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Some brief thoughts on the writings of John Polkinghorne
A Series of posts from An Evangelical Dialogue on Evolution
Author: Steve Martin
Document Version: 1.5 Last Updated: February 6, 2010
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Table of Contents
I. Polkinghorne Quotes: Introduction ....................................................................................................................... 3 II. God the Fellow-Sufferer ...................................................................................................................................... 3 III. The Dangers of a Designer God ......................................................................................................................... 3 IV. Why is the Tea Kettle Boiling? .......................................................................................................................... 4 V. The Christian God: Not Limited to nor Restricted by Edges ............................................................................... 4 VI. Does the Math for Evolutionary Time even Work? ........................................................................................... 5 VII. The Mutually Enriching Relationship between Faith and Science.................................................................... 6 VIII. Rejecting Process Theology ............................................................................................................................. 6 IX. Persistence and Humility: Necessary Qualities for both Science and Theology ................................................ 7 X. Timid Theologians ............................................................................................................................................... 8 XI. The Creator as Author, Producer, Director, and Actor in the Cosmic Drama .................................................... 8 XII. Orthodoxy: Neither Inflexible nor Disconnected from the Past ........................................................................ 9 XIII. A Dangerous and Satisfying Truth ................................................................................................................ 10 XIV. Divine Action, Evil, and Slandering God ...................................................................................................... 10
I. Polkinghorne Quotes: Introduction
Published November 13, 2007 John Polkinghorne is one of my favourite authors. His writing is intellectually challenging, spiritually stimulating, constantly engrossing, and surprisingly humble for someone so obviously brilliant. He is completely unafraid of tackling the most difficult issues or stating his conclusions even if they risk alienting his target constituency. I find that most of his works must be reread two or three times to be fully appreciated, but I consider this a bonus as I learn something new each time; it is like getting 2 or 3 books for the price of one. Along with Arthur Peacocke and Ian Barbour, Polkinghorne is acknowledged as one of the giants in the science-faith dialogue. He also approaches this dialogue from an evangelical perspective. Given the relative dearth of insightful evangelical thought on the interface between science and faith, we should be thankful that one of the few evangelical voices is so incredibly good. Polkinghorne has earned accolades in both of his careers, his first as a physicist and his second as an Anglican priest and theologian. Given his impact on my own thought, I will from timeto-time be posting selected quotes from Polkinghorne on the science / faith dialogue. For some I will add a short comment of my own. For others I’ll simply let the quote speak for itself.
followers of Christ. And it is more than just an intellectual problem since it has led many to abandon the faith, and their trust in God. I certainly do not have great answers. However, when we finally do get a satisfactory answer, I believe that answer will include Polkinghorne’s point that God is a fellow-sufferer. Faith is not so much about belief but trust, trust in the living God who is the foundation of our being. Questions and doubt are an integral part of faith, not its opposite. As human parents, we encourage our children to ask questions. A child that asks no questions is disintrested or worse. So when faced with the problem of evil, in which type of God do you wish to place your trust: A “Designer God” who designed all things in their intricate detail, including things that bring pain, suffering, death, and destruction? A “Philosopher God” who answers all your questions including why there is so much pain, suffering, death, and destruction? Or a suffering God, a crucified, resurrected God who has experienced pain, suffering, and death, and in so doing has destroyed the very power of death? For me, the answer to that question is easy.
III. The Dangers of a Designer God
Published November 20, 2007 Speaking of those who claim to have scientifically detected intelligence behind the evolution of the universe, Polkinghorne states: “Yet it is possible that they are being offered a gift by the Greeks, as much to be feared as to be welcomed. For the God so discerned seems but an austere and impersonal deity; the ground of a cosmic process which rolls on without obvious concern for the fate of individuals. He commands our intellectual respect but not our love; we can wonder at his works but we are not moved to trust him in our personal lives." "The offering of a revived natural theology would have proved to be a Trojan horse for Christianity if it replaced the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ by the Great Mathematician” From “Science and Providence”, page 4 As I mentioned in my last post, I believe that the ID movement is potentially dangerous to Christian theology because of its focus on natural theology.
