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Science and Creation: The Search for Understanding

Science and Creation: The Search for Understanding

by John C. Polkinghorne

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John C. Polkinghorne, internationally renowned priest-scientist, addresses fundamental questions about how scientific and theological worldviews relate to each other in this, the second volume (originally published in 1988) of his trilogy, which also included Science and Providence and One World.

Dr. Polkinghorne illustrates how a scientifically


John C. Polkinghorne, internationally renowned priest-scientist, addresses fundamental questions about how scientific and theological worldviews relate to each other in this, the second volume (originally published in 1988) of his trilogy, which also included Science and Providence and One World.

Dr. Polkinghorne illustrates how a scientifically minded person approaches the task of theological inquiry, postulating that there exists a close analogy between theory and experiment in science and belief and understanding in theology. He offers a fresh perspective on such questions as: Are we witnessing today a revival a natural theology—the search for God through the exercise of reason and the study of nature? How do the insights of modern physics into the interlacing of order and disorder relate to the Christian doctrine of Creation? What is the relationship between mind and matter?

Polkinghorne states that the "remarkable insights that science affords us into the intelligible workings of the world cry out for an explanation more profound than that which it itself can provide. Religion, if it is to take seriously its claim that the world is the creation of God, must be humble enough to learn from science what that world is actually like.The dialogue between them can only be mutually enriching."

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Science and Creation




Copyright © 1988 John Polkinghorne
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-59947-100-6


Natural Theology

A scientist of even quite modest attainments will find, from time to time, that he receives unsolicited contributions from the general public proposing solutions to the riddle of the physical universe. His correspondents may need a little help with the mathematics or a testimonial to facilitate the publication of their ideas, but they are confident that they have made an important advance. I am sorry to have to say that such items of this character that have come my way have, without exception, proved valueless. Many have not been sufficiently articulate even to attain the status of being wrong. Nor does some kinship with science prove any help in the matter; some of my most persistent and wrong-headed correspondents have been electrical engineers.

This thought crosses my mind as I, a theoretical physicist by profession, take up my pen to write on matters theological. To be sure, I received some grounding in theology during my preparation for ordination, and the subject remains among the principal interests which direct my reading; but it is also true that electrical engineers are taught a bit of physics, and no doubt they read more about it after graduation. So how can I have the temerity to attempt the present task? I certainly cannot pretend to write as a professional theologian, but only as a scientist deeply interested in the understanding of religion.

I believe that the justification for the enterprise lies in the nature of theology. If it is to lay claim again to its medieval title of the Queen of the Sciences, that will not be because it is in a position to prescribe the answers to the questions discussed by other disciplines. Rather, it will be because it must avail itself of their answers in the conduct of its own inquiry, thereby setting them within the most profound context available. Theology's regal status lies in its commitment to seek the deepest possible level of understanding. In the course of that endeavor, it needs to take into account all other forms of knowledge, while in no way attempting to assert hegemony over them. A theological view of the world is a total view of the world. Every form of human understanding must make its contribution to it. The offering of the physical sciences to that end must be made, at least partly, by those who work in them. Theology cannot just be left to the theologians, as is made clear by the recent spectacle of a distinguished theologian writing more than 300 pages on God in creation with only an occasional and cursory reference to scientific insight. It is as idle to suppose that one can satisfactorily speak about the doctrine of creation without taking into account the actual nature of the world, as it would be to think that the significance of the world could be exhaustively conveyed in the scientific description of its physical processes. There must be a degree of consonance between the assertions of science and theology if the latter are to make sense. Hence there is an urgent need for dialogue between the two disciplines. The arena for their interaction is natural theology.

Natural theology may be defined as the search for the knowledge of God by the exercise of reason and the inspection of the world. There are, of course, those who would deny the possibility of such knowledge. They are by no means all of an atheist or agnostic persuasion. People of religious belief have sometimes been so impressed by the transcendent otherness of God that they have asserted that He is only to be encountered in His gracious and specific acts of self-disclosure. He can condescend to us, but we are powerless to reach out to Him. The leading proponent of this point of view in our century has been Karl Barth, who wrote of the God of whom the Christian creeds speak:

He cannot be known by the powers of human knowledge, but is apprehensible and apprehended solely because of His own freedom, decision and action. What man can know by his own power according to the measure of his natural powers, his understanding, his feeling, will be at most something like a supreme being, an absolute nature, the idea of an utterly free power, of a being towering over everything. This absolute and supreme being, the ultimate and most profound, this "thing in itself," has nothing to do with God.

