Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Theology for Physicists

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Theology for Physicists

Article excerpt


THE STORY OF science and religion since the Middle Ages has been one of estrangement rather than conflict. When the Aristotelian synthesis shattered, science and theology drifted apart, becoming at last disconnected universes of discourse.

Over the last few decades many theologians and some scientists have attempted a new "dialogue of science and religion" in order to end this estrangement. A leading figure in this dialogue has been John Polkinghorne, a respected theoretical particle physicist at Cambridge University who, in the early 1980s, left scientific research in mid-career to become an Anglican clergyman and devote himself to writing on science and theology.

The science-theology dialogue has chiefly dealt with natural theology and such basic issues as the existence of God, the order and intelligibility of the universe, the evidence for design and purpose in nature, and the limitations of a crassly reductionist materialism. It has brought greater understanding and even some agreement among people of diverse backgrounds and concerns, ranging from agnostic seekers to people of traditional faith.

And now, according to Polkinghorne, the dialogue is ready for a new stage-where theologically deeper and specifically Christian subjects are addressed. Science and the Trinity: The Christian Encounter with Reality, based on Polkinghorne's 2003 Warfield Lectures at Princeton Theological Seminary, is a contribution to this new stage of engagement.

Along the way, Polkinghorne argues that going beyond the basics of theism can make belief more credible to nonbelievers. He makes an analogy with natural science: "Significant scientific advances often begin with the illuminating simplicity of a basic insight,... but they persist and persuade through the detailed and complex explanatory power of subsequent technical development."

In the same way, theism is more persuasive in the form of a richly elaborated theological tradition than in the bare abstractions of philosophy. He therefore maintains that the next stage of dialogue is best conducted from within a particular tradition of faith. For him, the tradition of "Trinitarian theology" provides the most persuasive and satisfying "theological thickness."

Polkinghorne contrasts his own attitude toward tradition with that of three other prominent "scientist-theologians": Paul Davies, Ian Barbour, and Arthur Peacocke. In order of increasing respect for Christian tradition, Davies represents the "deistic" approach, Barbour the "theistic," Peacocke the "revisionist," and Polkinghorne the "developmental."

Polkinghorne's understanding of proper theological "development" owes more to modern liberal Anglicanism than to John Henry Newman. Nevertheless, m spite of what he calls his "flexibility of hermeneutical strategy," Polkinghorne really is quite traditional in many ways. He believes in the Trinity, the virgin birth, the empty tomb, and the post-resurrection appearances of Christ. Although comfortable with modern biblical criticism, he is able to muster a degree of skepticism toward the hyperskeptical approaches of its more extreme practitioners.

Polkmghorne also differs from the other scientist-theologians he discusses in his view of the proper relation between theology and science. Davies, Barbour, and Peacocke are all to some degree "assimilationists" who seek "to achieve a greater merging of the two disciplines." Polkinghorne sees a danger in this: Christian theology has its own sources, insights, methods, and internal logic, so that it risks being denatured if "theological concerns become subordinated to the scientific." Still, theology should take account of scientific insights, for these not only raise important questions for theological reflection but can even "motivate the imposition of certain metaphysical constraints" on what could be considered satisfactory answers. …

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