way the two worlds.
However, there is another theory, the chaos theory, which is also a possible source of openness in the universe, and has more chance to succeed, because it applies to the level of macroworld. Ilya Prigogine studied some equations of statistic mechanics and observed that in certain conditions the solutions of these equations point toward a holistic understanding of the situation, not a deterministic one. As a result, an ontological interpretation of the equations allows for a real openness in the universe and the possibility of top-bottom agency to a macroscopically level.
One can imagine in that case that a pure spirit, God, might be expected to act causally in the world solely through information output, without energetical involvement. In that way He may influence our context through the apparently random action of the phenomena.
Only through faith we will be able to say whether God intervened in a situation or not. In the normal life God will allow that the normal laws should manifest their stable influence; however, in special cases God may intervene in an unusual way, changing the normal flow of the laws of nature; we will call such kind of situations miracles.
In that way Polkinghorne may give an account of the way in which the design appeared in nature. Through some holistic laws implanted in matter, God directed the biological evolution. The quite rapid growth in biological complexity is the result of God’s ‘oriented coincidences’. Like Michael Behe, Polkinghorne believes that some miracles are demanded in order to explain the complexity of the living world. The difference between them, however, is that Polkinghorne’s miracles are more subtle; God seems for him less a kind of Deus ex Machina, as the progressive creationist model would suggest; He is rather a kind of hidden director that smoothly influences the things toward His desired result.
However, I do not believe that the traditional understanding of God’s action in the universe, only through bottom-up influences is totally disqualified. Personally, I still tend to support the old theory, even if this kind of support demands faith.
On the one hand, Polkinghorne’s theory is not yet proven and it is highly speculative; moreover, to affirm that we surely know how God acts in the world can be a very proud assertion. I doubt that the mysteries of God can be so easily penetrated, that God can so easily enter in our scientific boxes.
On the other hand cogent and interesting suggestions about how God’s providence acts in world and in our life, arranging the events by taking into account our choices and other people’s choices (from an Arminian perspective), was given by C.S. Lewis at the end of his book ‘Miracles’. (Unfortunately in this essay there is no space for a detailed presentation of this solution).
And it is also possible that God should act through both kinds of proposed causalities, and maybe also using other ways, unknown to us.
The Fall and the Theodicy
As already was said above, Polkinghorne’s solution to theodicy is to affirm that the suffering in the world is the inherent price paid for the created freedom. The freedom of human beings is interconnected with the freedom of the world to make itself. God is not responsible for the consequences of the free choices, whether of the nature or of the humans.
In any case one may debate that the scale of suffering is too big; sometimes the suffering crushes those who experience it; I doubt that this answer is cogent when referring to some people born crippled, or to the suffering of innocent children.
And even if the nature received from its Creator the freedom to create itself, it is still difficult not to see it as a secondary agent of God in the world. The nature may ‘freely’ cause us suffering, but the Creator allowed it to behave in that way; finally, in a deeper sense, He is responsible for its behavior too.
One may argue that this is the inevitable cost for the possibility of our freedom; but another one may wonder if this cost it is not in some cases, looking only from the. perspective of this world, too big for its outcome.
Polkinghorne feels the insufficiency of his solution, and adds to it the existential relevance of Christ’s sharing in our experiences of suffering, and the hope brought by the promise of the future deliverance through Christ’s victory on the cross.
I fully agree with these insights, but I still feel that the mystery of world’s suffering was not totally solved.
The concept of Fall is held in modern times as being inconsistent with the facts of man’s development known to science; however, the modern theologians still see in the story of Gen 2 a fundamental truth about man’s relations to God, even if this truth is conveyed in legendary form.
Polkinghorne fully agrees with these positions of the modem theologians. The effects of Fall are only moral, in his opinion; men became selfish after the Fall, ‘curved in upon themselves’. The effects of the Fall upon nature, as thorns, thistles, childbirth pain, in other words the physical evil that was accepted in Augustinian tradition, are considered by him as only metaphors for the difficulties we have to deal with in the world once we started to sin; they should not be take literally. In other words, the problem of suffering originates rather in Genesis 1 (according through Polkinghorne’s understanding of continuous creation through evolution) than in Genesis 3 (with the Fall).
The ‘young earth creationists’ consider that this is the main weakness of the ‘progressive creationist’ and ‘theistic evolutionist’ positions: they are unable to give a fair treatment to such biblical passages as Genesis 3 or Romans 8 (that speaks about the groans of the nature), and deny the evidence that the Creation, as we see now, is no more good, (as it was in Genesis 1).
