John Polkinghorne

1990 J.K.Russell Fellowship Lecture

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It's an honor to me, which I value very much, to be one of this year's J.K.Russell Fellows and I'm glad to have the opportunity of giving this talk tonight. My wife and I are also very pleased to return to Berkeley. I used to come here from time to time in my physics days and work in the 'Rad Lab' on top of the hill. I spent over 25 years working as a theoretical particle physicist, and I enjoyed that time very much. Looking back on it, I think of it as being a Christian vocation for me, to have used such talents as I had in the endeavor to use mathematics to understand the pattern and structure of the world in which we live.

I enjoyed all that, but theoretical physics, like most mathematically based subjects, is something you don't get better at as you grow older, for you lose a certain mental flexibility. The subject is changing all the time, and I had long thought that I would not spend the whole of my life working in it. As I approached my fiftieth birthday, I came to the conclusion that the time had come to leave; I had done my bit, such as it was, for the subject, and now I should do something else.

It didn't follow that I had to turn my collar around and become an Anglican clergyman, but as my wife and I thought about the next step, the idea of seeking the opportunity to be a minister of the word and sacrament seemed worthwhile. I was accepted for training in the ministry and became a student in a seminary in Cambridge for a couple of years. It was a very interesting experience. It broadened my sympathies. I learned how much easier it is to speak for an hour than to listen for an hour. I'll try to bear that in mind this evening.

We moved out into parish life for five very happy years, which we enjoyed greatly. However, I came to the conclusion that part of my ministry was to be writing about the relationship between science and theology, and that was best pursued in an academic setting. When an unsought opportunity came to return to the academic world, I did so and became the Dean of Chapel of one of the Colleges at Cambridge. My life has been full of the most astonishing changes in the last ten years, and about a year ago, I became the Head of one of the Colleges when I was elected President of Queens'.

Now, you'll gather that I'm a person who wants to take science absolutely seriously. It tells us a great deal which is of value and importance concerning what the physical world is like, its structure and process and history. Science is extremely successful, but it is successful because it is also very modest in its ambitions. It seeks to ask and answer only a certain limited set of questions about the world. It confines itself to impersonal and testable kinds of knowledge.

And that is worthwhile, but not enough. There are many other questions which are meaningful to us and necessary for us to ask about the world in which we live, which science by its very nature simply declines to consider. So I stand before you as someone who not only wishes to take science seriously, but who also wishes to take religion seriously. Religion is concerned with asking, and seeking the answers to, deeper questions about the world in which we live -- questions of meaning and purpose and destiny. It moves us from the largely impersonal world of scientific knowledge, to the world of personal encounter, with all the risk and ambiguity and necessary commitment that's involved in that. Religion is concerned with the type of inquiry in which testing has to give way to trusting.

My intellectual interests over the past ten years have centered on trying to understand how these two views of the world -- the scientific and the theological -- relate to each other. And it's a great pleasure for me to be at the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences, where there are colleagues who pursue the same quest.

In particular, I want to consider this evening how we can take with complete integrity all that science tells us about the process and history of the world, and, at the same time, retain some view of God's action in that world. It is an immense question, far beyond my competence to deal with fully and far beyond the necessary confines of this talk to deal with adequately, even in terms of what I do understand. I want to talk with seriousness, but I shall not, of course, be able to talk with completeness, so I will try to sketch various considerations that seem to me important in bringing together science and theology in relation to this question of God's action in the world.

I'm going to suggest to you that we can understand God's action in the world under three aspects. I'm sure those three aspects are divisions which are chosen simply for human convenience -- I'm not suggesting that there is a compositeness in the divine action in the world -- but finite beings thinking about an infinite being have to resort to certain ways of dividing up the discussion.