II. God the Fellow-Sufferer
Published November 14, 2007 “God is not a spectator, but a fellow-sufferer, who has himself absorbed the full force of evil. In the lonely figure hanging in the darkness and dereliction of Calvary the Christian believes that he sees God opening his arms to embrace the bitterness of the strange world he has made. The God revealed in the vulnerability of the incarnation and in the vulnerability of creation are one. He is the crucified God, whose paradoxical power is perfected in weakness, whose self-chosen symbol is the King reigning from the gallows” From Science and Providence, page 68 Theodicy and the "Problem of Evil" are, I believe, the most difficult intellectual problems we face as
Polkinghorne’s Trojan horse metaphor is particularly apt. Those who use the gift of modern science as a sword to defend the faith may find that sword to be lethally double-edged. But Polkinghorne’s warning needs to be heeded by Evolutionary Creationists (ECs) and Theistic Evolutionists (TEs) as well. Those of us that acknowledge no gaps in natural processes are often fond of pointing to the Big Bang, the fine-tuned universe, and the anthropic principle as evidence of God’s providence and design. This may indeed be so. But the initial act of speaking the universe into being is not the totality of God’s creative act; creation is not just about origins. In Denis Alexander’s words, we must be “robust theists” who acknowledge God’s ongoing and continuous creation. ID proponents often accuse ECs of being little more than Deists ie. acknowledging a God who started the process and but who is uninvolved thereafter. This is a potentially valid criticism of the EC position if we leave no room for divine action after the initial parameter calibration for the infant universe. But that is not my position, nor is it the position of most ECs. We worship a God that is intimately involved in his ongoing creation. He is the God of the bible, the God who led the Israelites out of Egypt, the God who raised Jesus from the dead.
The teakettle analogy is perhaps Polkinghorne’s most frequently repeated quote. Actually, since it seems to change with each repetition, it should probably be classified as something other than a quote. I’ve seen the analogy appear in many different forms, in articles and lectures by Polkinghorne himself, and in books, articles, lectures, emails, and blog entries by others (this one here substituting coffee for tea – something Polkinghorne as a good Brit probably considers heretical). I believe that one's view of divine action is the most significant factor in demarcating Christians that accept evolution from those that do not. It is certainly more important than how one thinks of scripture as many anti-evolution Christians (probably most supporters of ID for example) do NOT interpret scripture literally. For those Christians whose model of divine action is restricted to God intervening in nature in a way that is unexplainable by natural causes, evolution will be forever troublesome. Evolutionary theory does not allow for gaps in the natural record, and the scientific evidence for this theory continues to bear fruit. However, for Christians who see God acting in and through nature, who see nature as simply a secondary cause and not as a final cause, who believe that a scientific description of an event or process does not diminish God’s active control of that event or process, evolution can be fully compatible with faith in a God who acts in this world.
IV. Why is the Tea Kettle Boiling?
Published November 28, 2007 Why is the kettle boiling? Answer#1: The kettle is boiling because the burning gas heats the water. True. Answer#2: The kettle is boiling because I want to make a cup of tea and would you like to have a cup with me? True. There is no conflict between those two answers; they are in fact complementary. In an exactly similar way I don't have to choose between science and religion. "The universe sprang into being about fifteen billion years ago through the fiery explosion of the big bang." That is true, but it does not preclude my also saying, "The universe came into being and remains in being because of the Word of a Creator whose mind and purpose are behind all of the scientific truths that we perceive." From Is Science Enough?, September, 1994 Lecture at The University of the South
V. The Christian God: Not Limited to nor Restricted by Edges
Published December 6, 2007 Theology is concerned with ontological origin and not with temporal beginning. The idea of creation has no special stake in a datable start to the universe. If Hawking is right, and quantum effects mean that the cosmos as we know it is like a kind of fuzzy space-time egg, without a singular point at which it all began, that is scientifically very interesting, but theologically insignificant. When he poses the question, “But if the universe is really completely self-contained, having no boundary, or edge, it would have neither beginning nor end: it would simply be. What place, then, for a creator?”, it would be theologically naïve to give any answer other than: “Every place – as sustainer of the selfcontained space-time egg and as the ordainer of its quantum laws”. God is not a God of the edges, with a vested interest in boundaries.
