Friday, April 17, 2009

An Interview with John Polkinghorne

Romanesco broccoli showing very fine natural fractals 

Religion News Service has an interview by Daniel Burke with the Rev'd. Dr. John Polkinghorne, physicist/ Anglican priest. Polkinghorne won the Templeton prize in 2002 and has written many books on the subject many of which are in my library and some are well marked and read.

Christian thinkers have long employed insights from sociology, literature, and other fields to augment their ideas of how God works in the world. Yet despite the world-changing insights of science, very few theologians have drawn on physics, biology or geology in the same way.
Renowned Anglican physicist-theologian John Polkinghorne wants to change all that. His new book, “Theology in the Context of Science,” examines what topics like space and time can teach us about God, and how a scientific style of inquiry can benefit theologians.
Here are the Q and As.  
Q: Theology and science are highly specialized, often complex disciplines. Is it feasible for someone to become fully versed in both?
A: I’m not saying that every theologian has to approach theology through the context of science any more than a liberation theologian would say that everyone has to live in base community in South America. I wrote the book to encourage theologians to take the context of science more seriously ... without having to master all of the technical details.
Q: You write that theologians should be happy to operate in the “questioning” context of science, but they are often not. Why is that?
A: I’m puzzled by that. That kind of thinking impoverishes theology. Science and theology are cousins on a quest for truth. The insight of science is to move from evidence to understanding, not to start with general principles that will control the whole discussion. Scientists learn that the world is quite often surprising and doesn’t match our expectations. I am very happy to practice my religious beliefs in that sort of way.
Q: Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori says physicists opened the door for her own faith, because they speak of the mysteries of the universe and, like theologians, often work with intangible evidence. Did something like that happen for you?
 A: That’s a fairly common experience; but no, I don’t have a dramatic story to tell. A word that is commonly used among scientists is wonder, though you won’t often see that word used in their scientific papers. Doing research is laborious, and often the reward for all that is the sense of wonder that people get from time to time. Scientists’ experience of wonder is, in a sense, an act of worship.
Q: A common perception in the U.S. holds that science and religion are at war. Is it the same in England?
A: To some extent. But if you’re caught in the sort of warfare, with one side constantly issuing challenges to the other, it’s not very fruitful. Each side has something to contribute to the conversation.
Q: Why should theologians read church fathers like Augustine, but scientists skip early figures like Newton?
A: Augustine and Aquinas know things about the reality of God that we need to learn. There’s not a presumption that 20th-century music is better than 18th- century music; in fact, I think it’s the other way around. There are insights that we may very well only be able to learn by apprenticing ourselves to them. Science is linear, it answers questions cumulatively. We think about creation in a different way, and I think a more helpful way, after Darwin then before Darwin.
Q: Contextual theologies like liberation theology or feminist theology are often concerned with power. Is it the same for scientific theology?
A: The use of power is less central in the context of science than the ones you mentioned, though certainly it is there. Science through technology offers us power, which can be an ambiguous gift. Theology’s role is to help science make ethically responsible judgments.
Q: There’s a lot of talk these days about so-called “God spots” in the brain. What do you make of such research?
A: I don’t think it’s terribly significant. It simply reflects the fact that we’re embodied beings; that when I think about science I use this part of my brain, when I thinking about God I use a different part. It doesn’t tell me anything about the nature of a scientific or religious experience.

Comment: I was particularly intrigued by the comment that science is linear and religion and music are not.  That scientific discoveries are built on the shoulders of those who come before is, of course true, but there are also the leaps of understanding in the works of great scientists such as Einstein and Darwin that don't seem to be so linear.  I wonder how they might be described.  At first I though it wouldn't likely to be fractal although random fractals result in highly irregular natural objects some of which have great beauty and one could think of these ideas as resulting in highly irregular thoughts of great beauty.  

I need to get this latest book, although I don't think our local bookseller is open again until the beginning of May.  (I was wrong, he opened today and I did order the book) On the other hand I haven't finished the last one of his I bought. Many stores are closed right now. Most of the restaurants in town are closed too.  This is mud season.

2 comments:

Grandmère Mimi said...

Amelia, that science is not always linear popped into my mind, too. Otherwise, I liked the Q & A. We should never be afraid of the questions.

motheramelia said...

Mimi, Questions are always good. They lead us into the most intriguing areas.