I. Upholding

The first form of God's action in the world that I think we should consider is that God acts as the upholder of all that is, as the sustainer of the physical world in which we live. We are not talking about a God of the gaps, an agent acting among other agents in the process of the world, and just invoked to explain the currently scientifically inexplicable. Such a God is truly dead, and no one should lament his passing. He was but a straw deity, a sort of divine Cheshire cat, always liable to disappear with the advance of knowledge, always lurking over the next intellectual horizon. That can't possibly be the God of Christian belief, who is not just a Cosmic Stunt Artist, doing the difficult bits in the process of the world or hiding in the murkier parts of his creation. Instead, God must be related to the whole of all that is, its ground and its sustainer. God is the creator of the world Now. His act of creation is a continuing act, not just something done fifteen thousand million years ago, but something being done today which will continue to be done tomorrow.

Of course, I can say that, but how do we come to believe that God really is the sustainer and upholder of the world? We can't perform the ultimate experiment, which would be to remove the divine presence and see whether the world collapses. I believe that it would; my atheist friend believes that nothing would change, but neither of us, of course, could put it to the test. Our belief in God as the sustainer and upholder of the world is a matter of faith. But faith is not a question of shutting your eyes and gritting your teeth and believing the impossible. Faith is not demonstrable, but it is motivated. We believe things for reasons.

So how can we ground our belief in God as the upholder and sustainer of the physical world? Can we find any basis for that in what we know scientifically about the world? Well, if we are to have motivation for our faith in that way, it will not be by way of entailment. It will not be that we can demonstrate that it must be so. We should not be particularly worried about that, because there is, in fact, very little of interest about the world that we can demonstrate beyond a peradventure. Even the consistency of mathematics (Godel has taught us) cannot be proved. Mathematics involves an act of faith -- one perhaps rather easy to make.

If we are looking to science to help in motivating belief that God is the upholder of the world, it will not come by demonstration, but it may well come by way of insight. We will need to look for signs of a deeper significance to be found in the given law and circumstance of the universe, a significance which can come to our minds if we are prepared to consider the possibility that the scientifically discerned regularity of the world -- its natural law -- is but the pale reflection of the steadfast will of a Creator.

In other words, we need to look to what, for science, is the ground of its explanation, and, therefore, as far as the scientific account is concerned, the basis of all that is -- that is to say, the given law and circumstance of the universe. We need to see whether by itself it is sufficiently satisfying and self-explanatory, or whether it raises questions which seem to take us beyond itself. Note that we are looking at the ground rules of science, and not at particular happenings.

I think it is a very interesting and significant fact that there is quite a widespread feeling among physical scientists -- and not just pious physical scientists like myself, but many physical scientists who stand outside any religious tradition -- that there are aspects of the laws of physics which raise questions beyond physics' competence to answer, issues that almost inevitably raise in the mind the feeling that there is more going on here that has met the purely scientific eye. I want to give two examples of that.

The first is a property of the physical world that is so familiar to us that we take it for granted. It is, in fact, the necessary basis of the whole scientific endeavor. It is this: that we can understand the world, that it is intelligible to us, that it is rationally transparent. Not only do we understand the world, but it is mathematics which is the key to the understanding of the physical universe. In fundamental physics one looks for theories which in their mathematical expression are economic and elegant, which are mathematically beautiful. Mathematical beauty is a very recognizable characteristic. There is an expectation -- an expectation that has been justified time and again in the history of physics -- that it is just those theories which have the character of mathematical economy and elegance which will prove to be the ones that explain what is going on in the physical world. If you have a friend who is a theoretical physicist, and you wish to upset them, you simply say to them, "That new theory of yours looks rather ugly and contrived to me." They will be truly upset, because you are saying that it does not have the character which successful theory always has had.

When we use mathematics in that way as a heuristic tool, a device for finding out what's going on in the world, something very odd is happening. After all, what is mathematics? Mathematics is the free exploration of the finite human mind. Our mathematical friends sit in their studies and out of their heads they spin the beautiful patterns of mathematics. Mathematics can be thought of as a pattern creating, pattern analyzing, subject. Yet some of the most beautiful patterns that are dreamt up by the pure mathematicians in their studies are found actually to occur in the structures of the physical world around us. In other words, there is a deep-seated congruence between the reason that we experience within (in our minds) and the reason that we experience without (in the physical world around us). They fit together like a glove. That seems a fact about the physical world that is what the mathematicians in their modest way would call non-trivial. 'Non-trivial' is a mathematical word meaning 'highly significant.'

