It’s a shame that I hadn’t heard of John Polkinghorne until I listened to a podcast in which Bishop Robert Barron recommended this book. Polkinghorne is a scientist and an Anglican theologian, which puts him in a unique position to discuss how religion and science interact with one another.
Polkinghorne’s main argument is that science and religion are complementary to one another because each are seeking to understand what is real. Neither has a monopoly on knowledge, for neither seeks to understand everything. Science seeks to understand natural phenomenon, and theology seeks to understand the nature of God. The best scientists and theologians are those who search out their respective subjects with humility, and acknowledge the limits of what they can understand.
While Polkinghorne discusses a variety of issues relating to the interaction between science and religion, he is at his best when taking on the supposed enmity between the two. He quickly dispels with the notion that science deals with facts and religion with personal beliefs. As for science, Polkinghorne asserts that “there are no scientifically interesting facts that are not already interpreted facts.” Experimental “fact” and theoretical “opinion” interact in a “subtle circularity.” As for religion, he points out that religious belief can only be helpful when it is true. Polkinghorne is very critical of those who use theological arguments to explain gaps in scientific knowledge; that gap can very well be closed by a rational scientific theory, leaving the theologian’s words flying in the wind. Nevertheless, given his strong belief in the unity of knowledge, he sees no reason why scientific truth can not live side by side with the poetic discourse of theology.
An example of Polkinghorne’s clearing the air between science and religion is when he takes on the myth that religious people opposed Darwin’s ideas on evolution, characterizing it as “simply historically false.” He points out how Darwin’s ideas were increasingly accepted in Christian circles as time passed. For example,
Darwin’s clergyman friend, the novelist Charles Kingsley, coined a phrase that succintly sums up the illuminating theological way in which to think about the scientific fact of evolution. Kingsley said that no doubt God could have brought into being a ready-made world, but Darwin had shown us that the Creator had done something cleverer than that, in bringing into being a world so endowed with fertility that creatures could be allowed to explore and bring to birth its possibilities, in a process in which they ‘made themselves.” (pg. 30)
Meanwhile, many scientists contemporary to Darwin never accepted his ideas, primarily because they could not see how small differences between successive generations would occur. That problem, however, was solved a few years after On the Origin of Species was published by Gregor Mendel, who was, by the way, an Austrian monk.
Don’t be misled by the small size of this book. It may only be 160 pages, but Polkinghorne’s prose is clear, concise, and precise. Whatever perspective one may have on how science relates to religion, I strongly recommend reading this engaging and provacative book.