Book Review: Theology in the Context of Science

Theology in the Context of ScienceTheology in the Context of Science
by John Polkinghorne
Yale University, 2009
166 pages (hardcover)

Powell’s Books

I’m not a scientist.  I admit to reading voraciously just about anything I can in science, just so as long as it does not require adding another specialty to my life.  As purely an amateur (as in, from the French, amāre, meaning, “to love”), I enjoy reading New Scientist and Scientific American, but I’m not likely to discover the Higgs boson.  So when I picked up Theology in the Context of Science—written by the famous physicist turned priest, John Polkinghorne—I was interested in what he had to say about the relationship between theology and science, and what theology in the context of science would look like.

Most-likely, any card-carrying member of new atheism would not appreciate the idea of theology and science in dialogue.  (I can hear Richard Dawkins fuming over such accommodationism right now.)  In some sense, I can understand why.  Nevertheless, for those that pit science against God or God against science, Polkinghorne’s book is a good reminder that not all humans have the same starting point; not a single person has the authority to extinguish the voice of the other.

In light of globalization, many theologians have entered into discussions centered on the contextualization of theology.  Theology from the perspective of other cultures, like those found in the Global South, as Polkinghorne notes, have been “recognised as providing new and stimulating ways of shaping theological thought.”   If one is to talk about the differences of experiences between Christians in Africa and Christians in mid-western Ohio, why would we not also include other contextual varieties, such as theology in the context of the world of science?  Theology and science should have a “complementary relationship with other forms of contextual theology.”

From the start, Polkinghorne sets out provide perspective and to remind us of our human limitations.  Scripture, he says, takes the humanity of the text very seriously.  He writes that “revelation is the indispensable record of foundationally significant human encounters with sacred reality.”  Both science and theology share “the intertwining of experience and interpretation” implying “a degree of circularity,” but, he adds, “this need not invalidate rational commitment to well-winnowed and well-motivated beliefs.”  In other words, both can be wrong and both need to be open to change.  So as along as people are the interpreters, nothing is infallible.

Polkinghorne begins with a general concept of religion—a basic theism, though he does eventually get into the details of Christian theism, including questions of incarnation and Trinitarianism.  (A minimalist religious commitment may be considered by some to be more rational than say the belief in fairies or the idea that monsters live under one’s bed.  I am aware, however, that the more ardent atheist out there may still dismiss simple theism as no different than speaking to an imaginary friend.)

What can science learn from theology? What does theology have to gain from science?  Theology in the Context of Science explores these questions using the oft-cited discoveries of modern science, such as human evolution, the expansion of the universe, or Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.  Those unfamiliar with Maxwell, Planck, Einstein, Bohr, Hawking, will get a picture as to why science poses real, significant questions for religion.  However, the beauty of Polkinghorne’s book is that these discussions are also mingled with theological questions.

Take, for example, the seemingly-problematic world of quantum physics.  In this world, one has to permit “the combination of possibilities that commonsense would say could never be mixed together,” says Polkinghorne.  While Newton argued for absolutes, quantum physics enters into the murky logic of a both/and world.  One cannot necessarily even say that a particle is here or there, as it may be, in some way, both here and there.  The quantum world seems to carry with it states that are contradictory, but necessary—for example, the duality of light as being both a wave and a particle.

What does this mean for theology and science in dialogue?  Here is where Polkinghorne’s work is calling for a sort of epistemological humility.  A general recognition of human limitations and a call for the person to be open to possibilities:

If quantum physics requires its idiosyncratic quantum logic, trinitarian theology may well require its own kind of logic also.  If the quantum world cannot be known with a Newtonian clarity that assumes precise knowledge of both position and momentum, then maybe the assertions of apophatic theology—that there is an element of irreducible mystery involved in encounter with the infinite reality of God, beyond any finite human ability to articulate—should also be accorded appropriate respect.

This sort of openness makes Polkinghorne’s work refreshing and allows for some form of civil dialogue, avoiding the over-simplistic us-versus-them mentality.

The most obvious example of this antagonism comes from certain readings of Genesis 1-2.  For example, the morning I’m writing this I received an email from someone asking me for advice in this very area.  He is a local tutor at a local college in the Midwest, whose students occasionally wish to write papers supporting a creationist perspective.  Science is not his field, but because he is also a pastor, this school sometimes asks him to help these particular students when these discussions come up.  The faculty of this college understandably require a scientific rationale rather than simple biblical proof-texting, which I’m sure makes for some controversy.  As a youthful fundamentalist, I would have unreasonably taken this as an attack on my faith; as a professor, I take it as requiring solid research from credentialed specialists, rather than from, say, one’s church bulletin.  Behind this situation is a long history of students feeling the need to preach to their professors.