That "nothing" seems like something of an overstatement. We can acknowledge that natural theology, whose source of insight is by definition limited to the generalities of experience, will not tell us all about God that is humanly accessible. The individual encounter with Him, both our own and that of the spiritual masters preserved in the tradition, will surely be of the highest importance. Yet the world is not just a neutral theater in which these individual revelatory acts take place. Rather, it is itself, if theism is true, the creation of God and so potentially a vehicle also for His self-disclosure. God is to be found in the general as well as in the particular. Natural theology may only be able to help us to discern "something like a supreme being, an absolute nature," and it is certainly powerless by itself to bring us to know the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, but its insights are not for that reason to be despised. There is a great deal more to the structure of matter than chemistry can tell us, with its talk of 92 elements, but it would be foolish to refuse its assistance in an inquiry into what the physical world is made of. Similarly, natural theology can provide valuable help in an inquiry about whether the process of the world is the carrier of significance and the expression of purpose. This role is of special relevance today when so many people find it difficult to see theism as a credible and coherent possibility. Natural theology may be for them a necessary starting point. I agree with Hugh Montefiore when he writes about the relationship of the intellectual quest for God through natural theology to the personal commitment of faith, that while it is true that cold intellectual thinking can never bring anyone into a warm personal relationship with God, it is also true that, while a subjective commitment to God may be satisfying to the self, it lacks credibility to others unless it can be shown that there are good reasons for the actual existence of the God to whom commitment has been given.

The contention that natural theology is important is supported by a consideration of the history of religious thought. I shall attempt a survey to show that it has had a continuing role within the Judeo-Christian tradition.

At first sight, no one could seem to be less concerned with such matters than ancient Israel. Belief that there is a God is absolutely axiomatic in the Old Testament (as it is in the New Testament). There is no attempt to reason the matter, no apologetic argument for God's existence. The priests proclaim that He is known in the worship He has ordained and the laws that He has promulgated. The prophets declare Him to be found in His saving and judgmental acts in history. Yet, even in Israel, there were those who also sought Him in the everyday circumstances of life, or who at least tried to make sense of humdrum experience in the light of their faith in Yahweh. The fruit of their labor is recorded for us in the wisdom literature of the Old Testament and Apocrypha. One of its characteristic forms of expression is the proverb, a sort of refinement of the folk adage. By this means, the wise men sought to discern an order in the chaotic flux of events. Von Rad said the teachers of wisdom "stood in the forward line of experiential knowledge" Their observation is often deadpan, without overt moralizing:

A poor man is odious even to his friend; the rich have friends in plenty.

They are men of patient observation rather than charismatic enlightenment, so a certain calm level-headedness attracts their praise:

Experience uses few words; discernment keeps a cool head.

One feels that they would thoroughly approve of the motto of the Royal Society: Nullius in verba (freely translated—"no mere talking"). An anchorage in the way things are, acting as a restraint on speculative fancy, is of particular importance for theology. One is sometimes astonished at the confidence with which the fathers or the medieval theologians will discuss such ineffable subjects as the nature of angels or the inner life of the Holy Trinity. The wise men encourage the asking of the question, instinctive to the scientist, How do you know? They look at the world with an openness to the hard facts of its reality and resist the temptation, endemic in religious thought, to confine themselves to the way they would like things to be or hope that things will eventually come to be. Yet in pursuit of knowledge, the wise men were willing to recognize their own limitations as part of what actually is the case. Von Rad says that they were "aware that the area a man can grasp with his rational powers and tell out with his being is really small." Rational exploration did not decoy them into rational overconfidence:

Face to face with the Lord, wisdom, understanding, counsel go for nothing.

Since the wisdom writers' special concern is with knowledge of God derived from general rather than particular experience, there is a universal character to their thought. The founding figure of the tradition was said to be Solomon, and one can readily imagine such a warily appraising attitude arising in the cosmopolitan brilliance of his court. He is compared with the wise men from the East and from Egypt, admittedly to his advantage but in terms that suggest that like is being set beside like, a comparison with other nations unthinkable for Israel in the spheres of priest or prophet. Part of the Book of Proverbs (22:17–24:22) is a transcription from the Egyptian writings of Amenemope. There is an accessible character to natural theology that helps it to cross cultic frontiers. Nevertheless, in the end, it must seek its integration with the totality of the experience of God and of thought about Him. The later wisdom writings are set in a more explicitly Yahweh-istic context than their predecessors.

As part of the wise men's cool observation of the world there was regard for what we would call nature (a concept itself unknown to Hebrew). Thus at the end of the Book of Job, God's answer to the complaints of the innocent sufferer is a catalogue of the wonders of the physical world (Job 38, 39) and an injunction to consider the hippopotamus and the crocodile, albeit exalted to mythic proportions (Job 40, 41). They are reminders to Job that the Lord has other concerns beyond those with men: "Behold, Behemoth, which I made as I made you" It is characteristic of natural theology that it delivers us from a narrow anthropocentricity. Moltmann is surely right to say, "No theological doctrine of creation must be allowed to reduce the understanding of belief in creation to the existential self-understanding of the person. If God is not the Creator of the world, he cannot be my Creator either."

