The more I read “sophisticated” theology—and I’m reading the sort that tries to reconcile science and faith—the more convinced I am that it’s only superstition gussied up in academic prose and swathed in blankets of self-deception. Right now I’m “into” (if one can use that word) John Polkinghorne. Polkinghorne, now 82, was trained as a physicist, worked at Cambridge University, and then left his professorship to study for the Anglican priesthood. He returned to Cambridge and became master of Queens College from 1989-1996.
He’s written many books, some on physics but most on the reconciliation of science and faith. Along the way he’s acquired a slew of honors, not only becoming a Fellow of the Royal Society, but also garnering a knighthood (I suppose he’s called Sir Reverend John Polkinghorne or whatever). And, inevitably, he won the Templeton Prize—ten years ago.
As Wikipedia notes:
Nancy Frankenberry, Professor of Religion at Dartmouth College, has described Polkinghorne as the finest British theologian/scientist of our time, citing his work on the possible relationship between chaos theory and natural theology. Owen Gingerich, an astronomer and former Harvard professor, has called him a leading voice on the relationship between science and religion.. . the novelist Simon Ings, writing in the New Scientist, said Polkinghorne’s argument for the proposition that God is real is cogent and his evidence elegant.
But Wikipedia also quotes some detractors, including Richard Dawkins and Anthony Grayling, whose scathing review of Polkinghorne’s book Questions of Truth (co-written with Nicholas Beale) can be read and enjoyed at The New Humanist.
If anyone is considered a “sophisticated” theologian in the realm of science and faith, then, it must be Polkinghorne. So read him I must, and, unfortunately, I did.
I’ve just polished off Polkinghorne’s short book Science and Religion in Quest of Truth (2011, Yale University Press), and didn’t find it nourishing fodder. While it’s better written than similar books by Alvin Plantinga and John Haught (the other famous reconcilers of science and faith), Polkinghorne’s arguments are no better. Indeed, some of them are the same. I was astounded, for instance, to see Polkinghorne making the “Argument from Hot Beverages” to adduce evidence for God. That argument, also used by John Haught, supposedly shows the existence of an ultimate truth behind the naturalistic truths of science (“why tea?”: science says the kettle is boiling because the water is being heated, faith tells us that that the ultimate purpose is because you want a cup of tea. Ergo Jesus.) Other arguments for God, such as the fine-tuning of physical constants, the “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics”, and the fact that the universe is comprehensible through human rationality, are also familiar.
Where Polkinghorne differs from some other scientist/theologians is in his explicit defense of the use of empiricism (rather than simply revelation) to argue for God, and in his defense of miracles. Not all miracles—Genesis, for example, is to be taken as metaphor—but certainly the crucial miracles of the virgin birth and resurrection of Jesus.
He’s clear in his belief that both science and faith seek real truths about the universe:
The second mistake is about religion. The question of truth is as central to its concern as it is in science. Religious belief can guide one in life or strengthen one at the approach of death, but unless it is actually true it can do neither of these things and so would amount to no more than an illusionary exercise in comforting fantasy.
Both science and religion are part of the great human quest for truthful understanding. . . . The claim will be that both are seeking truth through the attainment of well-motivated beliefs. (p. 2).
At least he’s explicit about this, and about the fact that that truth can be attained through more than simple revelation. Polkinghorne does admit that faith doesn’t give one the same kind of empirical certainties as does science, but gives us something equivalent: “well-motivated beliefs.” He uses those words over and over again, but I’m not sure what they mean. For one person’s motivation is different from another’s, and “motivation” to believe in God may make some believers more credulous than others.
At any rate, there is the usual denigration of science, dragging it down to the level of faith:
Above all, science requires commitment to the basic act of faith that there is a deep rational order in the world awaiting discovery, and that there is a sufficient degree of uniform consistency in the working of the universe to permit successful argument by induction as a means to discover aspects of that order, despite the inevitably limited and particular character of the experience that motivates the belief. . . Science yields well-motivated beliefs, but it does not deliver complete and absolute certainty about them. (pp. 9-11).
As if religion does! Note Polkinghorne’s equation of scientific “truth” with the “well-motivated beliefs” of faith.
One finds in this book many of the tropes familiar from other science-friendly theologians, who may indeed have borrowed the tropes from Reverend Sir John. There’s the customary denigration of scientism (“the metaphysical belief that science tells us all that can be known or is worth knowing”), the assertion that science and faith are pals because many early scientists were religious (this is one of the stupidest arguments these people make: everyone was religious back then!), in the the hand of God visible in the emergent properties of matter and consciousness, in the fact that we can understand the universe, especially through mathematics (the implication is that God made it comprehensible for us), and in the fact that humans have a sense of morality and aesthetics, which is supposedly not comprehensible if we are merely evolved creatures. (This use of “the Moral Law” as evidence for God is also a favorite ploy of Francis Collins).
But, like all of these theologians, Polkinghorne is desperate to find justification for his beliefs—Christian ones in his case. Where religion really differs from science is in how it approaches the search for truth. In science, we’re always open (or should be, at least) to having our pet theories overturned; indeed, the good scientist deliberately looks for holes in her data or experiments. That’s what the investigators at CERN did when they found what seemed to be faster-than-light neutrinos. Religion, on the other hand, begins with certain core beliefs that must be buttressed, and then simply looks for data supporting them. If you can’t find that data, you make stuff up. Thus, while it’s easy to toss Genesis under the bus, for evolution has disproved that story, the divinity and resurrection of Jesus, as one-off miracles, are simply not negotiable.