Creation is not something he did fifteen billion years ago, but it is something that he is doing now. From Science and Christian Belief, page 73 Many Christians, I think, put too much stock in the implications of scientific discoveries. Thus for example, since biological evolution seems to threaten traditional ideas of a historical instantaneous Fall, many Christians dismiss biological evolution out of hand. Rarely is it asked: “Does evolution really change our ideas of a historical instantaneous Fall?” (some evolutionary creationists say no), or “Is a reexamination of a historical instantaneous Fall helpful for our theology” (possibly yes), or even “Do I really need to definitively resolve this particular tension right now?” (maybe the best question of all). As Christians I think we can make a similar mistake with scientific discoveries that seem to cohere nicely with orthodox Christian theology. The Big Bang, a theory proposed by a Catholic priest, is the classic example. Christians have stated that it is “proof that God created the universe”. Now, I have absolutely no reason to doubt the Big Bang theory (Simon Singh’s book on the topic is one of my favourite works of popular science). As well, I must confess to some satisfaction in knowing that the theory continues to incite strong opposition from some atheistic materialists, and that it meshes neatly with the Christian concepts of creation ex nihilo and a noneternal universe. However, my Christian faith does not rest on the theory of the Big Bang and I disagree with the statement that the theory “proves that Christianity is true". If the scientific consensus of the ultimate fate of the universe suddenly changed from "a universe accelerating towards The Big Freeze" to "a universe entering a cycle of Big Crunches & Big Bangs (of which our instantiation may not be the first)", I do not see how that is relevant to my faith. God is neither restricted by nor limited to the edges. We should neither search for him there, nor fear that they constrain him.
VI. Does the Math for Evolutionary Time even Work?
Published December 20, 2007 The fact that evolutionary mechanisms can physically account for the complexity of life on earth seems, well frankly, mind boggling if not preposterous. And there doesn’t seem to be any mathematical model that can explain how random mutations and natural selection results in, for starters, us. Here is how Polkinghorne put it: "Three or four billion years may seem like a pretty long time for the coming to be of life and the formation of its evolved complexity, but incredibly intricate developments have to be fitted into that period. Someone like Richard Dawkins can present persuasive pictures of how the sifting and accumulation of small differences can produce large-scale developments, but, instinctively, a physical scientist would like to see an estimate, however rough, of how many small steps take us from a slightly light-sensitive cell to a fully formed insect eye, and of approximately the number of generations required for the necessary mutations to occur. One is only looking for an order of magnitude answer, comparable in crudity to the back-of-the-envelope calculations of early cosmologists, but our biological friends tell us, without any apparent anxiety, that it just can't be done. So much of evolutionary argument seems to be that 'it's happened and so it must have happened this way". From Science and Christian Belief, page 16 So, is Polkinghorne just another mathematician type that doubts evolution? Should he just go take a biology class? Not so fast. Check out how Polkinghorne states the same idea with one important clarification. "One of the serious questions that many physical scientists wish to ask about a purely Darwinian account of the evolution of life is whether there has been adequate time available to accommodate the amazing variety and complexity of change involved. Three to four billion years may seem a long period, but astonishing things have to have happened, not least in the rapid development of the hominid brain in the space of only a few million years. Is the patient accumulation and sifting of small genetic
differences sufficient to accomplish this? Those who ask the question are not querying the idea that natural selection has a role to play, but they simply ask whether it is by itself totally adequate as an explanation. The questioners are not looking for a gap into which to insert the finger of divine intervention, but they may just be seeking a more comprehensive and persuasive scientific account. People like Paul Davies (The Cosmic Blueprint) are very impressed with the remarkable drive to complexity present in cosmic history. Dennett occasionally refers to this timescale problem, but it seems that neither he nor any other evolutionary reductionist is able to offer a convincing answer to it." From Polkinghorne's 1995 review of Dennett's "Darwin's Dangerous Idea" So come on biologists, show us the equations!! You do get marks for the right answer, but unfortunately, to pass this exam you need to write your solution out in full.
inherent conflict between faith and science. The most salient conflict may be whether or not conflict is necessary. When détente is reached and dialogue occurs, that dialogue between faith and science “can only be mutually enriching”. The converse is also true: avoidance of dialogue can hamper both faith and science. As Einstein put it: “Religion without science is blind. Science without religion is lame”. I disagree with the limitations Einstein imposes, particularly the claim that Religion is “blind” without science, but I do agree with the claim that faith and science can benefit each other. My own take on the relationship (both positive and negative) is as follows: 1. Through faith we can experience an intimate relationship with the Creator, but science allows us to appreciate more fully the majesty of the Creator and the grandeur of creation. Through science we can acquire an intimate knowledge of the character of creation, but without knowledge of the Creator it is an incomplete knowledge, a knowledge that is limited and ultimately unsatisfying.
