Unselfishness in the science bit

12 May 2009

Adam Ford considers a theologian who is not on the defensive

Theology in the Context of Science
John Polkinghorne
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Church Times Bookshop £9

TOO OFTEN, the relationship between science and religion is characterised as a conflict, in which a number of issues, disputes, and problems have to be resolved: rather like a marital breakdown with, per­haps, little hope of ultimate resolu­tion. On this view, religion has to face up to the hard reality of the world as newly described by science.

John Polkinghorne, priest-scientist and critical realist, takes a different and much more positive view. Theology in the Context of Science (based on a series of academic lec­tures he gave to theological students at the University of Victoria, British Columbia) explores a different ap­proach to the whole subject. He asks what science has to offer the Chris­tian faith, what it can do for it — instead of the latter’s simply defend­ing its own status and territory. If theologians do their thinking in the context of science, it will give a dif­ferent shape to their theology and, in his experience, lead to some surpris­ingly rich insights.

There is that deep intelligibility of the universe, a rich and fruitful com­plexity arising out of extreme simpli­city, a satisfying beauty, which science uncovers and exploits in its research, but cannot, in its own terms, explain. “One could say that science has discovered that the fabric of the cosmos is shot through with signs of mind, but it does not know why this should be so.”

From this promising beginning, theology can then look further for evidence of divine purpose behind the world’s unfolding history; for hints towards an understanding of the place of pain, death, and suffer­ing in the process; for tantalising speculation on the notion of the soul as an “information-bearing pattern”. (Polkinghorne has a high regard for the “concept of active information” in the unfolding of creation.)


Science and theology both have to be open to reality in their search for truth. For theology, this will involve engaging rationally with the widely attested human experience of “encounter with the sacred dimen­sion of reality”. This revealed theology will read the Bible as a “laboratory notebook” rather than as a textbook. But it is a notebook that is central and fundamental to the author’s personal faith.

Questions of Truth explores Polkinghorne’s thinking in a dif­ferent manner. His colleague and one-time student Nicholas Beale has set up an interactive website to which one can email questions relating to science and religion. The book draws on this expanding archive of issues: the death and resurrection of Jesus, embryo research, angels, Adam and Eve, the features that separate humanity from other animals, Providence.

The field is rich, the answers are short and digestible, and the authors are at ease with themselves when having to admit that they are not sure of an answer.

The final appendix raises an intriguing thought: the realisation that a principle of co-operation (equals love at the human level?) has a fundamental part to play in the process of evolution. What a wonder­ful counterbalance to the tendency to see it all as a matter of selfish survival!

The Revd Adam Ford is a former Chaplain of St Paul’s School for Girls, in London.

To order this book through Church Times bookshop

The Revd Adam Ford is a former Chaplain of St Paul’s School for Girls, in London.

To order this book through Church Times bookshop

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