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Science and the Trinity: The Christian Encounter with Reality

Science and the Trinity: The Christian Encounter with Reality

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by John Polkinghorne

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Most often, the dialogue between religion and science is initiated by the discoveries of modern science—big bang cosmology, evolution, or quantum theory, for example. In this book, scientist-theologian John Polkinghorne changes the discussion. He approaches the dialogue from a little-explored perspective in which theology shapes the argument and sets the


Most often, the dialogue between religion and science is initiated by the discoveries of modern science—big bang cosmology, evolution, or quantum theory, for example. In this book, scientist-theologian John Polkinghorne changes the discussion. He approaches the dialogue from a little-explored perspective in which theology shapes the argument and sets the agenda of questions to be considered.
The author begins with a review of approaches to science and religion in which the classification focuses on theological content rather than on methodological technique. He then proceeds with chapters discussing the role of Scripture, a theology of nature, the doctrine of God, sacramental theology, and eschatology. Throughout, Polkinghorne takes the perspective of Trinitarian thinking while arguing in a style that reflects the influence of his career as a theoretical physicist. In the final chapter, the author defends the appropriateness of addressing issues of science and religion from the specific standpoint of his Christian belief. His book provides an important model for theologians and scientists alike, showing how their two fields can inform one another in significant ways.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Vintage Polkinghorne: clear, informed, interdisciplinarily sophisticated, compelling."—Miroslav Volf, Yale Divinity School

"Polkinghorne writes convincingly, fairly, and with nuance, choosing relevant and sometimes wonderfully surprising examples from nature or the Bible. He provides dozens of almost completely new ways of seeing connections among various phenomena."—Guy Fitch Lytle III, The School of Theology, The University of the South, Sewanee

Publishers Weekly
As a Cambridge physicist and Anglican priest, Polkinghorne is well qualified to address science-and-theology issues, but the depth and originality of his work amounts to much more than the sum of his credentials. Polkinghorne's theme here is "particularity," a summons to "bottom-up thinking" that engages theology, science and human experience in all their living detail-or what Polkinghorne calls their "thickness." Polkinghorne's love of thickness is reflected in his efforts to describe a Trinitarian-and not merely theistic-account of God's relationship to the universe, as well as his attempt to temper theological preferences for the eternal and spiritual with a greater appreciation for time and materiality. "The gift given by Love," Polkinghorne insists, "is that creatures should be allowed to be themselves" as reflected by the fact that "Christian salvific symbols are never merely free-floating, but always anchored in actual occurrence." Polkinghorne writes masterfully. He can be accurate without becoming technical, simple without becoming simplistic, orthodox without posturing as a defender of the faith. He challenges future theologians and church leaders to be "realistically modest" about what thinking can achieve, "while, on the other hand, we must not succumb to intellectual laziness." This volume provides a valuable introduction to Polkinghorne's interests and the theology-science dialogue in general, with references to other works where readers can research topics in more detail. (Sept.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Polkinghorne's background as an ex-quantum physicist who became an Anglican priest has given us a new understanding of the disparate disciplines of science and religion. Author of Faith, Science and Understanding and a fellow of the Royal Society, Polkinghorne explores and defends the thesis that Christian belief is as illuminating and intellectually credible in the 21st century as it was in the century that gave it birth. He convincingly demonstrates that science helps theology understand the physical nature of the universe, while theology helps science with the spiritual reality. Evolution and creation can support each other, in his opinion, because creation is a world of true becoming and not a world of static being. His chapters "Universe" and "Eschatology" are exciting treatises with many ideas that prove Polkinghorne's reputation as one of the great theologians/physicists today. This excellent model of interdisciplinary study is recommended for academic and large public libraries.-Gary P. Gillum, Brigham Young Univ., Provo, UT Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.

