John Polkinghorne (b. 1930), former Professor of Mathematical Physics at the University of Cambridge, is particularly well suited for a scientific exploration of the substance of the Christian faith. A theoretical elementary particle physicist and an ordained priest in the Church of England, Polkinghorne has produced a number of stimulating publications at the intersection of religious belief and scientific inquiry. In The Faith of a Physicist: Reflections of a Bottom-Up Thinker, the publication of his 1993-1994 Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh, Polkinghorne sets out to discover “to what extent we can use the search for motivated understanding, so congenial to the scientific mind, as a route to being able to make the substance of Christian orthodoxy our own” (1). Polkinghorne’s attempt at natural theology is at once a considered treatment of the Christian faith (examined by way of reflection upon the various claims of the Nicene Creed) and a sustained dialogue with twentieth century scientific insights. After a brief introduction on the nature of natural theology and the book’s relation to the requirements of Lord Gifford’s Lectures, Polkinghorne surveys the nature of humanity and how we acquire knowledge (Chapters One and Two); the relationship between God and creation (Chapters Three and Four); the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (Chapters Five, Six and Seven); the relation between pneumatology and ecclesiology (Chapter Eight); the nature of eschatological hope (Chapter Nine); and a consideration of how the various world religions relate to the discoveries of modern science (Chapter Ten).
In designating himself a “bottom-up” thinker, Polkinghorne expresses his intention “to explore, as far as I am able, how one who takes modern science seriously, and whose habits of thought… are formed by long experience of working as a theoretical physicist, approaches questions of the justification and understanding of religious belief” (3). Polkinghorne thus commits himself to weighing the evidence of theological statements by considering what the Judaeo-Christian tradition calls “salvation-history” in the light of contemporary construals of ourselves and the universe that we inhabit. While Polkinghorne’s engagement with the Nicene Creed is deferential to the particularities of Christian belief, his “bottom-up” approach often leads him to somewhat innovative theological conclusions. So for instance, in his treatment of divine and creaturely agency in Chapter Three, Polkinghorne seeks to chart a middle course between the “chillingly remote” God of classical theism and the “overly domesticated” God of pantheism. The proffered via media is something like an eschatological panentheism—God “makes way” for something other than Godself (à la Moltmann) in order that one day all things may participate in God (cf. 64, 168). In dismissing traditional appeals to divine impassability, Polkinghorne displays a certain impatience with classical accounts of God’s being and action (so, for instance, he swiftly dismisses Aquinas’s account of God’s non-real relation to his creatures by comparing Aquinas’s God to the God of Stoicism). This impatience with more traditional modes of theological judgement rears its head at a number of points, and the sheer scope of Polkinghorne’s project often prevents him from devoting in-depth theological attention to the material canvassed. Nevertheless, Polkinghorne’s natural theology is a stimulating and well-reasoned exercise of faith seeking understanding from a thinker of tremendous insight and ingenuity. The Faith of a Physicist rewards careful reading by those interested in theology and contemporary advances in the natural sciences alike.