The impact of science on faith

Priest and scientist John Polkinghorne talks to Nigel Bovey

After 25 years, Dr John Polkinghorne, Professor of Mathematical Physics at Cambridge University, concluded that he had done his bit for science and trained for the Anglican priesthood. A spell as a parish clergyman preceded a return to Cambridge where he became Dean of Trinity Hall. He has served on the BMA Medical Ethics Committee and is a member of the Human Genetics Committee. A prolific author on the relationship between science and religion, in 2002 he was awarded the prestigious Templeton Prize for 2002.

Here he offers some scientific insights into the Christian faith.

Is the Bible the inspired word of God?

Yes. Along with most Christians, I believe the Bible is the inspired word of God, but not one which was divinely dictated. The Bible is written by human beings and it reflects the setting of its time. There are things in the Bible – for example, slavery – that are not models for Christian life today. I think the Bible is a reliable record of Israel’s history and encounter with God and of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, which is the centre of my faith. Without the Bible we would know little about Israel or Jesus.

The Bible is authoritative for me in the sense that it is a record. I want to read it carefully, because it is important to figure out what you are reading. For example, you shouldn’t read poetry as if it were prose or you’ll make some bad mistakes.

Is the biblical account of Creation in Genesis 1 and 2 literally true, or is it more a word-picture?

This is an instance of where we need to figure out what type of literature we’re reading. If we think Genesis 1 and 2 is a divinely dictated scientific textbook that God wrote to save us the trouble of having to do science, then we’re making a big mistake. These chapters are theological writings. The main message of Genesis 1 is that nothing exists except through the will of God. Fourteen times in Genesis 1 God says ‘Let’ as in ‘Let there be’. We need also to read the ‘book’ of Nature, which God has also written. Science, too, tells us a lot that doesn’t destroy the theological message of the Bible.

Did the universe come about through a Big Bang?

I think the Big Bang cosmology is pretty well motivated. What happened very close to the Big Bang is a matter of controversy and speculation. The reason it is speculative is that it requires quantum theory. But because it is the universe you also require Einstein’s general theory of relativity, and scientists can’t fit the two theories together consistently. So it is all guesswork – clever guesswork. It is reasonable to suppose that the broad picture is right – that time and space and matter all came into being together. I see that as coming to being through God’s creative word.

So belief in the Big Bang does not rule out belief in a Creator God?

No. The further back in time scientists go, the more the rules of science break down. In a sense the Big Bang is a mystery. To me, Creation is not about how things began, it is about why things exist. God is as much the Creator today as he was 14 billion years ago. Big Bang cosmology is very interesting but I don’t think that anything tremendous theologically hangs on it.

There is a theory that says that nothing can exist before the Big Bang. Did God exist before the Big Bang?

Yes, of course. God is not enthralled to time in the way that we are. God exists eternally. God interacts with time. His most dramatic interaction with time is in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. But God is not bound to time.

Did God make the world through a six-day Creation or through evolution?

Broadly speaking, I believe the evolutionary story. I think life started very simply. It has a long history and has become rich and complicated. That alone tells us that God chose to unfold Creation patiently. Evolution is the story of how Creation explores and brings to birth the very deep-seated fruitfulness with which its Creator has endowed it. God could have snapped the divine fingers and brought into being a ready-made world where everything is fixed and nothing changes. But God has done something cleverer than that. He’s created a world that can make itself. That making of itself is called evolution.

When things go wrong in his creation, people blame God. Why does he allow suffering?

This is the most difficult of all questions. It’s one which holds people back from faith and one which causes some believers to lose faith. There’s no one-line answer. But I think science can give us an insight. We have talked about an evolutionary world – one allowed by the Creator to make itself. It seems to me that this is a very great good. But the good has a cost. Because what drives evolution, what produces new forms of life is genetic mutation. But if you have genetic mutation, some cells can mutate and become malignant. You can’t have one without the other. So, for example, the existence of cancer in the world is the shadow side of the fruitful history of the world.

We tend to think that if we had been in charge of Creation we would have done it better. We would have kept all the nice things and got rid of all the bad things. But the more science understands the world, the more it seems a sort of package deal, that there is inevitably a good side and bad side to many things. Such an insight suggests that at least some of the suffering of the world is not gratuitous. It is not something that could be avoided if only God took a little more trouble or cared a little bit more about people. One of the essential Christian insights into suffering is that God is not just a compassionate spectator. But that in the cross of Jesus Christ, God has participated from the inside in the suffering of the world. The Christian God is the crucified God as well as the redemptive God.

Can science explain the resurrection of Christ?

No. It was a unique act of God. It was not the mere resuscitation of a corpse. It was a transformative act involving both continuity and discontinuity. Christ still had the nail prints of the crucifixion and he was able to appear and disappear at will. He is alive for evermore. The Resurrection was a new act of Creation. It shows that there is a destiny beyond death and that those who choose to do so will share in that life. The Resurrection marks Jesus out as different from any other religious leader. All the other great figures, like Moses and Muhammad, died in honourable old age, surrounded by their disciples who resolved to carry on their master’s work. Jesus died in midlife, deserted and with a cry of dereliction on his lips: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ If that was the end of the story, we would never have heard about him. It is the Resurrection that makes the difference.

What light can an understanding of genetics shed on the virgin birth?

Again, there’s no scientific explanation. The difficulty scientifically would be that a male child has to have a Y chromosome and a woman can only provide X chromosomes, so it is very difficult to see how that could happen. There are various extraordinary scenarios that might produce it but I think that they are theologically negligible.

The story of the virgin birth is seeking to say that Jesus’ birth involved both God’s initiative (it wasn’t just a happy chance) and human collaboration (summed up by Mary’s ‘Be it unto me according to your word’). Whether you believe in the virgin birth or not depends on whether you think it is theologically credible.

I believe that Christianity is about what one might call ‘enacted symbol’. There is a power in symbolic stories and there is power in true stories. The whole Christian understanding of the Incarnation from birth to death combines the power of history and the power of symbols – it is an account of enacted events. It is possibly more difficult to believe in the virgin birth than the resurrection but I believe in the virgin birth on theological rather than scientific grounds.

How will the world end?

If things unfold as they are, the world will continue for a long time, hundreds of billions of years. But it will end, either in decay or collapse. If it gets hotter it will collapse with a bang. If the universe continues expanding it will cool and end in a whimper.

Either way, the world is going to end in futility. Therefore the sort of evolutionary optimism that says the world is getting better and things will work out just won’t happen. The universe is going to die just as certainly as you and I are going to die. Both sorts of life and death – cosmic and human – raise the same question about what is God up to.

The only ground for a belief in a destiny beyond either cosmic death or human death is the faithfulness of God. That was exactly Jesus’ argument when he described God as the God of the living, not of the dead. Because Christian hope depends upon God’s faithfulness, we can have a sure and certain hope.

Photo: Nigel Bovey

This article first appeared in The War Cry and is reprinted with permission