I agree that this may be really a weakness of these two positions; however, the ‘young earth’ position has its weakness here too: the suffering and death seem to be so much imprinted in the Creation that to consider them a result of the Fall means to presuppose a kind recreation of the entire universe (an idea that does not seem supported by Genesis 3).
God and the Future
Polkinghorne argues that there are several kinds of causalities that at bringing about the future in our world; among these there are agencies of a holistic and ultimately purposeful kind. The resulting picture is for him a world whose interrelated causalities correspond to a true becoming, in which the sense of the passage of time is not only the result of human psychology, but an intrinsic feature of reality.
The opposite view regarding this problem is the classical one, formulated by Augustine, in which the cosmic history is present to the divine view ‘at once’. The future is not foreknown by God, but simply known by the one who is totally out of time. This is the atemporal view of reality, the frozen history of a ‘block universe’.
Polkinghorne’s argument is that if the universe of becoming is the correct picture, then surely God must know it in its temporality, as it actually is; the events are known by God in their succession. However, Polkinghorne suggests that God is not simply temporal, in thrall to time as we are. There must be temporal and eternal poles in Divinity.
I tend to agree with this position; I believe that in the measure that God is immanent and personal, He also participates in and knows all the events as we experience them; however, I do not agree with the conclusion that if the future does not exist, even God cannot yet know it. (This conclusion is formulated in his book ‘Science and Theology’, but it seems to me absent from his later book ‘Belief in God in an Age of Science’; maybe until the writing of second book he changed his mind on that subject).
The future, in my opinion, may not exist for us, but that does not mean that it does not exist for Him, or that is not known by Him. It is true that God participates in our history, that everything that happens here is an important matter of His concern. But this does not mean that he is bound by our limitations; He is immanent and personal, but He is also transcendent and more than personal. When I argue that God knows the future, I find support for my position even in Polkinghorne’s suggestion that there is an eternal pole in God.
Psalm 139:16 (all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be) is another support in this respect too.
The Doctrine of Christ
Polkinghorne agrees with many scientists that science is not concerned just with our ability to manipulate the physical world (as some postmodern pragmatic philosophers would argue), but also with our capacity to gain knowledge of its actual nature. This knowledge is to a degree partial and corrigible, and its attainment is verisimilitude, not absolute truth. The method presupposes a creative interpretation of experience, not a rigorous deduction from it.
This position is called critical realism, and I fully agree with it. It is neither a pretension to an access to the absolute truth, nor a total skepticism regarding the knowledge of truth. It is a conviction that we can make verisimilitudinous ontological statements, that we legitimately can make affirmations about the reality inaccessible to our senses.
This desire of ontological knowledge for a more accurate (verisimilitudinous) account of reality is also present in theology. In that respect the epistemological insights of science prove to be extremely useful to a theological epistemology.
The way in which these insights function can be seen very well in the development of Christian doctrine. Like in the case of science, also in theology new phenomena give rise to new insights and unresolved problems, which as effect may lead to new and unanticipated implications.
For example the events that gave rise to Christological struggle were the death and resurrection of Jesus. The intellectually unstable Pauline formula ‘God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ’ is refined through a mature reflection by John, in the prologue of his gospel, in the concept of the Word ‘who was with God and was God, and became flesh.’ Later the orthodox understanding of Christ is articulated with the full resources of Greek philosophy under the formula ‘truly God and truly man, one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation.’
In that way, like in science, the work of Christ, what He did and achieved, (the visible side of his earthly life) is the clue to the nature of Christ, to what He is (the ‘invisible’ side of his real nature), pointing toward an ontological Christology.
In a similar way the doctrine of Trinity starts from the experiential aspect of the ‘economic Trinity’ (how God is manifested in the oeconomia, the history of creation and the encounters of creatures with the divine), in order to arrive to the ‘immanent Trinity’ (how the Trinity is in itself, which is its true nature).
In conclusion, I believe that a deep study of John Polkinghorne’s thinking is a very rewarding and illuminating experience. One can see by reading his books how seriously and mutually useful may prove to be a dialogue between science and theology.
