The 2007 edition of a book originally published in 1986, One World: The Interaction of Science and Theology is the first book in a trilogy of works by John Polkinghorne that engages reality through the lenses of the dialogue between theology and science. As such, it lays the groundwork for the more specific exploration to follow, Science and Creation (4th edition, 2006) and Science and Providence (2nd edition, 2005). Because of this, One World is a very satisfying treatment of the fundamental issues affecting a fruitful interaction between two disciplines often presumed at odds.
Beginning with an overview of the post-enlightenment worldview, Polkinghorne traces the rising conflict between science and religion. He surveys the thinking of Hobbes and Descartes into the period of the Enlightenment during which God devolved from “the divine mechanic” (5) to an unnecessary hypothesis in the cosmic order. This apparent demarcation between the realm of theology and the realm of science leads to Polkinghorne’s consideration of the nature of science and the nature of theology. While science has often been perceived as the domain of experimental proofs leading to verifiable laws and prediction, discoveries of the 20th century have demonstrated that the results of scientific research are sometimes not so foreseeable. Quantum theory has illuminated the role of the observer in subatomic research and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle has reduced the predictability of quantum outcomes to a range of possibilities. Moreover, Polkinghorne points out that despite the goal of science to discern “universal laws from the study of specific instances” (22), many scientists have moderated such scientific claims. Some abandon hope of verification; others strive for harmonization of perceptions, and still others are content if the outcomes demonstrate an instrumental capacity. Accordingly, Polkinghorne claims that “the true goal of scientific endeavor is understanding the structure of the physical world, an understanding which is never complete but ever capable of further improvement” (27).
With regard to theological claims, Polkinghorne acknowledges that “theology, like science, is corrigible” (34). Although based on scripture, tradition, reason, and human experience, theological accounts are subject to a variety of interpretations and assessments not unlike those of science. Many see theology’s focus on human experience as simply a “disguised anthropology” (47), revealing like Feuerbach, Marx, and Freud that God and talk of God is essentially illusory. Others, like scientific instrumentalists, assess the instrumental validity of theological claims on the basis of their inspirational or motivational capacity. Moreover, even proofs for the existence of God have come under the same suspicion as unconditional proofs in science. In the end, theology and science share this in common: “each can be…defended as being investigations of what is, the search for increasing verisimilitude in our understanding of reality” (51).
In his chapter on the nature of the physical world, Polkinghorne sets forth ten often contrasting qualities of the scientific view of the world. He characterizes it as elusive and intelligible, problematic and surprising, shaped by chance and necessity, big and tightly knit, complete and incomplete, and even subject to futility. To exemplify these qualities, he draws on the work of such notables as Werner Heisenberg, Neils Bohr, Manfred Eigen, Charles Darwin, Jacques Monod, Max Planck, and Stephen Hawking to give the reader a highly useful overview of the main issues and principal thinkers influencing his descriptions. This review then leads to Polkinghorne’s examination of the points of interaction between the disciplines of science and theology. Perhaps predictably, best developed in this chapter are the conflicts between the disciplines. Such conflict arises over issues of the origins of the universe and of life, divine interaction with the world, the possibility of miracles, the question of future life and resurrection of the body. Polkinghorne treats each area with the integrity of both a scientist and a Christian and draws out particularly lucid possibilities for preserving the authenticity of both scientific and theological discourse.
One World quite successfully achieves the aims Polkinghorne sets for it as the inaugural text in the trilogy mentioned at the outset. Particularly suited for the newcomer to the dialogue between theology and science, it skillfully lays the groundwork for the conversation in ways that are both understandable to the initiate and proper to the complexity of the enterprise. Because of its foundational nature, One World does not develop its reflections on some of the thornier issues that the latter two books in the series engage. This is most obvious in its dealing with the question of God-world interaction, providence and miracles, and the question of suffering in the cosmos. Nevertheless, as an introduction, it is a fine accomplishment and recommended for use with the novice in the dialogue, as well as with undergraduate students in religious studies or theology.