International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Exploring Reality: The Intertwining of Science and Religion

by John C. Polkinghorne

Introductory Essay by Michael Welker

Exploring Reality: The Intertwining of Science and Religion is a very rich book by one of the leading voices of the contemporary Theology and Science discourse. Polkinghorne chooses the perspective of what might be termed an “ennobled common sense”, i.e. a common sense inspired and nuanced by scientific and theological insights. This approach is needed to explore the “many-layered reality within which we live” [ix].

In the first chapter, Polkinghorne gives a brief account of what he understands by the term “critical realism”. The second chapter deals with the contemporary understanding of the causal structure of the world. The incompatibility of classical physics and quantum theory, and the tensions between the two main interpretations of the quantum world evoke our sense of the patchy character of knowledge and the final need to work with meta-theoretical or even metaphysical decisions.

The third chapter turns to evolutionary biology and also deals with basic questions of contemporary anthropology. Polkinghorne here argues for a dual-aspect monism in order to offer a balanced view on the mental and the material dimensions of human life. The chapter concludes with the conviction that “the most important context within which hominid development has taken place is the veiled but grace-giving presence of God” [58].

This leads to Chapter 4 on the incarnation and the historical Jesus. It deals with the life, the cross and the resurrection of Jesus Christ in a discussion with contemporary research on the historical Jesus, but above all with a drive towards a better understanding of the veiled presence of God. The early church, already shortly after the resurrection, held the conviction that Christ was the Kyrios. This led to the Trinitarian understanding of the nature of God. Chapter 5 centers on this topic, termed “Divine reality”. In discussion with 20th century theologians, Polkinghorne unfolds basic insights of Trinitarian theology in relation to Christology and in relation to the quest to comprehend the reality of the divine.

Chapter 6, The Nature of Time, seems to move back to the cosmological and scientific considerations of the beginning of the book. Indeed, Polkinghorne opens with reflections on “two different pictures of the nature of time” [118]. He offers challenging reflections on the temporality within God and the temporal structure of the new creation. The short chapters 7 and 8 deal with the work of the Holy Spirit, the ecumenical encounter and cooperation of the world religions, and the problem of theodicy. Polkinghorne is convinced that only on the basis of a theology of the cross “can theology begin truly to engage with the problem of the evil and suffering of this world” [146].

In chapter 9, Polkinghorne turns to concrete ethical issues such as embryonic stem cell research and other new genetic developments. The last chapter, modestly entitled “Imaginative Postscript: Some Naive Speculations”, in fact pushes for what could be termed an “eschatological realism”. It asks: “How are the old creation and the new creation related to each other?” And: “What will Jesus be like when we meet him in the world to come?” [171,174]. Subtle and disturbing questions such as: “Did the resurrected Christ breathe?” aim at an approach to the exploration of the reality of his spiritual body and the interaction of the old and the new creation.