John Polkinghorne: The Faith of a Physicist

(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994)

An Anglican priest who is also a theoretical particle physicist, Polkinghorne identifies himself as a "bottom-up" thinker, one who seeks "to start with the phenomena that give rise to the theories." In this book, he takes the Nicene Creed as his framework for examining our faith, for he recognizes it as "the distillation of four centuries of Christian experience and intense intellectual debate." In the first two chapters of the book, Polkinghorne takes the opportunity to emphasize the similarities in science and theology (at least at the philosophical level). He addresses the metaphysical nature of both and even makes the argument that modern physics is itself grounded in the metaphysical. I found particularly interesting his discussion on the quest of truth. Both science and theology operate within a community where insights toward this goal are reviewed at length. There is a systematic search for knowledge and understanding. However, in both science and theology very often this "understanding outruns explanation." Polkinghorne cites Polanyi, (a philosopher of science) here: "We know more than we can tell." Thus we are not limited to strictly logical building blocks when developing our rational arguments!

In examining the statements of the Nicene Creed, Polkinghorne points often to Biblical passages, considering the scripture in both its historical context and its timeless appeal. He also cites the works and thoughts of other scientists, philosophers, and theologians in making a case for his belief in the statements found in the Creed. Individuals referenced include (not an entire list): Plato, Aristotle, Pauli, Bohr, Dirac, Einstein, Descartes, Darwin, Leibniz, Bohm, Penrose, Turing, Polanyi, Aquinas, Augustine, Whitehead, Pannenberg, Pailin, Hartshorne, Moltmann, Peacocke, and Barbour. On numerous occasions he takes issue with the arguments of those cited and provides his own alternative viewpoint. For example, Polkinghorne takes issue with the classical theistic view that God has a grasp of all time. He cannot accept Augustine's statement that God "sees everything at once." For Polkinghorne, it is essential that "the future is not up there waiting for us to arrive." If the world is a world of true becoming, then what happens temporally must matter.

I found the first half of this book most interesting, as it is where most of the discussion of science and theology as "intellectual cousins under the skin" occurs. However, the entire book can be considered a good apologetic work, and the reader may find the "bottom-up" approach from Polkinghorne more appealing than that of traditional "top-down" theology.

I personally label this book as a challenging read. On nearly every page I found myself making notes in the margins, underlining phrases, and looking at the footnotes. This book is one that will require two or three readings for a thorough digestion. -- Gary Womack, '97, University of Arizona