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The Faith of a Physicist

The Faith of a Physicist: Reflections of a Bottom-Up Thinker

John Polkinghorne
Copyright Date: 1994
Pages: 224
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  • Book Info
    The Faith of a Physicist
    Book Description:

    Is it possible to think like a scientist and yet have the faith of a Christian? Although many Westerners might say no, there are also many critically minded individuals who entertain what John Polkinghorne calls a "wistful wariness" toward religion--they feel unable to accept religion on rational grounds yet cannot dismiss it completely. Polkinghorne, both a particle physicist and Anglican priest, here explores just what rational grounds there could be for Christian beliefs, maintaining that the quest for motivated understanding is a concern shared by scientists and religious thinkers alike. Anyone who assumes that religion is based on unquestioning certainties, or that it need not take into account empirical knowledge, will be challenged by Polkinghorne's bottom-up examination of Christian beliefs about events ranging from creation to the resurrection.

    The author organizes his inquiry around the Nicene Creed, an early statement that continues to summarize Christian beliefs. He applies to each of its tenets the question, "What is the evidence that makes you think this might be true?" The evidence Polkinghorne weighs includes the Hebrew and Christian scriptures--their historical contexts and the possible motivations for their having been written--scientific theories, and human self-consciousness as revealed in literary, philosophical, and psychological works.

    He begins with the words, "We believe," and presents understandings of the nature of humanity, showing, for example, that Cartesian theory, evolution, and natural selection do not tell theentirestory of what humans are about, especially in light of many sources that attest to our spirituality. Moving through the Creed, Polkinghorne considers the concept of divinity and God as creator in discussions that cover the Theory of Everything, the Big Bang Theory, and the possibility of divine presence within reality so that God is not simply an outside observer. Chapters on Jesus analyze the different ways events are described in the Gospels and the way motivation for belief is conveyed--for example, how do these writings explain why a young man killed in public disgrace could inspire a following, when other major world religious leaders lived to become highly revered elders in their communities?

    "Faith seeking understanding" is, according to Polkinghorne, like the scientific quest. Both are journeys of intellectual discovery in which those who survey experience from an initially chosen point of view must be open to correction in the light of further experience. "Religion," he writes, "has long known that ultimately every human image of God proves to be an inadequate idol."The Faith of a Physicist,based on the prestigious 1993 Gifford Lectures, delivers a powerful message to scientists and theologians, theists and atheists alike.

    Originally published in 1994.

    ThePrinceton Legacy Libraryuses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-6365-5
    Subjects: History of Science & Technology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-ix)
    (pp. x-x)
    John Polkinghorne
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-8)

    It has become fashionable to write books with titles such asReligion in an Age of Science(Barbour),Theology for a Scientific Age(Peacocke), orTheology in the Age of Scientific Reasoning(Murphy). They signify the recognition that the interaction between science and religious reflection is not limited to those topics (such as cosmic history) concerning which the two disciplines offer complementary insights. It involves also an engagement with habits of thought which are natural in a culture greatly influenced by the success of science. To take this stance is not to submit to slavery to the spirit of the...

  5. 1 Humanity
    (pp. 9-29)

    At the outset of the endeavour to articulate the creed of a scientist it is necessary to place one’s metaphysical cards on the table. It may be a rather scanty hand, short on aces and court cards, but honesty requires that it be exhibited. Some of the players may deny holding any such cards at all, but anyone who tells you that ‘The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be’,¹ in that meaningful tone of voice which implies equating the Cosmos with what the physical cosmologists can tell us about what is going on, is...

  6. 2 Knowledge
    (pp. 30-51)

    Our concern is with the search for truth. A religious belief can do all sorts of things for us – it can sustain us in life and in the approach of death; it can provide a thread of meaning in what would otherwise be a labyrinth of inanity – but it cannot do these things with integrity unless it is founded on the truth. I have great sympathy with David Pailin when he says that ‘Attempts to defend theism by ignoring the question of truth ... are fundamentally atheistic. They worship human wishes rather than ultimate reality.’¹ Richard Rorty is...

  7. 3 Divinity
    (pp. 52-70)

    The question of the existence of God is the single most important question we face about the nature of reality. Anthony Kenny says:

    After all, if there is no God, then God is incalculably the greatest single creation of the human imagination. No other creation of the imagination has been so fertile of ideas, so great an inspiration to philosophy, to literature, to painting, sculpture, architecture, and drama; no other creation of the imagination has done so much to stir human beings to deeds of horror and nobility, or set them to lives of austerity or endeavour.¹

    Is that what...

