Theology in the Context of Science

By John Polkinghorne. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010. xiv+166 pp. $20.00 (paperback).

As a theologian and scientist Polkinghorne has provided major contributions to the discourse of science and religion. Theology in the Context of Science is another attempt to clarify the nature of the interface between the two realms. Though the title suggests a reversal of subject–object binary prescription, in contrast to mainstream works where science is the object and religion the subject, this book is an argument on how theology (Christian worldview) can contribute to scientific inquiries. Whether this is actually any different to other science and religion books and if it offers any novel contributions remains to be seen. Polkinghorne clarifies his objective in the beginning:

"What is being attempted in this volume stands in a kind of complementary relationship to an earlier book of mine, Science and Trinity, which sought to redress another form of imbalance by allowing theology to set a greater part of the agenda for the interdisciplinary dialogue between science and religion. . . . Yet I must confess that in writing it I have also had in mind a particular audience, made up of theological students either at university or elsewhere . . . some of whom I would like to try entice into taking into account with an enhanced degree of interest what the context of science can offer to theology as a whole (xiii–xiv). "

Therefore, this book attempts to create a shared language in which ideas from science to theology, and theology to science, can be communicated while also understanding the scope of each methodology. The content is weaved precisely to explore the development of contributions and internal criticisms of both, while also imploring practitioners on each side to gain benefit and humility. For example, he states, “Neither science nor religion can entertain the hope of establishing logically coercive proof of the kind that only a fool could deny” (86). In developing his arguments he sweeps over topics like personal values (chapter 3), cosmologies (chapter 4), and basis for beliefs (chapter 5). In starting with the book, Polkinghorne manages to breathe an engaging spirit of humility while explaining and yet balancing conviction and criticism within each methodology. He highlights the importance of multi-layered hermenuetics in scriptural readings, and therefore avoiding any  exclusivity tendencies that devoid religion from its richness (2). Yet he contrasts the difficulty this causes for scientists “who are more often use to the sharp clarity of mathematical argument” (3). He then proceeds to encourage theologians to go beyond their immediate level of comfort and to engage with the wider spheres of knowledge when he writes, “Without sticking our necks out a little, we shall not be able to see very far” (6). He also attempts to remove the fear of criticism of science for valuable discourse it may offer for theology itself (7). However, Polkinghorne doesn’t hold back on resting his beliefs analogous to the inapplicability of classical logic in quantum physics. He argues, “If quantum physics requires its idiosyncratic quantum logic, trinitarian theology may well require its own kind of logic also” (18), which seems to beg the question. In terms of development and progression, Polkinghorne insists on opening theological boundaries in the spirit of the historical development of the Nicene doctrine, which isn’t clearly articulated in the Bible but developed over time (26). However, he also identifies the difference between the cumulative history of science and history when he writes, “A physicist today knows more about the universe than Newton ever did, simply by virtue of living three centuries later than that great genius. Theology is not cumulative in this unproblematic way. There is no presumptive superiority of present-day theologians over those of earlier centuries” (27). I partially disagree with Polkinghorne here. I agree in that theology has a fixed content core whereas the core of science is transitional. However, modern theologians do have a better vantage point with the available cumulative history of theology as well as its contextual development with other disciplines. 

Polkinghorne then highlights several points of introductory remarks to well-known areas where science struggles with answers. He discusses the is–ought distinction on morality (29), different ontological interpretations of quantum physics (deterministic versus indeterminististic) (55), problem of qualia (59), explanation of fine-tuning (72–3), and evolution (74–5). More interestingly, he expresses his own theological views, which he feels contribute to development of holistic worldviews. He argues how science is unable to clarify where the ontological intelligibility of the universe comes from, based on a materialistic outlook, unlike theology, which provides a comprehensive answer through the Mind of God (25). In trying to synthesize God with unfolding time, and in balancing God’s transcendence and immanence, he remarks how classical theology, in which God is completely outside of space and time, needs to be revised to open theology (41–2), where God is constantly evolving with His creation in consonance with evolution. On the nature of God in such a relationship he points out the controversy in his view when he states, “So it is seen as being a current omniscience (knowing all that is possible to know), rather than absolute omniscience (knowing all that it will ever be possible to know)” (43). Moreover, in response to Steven Weinberg’s view of pointlessness of the universe, Polkinghorne places a theological footing in the discussion when he writes, “What a credible eschatology is seeking to establish is that divine creation is truly and everlastingly a cosmos and not, as Weinberg feared, ultimately a chaos whose final end must lie in futility. The message of eschatological hope is that it makes sense” (109). However while synthesizing and criticizing both theology and science, he isn’t afraid to acknowledge that he doesn’t have all the answers. For example, he recognizes a personal and collective blind spot on information theory, which he declares his optimism for in seeking answers on how information will be accounted for alongside energy and matter as a fundamental entity (53). 

In conclusion, this book seems to be a delivery to change attitudes rather than provide any substantially new content. It seeks to invoke scientists to appreciate theological contributions to worldviews in general, while also addressing theologians to engage with the scientific progress. In this regard Polkinghorne achieves his objective with his accessible writing style and succinct precision. However, in trying to achieve this he loses depth, which makes it less compelling of an argument. Nonetheless, this work should be regarded as a primer for opening and promoting dialogue between theologians and scientists rather than a contribution to any significantly new insight. For more original content Polkinghorne’s older works serve better. Finally, his work reminds one of being humble but also daring to engage with the bigger questions. He eloquently captures this message when he comments on Godel’s incompleteness theorem, “Mathematical truth, it seems exceeds the rational certainties available through exhaustive analysis. Realisation that this is the case should induce epistemic humility, but it should not bring about epistemic paralysis” (24).