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Reason and Reality: The Relationship Between Science and Theology Paperback – September 1, 1991
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Both talk in symbols: Theology, because of the difficulty of its task, is unlikely to achieve more than a collection of viable models, usable with discretion. Mathematics is the natural language of physical science; symbol, because of its poetic openness of meaning, proves to be the natural language of theology.
So fundamentalists who talk of scripture as the final revelation are unaware of new meanings from the Holy Spirit who is to lead us into all truth: the Bible continues to play a normative role in Christian thinking. Is there not a great contrast between the openness of science to new ideas and the enslavement of theology to the entail of Scripture?
Both scientist and theologian bare committed to the quest for truth: The scientist commits himself to belief in the rationality of the world in order to discover ' what form that rationality takes. His success should encourage others to similar boldness. One might put it in theological terms by saying that the image of God is not so defaced in humanity that we are unable to attain a verisimilitudinous grasp of reality.
Both search in community. There is danger in the lone believer: One sees how dangerous this is. A homicidal maniac hears the voice of God telling him to go out and kill prostitutes. That is why religion is not what one does with one's solitariness, why it can only be pursued within a community and following a tradition, with the correctives they apply to private judgement. We need always to take account of what has been experienced and understood by other people and other ages, before we conclude that here we stand and can do no other. 'Test everything; hold fast to what is good' (1 Thessalonians 5.21).
Some scientists are as ignorant of theology as are some Christians: A conservative biblicism has often proved attractive to scientists, particularly in their student days. They are familiar with the notion of the textbook, that reliable source of information in which one can look up the answer to one's queries. Much painful labour can be avoided in that way, and there is a certain attraction in the feeling that God should have provided just such a textbook to help us with our religious search. Those who go on to postgraduate scientific study learn that even in the physical world our explorations do not always lead us to cut-and-dried answers
We do no justice to scripture if we don’t realize its internal inconsistencies: When Genesis reached its canonical form, the redactor did not feel it necessary to conflate or reconcile these stories, as if they had been literal accounts which must be squared with each other. That in itself tells us something of how they are to be used. We read them as powerful symbolic stories (myths) conveying the idea of a total dependence of the creation upon its Creator and (most astonishing of all) the sevenfold reiterated message that all is 'good'. Science, in making untenable a literal reading of Genesis 1 and 2 (itself a tendency originating in late medieval and reformation times), has liberated these chapters to play their proper and powerful role in Christian thought.
Polkinghorne trained as a quantum physicist but has since taken holy orders. The book open with a philosophical discussion about the nature of Rational Inquiry. I would disagree with the author's (and Torrance's) view that there is any meaningful comparison between discovery in science and revelation in theology: the former involves reproducible sensory observation and reason, the latter, imagination. Only when we get down to the level of quarks, gluons and strings and comparable unobservables do we enrol the use of imagination in science, and even there the reasoning is subject to verification by others. This is not so with revelation.
Chapter 2 on Rational Discourse pursues this theme of the veracity of revelation by a discussion of models and theories in science and religion, and Chapter 3 on The Nature of Physical Reality continues the theme, and includes mathematical models. There is an interesting discussion here on determinism and randomness in Nature, following the theme of Jacques Monod's Chance and Necessity. Chapter 4 on Reason and Revelation stretches the science/theology comparison by maintaining that faith is needed too by the scientist - faith that there is a pattern in the universe to be discovered. Surprisingly, the Oxford chemist Peter Atkins is described as a fideist - faith presumably in the scientific method, as Atkins is known to be a passionate atheist and detractor of religion. Martin Gardner's view of religious belief as `unsupported by logic or science' is also criticised. Chapter 5 suggests that The Use of Scripture is as metaphor, as opposed to the literality demanded by fundamentalists. Chapter 6, Cross-Traffic, continues the science and theology comparison while Chapter 7 gives us the current scientific world-view in Quantum Questions. Chapter 8 on The Fall deals with what Polkinghorne describes as the most difficult piece of theology to reconcile with science.
This is a fascinating book, more challenging than its predecessors. It ends with reference Notes, a further reading Bibliography and an Index.
Howard Jones is the author of The Thoughtful Guide to God