VII. The Mutually Enriching Relationship between Faith and Science
Published January 16, 2008 The remarkable insights that science affords us into the intelligible workings of the world cry out for an explanation more profound than that which it itself can provide. Religion, if it is to take seriously its claim that the world is the creation of God, must be humble enough to learn from science what that world is actually like. The dialogue between them can only be mutually enriching. The scientist will find in theology a unifying principle more fundamental than the grandest unified field theory. The theologian will encounter in science’s account of the pattern and structure of the physical world a reality which calls forth admiration and wonder. Together they can say with the Psalmist: “O Lord, how manifold are thy works! In wisdom thou hast made them all. From Science and Creation, page 117 It may appear that evolutionary creationists are constantly defensive, defending our faith on the one hand, and our science on the other. But that is only because we live in a world that assumes there is an
VIII. Rejecting Process Theology
Published January 31, 2008 Polkinghorne is often accused of accepting and promoting Process Theology (PT). This theology, initially developed by Alfred Whitehead in the early 20th century, proposes that God is neither omnipotent nor directly active in his creation. To most Evangelicals, PT is heretical as its view of God can not be reconciled with the God revealed in scripture. I agree that PT is unacceptable but I strongly disagree that Polkinghorne subscribes to PT. Anyone who believes otherwise has badly misunderstood what he is saying. God’s Omnipotence PT rejects the possibility of an omnipotent God. To fulfill his divine purpose, God’s power is limited to persuasion. The PT divinity is a cajoling, pleading supplicant desperately trying to save his creation from itself. Thus the problem of theodicy is resolved but only by rejecting the God of the resurrection, the God who can, and will, “make all things new”. But this impotent God is not the God that Polkinghorne describes. Here is what he says in Science and Christian Belief, page 81
God remains omnipotent in the sense that he can do whatever he wills, but it is not in accordance with his will and nature to insist on total control. The view that Polkinghorne describes is clearly not the PT God; it is in fact the God revealed in Jesus Christ who: "made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death— even death on a cross! (Phil 2: 7, 8) God’s Action PT insists that either God has no power to intervene in creation, or is morally obligated not to intervene. After all, if you intervene once, why not intervene all the time to prevent evil? But the God of the Bible is certainly a God of action, something that Polkinghorne strongly affirms. Christian theology cannot do without a God who acts in the world by more than simply keeping it in being, for it looks to the One who brought Israel out of Egypt and raised Jesus from the dead. Science and Providence, page 43 Given the insights of modern science, we must indeed rethink and rearticulate our view of divine action; the old view of a constantly intervening divinity is inadequate.At best, it reduces God to a slightly inept divine tinkerer, at worst it implies he is some sort of cosmic tyrant. But it is not necessary to swing so far towards PT. As Polkinghorne states in Science and Christian Belief, page 80 One is trying to steer a path between the unrelaxing grip of a Cosmic Tyrant and the impotence or indifference of a Deistic Spectator.I believe process theology to be impaled on the impotent branch of the horn of the dilemma. The dilemma is real - articulating a model for divine action is indeed difficult. However, I believe Polkinghorne’s ideas are some of the most helpful ones we have. For Evangelicals to accuse him of being a Process Theologian because of God’s self imposed limits on divine action is grossly unfair and unreasonable, just as unfair and unreasonable as accusing him of being a hyper-Fundamentalist because of his insistence that God can act, has acted, does act, and will continue to act in order to fulfill his divine purpose.
