Theology in the Context of Science

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The world-renowned physicist-theologian John Polkinghorne provides a new framework for dialogue between science and religion, using recent scientific inquiry into relativity, evolutionary theory, life after death, and many other issues as a foundation on which to build a model of Christian belief structure.

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Editorial Reviews

Quarterly Review of Biology

"Sir John Polkinghorne''s brief survey should be required reading for anyone engaging the religious implications of contemporary science, regardless of their personal beliefs. . . . His reflections on science and religion show an engaging familiarity with both the nuances and the major players of both communities, where he continues to be a respected figure."—Karl W. Giberson, Quarterly Review of Biology

— Karl W. Giberson

Keith Ward
"An important contribution to theology, successfully showing the role that scientific knowledge must play in theological work."—Keith Ward, Oxford University
Quarterly Review of Biology - Karl W. Giberson
"Sir John Polkinghorne's brief survey should be required reading for anyone engaging the religious implications of contemporary science, regardless of their personal beliefs. . . . His reflections on science and religion show an engaging familiarity with both the nuances and the major players of both communities, where he continues to be a respected figure."—Karl W. Giberson, Quarterly Review of Biology
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300164565
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 4/20/2010
  • Pages: 192
  • Sales rank: 695,242
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 8.10 (h) x 0.56 (d)

Meet the Author

John Polkinghorne, KBE, FRS, is fellow and retired president, Queens’ College, Cambridge University. He was founding president of the International Society for Science and Religion and in 2002 was awarded the Templeton Prize. The author of numerous books, he lives in Cambridge, UK.

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Read an Excerpt

Theology in the Context of Science


Yale University Press

Copyright © 2009 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-14933-3

Chapter One

Contextual Theology

ALL theology is done in a context. The accounts that the theologians give us are not utterances delivered from some point of lofty detachment, independent of culture-views from nowhere, as it were-but they are all views from somewhere, offering finite and particular human perspectives onto the infinite reality of God. Each such perspective not only offers an opportunity for insight, but it is also open to the danger of imposing limitation and distortion. Specificity of context will make some aspects of the divine will and nature more readily accessible to theological recognition and understanding, while at the same time hiding others from easy view.

The earliest Christian theologians, the authors of the New Testament, wrote in the context of their heritage of contemporary Judaism and in varying degrees of engagement with the surrounding Graeco-Roman culture. Their writings offer unique and irreplaceable access to the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, together with indispensable accounts of how his first followers experienced and understood the life-transforming power that they believed had come to them from the risen Christ, mediated in the Church by the continuingwork of the Holy Spirit. This means that these New Testament writings, together with the Old Testament books of the Hebrew Bible which were the New Testament authors' own scriptural context, create a biblical setting which is of fundamental importance for all subsequent Christian thinking. Yet this acknowledgement of the unique significance of scripture is by no means enough to establish an unambiguous and sufficient context for theology.

The biblical texts, which are often very concise in their expression of deep and challenging truths, stand in need of continuing exploratory interpretation, conducted in each succeeding Christian generation. Within the canon of the New Testament itself one finds a number of different treatments of theological themes, doubtless formulated within the different contexts that corresponded to the various early Christian communities in which oral tradition was propagated and the original documents eventually written. A comparison of the Pauline and Johannine writings, together with consideration of the approach taken by the unknown author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, makes this clear enough. The common affirmation of the unique status of Jesus, crucified and risen, is expressed by the different authors in contrasting ways which serve to complement each other.

The Christian theologian will see scripture as divinely inspired but humanly written. Its authors were inevitably influenced by the cultural context of their times, and a major exegetical task is to discriminate between what in their writings is of lasting significance and what is simply contemporary understanding to which we do not owe an unrevisable allegiance. Science has played a useful part in assisting these acts of judgement, so that, for example, when the psalmist says that God 'has established the world; it shall never be moved' (Psalm 93:1), we are able to recognise that he is using the cosmological understanding of his day to express the Creator's faithfulness, rather than making a statement about the structure of the solar system. Galileo was to argue thus, making a point to which we shall return shortly.

