Thursday, August 20, 2009

Science, Theology and "The Way the World Is"

Book Review: John Polkinghorne, The Way the World Is: The Christian Perspective of a Scientist (Westminster John Know Press, 2007)

"To me this Christian world view has the mark of truth, a coherence, a degree of realism and an adequate complexity, which match the strange way the world is." John Polkinghorne
Since the eighteenth century it has been common to make a distinction between faith and science as forms of knowing. Faith is simply a matter of believing things to be true while science is based on evidence. This distinction is now the central dogma of modern atheism and it is now assumed to be true even among some Christians who fail to see that it neatly sidelines them in any discussion of public policy ("Don't impose your religious dogma on other people! We simply believe what science tells us!"). John Polkinghorne argues that this distinction is completely without foundation and sets out to show that Christian faith is motivated by a knowledge of the truth, a knowledge of "the way the world is".
Polkinghorne knows a great deal about the subject. After a successful career in theoretical physics at Cambridge University he decided (at age fifty) to study theology at Cambridge and to be ordained in the Church of England. Since then he has written extensively on the relation between science and theology.
Many "scientific" approaches to theology are really a form of rationalism in which it is assumed, for example, that miracles can not occur so that Christianity must be revised to exclude them. This began in the eighteenth century and it lead first to deism and then to atheism as God became irrelevant even for people who supposedly believed. Polkinghorne, in contrast, follows what he calls a "bottom up" approach, the approach that he used in theoretical physics which pays close attention to the phenomena and then attempts to offer an explanation which best accounts for what is observed. Having done significant work in the area of quantum physics, Polkinghorne knows that the rationalist approach is simply inadequate in that it attempts to dictate in advance what can and can not happen. Reality, he insists, continually surprises us and we must expect that our expectations will have to be revised in light of a knowledge of reality.
Christianity is, therefore, what Polkinghorne calls "motivated belief," belief which seeks to base itself upon evidence and reason; belief which wants to know why it is true.
Polkinghorne argues that the structure of the universe presents us with evidence for the reality of God. As a theoretical physicist it strikes him as significant that not only is the universe ordered but that it is open to rational investigation and can be understood in terms of mathematics. It appears that the human mind was designed to comprehend the world and that the world was designed to be comprehended. That this is so can not be taken for granted and it means that the very possibility of science is grounded in something beyond itself. It is also significant that the universe contains the precise balance of chance and necessity to produce complex life and this balance of of a highly complex nature. To attribute the rational character of the universe and the existence of complex life to accident or blind causation seems inadequate as the probabilities for both are so low. For Polkinghorne, theology provides a more adequate foundation for science than does naturalism.
In addition to the rationality of the universe there are also the fundamental human intuitions of beauty, moral obligation and goodness. A naturalistic view of the universe must finally discount these while a theology can integrate them into its worldview. The rationality of the universe, the experience of beauty, moral obligation and the intuition of goodness are all to be seen as intimations of the God who is the Creator. Theology has the capacity to integrate science, aesthetics, morality and value into a consistent worldview in a way that atheism or naturalism do not.
The bulk of the book is devoted to showing why Polkinghorne finds no conflict between his skills as a physicist and his embrace of orthodox Christian faith. He argues that skepticism about the reliability of the New Testament and gospel portrait of Jesus are largely without grounds. The New Testament gospels were composed from sources close to the events they portray, their picture of Jesus is consistent and the view of Jesus as closely associated with God emerged very early and was not a late invention.
Polkinghorne finds the resurrection to be a historically credible event. He notes that the assertion that miracles can not occur is not a scientific position but a philosophical assertion. Paul's testimony to the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15 draws on established tradition which seems to go back to the event itself and it is difficult to argue that the narratives of Jesus' post-resurrection appearances are contrivances in that they portray the early church in an unflattering light and not expecting the resurrection and slow to accept it. Attempts to account for the radical transformation of the disciples and the existence of the Christianity through difficulty and persecution often involve contortions and outlandish hypotheses which are more incredible than resurrection faith.
Polkinghorne has important things to say about the development of the doctrine of the Trinity and about the existence of suffering and evil. In the final analysis, he is a Christian because Christianity makes sense of a complex world in a way that naturalism or atheism do not and are not able to.
This would be an ideal book to give to and discuss with a skeptic (and to read for oneself as well).


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