When Science and Faith Collide: Exploring Reality by John Polkinghorne

Along with death and taxes, one of the things that will always be with us is the ongoing debate between science and religion. This age-old battle for the hearts and minds of humanity has spawned countless books throughout the centuries. Within the last six or seven years, we’ve seen an explosion of these books. Some written by scientists like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris, have taken an atheistic approach to this argument. One scientist, Human Genome Project founder Francis Collins with his book The Language of God, took a more Christian or at least theistic side of the debate.  Adding to the chorus, (or cacophony, depending how you look at it) of this debate are books written by atheist non-scientists like Christopher Hitchens and Michel Onfray and as well as Christians such as Lee Strobel, Keith Ward and the husband and wife team of Alister and Joanne Collicutt McGrath. Even a few pantheists like Sharman Apt Russell and Michael Dowd, (or perhaps in Dowd’s case quasi-pantheist) jumped into the fray offering their respective opinions.

But one thing that’s been sadly missing from this collection of voices is that of a dual expert. It would be nice to read the words of a scientist who also happens to be a theologian, or at least highly educated in matters of faith. So, during one of my frequent library visits when I discovered John Polkinghorne’s 2005 book Exploring Reality: The Intertwining of Science and Religion I quickly grabbed it. If Polkinghorne, who made a name for himself as an experimental physicist before changing careers to become a theologian and Anglican priest, can’t expertly speak to both sides of this debate, then probably no one can.

After slowly making my way through this short but meaty book, I’m convinced, albeit a bit reluctantly, that Polkinghorne is the person for the job. While there’s a few significant downsides to his book, overall I thought he made a compelling case that the major tenets Christian belief can be seen as being scientifically sound when presented in the context of the scientific evidence, as such evidence has been interpreted by the author.

As I worked may way through the book’s first chapter, I began to fear that Exploring Reality was going to be a huge bust since Polkinghorne begins everything with a rather substantial and detailed discussion of the always mysterious and frequently confusing subject of quantum physics. Fortunately, once I cleared that little hurdle I found the rest of his book a bit easier to follow, in addition to being very interesting and well-reasoned.

Feeling like a collection of stand-alone essays from a single author as opposed to a maybe a unified book, I thought some of the chapters were better than others. While not as confusing as the opening chapter which dealt with quantum mysteries, his chapter on the nature of time and God’s relationship to it might have been one of the weaker ones. His final chapter devoted to bioethics was actually pretty good, but felt a bit tacked-on, since it dealt mostly with peripheral issues as opposed to the key questions concerning the existence of God, (unfortunately, it also felt a bit dated, probably because the book was published back in 2005). Regarding his other chapters, I thought Polkinghorne was at his best when he attempted to tackle those timeless conundrums which have stumped theologians and thinking people for years: how can a loving, all-powerful God allow injustice and suffering; how could a single God exist in trinitarian form; and lastly a question that speaks to the heart of interfaith dialog in an increasingly multicultural world, if there is a God, how come we have so many different religions, with each one claiming to have a monopoly on the truth? Regarding the last question, precisely since Polkinghorne, after weighing all the evidence, could not give a definitive answer made me respect both his honesty and his well-reasoned arguments.

As you might remember from my earlier comments, while Polkinghorne provides a much-needed voice to this debate, I’m a bit hesitant to give him too much praise. Throughout his book he frequently quotes his earlier books, which in itself isn’t necessarily a sign of poor scholarship, it does limit the scope of his available source material. And lastly, by using examples drawn from his knowledge of quantum mechanics order to explain the various mysterious of God, while he doesn’t play as fast and loose as the creators of the documentary What the Bleep Do We Know!? did with their hijacking of quantum theory, he cites examples freely and, um, creatively. This could and probably is an area of concern.

Over the course of 2012 I hope to feature a number of books that address this classic and sometimes contentious debate. Just like I’m doing with my Memoirs of Faith project, eventually I want to include not only the voices of Christians and atheists, but also those representing other religious viewpoints. As always, it looks like I’ve got my work cut out for me.



Filed under Christianity, Science

7 responses to “When Science and Faith Collide: Exploring Reality by John Polkinghorne

  1. Be sure to include the Dalai Lama under Buddhism, as he’s been working for years at being friendly about other viewpoints.

  2. Hmm… sounds like an interesting read but I’m glad to see you pointing out the issues though as you are certainly more knowledgeable in these areas than I!

    • Thanks! I believe you give me more credit than I’m due. Sometimes I only *think *I might be knowledgeable about these things! But I’ll try to do my best!

  3. This is an informative review, not just for the information about the book itself but also for all the references you included to other books on the subject. Be sure to stop by and sign up for the giveaway I’m hosting for the Non-Fiction Non-Memoir challenge: http://bookretreat.blogspot.com/2012/04/non-fiction-non-memoir-reading.html

  4. Pingback: When Science and Faith Collide: The New Atheism by Victor Stenger | Maphead's Book Blog

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