by John C. Polkinghorne
Introductory Essay by Thomas Tracy
In Science and Providence, John Polkinghorne combines a rich appreciation of the results of modern science with a robust theological affirmation that God acts within the world’s history. The success of the sciences in laying bear general laws of nature has led many religious thinkers to some version of the Deistic conception of God as an austere and unengaged Source of cosmic order. The God of Christian faith, however, not only creates and sustains the universe as a whole, but also plays an active role in shaping the ongoing course of events to advance God’s good purposes for creatures. How might we understand particular divine action within the world described by the natural sciences?
Polkinghorne’s strategy is to argue that the natural order is not in fact a closed deterministic structure, but rather is open to God’s purposive engagement. One important model for this is provided by the capacity of human beings to act intentionally, putting the lawful structures of bodily life to work in serving their purposes. Polkinghorne contends that there are good theological reasons not to say that God is embodied in the world; instead he considers whether there are processes in nature that display a combination of lawfulness and flexibility that would make it possible for God to affect the course of events without disrupting the reliable structure of the created order. Two areas of contemporary physics lend themselves to such an interpretation: quantum mechanics, at the lowest levels in the organization of matter/energy, and the complex “chaotic” behavior of some dynamic systems at the macroscopic level. Polkinghorne makes use of the latter, arguing that the inherent unpredictability of these processes can be interpreted as reflecting an underlying flexibility. Critics have frequently challenged this claim, since the mathematical description of chaotic systems is strictly deterministic.
Polkinghorne acknowledges this point, but argues that these mathematical models are abstract and incomplete approximations of processes in nature whose epistemic unpredictability suggests a deeper ontological openness. He makes use of this idea to suggest that God might enact particular providential purposes in the world by influencing the development of these highly sensitive dynamic systems.
Given this understanding of divine providential action, Polkinghorne goes on to comment on a series of central topics in theology including miracles, evil, prayer, temporality, incarnation, and eschatological hope. The problem of evil presents especially difficult issues for any theology that affirms God’s action in the world. Polkinghorne suggests that the familiar free-will account of moral evil should be paired with a “free-process” explanation of natural evils, according to which God’s self-limiting (kenotic) act of creation permits the cosmos to be itself and to develop according to its own inherent structure. God respects the integrity of the created order, and this constrains God’s action within it. In petitionary prayer, we align our wills with God’s will, articulating before God what we need and value. The God to whom Christians pray is a loving participant in events in time, and so has a dipolar aspect as both temporal and eternal. God’s involvement in time and history is most fully enacted in the “focusing of the infinite upon the finite” in the person of Jesus Christ. The incarnation underlies the sacramental life of the Christian community, and the resurrection founds hope for a fulfillment of creation that is even now being accomplished through God’s love.