International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

One World: The Interaction of Science and Theology

by John C. Polkinghorne

Introductory Essay by Keith Ward

This short, clear, and readable book by the one-time Professor of Mathematical Physics at Cambridge University who was also for some years Director of Studies in Theology at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, carries the authority of a leading scholar in both fields. The main theme is that science and theology both require informed personal judgments presented for the approval of a community, aiming for a corrigible but “tightening grasp of a never completely comprehended reality”.

The first section is on the nature of science, defending critical realism, and stressing that scientific explanation requires imagination, interpretation and personal judgment or “tacit skill”. Theology, he holds, is a similar rational process, embodying “reflection upon religious experience”, relying on the insights of spiritual masters, appealing to historical events and their developing interpretation, and seeking a coherent, adequate, economical and relevant patterning of events. Polkinghorne then outlines “the scientific view of the world”, under ten headings – the universe is elusive (especially in quantum theory), mathematically intelligible, problematic (basic interpretations of quantum physics vary), a complex interplay of chance and necessity, finely tuned for life, futile (ultimately doomed), complete within its limits, yet incomplete in omitting such things as beauty, value, and morality. This is a beautifully lucid, insightful and yet uncontentious account of how modern physicists see the cosmos.

He then considers points of interaction between religion and science, touching on the origin of the universe, divine action, miracle, and future life. In a brief space he opens up exciting possibilities for theological exploration, positing the cosmos as the work of “a patient and subtle Creator, content to achieve his purposes through the unfolding of process and accepting thereby a measure of the vulnerability...of love”. He defends the possibility of special divine action, but insists that such action must show a deep rationality. And he defends the resurrection of the body, as the recreation of the information-content of human lives in “another environment”.

Finally, he offers a synthesis of the scientific and theological worldviews, depicting the cosmos as an interconnected, holistic, and progressive emergence of new levels of “meaning and possibility”. This is one world, in which the emergence of persons from matter is a possibility built into the cosmos from the first, and therefore strongly suggestive of a wise Creator. This is not only a lucid and authoritative introduction to the field. It also abounds in insights and suggestions fruitful for further enquiry on the boundaries of science and religion. It is eminently suitable for church study groups, giving a comprehensible introduction to physical cosmology and its religious implications. Yet it is also a book that specialists can read with profit, because of the clues to deep insights that it offers.