There is a debate about the role of science to the role of theology. (i) One camp thinks that both disciplines are impossible to reconcile, that is, either you (1a) accept science as objective and dismiss theology as opinion, or (1a) accept theology as objective and dismiss science as opinion. In other words, we should never regard both disciplines to have equal authorities about truth or knowledge.
However, if you hold the first position (1a), you are scientifically rational. But if you hold the second one (1b), you are a dogmatic person. That is, the first position is predicated with virtue, while the second one is predicated with contempt. On the other hand, (ii) the opposing camp – although accepting the distinctive roles each discipline has, nonetheless, views both disciplines to be wholly reconcilable.
Most of the proponents of the former view (i) are naturalists – believing that nature is all there is to it. That is, there is no spiritual reality, for example God, at least not as we can know it. On the second view (ii), most of its proponents are theists – believing that there is a supernatural reality wholly independent of this material world. That we are not just physical machines. There are things as miracles, souls, God, angels, etc.
The theoretical physicist and Templeton Prize-winner John Polkinghorne defends the second view in his 2007 book One World: The Interaction of Science and Theology. In the preface, he lays out the thesis of the book:
…science and theology seem to me to have in common that they are both exploring aspects of reality. They are capable of mutual interaction which, though at times it is puzzling, can also be fruitful. This book is written to defend that thesis (xv).
In the first chapter, Polkinghorne discusses the effect of the Enlightenment towards our thinking about the world. Although it was the Christians – with the doctrine of creation and their recognition of the rationality of the world – who provided the way for modern science, nevertheless it was in the 18th century where the belief in the Creator seemed to have its decline. The role of reason in the Enlightenment was supreme. Man became the measure of all things. They began to question revelation, to be more specific the rationality of religion (i.e., Christianity). As Polkinghorne observes, “The Enlightenment attitude had done its acid work, and many people’s faith dissolved away” (7).
However, that Enlightenment thinking also began to dissolve in the late 19th century. Reason has proven itself to be limited. There are areas that we can no longer picture out, for example the quantum world (which contradicts determinism). It shows us that the world is much more obscure than what the Enlightenment thinkers conceived.
In the second chapter, Polkinghorne discusses the nature of science. He begins by recognizing how the achievements of science begin to downplay other sources of knowledge. However, that view is only from the popular attitude of science. But as Polkinghorne recognizes, the popular attitude of science is not in congruence with the intellectual’s attitude towards it. In other words, what has been communicated in the media may not necessarily be the case in the academia.
Polkinghorne also discusses the difficulty found in the scientific field in resolving the conflicting discoveries and theories (e.g., general theory of relativity and quantum theory), and the criteria the physicists use to prefer one theory over the other. He also discusses the scientific method; the criticisms towards science and its community; the views how science proceeds; and asserts on the limitations of science.
In the third chapter, Polkinghornes discusses the nature of theology or religion. He begins by noting the conventional view of theology among the scientists – that theology is the belief in the absurd without any evidence for it. Although that would be an interesting topic, but he reserves his arguments for theology and the belief in God in his other book.
Tradition, according to Polkinghorne, plays an important part in religion as for it is in science. “We inherit the legacy of those who have preceded us, and it would be disastrous if every generation had to start from scratch” (33). Theology – as Polkinghorne recognizes – is also corrigible as it is with science. He also discusses the varieties of religious experiences (as recognized by William James) along with their criticisms, to be assessed by theology in order to determine which experience is correct.
In the fourth chapter, Polkinghorne discusses the nature of the physical world and how it evokes upon us “a response of almost mystic intensity” which cannot be judged on scientific grounds (52). It is in this chapter where he suggests ten qualities that characterizes the scientific view of the world – elusive, intelligible, problematic, surprising, chance and necessity, big, tightly knit, futility, complete, and incomplete.
In the fifth chapter, Polkinghorne lays out the meat of the book, namely the points of interaction between science and theology (without turning a blind eye on their perceived conflicts). For example, the fact that modern science seems to point beyond itself. Or the as the agnostic physicist Paul Davies confessed: “There is more to the world than [that which only] meets the eye.” Although Polkinghorne admits the limitation of reason, he nonetheless emphasizes the importance of natural theology “because if God is the Creator of the world, he has surely not left it wholly without marks of his character, however veiled” (93). While I don’t agree with his abrupt dismissal of the cosmological argument, nevertheless, I believe what makes the chapter remarkable is his recognition that the world “with its order, intelligibility, potentiality, and tightly knit character” is a product of God’s creative expression (114).
In the sixth chapter, I believe this where the hardest part of my reading took place. Although he tackles the different levels of descriptions (e.g., physics, chemistry, biochemistry, biology, etc.,) and how they relate to each other, he seems to focus the chapter with the mind-body problem – an issue in philosophy – in a manner which I consider to be very confusing.
In the last chapter, Polkinghorne concludes the book by reemphasizing the interaction of science and theology, and that there is “no act of mental compartmentalism or dishonest adjustment [is] required of those who take with equal seriousness the stories told by science and by faith”(115).
While the book itself is packed with terminologies and concepts in science that may be hard for a layman to wrestle, a careful reading and rereading, I believe, will unpack what the author is arguing.
So if you’re looking for a book that deals with the relationship between science and theology that is written by a great scholar in both fields – in a layman-assisting way – then I joyfully recommend you to consider this book.
 John Polkinghorne, One World: The Interaction of Science and Theology (Templeton Foundation Press, 2007).