In any case, the hermeneutic quest should not simply be for a single exclusive kind of interpretation, since there are a variety of levels at which the texts may properly be read. Such richness of meaning is a common feature of all profound forms of literature, which always hold out the prospect of an overplus of significance awaiting the open and receptive reader. The notion of a plain text with a single meaning may suit the cookery book, but it will not do for writing that sets out to explore the multiple richness and depth of reality, either human or divine. The history of theological thought provides abundant examples of the recognition of the need for a many-levelled approach to scripture. In the patristic period, many of the Fathers used a scheme that discerned four dimensions of scriptural interpretation, corresponding to literal, symbolic, moral, and spiritual meanings. Even in a period such as Reformation times, when there was a greater tendency to employ a less nuanced interpretative strategy, and people were inclined to accept the idea that there is a plain meaning to be found in the scriptural text that anyone who runs may read, the fact is that this approach actually led to a wide variety of different interpretative conclusions. Such diversity indicates clearly enough how problematic it is to suppose the irrelevance of particular contextual influences in shaping biblical interpretation. There is more than one way to strike a balance between the Epistle of James and the Epistle to the Romans in forming a theological concept of the role of good works.

The polysemic nature of scripture is sometimes a problem for scientists, who are often more used to the sharp clarity of mathematical argument. Yet even in mathematics not all is expressed on the surface. Kurt Gödel showed that axiomatised systems, sufficiently complex to contain the integers, cannot establish their own consistency. If they are assumed to be consistent, then it can be shown that they contain mathematical truths that are expressible, but not provable, within the confines of the system. Thus even here, in this most abstract of subjects, the richness of reality eludes tight specification. Truth is more than theoremhood.

While a few religiously minded scientists have been tempted to treat the Bible as though it were a textbook in which one could look up the ready-made answers to every theological question, a better metaphor is surely that of the laboratory notebook, in which are recorded accounts of foundational encounters involving acts of divine self-disclosure, essential for theological theory-making, but leading to and needing further reflective interpretation. Revelation itself is experiential rather than propositional. It provides the raw material for the work of the bottom-up theological thinker, seeking truth through assessment of the motivations for belief.

At certain times, a particular contemporary philosophical style has moulded the context of thought, substantially influencing the resulting shape of theological discourse, without completely determining its character. Augustine was heavily influenced by the neo-platonism of his day, and Aquinas owed much to the recovery of a lost Aristotelianism that took place in the course of the thirteenth century. Yet neither slavishly followed their philosophical mentors at every point. For example, Aquinas rejected Aristotelian belief in the eternity of the world. In the nineteenth century, and on into the twentieth, many German theologians have seemed to write with Kant looking over one shoulder and Hegel looking over the other. The process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead has substantially influenced a number of present-day scientist-theologians, most notably Ian Barbour.

The power structure of the community within which theology is being pursued has also been a contextual influence. The pre-Constantinian Church, marginalised in society and subjected to bouts of persecution, had a different outlook to that of the post-Constantinian Church, enjoying a comfortable alliance with the state. The resulting transformation of spiritual and theological style induced as a consequent counter-movement the emergence of monasticism. Social sensitivities change, as when Christian people came, after eighteen centuries, at last to recognise that the institution of slavery was incompatible with a true concept of the dignity and worth of every human person.

The advance of general human knowledge has also often influenced theological judgements. In his Literal Commentary on Genesis, Augustine acknowledged that if a traditional interpretation of scripture was found to be untenable in the light of well-established conclusions of secular knowledge, then that interpretation would need to be reconsidered-a dictum to which Galileo was later to make an appeal. In actual fact it has often turned out that matters which had previously been taken for granted by almost all people as being items of common knowledge, such as the fixity of the Earth or the fixity of species, when found scientifically to be in need of revision, were discovered not to be indispensable to theology either. Moreover, it has frequently been the case that Christian thought has been able to benefit from the incorporation of new secular insights. In the nineteenth century, Aubrey Moore, recognising that a theological understanding of evolution implied that God was not a detached and distant Creator, but had chosen to operate through the natural processes by which creatures made themselves, said that Charles Darwin 'under the guise of a foe, did the work of a friend'. This kind of positive interaction should occasion no surprise. Search for knowledge of God is the quest for the most profound and comprehensive form of understanding, a task to which contributions from all truth-seeking enterprises will be both welcome and necessary.