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Yale University Press
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Science and the Trinity

The Christian Encounter with Reality

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2004 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-11530-7

Chapter One

Four Approaches to the Dialogue between Science and Theology

Theology seeks to speak of God, the One who is the source of all created being. Therefore, to some degree theology must take account of all forms of truth-seeking investigation into the nature of what is. Among such enquiries, the discoveries of science are of clear significance as they tell us about the pattern and history of the universe. Theology, in its turn, regards that universe as being God's creation. It is therefore not surprising that the dialogue between theological thinking and the science of the day has had a long history. One may recall that Augustine, in his Literal Commentary on Genesis, does not at all produce the kind of flat-footed 'creationist' seven-day-account that his title might suggest to a modern reader but, among other things, emphasises that if well-supported contemporary understanding of the natural world appeared to conflict with a traditional interpretation of scripture, then that interpretation should be reconsidered in the light of this other knowledge.

The form that this interaction between science andtheology has taken has varied considerably over the centuries. Certainly it is not possible to subsume it under some single simplistic rubric, such as the 'warfare' of the scientific with the theological or their harmonious conflation with each other. John Hedley Brooke, in his scholarly survey covering the period from the seventeenth century to the end of the nineteenth century, has made clear the variety and the complexity of the historical interaction between science and religion. For the general enquirer, careful consideration of these matters has been hampered by the assiduous propagation of the myth of a battle between scientific light and religious darkness-a misrepresentation particularly popular in those sections of the media that love stories of confrontation.

Someone who has suffered from a campaign of misrepresentation in this respect has been John Calvin. It has become a cliché to quote, as an egregious example of theological blindness to scientific truth, his alleged remark 'Who will place the authority of Copernicus above that of the Holy Spirit?' In actual fact this remark is nowhere to be found in Calvin's writings. It appears to have originated as a plain invention by the nineteenth-century writer F. W. Farrar, who (I regret to have to say) was the Dean of Canterbury Cathedral. The injustice is particularly great since Calvin's idea of accommodation-the concept that the writers of scripture expressed themselves in ways that would be accessible to the common reader of their time-led him to warn expressly against treating the Bible as a quarry from which to attempt to hew scientific conclusions. Calvin wrote in his Commentary on the Psalms that 'The Holy Spirit has no intention to teach astronomy ... the Holy Spirit would rather speak childishly than unintelligibly to the humble and unlearned'. To continue this Anglican acknowledgement of Reformed good sense in thinking about these matters, let me also note that Benjamin Warfield (who founded the lectures that I had the honour to give), writing in the aftermath of what is mythically represented as a paradigm period of great conflict between science and religion, said that, in his opinion, he 'did not think that there is any general statement in the Bible or in any account of creation, either as given in Genesis 1 and 2 or elsewhere alluded to, that need be opposed to evolution'. Finally, we should gratefully recall that one of the leading contemporary theologians to take a sustained interest in how science and theology relate to each other is also from the Reformed tradition. I refer, of course, to Thomas Torrance, whose writing often refers to scientific matters, particularly those associated with his two great scientific heroes, James Clerk Maxwell and Albert Einstein.

Recent years have seen a very active engagement in the dialogue between science and theology, mostly conducted by those whose intellectual formation has been on the scientific side of the border. It is quite customary to date this vigorous activity from the publication in 1966 of Ian Barbour's Issues in Science and Religion, and there is no doubt that this was indeed a seminal event in terms of its wide influence in the academic world. However, many of the isssues raised in Barbour's book had been anticipated in Eric Mascall's Bampton Lectures of 1956, Christian Theology and Natural Science, where their treatment was heavily influenced by the author's Thomistic style of thinking.

