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Theology in the Context of Science

John Polkinghorne
SPCK, 120pp, ISBN: 9780281059164

Theology in the Context of ScienceI do not want to embarrass you, but can you state the second law of thermodynamics? Many years ago, the physicist and novelist CP Snow famously described highly educated people being amazed at the illiteracy of scientists. When he then asked them to describe second law, they were unable to do so. For Snow that response was the scientific equivalent of never having read or seen Shakespeare. He worried that as contemporary science develops, 'the majority of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into it as their neolithic ancestors would have had'.

John Polkinghorne is worried too. To do theology without the context of science means that theology does not ground its belief in actual experience. It also means that theology misses the opportunities of fruitful dialogue, and indeed denies the claim that the universe is creation.

Polkinghorne is a prodigious writer and lecturer. Theology in the Context of Science features material incorporated into the Henry Hall lectures at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. I have heard him lecture a number of times and I have read all of his books, but he never ceases to amaze me with the clarity of his explanation and his passion for the dialogue between science and theology. While some of the material here may be familiar to those of us who have been schooled by the thinking of the man who is perhaps the leading voice of this contemporary dialogue in the world, it is the fresh passion which marks out this book as one to buy, read and engage with.

Polkinghorne's passion is not on this occasion to explain the exotic worlds of quantum theory, relativity, cosmology or neuro-science, but rather to ask a fundamental question concerning the modern practice of theology. In a theological landscape that is shaped by feminist theology, liberation theology and black theology, why is science never taken seriously as an equally important context? Whether in practical theology or apologetics, Polkinghorne suggests that contextual theology has to start accepting the importance of science, and in doing so it will find it is a challenging but helpful dialogue partner.

Polkinghorne illustrates this with reference to epistemology, time and space, persons and values, creation, providence and eschatology. Along the way we get vignettes of scientific explanation from quantum uncertainty to SETI, and from self-organising systems to the second law of thermodynamics. We also get an excellent account about how the particularities of the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus give evidence for belief. In this he provides the perfect answer to a fellow scientist who has attempted to prove that the god of the philosophers is a delusion.

Theology which takes contemporary science as its context no longer asks 'What is reasonable?', but asks 'What makes you think this is the case?' The extraordinary insights of science break the tyranny of common sense so beloved of theologians, and give us new models to stimulate our theological imagination.

Polkinghorne is critical that so few mainstream theologians have played a part in the science/religion dialogue. Instead the running has been made by the 'scientist theologians' - who have never been taken seriously enough. He may let his passion run a little too far at times in this criticism, but his question to the academic world and to the church needs to be heard. Why is it that science is not more a part of theological curriculum either at undergraduate level or in the theological seminary? Is it because so few theologians know anything about science or take the time to find out anything about it?

In contrast the enduring popularity of Polkinghorne as writer and lecturer among lay people, church leaders and fellow scientists, shows that a lot of people are thinking about the second law of thermodynamics, even if the professional theologians are not.

David Wilkinson