At a humbler level, the enumeration sayings in Proverbs, such as:

    Three things are too wonderful for me;
    four I do not understand:
    the way of an eagle in the sky,
    the way of a serpent on a rock,
    the way of a ship on the high seas,
    and the way of a man with a maiden.

show a concern with the physical world at the level of natural history, the encyclopedic collection of "for instances." The Hebrews were unable to proceed beyond this to develop a scientific point of view concerned with a pattern of cause and effect. They lacked the necessary concepts. In particular, despite experience of exile in Babylon (an ancient center of some degree of sophistication in calculation and astronomy), they made no progress with mathematics. Nevertheless, the post-exilic wisdom writers did take one remarkable step: They personified wisdom, speaking of her as the beginning of God's works, antedating the material world, His agent in creation, and His consort in its enjoyment. This astonishing figure is a challenge to exegetes. Von Rad says that the wisdom imagery shows that God "had at his service a quite different means, besides prophets and priests, whereby he could reach men, namely the voice of primeval order" Thus it was that natural theology found voice in the Old Testament.

Wisdom is one of the many concepts which constellate round the Logos, the Word, so powerfully proclaimed as being in the beginning with God and equal to God, in the prologue to St. John's Gospel. Ideas come together here which are both Greek and Hebrew in origin. The Stoic notion of the logos is concerned with the rational order of the world, while the Hebrew dabar (which means both word and deed) focuses on activity, that word of the Lord by which the heavens were made and which came to the prophets as the message of God's purpose at work in history. The twin discernment of both pattern and process in the workings of the world, of being and becoming, lies at the heart of any attempt to construct a natural theology in true accord with the way things are. There has been a perpetual temptation in religious thought to concentrate on one pole or the other of this dialectic—the static perfection of the God of the philosophers, in all His remoteness; the living God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, in all His dangerous anthropomorphism. A true account will hold the two in balance. It is interesting that a similar complementarity of being and becoming is necessary in the scientific story of the world, as we shall see in chapter 3.

Before John's prologue is completed, he has moved from the generalities of form to the particularity of expression in making the quintessential Christian assertion that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The Epistle to the Colossians declares of the Christ so made known that "he is before all things, and in him all things hold together." Such consistency as we may find in the coherence of the world will never of itself lead us to the cosmic Christ of Colossians, but that cosmic Christ would not be believable if the universe were at root a chaos rather than a cosmos. There must be a congruence between the claims of revelation and the perceptions of a rational inquiry into the world. That necessity alone is sufficient to make natural theology an indispensable part of the theological endeavor.

The urban Christians who wrote the New Testament show less concern with the natural world than do the writers of the Old Testament, whose style of life made them more in touch with nature. The New Testament writers are so seized by the thought of God's great act in Christ, by which they have been encountered, that the generalities of human experience play only a small part in their thought. Nevertheless, it is Paul whose words provide the classic text to which natural theologians are wont to appeal in search of scriptural warrant for their activities. Writing to the Romans, he held that no man can excuse himself on the grounds that he did not know that there is a God, for, "Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely his power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made." We might feel that the clarity of the case is somewhat exaggerated by Paul, but his words certainly encourage the attempt to pursue a natural theology. God is the elusive hidden one, not overpowering us by His unveiled presence, but it would surely be disconcerting if there were no signs of Him to be found in His creation.

The Greek Fathers of the Church made use of the idea of the Logos, particularly in the second century, as "the answer to the problem of how God could be both a changeless self-contained being and at the same time the active Creator God" Their concern was with the dialectic of being and becoming, but concentrating on the question of how God is related to the world in a "descending" movement, opposite to the "ascending" flow of natural theology seeking to move from the world to God. As the Fathers continued their wrestling with the mysteries of the incarnation and the Holy Trinity, in an effort to do justice to the particular experiences of revelation, the Logos faded out as a useful category of thought. In the Western Church, Augustine's great influence militated against the exercise of reason and the inspection of the world as routes to God. He wrote: "Understanding is the reward of faith. Therefore do not seek to understand in order to believe but believe in order that you may understand" The one-sided emphasis is ironic in one who was the greatest intellect that the Latin Church produced and whose powers of introspection into the polarities of the human psyche provided him with the basis for the most penetrating discussion yet written concerning the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.

Excerpted from Science and Creation by JOHN C. POLKINGHORNE. Copyright © 1988 John Polkinghorne. Excerpted by permission of TEMPLETON PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

John C. Polkinghorne is an Anglican priest, a fellow of the Royal Academy past president of Queens’ College, Cambridge University, and former professor of mathematical physics at Cambridge. Polkinghorne resigned his chair in physics to study for the Anglican priesthood. After completing his theological studies and serving at parishes, he returned to Cambridge. In 1997, Dr. Polkinghorne was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for distinguished service to science, religion, learning, and medical ethics. He was the recipient of the 2002 Templeton Prize. He lives in Cambridge, United Kingdom.

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