Answering the hard questions

by
07 February 2007

Alister McGrath enjoys a study of science,faith, and truth

Exploring Reality: The intertwining of science and religion
John Polkinghorne

SPCK £13.99 (978-0-281-05723-8)
Church Times Bookshop £12.60

JOHN POLKINGHORNE is well known to readers of the Church Times. For the past 20 years, he has produced some highly readable works on the relationship between Christian faith and the natural sciences, particularly physics. Polkinghorne, formerly Professor of Mathematical Physics at Cambridge, was awarded the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion in 2002.

One of the features of his writing which I have particularly appreciated is his rigorous defence of the importance of taking scientific insights with the greatest seriousness when doing theology, while at the same time being aware that the sciences have their limits. It is a point that needs to be em-phasised again and again, parti-cularly in the light of the hopeless overstatements of the competency of sciences which we find in the writings of Richard Dawkins.

This point was well made some years ago by Sir Peter Medawar, who won the Nobel Prize for Medi-cine for his work on immunology: “The existence of a limit to science is, however, made clear by its inabil-ity to answer childlike elementary questions having to do with first and last things — questions such as: ‘How did everything begin?’; ‘What are we all here for?’; or

‘What is the point of living?’”

  This book brings together many of the themes that we have come to expect from Polkinghorne’s pen. Stressing the importance of the quest for truth, Polkinghorne explores how this is to be

pursued, and the respective tasks of science and religion within this search. I am sure that many readers of the book will share my admiration for its vision, and its relative accessibility.

Polkinghorne is particularly good when critiquing some of the overstatements found in the writings of Daniel Dennett and

E. O. Wilson, who tend to seek Dar-winian explanations for just about every aspect of human culture. So how, wonders Polkinghorne, are we to explain the successes of math-ematics — such as the discovery of the Mandelbrot set — using this approach? “These rational feats”, he comments, “go far beyond anything susceptible to Darwinian explana-tion.”

This book is warmly recom-mended to all who are interested in the relation of science and faith, as we seek to make sense of this world, and our place within it.

The Revd Dr Alister McGrath is Professor of Historical Theology in the University of Oxford.

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