July 20, 2014
In our last six posts (Books #2, Books #3, Books #4, Books #5, Books #6, and Books #7), we have looked at books by Victor Stenger and A.C. Grayling, two writers closely associated with the new Atheist movement.
Stenger and Grayling and the ‘four horsemen of new Atheism‘, swimming against the consensus of modern historians of science, hold science and religion to be in irreconcilably in conflict. Thirty years ago, this would have been met with little or no dissent – and little interest – in the modern academic and intellectual community. That it creates such a stir now is due in large part to the efforts of John Polkinghorne, a Cambridge mathematical physicist and Anglican cleric whose indefatigable efforts over the last 25 years have made discussions of science and religion a central topic in the modern world.
From a Baha’i perspective, i.e., one that endorses the view that science and religion are both essential elements of any practical and long-term solution of the problems of the world, Polkinghorne’s perspective is both closely in harmony and persuasive in detail. Where it differs, however, is with respect to religions that Baha’is view as equal in authority to Christianity – Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, and Islam. With respect to these, Polkinghorne is admirably open and ecumenical, but holds to the uniqueness of Christ.
In this blog, we review Polkinghorne’s Science and Religion in Quest of Truth, an excellent short introduction to his thought.
John Polkinghorne is a Cambridge mathematical physicist who made a career change to the Anglican church – becoming a priest and a theologian – after 25 years of a very distinguished research career. After spending five years as a curate and vicar, he returned to Cambridge as Trinity Hall‘s dean of chapel and stayed as president of Queens’ College. He studied under Abdus Salam and Paul Dirac, he worked with Murray Gell-Mann at Caltech, he taught numerous students (including Brian Josephson and Martin Rees) and helped discover the quark.
Polkinghorne – who has written 26 books on the relationship between science and religion and five on physics – was instrumental in the resurgence of interest in science and religion that has taken place over the last two and a half decades. Uniquely, due to his experience as leading mathematical physicist, a leading educator, and as a priest serving as a curate, a vicar, and a theologian in the Church of England, he brings a unmatched breadth of experience and an excellent ability to communicate to bear on science and religion issues.
Summaries of Polkinghorne’s perspectives can be found at Reverend Dr John Polkinghorne – Star Course, at Polkinghorne on Wikipedia, at Discover Magazine (The Priest-Physicist Who Would Marry Science to Religion), on Biologos, and other places as well.
Briefly, Polkinghorne considers “the question of the existence of God [as] the single most important question we face about the nature of reality.” Belief in God, he proposes “makes more sense of the world, and of human experience, than does atheism.” He consider the intelligibility of the universe, the idea that the universe seems to “fine-tuned” for our existence, and the importance of ethics and aesthetics as support for this view.
Like Stenger and Grayling – whose views we have outlined earlier in this series of blogs – he views the problem of evil as the most serious challenge to belief in the existence of God. Like Stenger and Grayling, he accepts evolution. Unlike them, he looks for evidence of God’s action in the everyday reality of things, speculating, for example, that “the mysteries of quantum objects leave room for God in an explanation of the physical world.”
But, this short summary doesn’t capture his appeal as a thinker, which is very broad and brings a well-thought through perspective – extraordinarily well-informed scientifically – to a wide variety of question that engage religious and irreligious people alike. In Science and Religion in Quest of Truth, he displays that broad appeal.
Science and Religion in Quest of Truth
He starts by addressing the view that science deals with facts and “religion simply trades in opinions,” saying that there are two bad mistakes behind this view:
The first is a mistake about science. There are no scientifically interesting facts that are not already interpreted facts. … The second mistake is about religion. The question of truth is as central to its concerns as it is in science. Religious belief can guide one in life or strengthen one at the approach of death, but unless it is actually true it can do neither of these things …
Science is successful in its quest for understanding in large part because of
… the modesty of its ambition. Its sets out to ask only the question of what are the processes by which things happen, bracketing out of its consideration other questions, such as whether there is meaning, value or purpose present in what is happening. Science is principally concerned to explore only one dimension of the human encounter with reality …
And because science progresses – and scientists are ever learning more – what we can say is that “science’s exploration of reality must be seen as resulting in the creation of ‘maps’ of the physical world which are indeed reliable, but only a particular scale.” These maps don’t cover everything. For example, consider the differences between Newtonian physics and quantum physics: “The immense success of Newtonian physics had eventually to be qualified by the recognition that understanding phenomena on the subatomic scale required the quite different insights of quantum theory.”
Centrally, “science requires commitment to the basic act of faith that there is a deep rational order in the world awaiting discovery.” And it is constantly describing unseen things like quarks, meaning that it is not a stranger to “belief in unseen realities.” To Polkinghorne, this means that:
… theology can defend its belief in the unseen reality of God by a similar appeal to the intelligibility that this offers of the general nature of the world and of great swathes of well-testified spiritual experience.
But, we have to understand the differences between science and religion as well:
Despite the role of personal skills and judgement in the practice of science, the investigator is able to adopt a detached attitude to the actual objects of his or her inquiry. Theology, like any form of personal encounter with reality, must take the risk of a more vulnerable kind of engagement. God is not to be met with simply in a spirit of intellectual curiosity, but with openness to the experience of awe and a demand for obedience. Religious is much more ‘dangerous’ than scientific knowledge …
And because of those differences – because “science has bracketed out too much (meaning, purpose, beauty) from its consideration” – science cannot be a universal source of understanding. Religion is needed as well:
If we are truly to understand the rich, many-leveled world in which we live, we shall need the insights of both science and religion.
I strongly recommend reading the rest of this engaging book to see Polkinghorne’s rich, many-leveled view of our world.
