As most of you know, my favorite author is John Polkinghorne.  Among his many attributes, I foremost appreciate his lack of fear when exploring and giving creedence to others’ opposing positions, his ability to defend his own position and admit when this defense is not airtight, and his reliance on experience and evidence.  I very much resonate with him.

For this week’s illuminating quotes, I thought that I would provide a few excerpts from his great book, The Way the World Is (3rd edition).  These should generate a healthy discussion…

On Jesus being both God and human:

“… For me though Jesus is obviously a man, there is in him an element to which I cannot refrain from attributing the character of the Divine.  Like Thomas I have to say ‘My Lord and my God.’… I do not purport to understand how this can be, but I know that I cannot deny it.  A lesser view of Jesus would be easier to comprehend but it would be inadequate to the phenomenon.

One cannot write about the two natures of Christ (as theologians call the mingling of human and divine in Jesus) without being irresistably reminded of the wave/particle duality of light described on page 25.  How can something be both a wave and a particle?  The physicists of the early years of this century did not know.  They had simply experienced that that was the way it was, and they had to live with it.  Of course physicists found eventual understanding in the beautiful work of Paul Dirac when he created the first example of a quantum field theory.  Christology has not yet found its Dirac.  Perhaps it never will.” (p. 67)

On something being “true”, but not completely explainable (his specific example here is the death of Jesus and salvation):

“… Perhaps the first thing to notice is the fact that from the very first the death of Jesus was perceived as having this transcendent significance.  That is why the passion narrative formed so early in the tradition.  People were so caught by their experiences of liberation through his death that it was centuries before they began to ask the question, so natural to us, of how this could be.  While the Greek fathers exercised the subtlety of their minds on the mysteries of the Trinity and the two natures of Christ, the experience of salvation through the cross was not put to the same degree of analysis…

When explanations of the saving death of Christ were sought for, the first ones propounded were of a manifestly crude and unsatisfactory character.  Often theology had little better to offer than the ‘deceiver-deceived’ – the devil accepted the man Jesus as the payment for sin, not realizing that he was also divine and would thus escape from his clutches.  It is deeply humiliating to have to summarize so unworthy a proposal. [Justin: wow.]

I have emphasized this because I think it is important to recognize that things can be true, and manifest themselves as true, without our necessarily being in possession of a theoretical understanding of them.  (I do not need to know microelectronics before I can use my pocket calculator.)  Nevertheless it is inevitable and right that we should seek to attain such a degree of comprehension as lies within our grasp.” (p 75)

On chance and necessity in evolution and natural process (which you may know for many, leads them to believe the world is meaningless or pointless: see Jacques Monod Chance and Necessity):

“… Secondly, the processes of the world seem to depend for their fruitfulness upon an interplay between chance and necessity.  A random event (an aggregation of atoms, a genetic mutation) produces a new possibility which is then given a perpetuating stability by the regularity of the laws of nature.  Without contingent chance, new things would not happen.  Without lawful necessity to preserve them in an environment whose reliability permits competitive selection, they would vanish away as soon as they were made.  The universe is full of the clatter of monkeys playing with typewriters, but once they have hit on the first line of Hamlet it seems that they are marvellously constrained to continue to the end of at least some sort of play.” (p. 11)

Lastly, on the sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists who so willy-nilly explain human behaviors (in this specific case, morality) as being products of evolution that must have promoted survival at some point in our past (Note: not all of these scientists do this, but many do):

“At this point my socio-biological colleague taps me on the shoulder.  He has the explanation of these moral convictions of mine.  They are genetically programmed into me because altruism is an aid to group survival in the struggle for existence.  Let us recognize that remark for what it is.  It is no scientifically demonstrated fact, but an ingenious suggestion.  Caution is all the more necessary because our friend is using a key which appears to open nearly every lock. There is a line of argument which runs: men (or animals) possess property X; they have survived; therefore property X must be an aid to survival and that is all that need be said about it.  If altruism is just an aid to survival, it is surprising that that those selfish genes have not been more efficient in creating it.  The quintessence of our moral experience is that what we recognize that we ought to do, is so often what we do not do….” (p 19)

On this last excerpt, I must say that I agree with John Polkinghorne’s disgust towards those that use evolution and survival to explain everything, but I would caution him that the explanation for his last two sentences is that we have competing obligations.  Nevertheless, I agree with his overall sentiment.

What do you think about these excerpts?  Do you think that Polkinghorne should me more forceful in his defense of core doctrine of Christianity?  Do you think that he is wrong in his thoughts re: evolution and survival, chance and necessity? Does Christianity have a Dirac that both he and I are unaware of?

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