2016-06-30
Faith, Science and Understanding
by John Polkinghorne
Yale University Press, 208 pp.

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

Ordained in 1982, Polkinghorne worked for a while as a parish priest, then returned to Cambridge, eventually becoming president of Queens College. He retired from the college in 1996 and was knighted in 1997, as much for his high-profile endorsement of Anglicanism, which is foundering in Britain in numbers and public image, as for his many accomplishments in science and religion. Today Polkinghorne is the sole ordained fellow of the Royal Society--Britain's equivalent of the National Academy of Sciences, and an institution that, in the 19th century, was composed mainly of clergy members.

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

Unfortunately the book is not as impressive as some of Polkinghorne earlier efforts, such as the 1994 "The Faith of a Physicist." The new book tends to wander across well-traveled terrain, not seeking any clear destination and never arriving at one. "Faith, Science and Understanding" is also painfully self-referential. Polkinghorne cites his own writing more often than most readers would rather, and when he double-cites himself--"in my book Scientists as Theologians, I surveyed the thinking of three scientist-theologians, Ian Barbour, Arthur Peacocke and myself"--readers may wince.

Still, the book makes important points. One of the best sections examines the difference between explaining something and understanding it. "Quantum theory now makes successful predictions about the behavior of quarks, which are at least a hundred million times smaller than atoms," Polkinghorne writes. "At the level of explanation, it is perhaps the most successful scientific theory ever. Yet we do not understand it."

His point is that although the extremely abstract predictions of quantum theory seem confirmed by experimentation-minute particles far smaller than electrons reliably appear in atom-smashers, and "spooky" quantum phenomena such as particles traveling from A to C without passing through B reliably happen and are observed - scientists have almost no idea why the subatomic world is like this. Nor do they understand where it all comes from: the search for the hypothesized "Higgs field," a mathematically active void from which matter is thought to arise, is one of 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 science and religion debate. About the time Polkinghorne began training for the priesthood, the intellectual world broadly assumed that as more was discovered nature and the cosmos, everything would be revealed as self-deterministic and the need for a Creator or higher powers could be dismissed. So far it hasn't worked out that way. The more sure cosmologists become that there was a Big Bang, for example, the more awed they grow at its miraculous parameters. The more certain biologists became of the mechanics of natural selection, the more puzzling it grows that none have the slightest clue how life originally began. Ever-better explanations for the physical world have not dampened our spiritual hunger 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 never dodges or softens his priesthood: he writes that he accepts the resurrection and transforming power of Jesus both as historical fact, even if he doesn't understand them: that "my belief in gluons and quarks leaves most aspects of my life untouched. My committed Christian beliefs must have moral consequences for all that I am and do."

Yet Polkinghorne is hardly a traditionalist. Claims that the physical circumstances of this solar system contain so many positive coincidences that they must be the result of design, for example, do not move him; in a gigantic cosmos, Polkinghorne writes, the habitable solar system in which we live may have resulted from pure chance. And his views on the afterlife-one subject of his Gifford Lectures-are dour. Polkinghorne thinks oblivion follows death, but that each good person's thoughts and soul is remembered by God and may be restored in some future reality, perhaps the next universe the follows this one after an unfathomable span of time. That's not exactly Anglican dogma.

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

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