John Polkinghorne, well known for his work on the relationship between theology and science, offers—in this latest book—an avenue for developing a dialogue between the two fields that can be helpful to both.
The book is a concise attempt to see what a scientific theology might look like (xiii). Polkinghorne acknowledges that the study of theology has always been done in some particular context. Although many scientists would be hard-pressed to see the significance of such a contextual theology, the author points out that just as there is no universal epistemology, there is no universal form that rationality has to take (xvi). He states that “in both disciplines, inference to the best explanation is a legitimate strategy to pursue… [since] neither science nor religion has access to absolute truth, indubitable beyond the possibility of challenge.” (xvii). Polkinghorne uses what he calls “bottom-up thinking.” Taking evidence and then moving to understanding is essentially how scientific processes work, and Polkinghorne believes that this is the best avenue to understand theology from the context of science.
Polkinghorne begins his book with a chapter entitled “Contextual Theology.” Contextual modes of thought result from a person’s particular experiences with their environment and culture. Thus, it is possible to view theology from a plethora of different modes of thought, such as, feminist theology, African theology, and liberation theology. Polkinghorne then explains his position of what he calls scientific theology. He systematically develops the scientific experience and environment that shapes scientific theology and enables it to gather insights into the truth, that same truth which both disciplines continually pursue, which might otherwise be lost.
Next, the author discusses the changed manner of scientific discourse that has resulted from twentieth-century scientific developments and how this would aid theological thinking conducted in the context of science. Much of the discourse between science and theology in the past was blurred during the Enlightenment when Newtonian physics and thinking viewed the world in clear and orderly fashion. With the inception of new ideas like Einstein’s theory of relativity, science as it was once understood is no longer the concrete, absolute thing that it was once thought to be. Quantum theory, in particular, Polkinghorne elucidates in an attempt to show the intrinsic uncertainties found in this metaphysical field.
Polkinghorne deals with time and space in the next chapter. Both theology and science face perplexities in relation to their understanding of the true nature of time. This section is particularly complex and readers would benefit from a basic understanding of physics and metaphysics. The next few chapters discuss the value of persons, the seeking of consonance between scientific discoveries and insights into particular theological understandings of God, and then ends with a section on eschatology. This section of the book becomes more focused than previous chapters which laid the groundwork for melding scientific thought with theological thought. Polkinghorne’s sixth chapter is entitled “Motivated Belief.” He explains how science and theology trade in motivated belief. He explained earlier in the book that because humanity bases knowledge on the best explanations of its experience, “reason is not to be identified with the possession of indisputable proof, but with the careful search for well-motivated belief, whether we are concerned with science or theology” (36).
The author fittingly finishes his book with a chapter called “Eschatology,” since science and theology are equally concerned with what the future holds and what things lead to the end not only of one’s life, but of the whole of humankind.
Since both science and theology seek the truth, it only seems natural that the two great fields should intersect. Polkinghorne’s intended audience is theological students and practicing theologians. Every theologian should attempt to read this book, though it is a daunting read. A love of science and a little scientific background is helpful, even essential for certain parts of the book. Polkinghorne’s work is definitely a significant contribution to a growing field and will perhaps spur on new lines of theological thought.