The word fundamentalist was first used in July 1920, and for much of the next decade American Protestants fought bitter internal battles over who would control their denominational seminaries, mission boards, and local churches. While those liberal Protestants who called themselves “modernists” sought to accommodate traditional Christian beliefs to modern science, politics, and culture, their conservative opponents were eager “to do battle royal for the fundamentals,” in the militaristic language of the Baptist preacher who coined the word.
As in most political fights, the biggest loser was the truth, with nuance and charity obliterated by bombast and malice. Issues involving science were particularly contentious, coming to a head in the 1925 show trial of John Scopes for teaching evolution in a Tennessee high school. William Jennings Bryan, the fundamentalist leader who assisted the prosecution, said that theistic evolution was “the anesthetic that dulls the pain while the faith is removed,” thus shortcutting any serious attempt at productive conversation. As Bryan told the editor of a fundamentalist magazine, evolution was “the cause of modernism and the progressive elimination of the vital truths of the Bible.” The Christian who accepted evolution, in his opinion, would almost inevitably descend a staircase of increasing unbelief, on which “there is no stopping place” short of atheism—a vivid image that Ernest James Pace soon converted into one of his most effective religious cartoons.
Bryan and Pace’s fears were not unwarranted. Most Protestant scientists and clergy who accepted evolution at that time coupled their high view of science with a low view of Christian theology, rejecting the Incarnation, the virgin birth, and the bodily Resurrection of Jesus—though they managed somehow to affirm personal immortality despite their inability to celebrate Easter in any traditional sense. American Protestants faced a grim choice: to affirm traditional Christian beliefs while denying evolution, or to accept evolution while seemingly compromising their faith.
This polarization has shaped much of the subsequent conversation about science and religion. The fundamentalist attitude remains widely influential, while some prominent theistic evolutionists sound like warmed-over versions of the modernists Bryan so detested. (In the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial, Roman Catholic theologian John Haught declined to affirm belief in the virgin birth and the historicity of the Resurrection: If the disciples had brought a video camera into the upper room, it would not have captured an image of the risen Christ.) Nevertheless, the landscape has changed significantly in recent decades, as thoughtful alternatives to both extremes have appeared in growing numbers—leading scientists and theologians who accept evolution, while at the same time affirming the Nicene Creed without crossing their fingers.
The most important author in this category is surely John Polkinghorne, a world-class mathematical physicist who resigned his chair at Cambridge in mid-career to study for the Anglican ministry. No theologian understands the activity of science better, and few scientists can match his grasp of theology. The dozens of books he has written for a quarter century, though often repetitious and sometimes overly technical for readers without a strong background in science and religion, put forth a wide-ranging, engaging, and original vision of science and Christianity as “cousinly” enterprises sharing a concern for “motivated belief.” Above all, Polkinghorne offers an open-minded, critical attitude toward both science and theology that constitutes a powerful, deeply insightful case for the truth of Christian theism. I know of no more attractive alternative to the narrow bibliolatry of the fundamentalists or the reckless modernity of many liberals.
His two most recent books are written in his characteristically clear, often eloquent manner. The title of one, Theology in the Context of Science (Yale University Press, 2009), reflects the fact that Polkinghorne’s work has become increasingly theological over the years. Indeed, theologians and their students are his target audience here, though he hopes that others will also find the book helpful—as I suspect they will.
What does he mean by theology in a scientific context? As he notes in the preface, for fifty years such contextual theologies as feminist theology, liberation theology, or African theology, have been flourishing. Polkinghorne takes the novel step of treating science and religion as an important type of contextual theology in its own right, recognizing that science, no less than other aspects of modern thought and culture, can suggest insights and provide information that are vital for theological reflection. “Theology conducted in the context of science must be prepared to be candid about the evidence for its beliefs,” he says forthrightly, but science does not dominate the conversation: There are clear limits to its authority and competence that both believers and unbelievers need to realize.
The overall message Polkinghorne brings is a crucial one: Science cannot provide its own metaphysical interpretation. As he says with typical precision, “Physics constrains metaphysics, but it no more determines it than the foundations of a house determine the precise form of the building erected on them.” This is especially true in a post-Newtonian world characterized by greater epistemological humility. “The twentieth-century demise of mere mechanism,” he says, provides “a salutary reminder that there is nothing absolute or incorrigible about the context of science.” Some questions lie “outside the scientific domain,” and here “theology has a right to contribute to the subsequent metascientific discourse.” Anyone familiar with the writings of such preachers of scientific atheism as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, or Christopher Hitchins will immediately appreciate the very different world in which Polkinghorne dwells. “The tendency among atheist writers to identify reason exclusively with scientific modes of thought,” he notes pointedly, “is a disastrous diminishment of our human powers of truth-seeking inquiry.”
