John Polkinghorne: A Bottom-Up Thinker
Sir John Polkinghorne (photo from Wikipedia Commons)
Sir John Polkinghorne (photo from Wikipedia Commons)

By C. Robert Wetzel

 

It must have been sometime in the mid-1980s that I saw the notice that Dr. John Polkinghorne would be giving a lecture at the University of Birmingham.

What I did not know when I set out for the university that day was the special occasion that brought John Polkinghorne to Birmingham. He was to give an address on the topic of science and religion to the Joseph Priestly Society, the national professional organization of chemists.

Polkinghorne was himself a nationally recognized mathematical physicist who had shocked his colleagues at University of Cambridge when he announced his resignation in 1979 in order to prepare for the Anglican ministry. I suppose the predominantly secular-minded members of the Joseph Priestly Society were just curious to know why a highly respected scientist would make such a dramatic shift of vocations. They would have been unlikely to have invited a prominent theologian to address them, but one of their own who had gone astray seemed to be a great curiosity.

 

Raising Questions

At the time I had read just enough of Polkinghorne’s writings to know he was committed to a biblical Christian faith, not simply a synthesis of Christianity and secularism that had the strength of conviction of neither. As he began his address I was somewhat skeptical about just how forthright he would be with an audience that was predominantly unsympathetic to the church and its teachings. I had seen other Christian scholars simply fudge the crucial issues in trying to accommodate themselves to an unbelieving audience.

But this did not happen. Not only did Polkinghorne make a convincing case for the existence of God and the incarnation, he concluded with a strong statement of why he believed in the resurrection of Jesus.

When the president of the Joseph Priestly Society stood up to thank Polkinghorne for his presentation, he was clearly bothered. His response went something like this: “Dr. Polkinghorne, I only regret that our format today does not permit us to have a seminar in which we could explore further some of these matters you have discussed. You have raised questions in my mind that I thought I had put away many years ago.”

Since then the writings and lectures of John Polkinghorne have been a source of considerable encouragement and insight. Thanks to an introduction by Lesslie Newbigin, Polkinghorne accepted an invitation to be the Mission of the Church Lecturer at Emmanuel School of Religion in 1995.1 Since his turn to a religious vocation he has been enormously productive in his writing, both at scholarly and popular levels.2

 

Leaping Into the Light

Given his background as a scientist, Polkinghorne chooses to work from the “bottom-up,” rather than working from the top down. He explained this by saying,

My instinct is to start with a phenomenon, something I am trying to understand and explain, and then to build up from that, rather than starting with some broad general principles and working downward.3

This approach is at odds with traditional philosophical and theological approaches that tend to argue for the existence of God deductively from general principles to the particular conclusion that God exists. It is also at odds with the approach of Christian existentialism that sees faith as a leap beyond reason. Rather his argument goes this way:

Faith is motivated belief. Faith is not a question of shutting our eyes and gritting our teeth and believing five impossible things before breakfast. It is a leap, but a leap into the light and not a leap into the dark.4

 

Although Polkinghorne would not be happy with all of the forms of apologetic arguments employed by Alexander Campbell5 and other Christian writers of the Enlightenment, there is a sense in which he is very much in the Enlightenment tradition. He believes in the unity of knowledge, and hence one can make a case for the claims of Christian faith in the general marketplace of ideas. One does not have to abandon intellectual discourse and resort to mysticism or other forms of religious experience as a way of affirming Christian faith. But saying this, moral, aesthetic, and religious experience are necessary considerations in understanding the world we inhabit.

In 1993, Polkinghorne was invited to give the prestigious Gifford Lectures. These lectures were printed in his book The Faith of a Physicist. There he helps readers readily grasp not only how one can be both a Christian and a scientist, but also how science is enriched by a Christian understanding of the world. Of particular interest is his approach in this book. Using affirmations from the historical creeds of the church, he demonstrates without compromise the compatibility of his work as a scientist with the biblical worldview. He says,

I do not find that a Trinitarian and incarnational theology needs to be abandoned in favour of a toned-down theology of a Cosmic Mind and an inspired teacher, alleged to be more accessible to the modern mind. A scientist expects fundamental theory to be tough, surprising and exciting.6

Chapters 5-7 make as strong an affirmation for the deity of Christ as one is likely to find in any evangelical apologetic.