  8. 4 Creation
    (pp. 71-87)

    In the beginning was the big bang, As the world sprang forth from the fuzzy singularity of its origin, first the spatial order formed, as quantum fluctuations ceased seriously to perturb gravity. Then space boiled, in the rapid expansion of the inflationary era, blowing the universe apart with incredible rapidity in the much less than 10-30seconds that it lasted. The perfect symmetry of the original scheme of things was successively broken as the cooling brought about by expansion crystallized out the forces of nature as we know them today. For a while the universe was a hot soup of...

  9. 5 Jesus
    (pp. 88-105)

    More than half the creed is devoted to the paragraph concerning Jesus Christ. It is a commonplace to say that Christianity is the most historically orientated of the world’s religions, and the focus of that historical concern is the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Almost all that we may know of that life must be derived from the writings of the New Testament; all that could be gleaned elsewhere is the mere indication that such a person existed and that he was executed. The development of the critical study of history since the Enlightenment, with the consequent quizzical, even sceptical,...

  10. 6 Crucifixion and Resurrection
    (pp. 106-123)

    The most certain thing about Jesus is that he was crucified during the procuratorship of Pontius Pilate. This is even testified in Roman secular history, for Tacitus in hisAnnals(early second century), speaking of the Christians as ‘a class hated for their abominations’, says that the name derives from ‘Christus ... [who] suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilate’.¹ The Jewish historian Josephus, in hisAntiquities, written somewhat earlier than theAnnals, makes a similar reference, but in a passage which has certainly been tampered with in...

  11. 7 Son of God
    (pp. 124-145)

    When we turn from the gospels to the other writings of the New Testament, which overtly present a post-Easter account of the impact of Jesus, we enter a realm of discourse where the dominant impression is of people groping for concepts capable of doing justice to their experience. The evidence is of an event which cannot be contained within conventional limits of thought. Acts (which I believe preserves significant remembrance of very primitive Christian teaching) presents Peter as already proclaiming on the day of Pentecost that ‘God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified’ (2.36)....

  12. 8 The Spirit and the Church
    (pp. 146-161)

    The early Church felt that it experienced divine power present within it with a peculiar intensity and personality. There was language available with which to describe this experience, the language of spirit (ruach), used in the Old Testament in relation to creation (Gen. 1.2), the empowerment of individuals (Exod. 35.30–36.1), the continuance of life (Ps. 104.29–30), and the fulfilment of the age to come (Ezek. 36.26–7; Joel 2.28–9). In both Greek and Hebrew the word for spirit means also ‘breath’ or ‘wind’, and the expansiveness of its allusion fitted the word to cover many applications. Common...

  13. 9 Eschatology
    (pp. 162-175)

    Cosmologists do not only peer into the past. They can attempt to discern the future. On a cosmic scale, the history of the universe is a gigantic tug-of-war between the expansive force of the big bang, driving the galaxies apart, and the contractive force of gravity, pulling them together. These two effects are so evenly balanced that we cannot tell which will win. Accordingly, two alternative scenarios must be considered. If expansion prevails, the galaxies now receding from each other will continue to do so for ever. Within each galaxy, gravity will bring about condensation into enormous black holes, which...

  14. 10 Alternatives
    (pp. 176-192)

    The Nicene Creed was formulated in the course of the same century that had earlier seen Constantine’s conversion, with its consequence that, for a long while after, the theological debate was internal to Christianity. The ‘many “gods” and many “lords”’ (1 Cor. 8.5) of the Mediterranean world disappeared, as would the gods of Northern Europe, while the rift with Judaism was too deep for serious exchange to take place between the two religions for many centuries. For several centuries after the rise of Islam, the principal Christian response to this new religion was by way of resistance to its incursions...

  15. Epilogue
    (pp. 193-194)

    Scientists who are hostile to religion tend to make remarks such as ‘Unlike science, religion is based on unquestioning certainties.’¹ They thereby betray their lack of acquaintance with the practice of religion. Periods of doubt and perplexity have a well-documented role in spiritual development. ‘Faith seeking understanding’ (in Anselm’s splendid phrase) is the quest for motivated belief. Like the scientific quest, that journey of intellectual discovery is made by those who survey experience from an initially chosen point of view, which must be open to correction in the light of further experience. Religion has long known that ultimately every human...

  16. Glossary
    (pp. 195-199)
  17. Bibliography
    (pp. 200-206)
  18. Index
    (pp. 207-211)