IX. Persistence and Humility: Necessary Qualities for both Science and Theology
Published March 23, 2008 Even the greatest of scientists admit that they “stand on the shoulders of giants”. No one’s theories are free from correction or extension. Good theories (like Darwin’s theory of biological evolution) are constantly corrected, refined, and extended. Polkinghorne states it well: Almost all scientists believe the progress of science to be a convergence onto an increasingly verisimilitudinous understanding of the nature of the physical world. We are its mapmakers and sometimes we have radically to revise our views (that patch of apparent Newtonian terra firma turns out to be a quantum swamp). Yet overall, accuracy improves with each major discovery. Scientific progress is not made either by denying the existence of phenomena that we currently cannot understand or by exaggerating the scope of what we have currently achieved. Persistence and openness in investigation, and a degree of realistically humble assessment of present attainment, are indispensable virtues in the pursuit of science. Faith , Science, and Understanding (page 119) It is this combination of inquisitive openness, persistence, and realistic humility that has made modern science so successful. I think there is a lesson here for Evangelicals and our theology. Polkinghorne continues: This edifying conclusion is of wider application than just within science alone. It certainly bears extension to theology and to the interaction between theology and science. If we do not display a certain degree of intellectual daring, no progress will be made. If we do not display a certain degree of intellectual humility, misleading and untenable claims will be made. If we are not content to live with the acknowledgement that there are phenomena that are beyond our contemporary powers of explanation, we shall have a truncated and inadequate grasp of reality. I am not saying that we should replace our theology. Far from it. We too stand on the shoulders of Giants, in our case the Old Testament prophets, the apostles, the church fathers, and the reformers. Jumping off these shoulders would be catastrophic. But we should not
confuse our theology with God’s Truth. Theology is simply our current, limited understanding of God, his creation, and the relationship between them. When required, we should not be afraid to rearticulate this understanding. Nor should we be afraid to admit that some things are beyond our understanding. Scientists ultimately “trust” the rationality of God’s creation (as Einstein notes: “God does not play dice”), not the theories that approximate the truth about creation. As Christians the foundation of our trust must rest on our resurrected Lord, not the theologies we articulate about that Lord. Happy Easter.
and confuse us today. It is not sufficient to understand historic approaches to theology that may have been appropriate for the church fathers and the reformers. For the good of our faith we also need approaches that make sense of our modern and post-modern world. Polkinghorne later continues: Theology without natural theology would be in a ghetto, cut off from knowledge of the physical creation; natural theology by itself would be vulnerable, apt to seem little more than a competing possibility alongside a thoroughgoing naturalism. Once again one sees how essential it is that theological inquiry is conducted as a fully integrated discipline. Over the past half-century Evangelicals have (thankfully) realized that the fundamentalist cultural ghetto serves only to silence the gospel, and we have begun to (slowly) break down those walls. What I’m not so sure we understand is that our theological ghettos are just as dangerous. If we cannot speak to the issues of the day, how can we expect others to be interested in the gospel? If we aren’t answering the questions that are being asked, why are we surprised when people (including our youth) look elsewhere for answers? Evangelical theologians: This is not so much a complaint as a request for help.
X. Timid Theologians
Published March 30, 2008 I have previously commented on the dearth of evangelical theologians willing to tackle the implications of biological evolution. While evangelical scientists, and in particular evangelical biologists, are grappling with the theological implications for their Christian faith, evangelical theologians for the most part have remained silent. Some, no doubt, fear retribution from the constituents and institutions they serve; others may simply fear exploring new ideas. Here is what Polkinghorne has to say on the latter: As a scientist I am often struck by theologians’ persistent fear of getting it wrong. [In science] a willingness to explore ideas which might prove mistaken, or in need of revision, is a necessary price of scientific progress. One would have thought that the intrinsic difficulty in doing theology would encourage a similar intrepidity. At times (the patristic period, the Reformation) that has been so, but not always. I am not of course, denying the existence of many wild flights of contemporary theological fancy, but saying that within the sober core I detect a degree of disinclination to take intellectual risk, particularly where it involves interaction with another discipline. Hence the widespread neglect of natural science by theologians. From Science and Christian Belief, page 44 In some ways, Polkinghorne’s admonishment is too gentle. If theology is “faith seeking understanding”, then it is imperative that theologians deal with current issues, issues that may have been irrelevant to Christians in the past, but issues that puzzle, bewilder,
XI. The Creator as Author, Producer, Director, and Actor in the Cosmic Drama
Published August 31, 2008 Explaining divine action in an evolutionary creation model (or any model for that matter) is notoriously difficult. Many analogies and explanations have been attempted; none are entirely successful. All of them are limited since there is no parallel to the transcendent God and thus no parallel to divine action. If pushed too far, many analogies lead to a view of God that is either deistic, panentheistic, or pantheistic. Some explanations portray God as little more than a powerful demiurge, an almost natural deity that is more similar to Zeus than Yahweh. That being said, I think Polkinghorne’s comparison of divine action to roles in a theatrical production is helpful: [The Christian] Creator is as far as possible from any idea of a demiurge. The latter is a cause among causes, an agent among the many