Since those days, the mutual conversation between science and theology has intensified and the rate of relevant publication has quickened considerably. The resulting dialogue has proved to be a kind of spiral process, circling ever inwards to deeper engagement with topics of central concern to Christian theology. There are certain natural frontier issues, such as the doctrine of creation, the status of natural theology, and the critique of a crassly reductive physicalism, that will always engage the attention of workers in this field. Yet much of what can be said in respect to these issues is as consistent with the distant God of deism as it is with the God of providential theism who truly interacts with the history of creation. The recognition that this is so has had the effect in the last ten years of bringing to the top of the agenda a more demanding question. It asks in what way one might hope to understand divine providential action to be exercised in the kind of world whose processes are described by the orderly accounts that science seems to offer. No fully agreed consensus has emerged from these discussions, but it has been widely recognised that the intrinsic unpredictabilities that twentieth-century physics has uncovered as limits on our knowledge of detailed behaviour, both in quantum theory and in chaos theory, have significantly qualified the kind of merely mechanical account of physical process that previously had seemed to be the deliverance of science. As a result, an honest appeal to science cannot be used to discredit belief in God's providence acting within the divinely ordained open grain of nature. Moreover, if creatures can act as agents in the world (a capacity that human beings directly experience but which itself is not, as yet, well understood in terms of a scientific account of detailed process), it would not seem reasonable to deny the possibility of some analogous capacity in the Creator.

Recently there has been a further twist in this spiralling engagement of science and theology, in that issues of eschatological credibility have become matters of current discussion. Here the main initiative must lie with theology but science can pose, with some sharpness, some of the questions that need to be addressed and it can even, to a minor degree, constrain the form of some of the answers that can be proposed.

One consequence of this increasingly more specific engagement with topics of central theological concern has been to show up more clearly that there are some significant differences of approach to the dialogue between science and theology that are present in the thinking of various participants in the conversation. When the principal matters under consideration were the deep intelligibility of the physical world, the anthropically fruitful history of the universe, the evolutionary exploration of inherent potentiality, and the inadequacy of a reductionist theory of quarks and gluons to fulfil the grandiose claim to be a Theory of Everything, it was comparatively easy to discern a considerable degree of unanimity among those who sought to incorporate these insights into a theology of nature. When the matters under consideration came to include such topics as divine providential engagement with the specificities of history, the significance of human personhood, the status of Jesus Christ, and the hope of a destiny beyond death, then much more diverse assessments began to be made concerning how relevant and constraining are scientific conclusions, and how appropriate is a scientific style of thinking, for the theological task of the discussion of these issues. In the light of these developments, I want to re-examine the range of approaches that have come to be pursued in the contemporary dialogue between science and theology.

In his Gifford Lectures, Ian Barbour offered a taxonomy of the different ways in which he saw that it had proved possible to relate science and religion. His scheme has become something of a classic grid which has been used by many subsequent writers on the subject. Barbour's fourfold classification employs the headings of Conflict, Independence, Dialogue and Integration. Conflict corresponds to the uncompromising choice demanded by those who believe that either science or religion must be the sole occupant of the intellectual driving seat. The contradictory stances of scientism and creationism (the latter word understood in its curious North American literalist sense) meet here in agreeing that a choice has to be made that will then commit one to being wholly intolerant of any other point of view. Independence presents us with a far less drastic option. Science and religion are considered to use different languages, to pose different questions, to consider different dimensions of experience, and generally to operate insulated from one another. This division is quite often presented in terms of a dichotomy that separates the domains of public knowledge (science) and private opinion (religion), or by way of a similar distinction between a concern with facts and a concern with values. Independence is a popular stance for scientists who do not want to dismiss religion altogether, but who equally do not want to worry very much about its truth claims.

The stances of Dialogue and Integration both take a much more positive view of the possibility of fruitful exchange between science and theology. The former believes that the two disciplines have things to say to each other. For example, both offer insights into the nature of cosmic history. Their perspectives are different and there is no direct entailment between them, but nevertheless one can reasonably expect the two sets of insights to exhibit some degree of compatibility with each other. It is in this mode that many would consider that the idea of evolutionary process and the concept of continuous creation can be seen as mutually enlightening. Integration seeks a much closer degree of engagement, such as would be proposed, for instance, in the synthetic thinking of Teilhard de Chardin, or in the metaphysical scheme of process thought.