Differences with the Baha’i View
Because he sometimes writes and speaks as an Anglican cleric, Polkinghorne’s explanations can have a certain edge. Some of the doctrines he defends owe more to church history and a Christian sense of exclusiveness than to an inclusive sense of what religion is. Dawkins in his way points this out, saying he is baffled “not so much by [Polkinghorne's] belief in a cosmic lawgiver of some kind, as by [his] belief in the details of Christian religion: resurrection, forgiveness of sins and all.” (Dawkins, The God Delusion, p. 99.)
In Science and Religion in Quest of Truth, Polkinghorne is clear that he considers Christ’s claim as unique and proven by “the central Christian miracle of the resurrection of Jesus from death to a life of unending glory”. He writes:
If Jesus was simply another prophetic figure, or even no more than a messianic pretender, then no doubt after his execution he stayed dead. Yet if Jesus was more than that, the Son of God in some unique sense, then it is a coherent possibility that he was raised from the dead as a sign of that unique status. Conversely, if Jesus was resurrected, that surely indicates that there was something uniquely significant about him.
The Baha’i point of view, in contrast, is that the significance of the resurrection of Christ is not that Christ’s physical body was dead and then reborn but that Christ’s Cause – his true body – was as dead and then reborn. Here is how’Abdu’l-Baha says it in Some Answered Questions, on page 103:
Therefore, we say that the meaning of Christ’s resurrection is as follows: the disciples were troubled and agitated after the martyrdom of Christ. The Reality of Christ, which signifies His teachings, His bounties, His perfections and His spiritual power, was hidden and concealed for two or three days after His martyrdom … The Cause of Christ was like a lifeless body; and when after three days the disciples became assured and steadfast, and began to serve the Cause of Christ, and resolved to spread the divine teachings, putting His counsels into practice, and arising to serve Him, the Reality of Christ became resplendent and His bounty appeared …
Such is the meaning of the resurrection of Christ, and this was a true resurrection. But as the clergy have neither understood the meaning of the Gospels nor comprehended the symbols, therefore, it has been said that religion is in contradiction to science, and science in opposition to religion, as, for example, this subject of the ascension of Christ with an elemental body to the visible heaven is contrary to the science of mathematics. But when the truth of this subject becomes clear, and the symbol is explained, science in no way contradicts it; but, on the contrary, science and the intelligence affirm it.
The Baha’i perspective can be viewed as a correction to Polkinghorne’s views. Yes, analogies and symbols are at play in talking about something as significant as the Cause of Christ. And how can there be anything more miraculous than the extraordinary rise of Christ’s Cause? The idea of Christ’s physical resurrection misconstrues the point, tying it much too closely to folk agricultural rites and putting it at odds with science.
Are the world’s religious perspective’s in disagreement?
Another area where Polkinghorne’ engagement with Anglican doctrine flavors his views is his quite traditional perspective on other religions. He believes, as a dedicated Christian, that there is an incompatibility of the religious perspectives of the world’s various and diverse religions:
What is clear is that all the world faith traditions are all testifying to a realm of human experience that can be characterised as encounter with sacred Reality. The problem is that the traditions seem to have such different and incompatible things to report about the nature of this encounter. The disagreements do not relate only to core beliefs, such as the Christian conviction of the unique status of Jesus Christ or the Islamic conviction of the supreme authority of the Qur’an. They also relate to general metaphysical understandings. What is the nature of the human person?
The three Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, all say that the individual person is of unique and abiding significance. Hindus believe that the person is recycled through reincarnation, while Buddhists believe that the personal self is ultimately an illusion from which to seek release. These are not three sets of people saying the same thing, expressed in culturally different ways. They are three sets of people in fundamental disagreement, saying three quite different things.
This of course is a widespread perspective, and he is not among a few in holding to it. Nor does he hold to it in an opinionated and unkind way but as a consequence of his views as a Christian. But the Baha’i view is certainly the more expansive and the more logical, yet also explain the source of the differences between these revealed religions:
Bahá’u’lláh promulgated the fundamental oneness of religion. He taught that reality is one and not multiple, that it underlies all divine precepts and that the foundations of the religions are, therefore, the same. Certain forms and imitations have gradually arisen. As these vary, they cause differences among religionists. If we set aside these imitations and seek the fundamental reality underlying our beliefs, we reach a basis of agreement because it is one and not multiple.
Disagreement is not fundamental to religion itself but to the “imitations” and interpretations that have grown up around it.
Polkinghorne’s Science and Religion in Quest of Truth is an excellent introduction to illuminating and careful thinking about science and religion by one of the father’s of our modern perspective. If you haven’t yet read Polkinghorne yet or need a good overview of his thinking, reading this book is an excellent way to exploring his thinking.
In the next blog, we consider Richard Olson‘s Science and Scientism in Nineteenth-Century Europe (University of Illinois Press, 2008.)
Olson – a leading historian of science – brings a careful eye and accomplished understanding of the history of science, of religion, and of ideas to the dramatic changes in the relationship between science and religion in the 19th century, highlighting the important developments in Germany and France – often left unexplored in the English-speaking world – as well as in England. For Baha’is, it brings to life the context of thought in Paris, London, and the America’s during `Abdu’l-Baha’s visit one hundred years ago, helping to explain the perspectives of those listening to his speeches on science and religion. For everyone, it highlight the rise of materialism, the view that material things are all there is, and positivism, the perspective that science is the latest and highest stage of learning and eclipses all others
This is the 8th in a series of blogs on the modern science and religion literature. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked in Japan for 10 years before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.