Faith, Science and Understanding
by John Polkinghorne
YaleUniversity Press, 208 pp.

John Polkinghorne made quite a splash in the world of science when, 20years ago, he left his position as a professor of physics in theUniversity of Cambridge to train for the Anglican priesthood. Coming ata time when received intellectual wisdom held that science had faith onthe run and was about to disprove it altogether, Polkinghorne'sdeparture in the other direction came as such a shock in many quartersthat he was spoken of as if he had gone daft. Hardly: Polkinghorne wasahead of his time, anticipating the ongoing shift among intellectuals,toward thinking that science and religion questions are far fromsettled.

Ordained in 1982, Polkinghorne worked for a while as a parish priest,then returned to Cambridge, eventually becoming president of QueensCollege. He retired from the college in 1996 and was knighted in 1997,as much for his high-profile endorsement of Anglicanism, which isfoundering in Britain in numbers and public image, as for his manyaccomplishments in science and religion. Today Polkinghorne is the soleordained fellow of the Royal Society--Britain's equivalent of theNational Academy of Sciences, and an institution that, in the 19thcentury, was composed mainly of clergy members.

Polkinghorne's several books on the boundary between science andreligion have been popular in Europe, although are not as well-known asthey deserve in the United States, and his 1994 Gifford Lectures at theUniversity of Edinburgh are viewed as classics in that important series.To this body of work Polkinghorne now adds "Faith, Science andUnderstanding."

Unfortunately the book is not as impressive as some of Polkinghorneearlier efforts, such as the 1994 "The Faith of a Physicist." The newbook tends to wander across well-traveled terrain, not seeking any cleardestination and never arriving at one. "Faith, Science andUnderstanding" is also painfully self-referential. Polkinghorne citeshis own writing more often than most readers would rather, and when hedouble-cites himself--"in my book Scientists as Theologians, I surveyedthe thinking of three scientist-theologians, Ian Barbour, ArthurPeacocke and myself"--readers may wince.

Still, the book makes important points. One of the best sectionsexamines the difference between explaining something and understandingit. "Quantum theory now makes successful predictions about the behaviorof quarks, which are at least a hundred million times smaller thanatoms," Polkinghorne writes. "At the level of explanation, it is perhapsthe most successful scientific theory ever. Yet we do notunderstand it."

His point is that although the extremely abstract predictions of quantumtheory seem confirmed by experimentation-minute particles far smallerthan electrons reliably appear in atom-smashers, and "spooky" quantumphenomena such as particles traveling from A to C without passingthrough B reliably happen and are observed - scientists have almost noidea why the subatomic world is like this. Nor do they understand whereit all comes from: the search for the hypothesized "Higgs field," amathematically active void from which matter is thought to arise, is oneof the hottest areas of physics.

Researchers' ability to observe, document and explain natural events,but not yet to understand them, has obvious implications for the scienceand religion debate. About the time Polkinghorne began training for thepriesthood, the intellectual world broadly assumed that as more wasdiscovered nature and the cosmos, everything would be revealed asself-deterministic and the need for a Creator or higher powers could bedismissed. So far it hasn't worked out that way. The more surecosmologists become that there was a Big Bang, for example, the moreawed they grow at its miraculous parameters. The more certain biologistsbecame of the mechanics of natural selection, the more puzzling it growsthat none have the slightest clue how life originally began. Ever-betterexplanations for the physical world have not dampened our spiritualhunger to know why this world exists and whether someone made it;Polkinghorne write eloquently on such points.

Though his principal concern is the science world, Polkinghorne neverdodges or softens his priesthood: he writes that he accepts theresurrection and transforming power of Jesus both as historical fact,even if he doesn't understand them: that "my belief in gluons and quarksleaves most aspects of my life untouched. My committed Christian beliefsmust have moral consequences for all that I am and do."

Yet Polkinghorne is hardly a traditionalist. Claims that the physicalcircumstances of this solar system contain so many positive coincidencesthat they must be the result of design, for example, do not move him; ina gigantic cosmos, Polkinghorne writes, the habitable solar system inwhich we live may have resulted from pure chance.

And his views on theafterlife-one subject of his Gifford Lectures-are dour. Polkinghornethinks oblivion follows death, but that each good person's thoughts andsoul is remembered by God and may be restored in some future reality,perhaps the next universe the follows this one after an unfathomablespan of time. That's not exactly Anglican dogma.

But John Polkinghorne isn't exactly a typical Anglican priest. For thosenot familiar with his thought, "Faith, Science and Understanding" offersa pleasant introduction.