There is a certain autonomy between the two areas of knowledge: the theology, by asking the question ‘why’ may give a sense and a meaning to the discoveries of science (we saw how the cosmic rationality and the anthropic principle are illuminated by the presupposition of a intelligent Mind behind the Universe); the science, answering to the question how, may illuminate such doctrines as Creation, Fall, Theodicy, God’s action in the world, etc. The science through its critical-realist epistemology offers also very useful insights to a theological epistemology, essentially especially when we have to deal with the problems of Christian revelation and doctrine.
I consider that a reader of Polkinghorne should be also critical in his lecture, and should try as much as possible to see in which measure the discoveries of science and the statements of Christian revelation are really in agreement. Personally, I consider that the tension in the model offered by Polkinghorne’s model is not totally eliminated; there are still some questions to be answered from both sides; but I also believe that the beginning of agreement is real.
Finally yet importantly, I consider that for anybody who wants to debate without complexes with secular thinkers about the relation between science and religion, the insights of Polkinghorne in this respect are very useful, cogent, and elegant.
Carlson, Richard, ed. Science and Christianity: Four Views. Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2000.
Cowan, Steven, ed. Five Views on Apologetics. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 2000.
Craig, William Lane. „The Origin and Creation of the Universe: A Reply to Adolf Grunbaum.” British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 43, no. 2 (1992): 233-240.
Dembski, William, ed. Signs of Intelligence. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2001.
Grundbaum, Adolf. „The Pseudo-Problem of Creation in Physical Cosmology.” Philosophy of Science 56, (1989): 373-394.
Heschel, Abraham. The Prophets. New York: Harper and Row, 1962.
Humphreys, Fisher. Thinking about God. New Orleans: Insight Press, 1994.
Lewis, C. S. Miracles. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1978.
Livingstone, E.A., ed. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Oxford: OxfordUniversity Press, 2000.
McGrath, Alister. Christian Theology: An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1997.
Polkinghorne, John. Belief in God in an Age of Science. YaleUniversity Press, 2003.
Polkinghorne, John. Science and Theology: An Introduction. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998.
Ross, Hugh. The Creator and the Time. Colorado Springs: Navpress Publishing Group, 1993.
 Alister McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1997), 274-276.
 John Polkinghome, Science and Theology: An Introduction (Mitmeapolis: Fortress Press, 1998), 118.
 John Polkinghome, Belief in God in an Age of Science (Yale: Yale University Press, 2003), xi-xii.
 Ibid., 10.
 Ibid., 4.
 Ibid., 14.
 John Polkinghome, Science and Theology, 76.
 Steven Cowan, ed., Five Views on Apologetics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 2000) 148-172; 208-231.
 John P olkinghorne, Science and Theology, 24.
 E Livingstone, ed., The Concise Oxford Dictionmy of the Christian Church (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), s.v. „Creation.”
 Hugh Ross, The Creator and the Time (Colorado Springs: Navpress Publishing Group, 1993), 87-91.
 William Lane Craig, „The Origin and Creation of the Universe: A Reply to AdolfGrunbaum,” British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 43, no. 2 (1992): 233-240; For the opposite opinion see also: Adolf Grundbaum, „The Pseudo-Problem of Creation in Physical Cosmology,” Philosophy of Science 56, (1989): 373-394.
 John Polkinghorne, Science and Theology, 80-81.
 Richard Carlson ed., Science and Christianity: Four Views (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2000), 216.
 John Polkinghorne, Science and Theology, 44.
 John Polkinghome, Belief in God in an Age of Science, 93-96.
 William Dembski, ed., Signs of Intelligence (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2001), 98.
 John Polkinghome, Belief in God in an Age of Science, 58-59.
 John Polkinghome, Science and Th eology, 89.
 C. S. Lewis, Miracles (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1978), 174-181.
 John Po1kinghome, Science and Theology, 93-95.
 Fisher Humphreys, Thinking about God (New Orleans: Insight Press, 1994), 77-78.
 E.A. Livingstone, ed., The Concise Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, s. v. „Fall, the.”
 Alister McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction, 264-265.
 John Polkinghome, Science and Theology, 64-65.
 John Polkinghorne, Belief in God in an Age of Science, 67-69.
 John Polkinghorne, Science and Theology, 91.
 Fisher Humphreys, Thinking About God, 42-47.
 Abraham Heschel, The Prophets (New York: Harper and Row, 1962), 273-277.
 John Polkinghorne, Belief in God in an Age of Science, 103-104.
 Ibid., 30.
 Ibid., 36-42.
 John Polkinghorne, Science and Theology, 112-113.