From the Scopes Monkey Trial to the debacle in Dover, Pennsylvania, traditional creationism and its literal reading of Genesis has continued to be fuel for a war in the educational world.  When science repeatedly offers reasons to question that interpretation, the response is to take it as a rejection of Scripture, even though it is only a rejection of an interpretation.  Science calls us to be better readers and interpreters.

Science aside, there is plenty of reason for questioning a literal reading of Genesis.  In Genesis 1 there is a day by day account, structured with book ends (evening/morning), a poetically driven form, and the name used of God is Elohim.  In that chapter, God creates plants, animals, and then a man and a woman.  In Genesis 2 things are different.  The narrative is the dominant form and the term Yahweh is introduced for speaking of God. The order is also changed as God creates a human being, then plants, then animals, then another human.  An ancient human cosmology is driving the text and clearly two different creation texts were put together for a reason.

Returning to Polkinghorne, we are encouraged to proceed with the dialogue between science and religion with humility on both sides.  “We are able to attain best explanations of our experience, which we should treat with the utmost seriousness,” writes Polkinghorne, “but to claim to have achieved absolute proof and indubitable certainty is to go beyond finite human capacity.”

In Theology in the Context of Science, Polkinghorne does more than suggest a relationship, he also repeatedly raises examples of where this relationship may occur.  If there was one example that stands out, it is in his use of evolution to explain theodicy.  It is not necessarily original to him, but he has built on this idea before and it comes out in this book.

Why do bad things happen to good people?  For Polkinghorne, this assumes a lot about the relationship between God and the world.  Christians have generally resorted to some form of free will or determinism to answer this question.  Polkinghorne argues for a God who does not micromanage, but who is interested in seeing his creation fulfill their destiny of becoming. Evolution offers insight into this, says Polkinghorne.  “It becomes clear that the Creator has chosen to act through unfolding rather than by episodic intervention.”  Creation is, according to Polkinghorne (and as a professor of mine once suggested), an “improvisation in which creatures and their Creator both participate.”  Creation is jazz; it is open in some way, as I read Polkinghorne, but purposeful.  As he writes:

While the exact details of what has emerged in the course of cosmic history was not fixed from the start, nevertheless the presence of the deep potentiality built into the given fabric of created nature, of the kind that anthropic fine-tuning implies, indicates the universe to be a world of purposed fertility.  Five-fingered homo sapiens was not decreed from the beginning, but it seems no accident that some form of self-consciousness, God-conscious life has evolved.

What this means is that a freely-evolving world not only has its benefits, but also its shadow side.  “The existence of tectonic plates leads to earthquakes when they slip, but the gaps between the plates also allow mineral resources to well up from within the Earth, affording a necessary replenishment of its surface fertility.”  We cannot avoid the possibility that the light side of creation has a dark, it is a “package deal.”  If we want the freedom, we take the pain.

Many Christians may want a more certain outcome (or absolute determinism) for the daily direction of the world, and perhaps Polkinghorne does not provide that, but, as this perspective on theodicy demonstrates, he does provide plenty of room for conversation between science and theology.

While it is likely to annoy both the atheist and the fundamentalist, Theology in the Context of Science is a good read.  This is a clear and thoughtful book.  Those that enjoy C. S. Lewis will find Polkinghorne’s discussion of the Christian myth as an “enacted myth” and cause for well-motivated belief to be interesting.  Lastly, Polkinghorne’s book closes with a chapter on eschatology that is reminiscent of Eastern Christianity.  His incarnationally centered eschatology argues for a panentheistic future based on theosis.  The “world of the new creation will be the realm where final eschatological fulfillment will be attained through a panentheistic participation in the divine reality,” he writes.

Needless to say, at just over 150 pages, Theology in the Context of Science challenges presuppositions, offers plenty of controversy, and provides for well-motivated reading.


For more information on the relationship between science and theology, see Krista Tippett’s excellent interview with John Polkinghorne on Speaking of Faith.

  • Kevin

    Just read this review and the one on John Walton’s work “The Lost World of Genesis One.” Now I’ve got two books more books to buy – and the list just gets bigger.

  • Once I find time to blog I’ll have more for you to consider. :) Walton’s book is a good, fascinating and quick read.

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