And, indeed, Polkinghorne believes in those particular miracles, and in miracles in general. He argues that theologians like him understand miracles as
“signs”, that is to say, events that manifest with specific clarity some particular aspect of the divine will and nature that is normally veiled from clear sight. Miracles are not arbitrary divine actions but events of deep disclosure.” (p. 95)
Polkinghorne does not tell us which miracles are real and which are merely stories, though it’s clear that the creation of humans ex nihilo was just a fable. I want to concentrate on one miracle for which Polkinghorne says we do have evidence: the Resurrection of Christ. For Polkinghorne this must be true, for if it isn’t, all of Christianity collapses in a heap. So he goes about finding “evidence” for it. Of course, such evidence is thin on the ground, for we have only the accounts of the gospels, but Polkinghorne wades in.
What is his evidence? According to Polkinghorne, there are two bits of evidence from the Gospels that convince him of the resurrection.
One line of evidence is the sequence of appearance stories recounting how the risen Christ met with his disciples. (p. 121)
Polkinghorne then cites Paul’s letter to the Corinthians as testimony for the Resurrection.
But what about the conflicting accounts of the resurrection in the different gospel? These are many, and very well known; see here for a handy chart of the contradictions. Polkinghorne notes some discrepancies, but sweeps them away in favor of his two lines of evidence.
At first sight it might seem that we are faced with a bewildering confusion, consisting of a variety of stories, some set in Jerusalem and some in Galilee. Could this variety not simply reflect the fact that we are presented with a bunch of made-up tales, originating in the pious imaginations of a number of different communities? (p. 122).
Well, given that Biblical scholarship has shown us that the Bible is a farrago of made-up tales, perhaps the parsimonious answer here is “yes.” But Polkinghorne dissents (my emphasis in the following):
I do not think so, for there is a recurrent theme, hardly likely to have arisen with such consistency from a gaggle of independent sources, namely that it was initially difficult to recognize the risen Christ. For example, Mary Magdalene took him to be the gardener (John 20:15), the couple on the road to Emmaus only recognised at the end of the journey who their companion had been (Luke 24:31); Matthew even tells us that it was on a Galilean hillside ‘some doubted’ who it was (28:17). It seems to me that this unexpected feature is more likely to be a historical reminiscence of the character of actual encounters, rather than a fortuitous coincidence in a set of independent confabulations. (pp. 122-123).
First of all, who ever said that the confabulations were independent? The gospels clearly borrowed from each other, as well as drawing from verbal accounts circulating at the time. But what we see in the above is a man in the naked act of fooling himself—a man willing to ignore all the contradictions between the different accounts of the Resurrection to find truth in one or two things that are consistent. He is clearly desperate to show that the Resurrection actually happened.
Oh, but there’s one more consistency that heartens Polkinghorne. This one I can’t believe (my emphasis again):
The second line of evidence is the story of the empty tomb, testified to in all four Gospels, with only minor variations of detail between the accounts. . .
. . . the most persuasive argument in favour of the authenticity of the empty tomb story is that it is women who make the discovery. In the ancient world, women were not considered to be capable of being reliable witnesses in a court of law and anyone making up a tale would surely have assigned the central role to men. (p. 123).
Indeed! The very fact that a tale seems improbable makes it more believable! And despite all the contradictions of the accounts in the four gospels, this is the one on which Polkinghorne seizes to show that the tale is true. He doesn’t consider the fact that maybe somebody making up the story might have the empty-tomb finders be women because the women were Jesus’s relatives and chief mourners, including his mother, his aunt, and Mary Magdalene.
But there are contradictions even about who found the empty tomb, and what happened thereafter. In Luke, the empty tomb is found by unnamed women who came from Galilee with Jesus, in Matthew and Mark the empty tomb is found by Mary and Mary Magdalene, while in John the tomb is found by Mary Magdalene alone. And in Luke it is the “women from Galilee” who prepare Jesus’s body with “spices and ointments,” while in the Gospel of John the body is prepared by men: Joseph and Nicodemus. Polkinghorne doesn’t mention these disparities.
It is the willingness to overlook contradictory evidence that distinguishes theology from science, and here we have a prime example. In his fervor to prove the central tenet of Christianity, which he must do if his faith is to have any credibility, Polkinghorne ignores all the confabulations of the gospel authors to seize on two elements of the story that are consistent, pretending that this consistency is evidence for the truth of a tale. But the stories aren’t independent, and aren’t even consistent in the ways Polkinghorne maintains.
In trying to show a comity between faith and science, and in asserting that they use related methods of empirical investigation to verify their respective “truths”, Polkinghorne unwittingly shows us the real difference between these “magisteria.” He ignores inconvenient inconsistencies in the account of the gospels, the non-independence of those gospels, and weaknesses in his own arguments. (This, by the way, is characteristic of the rest of his book.) His argument is not scientific, but tendentious, for he knows from the outset what truth he must arrive at, and is willing to accept or fabricate anything to support that truth. Even sophisticated theologians who argue for a harmony and complementarity of science and faith, then, inadvertently demonstrate that the areas are incompatible.