Most serious contributors to the dialogue between science and theology reject both the head-on collision of Conflict and the mere talking past each other of Independence. Both of these approaches are seen as being either inadequate or misleading. Attention, therefore, has concentrated on the mediating ground of interactive encounter. In his own thinking, Barbour acknowledges that he uses a combination of the two stances of Dialogue and Integration that he has described. Other writers have sought to delineate the frontier exchange in somewhat different ways.

John Haught produced an alliterative scheme using the concepts of Conflict, Contrast (similar to Independence), Contact and Confirmation. The stance of Contact acknowledges that science and theology interact with each other and that, in consequence, new scientific discoveries can exert an influence on theological thinking. An instance would be the impact that biological evolution and Big Bang cosmology have had on the way that theologians talk about the doctrine of creation. The stance of Confirmation makes the bolder claim that 'religion, without in any way interfering with science, paves the way for some of its ideas, and even gives a special kind of blessing ... to the scientific quest for truth'. This possibility might be illustrated by the claim, made by some historians of ideas, that it was the Judaeo-Christian-Islamic concept of a creation whose order had been freely chosen by its rational Creator that provided an important element in the intellectual setting that enabled modern science to come to birth in Europe in the seventeenth century.

In my turn, I have sought to redescribe Barbour's two forms of constructive encounter in terms of the categories of Consonance and Assimilation. The former refers to the way in which 'science does not determine theological thought but it certainly constrains it' by conditions of mutual congruence. In contrast, the category of Assimilation refers to attempts 'to achieve a greater merging of the two disciplines'. I am suspicious of this latter approach, since I believe that it tends to result in science playing too great a controlling role in the proposed convergence, with the result that there is a danger that theological concerns become subordinated to the scientific. I fear this effect much more than Barbour does, and hence my choice of a less complimentary term to describe the synthetic exercise.

More recently, a group of younger scholars came together with the intention of formulating a revisionary approach to these issues. They were influenced by what they saw as the postmodern state of cognitive pluralism, with its suspicion of all attempts at an overarching meta-narrative. For these reasons, the group sought to go beyond the ideas of the scientist-theologians of my generation. Appropriately enough, no single agreed theme emerged and their joint volume expounds a variety of contrasting views. The spread of the options offered is wide, ranging from Willem Drees's reliance on scientific naturalism, which only permits theology a peripheral role as the possible source of answers to limit questions, to the contributions of the two editors, Niels Gregersen and Wenzel van Huyssteen, who present less drastic proposals, based on the concepts of contextual coherence and post-foundational rationality respectively. The former approach uses coherence, evaluated within a general web of beliefs and knowledge and exercised in a pragmatically effective way, as its critical norm, while the latter envisages a flexible, multi-dimensional concept of rationality, located within the context of living and developing traditions. The total offering of the six contributors is of considerable interest, but it is too diverse for short summary. I have to say that personally I remain persuaded of the validity of a carefully nuanced critical realism in both science and theology. It seems to me that a number of the points made by its critics are more in the nature of an exploration of what might be involved in understanding the qualifier 'critical', rather than amounting to a negation of the concept itself. As the present volume illustrates, I am unwilling to relinquish the grand scheme of Trinitarian theology, anchored in the narratives of the canonical tradition.


Excerpted from Science and the Trinity by JOHN POLKINGHORNE Copyright © 2004 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

John Polkinghorne, F.R.S., K.B.E., is past president and now fellow of Queens’ College, Cambridge, as well as canon theologian of Liverpool. A quantum physicist who became an Anglican priest, he is one of only two clergypersons who are Fellows of the Royal Society. Among his many honors is the 2002 Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities.

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Science and the Trinity: The Christian Encounter with Reality 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
Polkinghorne may not be able to open the minds of hardened, dogmatic atheists, but most everyone else will appreciate the stimulating insights put forward in this little book. While I do not agree with everything Polkinghorne says about evolution and the afterlife, on balance the book's good points far outweigh the bad.