These very general contextual influences have been active in varying degrees in every period of theological thinking. Yet we have noted that the second half of the twentieth century saw a particularly enhanced recognition of explicitly contextual modes of thought, and a resulting extensive deployment of the resources that they provide. The style of this contemporary contextual theology is largely that which Rowan Williams has called 'communicative': making forays into religiously neutral intellectual territory in order to gain new insight through participation in the local culture, while at the same time exploring translations of theological statements into the local dialect. A portfolio of such theological approaches has been developed, explicitly located within specific domains of experience and insight. As a consequence, one may expect surveys of the contemporary theological scene to include chapters with headings such as 'Liberation Theology' (drawing particularly on the experiences and needs of the poor in developing countries), 'Feminist Theology' (based on the distinctive perspectives of women, and often severely critical of what is perceived as still being a male-dominated Church and society), or 'Black Theology' (drawing on the experiences and insights of black people). In addition, such surveys are likely to contain chapters overtly related to theological thinking in specific geographical and cultural regions ('South-East Asian Theology', 'African Theology', and so on). Books of this survey kind will also often have a chapter or two on the relationship between science and theology, but the rubric under which this topic is presented is unlikely to be phrased in contextual terms. I do not think that the title of this book would be a likely chapter heading. This stylistic difference is symptomatic of an underlying unsatisfactoriness in the relationship between science-based understanding and the mainstream of theological enquiry. There has been a tendency to think of theology's relationship with science simply in terms of wrestling with specific issues and problems, such as creation or divine action, rather than in the general terms that would recognise the scientific context as affording also an opportunity to make use of an intellectual style of thinking of a more widely insightful kind. Of course, specific frontier issues will always be significant foci for interaction, and chapter 5 will look at some of these, but the style of discourse appropriate to the science-and-religion perspective is also something to be accepted and valued in itself.

To put the matter bluntly, I believe that too many theologians fail to treat what science has to offer with the appropriate degree of seriousness that would enable them to acknowledge adequately its contextual role. There are various reasons why this might be the case. One, of course, is an understandable anxiety about getting involved with matters concerning which one does not possess technical mastery. No doubt the details of science often seem opaque and impossibly demanding to those outside it. As a scientist-theologian I can readily understand this feeling, since I face similar problems in my forays into theology, in the course of which I am only too aware of lacking the kind of expertise that can only be gained through a lifetime of scholarly study in a single discipline. The traditional vocabulary of trinitarian theology has its own kind of opacity. Yet if interdisciplinary work is to be undertaken at all, we have to be prepared to accept the intellectual risks involved. Without sticking our necks out a little, we shall not be able to see very far. No one can come to the interdisciplinary task with a range of knowledge so complete that all sense of precariousness can be set aside. Yet, such interdisciplinary interaction is essential to the full pursuit of theological enquiry. Since God is the ground of all that is, every kind of human rational investigation of reality must have something to contribute to theological thinking, as the latter pursues its goal of an adequate understanding of the created world, understood in the light of the belief that the mind and purposes of the Creator lie behind cosmic order and history. Every mode of rational exploration of reality will have an offering to make.

