Faith, Science and Understanding by John Polkinghorne, SPCK, 2000, 208pp., £11.99, 0 281 05263 8


If theology consists, on a crude definition, of formulations concerning God, natural theology, derived from the natural world, brings one God into view. It takes revealed theology, deriving through the canonical scriptures from inspired prophets, to disclose God as Trinitarian. F J A Hort, a predecessor of Polkinghorne at Cambridge a century ago, saw it as axiomatic that man should study equally ‘to know God above . . . and the world below.’ But is there any longer a consensus about such an equipoise when the existence of anything beyond the material universe, or even mind itself, is ruled out of consideration if it cannot be subject to the beliefs and laws of scientific knowledge?

            A lot depends of course on what you, as subject, bring by way of assumptions. The world ‘always overflows with surplus meaning,’ but according to the principle of the epistemic circle, ‘how we know is controlled by the nature of the object, and the nature of the object is revealed by our knowledge of it.’

            How necessary are the laws of mathematics and geometry? How possible is it for them to be other than they are? If your assumptions are theological the questions come to rest upon God. Without them, ‘rational’ speculation can lead to absurdist postulations about the universe as just one among an infinite number of quasi-actual alternative universes (Hugh Everett III).

            When you consider the world, do you marvel at intelligent design and infer an Anthropic Principle making possible human life and consciousness, or do you recoil at nature’s cruel indifference and mankind’s penchant for injustice? When you experience life in it, do you perceive God, or evil (described by Thomas Aquinas as the absence of good)?

            Polkinghorne’s project is to throw a ‘chain of connection’ between science and theology, arguing for its admissibility, if not actually forging its links. ‘The links will not be the tight links of logical entailment, but alogical links of consonant relationship.’ Part of this involves what he calls Dual Aspect Monism, broadly a model in which the material and the mental are complementary. Relativity theory integrates matter and energy, and Polkinghorne’s hope is for a ‘discovery’ to integrate the triad: matter-energy-information. Consciousness would thereby be explained, human nature accepted as ‘amphibious’ between material and mental, and a place would even be found for the spiritual with ‘non-embodied spiritual beings, such as angels, if such there are.’ Time and eternity would also feature in this version of a Grand Unified Theory.

            The book’s concern is largely with natural theology, with revealed theology sitting somewhat loosely alongside. While a too easy belief in miraculous interventions in the natural order is suspect, the resurrection of Jesus is ‘the seminal event from which God’s new creation has begun to grow . . . as redemptive fulfilment.’ So far so Paul. From the same quarter an argument named Kenotic Creation goes further, surely, than the apostle would wish, to say that God’s self-limitation in allowing human freewill entails self-limitation to the point where ‘even the Creator does not know the future because the future is not there to be known.’

            Sir John Polkinghorne, FRS, formerly holder of a Chair at Cambridge in Mathematical Physics, has now produced a stream of books on science and theology. His Gifford lectures were published in 1994 as Science and Christian Belief/The Faith of a Physicist, SPCK/Princeton. An introductory textbook, Science and Theology, was followed by further tours d’horizon, including the present book which resumes arguments and proffers replies to, for example, Thomas Torrance and Paul Davies. Polkinghorne begins a section entitled ‘Significant Thinkers’ thus: ‘In my book Scientists and Theologians I surveyed the thinking of three scientist-theologians, Ian Barbour, Arthur Peacocke and myself.’ Throughout the book most of the footnotes are self-referential.


Roger Kojecký