 

Seeking Understanding

The primary point at which science and Christian faith merge is the common quest for a unified understanding of the world. This understanding is called a Grand Unified Theory, or as physicists call it, “a GUT.” In making his case for an understanding of the world that is both compatible with science and a biblical understanding of the world he says,

My claim would be that theism has a more profound and comprehensive understanding to offer than that afforded by atheism. Atheists are not stupid, but they explain less.7

 

How he makes the case for a Christian understanding of a Grand Unified Theory can be found in the book. Several of his accessible articles can be found on the Web page previously mentioned.

Those who want to argue for a young-earth theory, putting creation somewhere about 6,000 to 10,000 years ago, will not be happy with Polkinghorne. He sees God’s creative power in the big bang, a cosmic event that many believe took place some 15 billion years ago, give or take 5 billion years! After giving a general sketch of the scientific account of the big bang he says,

 

There are some speculations (particularly in the very early cosmology) and some ignorances (particularly in relation to the origin of life), but there seems to me to be every reason to take seriously the broad sweep of what we are told. Theological discourse on the doctrine of creation must be consonant with that account.8

 

If this sounds as though he is giving too much ground to scientific explanation, I suggest we remember the many cases in history when theologians fought unsuccessful battles on the wrong ground. One glaring example was when Copernicus challenged the view that the earth is the center of the universe. The Ptolemaic or geocentric view was the best science of its day, and churchmen built a theology upon it, arguing that the earth had to be the center of the universe because man was the center of God’s creation and hence God placed man in the center of his creation.

Even Martin Luther saw Copernicus as perverting the whole art of astronomy and challenging the truth of Scripture since Joshua said, “Sun stand thou still.” (Actually Luther had even stronger language in talking about Copernicus, but that need not appear on the pages of Christian Standard.) Today very few would see the truth of Scripture challenged by the view that the sun, not the earth, is the center of our universe.

One of the delicate tasks of apologetics is determining where the truth of Scripture is actually challenged by a contemporary theory, be it scientific, philosophical, political, psychological, etc. The difficulty lies in two directions.

One may be entirely unwilling to see if a point of view can be compatible with a biblical understanding of the world simply because the theory is new and comes from a non-Christian source. Or, on the other hand, there can be an enthusiasm for the new that causes the Christian apologist to begin bending the truth of God’s revelation in Christ to accommodate the new.

This is what Polkinghorne is rejecting in the earlier quoted passage when he refers to theologians who have reduced the incarnation to a “toned down” notion of a Cosmic Mind and seeing Jesus as simply “an inspired teacher.”

John Polkinghorne brings to his writing the gifts and experience of a world-class scientist and the deep commitment of a Christian who has found the truth in the person of Jesus Christ. Science will always be moving on. What is seen today as good science will be challenged or refined in the days to come. In another generation God will once again call gifted scientists to help those of us in the church for whom the sciences are a mystery.

But until that day comes we can be thankful for a John Polkinghorne, a bottom-up thinker.

_________

1Tapes of Polkinghorne’s lectures are available through the Media Center, Emmanuel School of Religion, 1 Walker Drive, Johnson City, TN 37601 or http://library.esr.edu/TapePurchase.htm.

 

2One can find extensive biographical and bibliographical information at www.polkinghorne.org.

3John Polkinghorne, Serious Talk: Science and Religion in Dialogue (Philadelphia: Trinity, 1995), 1.

4Ibid.

5See The Evidences of Christianity: A Debate between Robert Owen of New Lanark, Scotland and Alexander Campbell, President of Bethany College, Va.

6John Polkinghorne, The Faith of a Physicist: Reflections of a Bottom-Up Thinker (Minneaplolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1994), 1.

7Ibid., 70.

8Ibid., 73.

 


 

Bob Wetzel is the retired president of Emmanuel School of Religion in Johnson City, Tennessee.

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