As far as interaction with science is concerned, the interdisciplinary task is made more manageable by the fact that it is an engagement with concepts and styles of thought, rather than with highly technical detail, that is required in order to give theologians access to what they really need. Understanding the relevance of general relativity to an adequate account of the nature of created space and time, and its significance in relation to the gravitational properties of matter that have played so important a role in the history of the universe, does not require the theologian to attempt to wrestle with the mathematical intricacies of solutions to Einstein's field equations. There are a number of excellent books for the general educated reader that successfully present scientific concepts in an accessible manner. In addition, there are extensive writings originating in the contemporary science and religion community itself, which offer guides to the exploration of the frontier region between science and theology and provide examples of how people whose intellectual formation has lain in the natural sciences approach questions of religious belief. Yet this substantial body of work is comparatively seldom referred to in any serious way by mainstream theologians. The contrast between this state of affairs and that existing elsewhere between theology and other contextual sources of insight and experience is striking. Theologians know readily enough that they do not need to have lived in a base community in Latin America in order to be able to avail themselves of the insights and critiques of Liberation Theology. They only need to read with attention the writings of those whose formation has been in that context. Equally, theologians ought to understand that they do not need to have worked in a laboratory, or to be able to read learned scientific journals, in order to be able to avail themselves of the ideas and critiques of the science and religion community. At least some theologians should pay attention to what that community's discourse might have to offer.

One could not deny, however, that some of the responsibility for this neglect lies also with the scientist-theologians themselves. No doubt our amateur writings can lack the depth and sophistication that professional theologians are used to, especially in dealing with such technical subjects as trinitarian theology. No doubt we sometimes display a narrowness of interest. No form of contextual thinking can be free from the limitations intrinsic to its particular perspective. The remedying of such defects has to come from truly interdisciplinary encounter, set up on a wide basis and conducted in a charitable spirit of willingness to learn from the other, not least because of the consciousness of needing one's own view to be enlarged. It is a matter for real regret that, with a few honourable exceptions, mainstream theologians have played only a comparatively minor role in the field of science and religion, seldom participating in conferences or working groups in which the issues have been explored or contributing to the literature.

Another factor that has inhibited interaction between scientists and theologians has been an ideological disinclination to the task on the part of some members of the theological community. In the twentieth century, the tradition stemming from Karl Barth, arguably the most influential theologian of that period, laid such exclusive stress on the primacy of divine self-revelation in Christ as to seem to relegate to insignificance the role of any investigations that looked at the possibility of collateral illumination offered by other sources of insight or ways of seeking truth. The concept of some degree of general revelation, of the kind associated with the exploration of natural theology in a manner like that pursued by Thomas Aquinas in his discussion of faith and reason, was set aside by many theologians. Yet this is just the kind of approach that can prove fruitful in the exchange between science and theology.


Excerpted from Theology in the Context of Science by JOHN POLKINGHORNE Copyright © 2009 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Preface viii

Introduction ix

Chapter 1 Contextual Theology 1

Chapter 2 Discourse 19

Chapter 3 Time and Space 48

Chapter 4 Persons and Value 68

Chapter 5 Consonance: Creation, Providence, and Relationality 96

Chapter 6 Motivated Belief 123

Chapter 7 Eschatology 149

Postscript: Understanding 160

Index 165

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  • Posted May 3, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    God is Indeed Omnipresent. He is There to Be Found in the Empirical World of Scientific Laboratory!

    This is a great piece of work that every theologian and would-be theologian must read. Seminaries and theological schools that do not have at least a copy of this book in their libraries will sooner or later find themselves not competent enough to answer metaphysical questions raised in light of recent scientific advances and developments. A prophetic voice from the wilderness of scientific laboratory cries out for a more holistic approach in doing theology that is more than willing to leave the religious comfort zone and have the abstracts of theological inquiry come into close contact with the scientific world. Both a scientist and theologian himself of the highest order, the author laments over the fact that theologians have not done their homework enough so as to theologize with the great achievements of the hard sciences in mind.

    The book carries with it a strong statement that the God of the theologian is indeed omnipresent. He is there to be found in the empirically oriented world of science! Yes, God has His own people too in the scientific arena who do not embrace the gospel of the Death-of-God movement nor do they have the extinct God of Nietzsche in mind.

    While I personally disagree with the author's hermeneutical approach in handling the Scriptural material which naturally results into a theological method that departs from my more Reformed-oriented system of theology, I am happy to report that the book has been of great help to broaden my theological perspective. I have in fact immediately started to update myself on recent scientific discoveries, most particularly that which belongs to John Polkinghorne's cup of tea - the Quantum Theory.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted April 22, 2011

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    Posted July 31, 2011

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