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franciscan - September 2004

The Society of Saint Francis, 2004

Seeing with Two Eyes - Mutual Harmony between Science and Religion


by John Polkinghorne


Someone who is both a physicist and a priest is sometimes greeted with a mixture of surprise and doubt that would be more appropriate to a meeting with a centaur or a mermaid.  Yet both science and religion share a common concern for truth.  This means that actually there must be a fundamental harmony between them. 


Of course, they are looking at very different aspects of the reality that encompasses us.  Science treats the world as an object that can be manipulated and put to the experimental test.  It asks the question of how things happen.  Religion is concerned with the significance of persons and with the transpersonal reality of God.  Its encounter is not with an it but with a Thou.  In that realm, testing has to give way to trusting.  Religion asks the deeper question of why things are happening.  Scientists are driven by the desire to understand, but that thirst will never be quenched by science alone, for it has purchased its very great success by limiting the scope of its enquiry.  Full understanding requires the insights of both science and religion.


We have every reason to expect that scientific questions will receive scientific answers, just as theological questions will receive theological answers.  Yet there is intellectual traffic across the border between the two.  One reason is that the two sets of insights have to fit harmoniously together.  'How?' and 'Why?' are different questions, but their answers must cohere.  If I say I am going to cover my garden with green concrete, and the reason why I am doing so is to make it more beautiful, you will rightly think that something is going badly wrong.


One of the most interesting examples of this kind of mutual interaction between scientific and theological ideas relates to religion's greatest problem, the existence of so much evil and suffering in the world.  Human abuse of free will explains some of it, but what about the natural evil of disease and disaster?  Surely that is the responsibility of the Creator alone.  Ironically enough, the scientific insight that helps theology here is one that appeals to what many suppose to be an actual point of conflict, the theory of evolution.  Almost as soon as Charles Darwin published his ideas, some clergymen, like Charles Kingsley, saw how evolution was to be accepted and understood theologically.  Kingsley said that no doubt God could have snapped the divine fingers and brought into being a ready-made world, but the Creator had chosen to do something cleverer than that by producing a world in which creatures could 'make themselves'.  God works as much through nature as by any other means and the shuffling exploration of potentialities, which is what evolutionary process really is, is the way that the Earth was able to 'bring forth living creatures of every kind' (Genesis 1.24).


Such a self-realising world seems to be a great good, and the fitting creation of the God of love, whose role is not to be the puppet-master of the universe.  Yet that good has a necessary cost.  The same processes of genetic mutation that have driven the development of complex life, will also allow other cells to mutate and become malignant.  The anguishing fact of cancer is not due to divine callousness or incompetence, but it is the inescapable shadow side of evolving fruitfulness.  We all tend to think that if we had been in charge of creation, we would have done it better, keeping the nice things and disposing of the nasty ones.  Science shows us that this kind of disentanglement is impossible; the complex processes of the world are an inextricable package deal.


A second kind of intellectual traffic between science and religion relates to what are sometimes called 'limit questions', arising from the experience of doing science but going beyond its own self-limited power to answer.  Let me briefly give a couple of examples.  In each case, I shall suggest that a religious understanding offers coherent and persuasive answers.


The first question asks why science is possible at all.  Of course, we have to be able to understand the everyday world if we are to be able to survive in it, but that fact doesn't explain why we can penetrate the secrets of the subatomic world and plumb the depths of cosmic space.  These are regimes remote from ordinary experience, and their comprehension requires new ways of thinking, often expressed through very abstract mathematics.  And it turns out that not only is the physical world rationally transparent to us, but it is also rationally beautiful.  Scientists frequently speak of their experience of wonder as the reward for all the weary labour involved in scientific research.  It seems wholly inadequate to say it is just a matter of luck that the universe is deeply intelligible in this way.  A much more satisfying response to a world shot through with such signs of mind, is to believe that the Mind of the Creator lies behind its wonderful order.  I believe that science is possible because the universe is a creation, and we are creatures made in the image of our Creator.


The second limit question is, 'Why is the universe so special, in a manner that makes it finely-tuned for life?'  Although it took billions of years for life to develop, the cosmos was pregnant with its possibility from the very start.  Only because the given laws of nature took the specific form that they actually do in our world, was carbon-based life like ours an eventual possibility.  For example, every atom of carbon in our bodies was once inside a star - we are people of stardust - and carbon can only be made in the stellar furnaces because the laws of nuclear physics are what they are and no different.  Once again, it would seem intellectually incredibly lazy to treat these astonishing facts as merely a happy accident.  To try to explain them away by supposing that our universe is just one winning ticket in a vast multi-universe lottery seems a desperately prodigal expedient.  Much more economic is the belief that our universe is indeed not 'any old world', but a creation that has been purposefully endowed by its Creator with finely-tuned potentiality.


I often like to say that I am 'two-eyed', looking at reality through the twin eyes of science and Christian faith.  I believe that this binocular vision enables me to see and understand much more than I would be able to do with either eye on its own. f


John Polkinghorne is a Fellow of the Royal Society and an Anglican priest. He is the author of many books on science and religion, including Quarks, Chaos and Christianity (Triangle).


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