Theology in turn has something to say to science. “Science offers an illuminating context within which much theological reflection can take place, but in its turn it needs to be considered in the wider and deeper context of intelligibility that a belief in God affords.” As an expert in fundamental physics, Polkinghorne likes to advance a modest form of natural theology—not the older kind of argument that places design in direct competition with biological evolution and stresses “gaps” in natural processes, but a newer style of argument based on the very comprehensibility of nature and nature’s laws. The universe revealed by science “is not only rationally transparent,” but also “rationally beautiful, rewarding scientists with the experience of wonder at the marvelous order which is revealed through the labours of their research.” Why should this be so? The laws of nature “underlie the form and possibility of all occurrence,” but science can treat them only “as given brute facts. These laws, in their economy and rational beauty, have a character that seems to point the enquirer beyond what science itself is capable of telling, making a materialist acceptance of them as unexplained brute facts an intellectually unsatisfying stance to take.” The very possibility of science, in his view, “is not a mere happy accident, but it is a sign that the mind of the Creator lies behind the wonderful order that scientists are privileged to explore.” In short, “the activity of science is recognized to be an aspect of the imago Dei.”
Rationality itself, without which science would be impossible, provides another example of theology in a scientific context. Using quantum mechanics and chaos theory against those who claim that humans are nothing more than “immensely elaborate automata,” preprogrammed biological machines lacking freedom and autonomy, Polkinghorne notes “that the physical world is not a clockwork universe of mere mechanism, but something altogether more subtle than that. It is a metaphysical option to believe that it is also more supple.” The conclusions of physics, he affirms, are “compatible with the exercise of agency, both by human persons and by divine providence.” At the same time, he believes that “human persons are embodied, and the context of science strongly encourages taking a psychosomatic view of human nature in preference to some form of Cartesian dualism of soul and body.” The model he favors, “dual-aspect monism,” might unsettle those Christians inclined toward a spiritual–material dualism, yet it may be more consistent with biblical ideas and merits consideration.
His view of the Resurrection, however, should raise no eyebrows among orthodox Christians. Many contemporary theologians doubt that Jesus was raised bodily from the grave—a startling state of affairs for the typical believer to grasp and impossible to reconcile with the Church’s celebration of Easter. In large part this reflects an exaggerated confidence in science and too easy an acceptance of the Enlightenment skepticism of David Hume. Polkinghorne, whose understanding of science is second to none, is unencumbered by either burden. He understands that the Resurrection is “the pivot on which the claim of a unique and transcendent significance for Jesus must turn,” and he does not turn away from embracing the risen Lord. It would be “a serious apologetic mistake,” he writes with typical British understatement, “if Christian theology thought that operating in the context of science should somehow discourage it from laying proper emphasis on the essential centrality of Christ’s Resurrection, however counterintuitive that belief may seem in the light of mundane expectation.” In an open-minded quest for motivated belief, Polkinghorne examines the evidence for the empty tomb, concluding that something truly miraculous actually happened—a foretaste of what will also happen to us, in the new creation that God will someday fashion from the dying embers of the old creation that has been our abode in this life.
In short, for Polkinghorne the universe is a created order, a beautiful and rational place that is also open to human and divine action—past, present, and future. The bold yet modest way in which he bears witness to orthodox faith has given him a certain notoriety and attracted many serious inquirers and interlocutors. And this ongoing questioning and discussion gave rise to Polkinghorne’s second recent book. Over the past several years, conversation surrounding his ideas has been facilitated by a website (www.polkinghorne.net) run by a friend and former student, Nicholas Beale. Together they have compiled some of the conversation’s highlights in Questions of Truth: Fifty-one Responses to Questions about God, Science, and Belief (Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), along with a pithy little glossary and three extensive appendices on cosmology, neurology, and evolution.
Questions are organized under seven headings and run the gamut from “Who Were Adam and Eve?” or “Who or What is ‘the Devil’?” to “Why is the Universe so Big?” or “Is Evolution Fact or Theory?” Whether responding separately or jointly, the authors are typically quite effective in their answers. The appendices, which by themselves more than justify buying the book, provide the kind of technical information about numbers, neurons, and natural selection that scientifically trained readers will appreciate—yet they can be read profitably by anyone interested in science and Christianity.
It hasn’t been easy to steer a middle course between fundamentalism and modernism, particularly on issues involving science. Polkinghorne has done that very successfully for a generation, and for this he ought to be both appreciated and emulated. He should also be read—perhaps it’s time to get acquainted.
Edward B. Davis is professor of the history of science at Messiah College and president of the American Scientific Affiliation.