agencies at work in the world, even if he possesses power and intelligence greatly superior to the other actors on the cosmic stage. The Creator God, on the other hand, is the author and producer of the whole play. From Science and Creation, page 68 This is good as far as it goes (and really Polkinghorne should have assigned the role of director to the Creator as well). It implies (correctly) that the Creator has planned the universe’s entire historical narrative for a purpose, and that every creature (from atoms to Adams) receives its part from him. The Creator provides guidance to the actors, but does not micromanage every action, posture, breath, and facial expression. Within the play, creatures are given genuine freedom to act within the limitations of the parts they are given. However, to complete the analogy, one must also acknowledge that God is more than just the author, producer, and director, but is also an actor. He is the God who revealed himself to the patriarchs, spoke to the ancient Hebrews through the prophets, launched the Church at Pentecost, and leads us today by his Holy Spirit. And then there is Jesus Christ, the character scripted to endure ultimate unfairness, ultimate suffering, ultimate death, ultimate judgment, and damnation. For this central character, God chose to play the part himself.
The reason for this, as Polkinghorne astutely comments, is that the creeds themselves are, “condensed in character” and do not “[prescribe] all the details” of how Christian theological discourse must be conducted. “Orthodoxy is not inflexibility”. [Evangelical theologians: Please take a deep breath and repeat this short, beautiful phrase ten times]. This allows for a “developmental approach” to the dialogue between science and theology. Polkinghorne states that he seeks a: “… basis for Christian belief that is certainly revised in the light of our twentieth-century insights but which is recognizably constrained within the envelope of understanding in continuity with the developing doctrine of the Church throughout the centuries.” From Science and the Trinity, page 28 It is this developmental approach that can lead to fruitful insights in our thinking about the Creator and his creation. But many theologians, it seems, want to abandon the wisdom of the past. This can lead to conclusions that fall well outside the boundaries of orthodoxy. Polkinghorne recognizes this danger and warns that theologians, like scientists, must stand on the shoulders of giants. The essential issue is whether substantial new thinking in theology can satisfactorily be achieved largely in disconnection with past understanding. There is always the danger that the gusting of Zeitgeist might wrongly be mistaken for the Wind of the Holy Spirit. From Science and the Trinity, page 26 This warning should be taken very seriously. New scientific insights present not only new theological opportunities, but also new theological challenges. We must wrestle with the difficulties, and not sweep them under the table. We trace our faith lineage a long way, from the patriarchs, through the prophets, the apostles, the Church fathers, and the reformers. They wrestled with the faith issues of their day, and we can learn from their wrestling as we wrestle with our own. And when we are wrestling, we must pray for guidance from the Holy Spirit, the source of true wisdom.
XII. Orthodoxy: Neither Inflexible nor Disconnected from the Past
Published October 10, 2009 Orthodox theology is one of the hallmarks of Evangelicalism; the basic beliefs of the Christian faith as articulated by the inspired New Testament writers, the Apostles and the Church Fathers, and as documented in the early church creeds, are nonnegotiable. We are followers of Christ that value “right belief”. But that doesn’t mean we are locked into an ancient mindset, one that is no longer tenable in the age of modern science. As Polkinghorne states: The Nicene Creed provides us with the outline of a rationally defensible theology which can be embraced with integrity as much today as when it was first formulated in the fourth century. From Science and the Trinity, page 29
XIII. A Dangerous and Satisfying Truth
Published December 24th, 2009 The “Two Books” is a common metaphor in the science / faith discussion. We study both scripture (God’s Word) and the book of nature (God’s works). Since God is the author of both books, both can lead us to truth. Sometimes the truths we encounter are so counterintuitive that many exclaim “That’s impossible!” (eg. scientific truths like quantum mechanics or common descent; biblical truths like the resurrection). But even though these truths seem to contradict common sense (are virtually nonsense), on close examination, their veracity is demonstrated by the evidence. Although all truth is God’s truth, not all truth is equally significant. As Polkinghorne notes, both of God’s books contain truth, but they differ greatly in the potential to impact our lives: There is one important difference, however, between scientific belief and religious belief. The latter is much more demanding and more dangerous. I believe passionately in quantum theory, but that belief doesn’t threaten to change my life in any significant way. I cannot believe in God, however, without knowing that I must be obedient to his will for me as it becomes known to me. God is not there just to satisfy my intellectual curiosity; he is there to be honoured and respected and loved as my Creator and Saviour. Beware! Let me utter a theological health warning or, rather, promise: “Reading the Bible can change your life” Searching for Truth, page 16 The truth in scripture can change our lives because it introduces us to the Author of creation, the purpose of creation, and the purpose for our lives. The book of nature, no matter how awe inspiring and wondrous, can never do that. We should never confuse the book for the author (a mistake that has been made repeatedly since the dawn of human consciousness). As we prepare to celebrate the time when the Author inserted himself into the book of nature (in an altogether unexpected fashion!), let us give thanks for both his books. And we should also remember that no matter how satisfying it is to gain knowledge from these two books, knowing the Author and being known by him (1 Cor 13:12) is even better.
