Saturday, February 2, 2008

Book Review: Exploring Reality

Reality: is anyone as well equipped to tackle such an all-encompassing subject as John Polkinghorne? Following a 25 year run as an accomplished particle physicist, Polkinghorne studied theology and became a priest in the Church of England. A result of this somewhat unique bi-vocational career is that Polkinghorne has become perhaps the most prolific writer on the intersection of faith and science. In Exploring Reality, (Yale University Press, 2005) Polkinghorne alternates between physical and metaphysical approaches to his subject matter. In this interweaving of hard science with the “softer” realms of theology, Polkinghorne has given us an engaging introduction to his view of reality.

Regular readers of Polkinghorne will find familiar discussions of subjects like quantum mechanics, relativity, evolution, and how these speak to questions of ultimate reality. For me, however, the value of the book was in Polkinghorne’s forays into such subjects as the trinity, evil, the historical Jesus and the nature of time.

Though I use a different path, I find common conclusions to the theodicy question in the writings of Polkinghorne. In the chapter titled “Evil”, Polkinghorne summarizes his
“free process theology” approach to the problem of evil (page 144):
A theologian would say that what is involved in the occurring costliness of creation is the divine permissive will, allowing creatures to behave in accordance with their natures. Bringing the world into being was a kenotic act of self-limitation on the Creator's part, so that not all that happens does so under tight divine control. The gift of Love in allowing the genuinely other to be is necessarily a precarious gift. I believe that God wills neither the act of a murderer nor the incidence of an earthquake, but both are allowed to happen in a creation given its creaturely freedom.
A central theme in Polkinghorne’s thinking about evil and suffering is found in the concluding paragraph of the chapter: God himself enters into the suffering of this cosmos (page 146):
The Christian God is the crucified God, not a compassionate spectator from the outside, but truly a fellow sufferer who understands creatures’ pain from the inside.
By far my favorite chapter, “The Nature of Time: Unfolding Story” outlines Polkinghorne’s understanding of the dimension of time. He notes with apparent approval that openness is becoming increasingly accepted. Polkinghorne’s makes clear his “openness” to openness (page 119):
It would be no defect in the divine perfection not to know the details of the future if that future is not yet in existence and available to be known.
Open Theism is a subject we will explore here at OutsideTheBox in the future. So I was very interested in Polkinghorne’s stated position. Other topics under the general subject of time include progressive revelation (which Polkinghorne sees as continuing to the present), the relationship of entropy to the resurrected body of Christ, and time’s continuance in the new creation. Polkinghorne departs from conventional evangelical theology when he declares on page 125,
The life of the new creation will be a temporal life, lived within the unfolding ‘time’ of that world to come, whose everlasting nature is the true meaning of the fullness of times.
In short, Polkinghorne questions the common thinking that “eternity” is outside the bounds of time, and that God lives outside of time. Since I have long been asking the same questions, it was gratifying to read Polkinghorne’s thoughtful comments about time.

An elementary understanding of science is helpful in reading Polkinghorne. However, this book is a collection of free-standing essays. And the chapters on theology can be read on their own. For those who are inclined to think outside the box, I recommend you pick up a copy of
Exploring Reality.


Steve Martin said...

Hi Cliff,
Thanks for the good review. I haven't read this yet but plan too. Looks like he is covering some of the same themes as his older works - but has some interesting new ideas as well (eg. open theism). On that topic, have you seen information the "Open Theism and Science" conference (
Polkinghorne gave the keynote last year. See here:

Cliff Martin said...

No, I was not aware of that conference, but I will surely look into that. Thanks for the heads up.

Stephen (aka Q) said...

I'd like to read that — thanks for calling it to my attention.

I wonder whether you've run across a blog called Experimental Theology? It isn't exclusively about science, but with a little digging I think you'd find some stuff that would interest you.