XIV. Divine Action, Evil, and Slandering God
Published January 31st 2010 Last Sunday morning Dave Toycen, president of World Vision Canada, was interviewed by our pastor. Dave had just returned from Haiti and was providing us with some first hand accounts of the devastation caused by the earthquake that had rocked Haiti a couple of weeks earlier. The stories were heartrending. The first song we sang that morning was Indescribable. Now, this isn’t my favourite worship song and I usually simply stop singing when the second verse starts with “Who has told every lightning bolt where it should go …”. I’m always surprised that more people don’t find this line a little uncomfortable (Anyone here been hit by lightening? Anyone have someone they love killed by lightening?), but given current events, I was sure others must also see the problem. Apparently not. The song continued without even a hint of irony. Ok, how about we change that line to “Who has told every tectonic plate when is should slide …”. Does that help illustrate the problem? Maybe we need to be a little blunter: “Did God kill all those people in Port-au-Prince?” Divine Action and Evil Polkinghorne is acutely aware of the problem of Divine action and evil. As he indicates: The more strongly one is able to speak of God’s particular action in the world, the more firmly one asserts that world to be subject to his purposive will, so much the more forceful becomes the problem of the widespread evil within it. (Science and Providence, page 59) As orthodox Christians (and in opposition to those who hold to process theology), we believe that God acts: he upholds his creation, he is continually creating, and he has acted in very particular ways in history (most notably the incarnation). But must we speak of particular “natural” disasters as “acts of God”? Was it “God’s will” that all those Haitians died? If God is good, why is there “natural” evil? Free-Process Theodicy I doubt that the “Problem of Evil” will ever fully make sense to us, at least this side of paradise. However, I do think that Polkinghorne’s free-process defence is the closest we may get. As he says:
I think the only possible solution lies in a variation of the free-will defence, applied to the whole created world. One might call it ‘the free-process defence’. In his great act of creation I believe that God allows the physical world to be itself, not in Manichaean opposition to him, but in that independence which is Love’s gift of freedom to the one beloved. … The Cosmos is given the opportunity to be itself. (Science and Providence, page 66) Just as God gives humanity the freedom to be itself and to make choices (even when those choices are not the one’s God wishes his children would make), so too God gives the whole of his creation the freedom to be itself. And the evil in this world (both moral and natural), is the price of this freedom. I suspect the same reasoning that applies to the free-will defence (See Plantinga's “God, Freedom, and Evil” ) applies for the most part to the free-process defence.
Actually, that is NOT God’s Will When evil occurs, Christians often say “It must be God’s will”. But I am not sure this is necessarily true. In fact, I am sure that many of the choices that God’s creatures make are not the choices God would make. As Polkinghorne notes: God no more expressly wills the growth of a cancer than he expressly wills the act of a murderer, but he allows both to happen. He is not puppetmaster of either men or matter. (Science and Providence, page 68) So in the face of tragedy, maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to opine “It must be God’s will”. And just as we shouldn’t accuse God of causing the genocide in Rawanda, neither should we accuse him of causing the earthquake in Haiti. And while we are at it, maybe we should make sure our worship songs do not slander God.