Not only does it seem so to me but, perhaps more interestingly, it seemed so also to Einstein. He once said, "The only incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible." Why do the reasons within and the reasons without fit together in that way? You might say, "That's pretty easy. Evolutionary biology will surely provide the answer. If our thoughts didn't fit the world around us, we would not have survived in the struggle for life."

That, of course, must be true, but only up to a point. It can only be true of everyday mathematics (the mathematics of 1-2-3 and a little simple Euclidean geometry) and everyday experience (the world of rocks and trees).

But when I'm talking about mathematics as being the key to unlock the secrets of the physical universe, I'm not talking about anything so banal as that. I'm talking about the quantum world, for example, which is counter-intuitive, totally different from the world of everyday experience -- an unpredictable world in which, if you know where an electron is, you don't know what it's doing; if you know what it's doing, you don't know where it is. (That's Heisenberg's uncertainty principle in a nutshell.) That strange, unpredictable quantum world needs for its understanding very abstract mathematics, ultimately the mathematics of spontaneously broken gauge theories -- I'm sure you'll believe that they are pretty abstract! Or I'm thinking of the great spacious world of cosmology, with its geometry of curved space. So I think something very significant is happening in the rational transparency, the deep intelligibility of the physical world, far beyond what evolutionary biology could explain.

Now, you have a choice about whether to seek an explanation. As with all these matters, you can always decide to stop the inquiry. You can shrug your shoulders and say, "That's just the way it is, and a bit of good luck for you chaps who happen to be good at mathematics." But my instinct as a scientist is to seek an understanding through and through, and not to be so intellectually lazy. So I personally want to seek to understand why the reason within and the reason without fit together. The most natural way of doing that would be if there is some deeper rationality which is the ground of both, linking them together. Of course, as a Christian, I believe there is such a rationality, namely the reason of the Creator who is the ground of both our mental life and our physical life.

In summary, what I'm saying is that the physical world seems shot through with signs of mind and to me, indeed it is a Mind, spelled with a capital 'M.' I don't present that as a knock-down argument, for there are no knock-down arguments in this area of discourse. But I do present it as a deeply satisfying insight which supports the idea of a world upheld by the will of God.

The second example I would like to refer to in this area is something that we've come to realize scientifically only in the last 20 years or so. We live in a rather remarkable world of immense fruitfulness. It started extremely simple and it has become very complex over its 15 billion year history. We've come to realize that that amazing evolution of complexity from simplicity wouldn't happen in just 'any old world.' As far as we can figure it out, it's only possible in a world that is extremely finely-tuned in its given scientific law and circumstance.

Let me put it this way. Suppose God were to lend you the use of his universe-creating machine. As you approached this no doubt impressive piece of machinery, you would find that there were knobs that you were free to adjust in order to specify the world you would like to create. For example, there would be a row of knobs labeled with the fundamental forces of nature. One knob would be marked gravity. You turn that know up, and you make gravity very strong in the world you create; turn it down, and gravity is very weak. (Gravity, in fact, is very weak in our world.) There would be another set of knobs labeled something like circumstance. For example, how big a universe do you want? As you know, our universe is immensely big. Our sun is just an ordinary star among the hundred thousand billion stars of our galaxy, the Milky Way. The Milky Way is nothing much to speak about among the hundred thousand million galaxies of the observable universe. Sometimes we feel rather daunted by that -- what significance can there be to the inhabitants of a speck of cosmic dust? You might like a more cozy, domestic sized universe, perhaps just the size of the Milky Way. All right, you adjust the knob to the appropriate setting. You do all these things, then you pull the handle, and out comes the universe you've decided to create. You then wait to see what happens. (You have to be patient in this universe-creating business. The natural time scales are billions of years.) Now, our understanding is this: unless you had adjusted those knobs very, very carefully, to settings very close to the settings specifying the actual universe in which we live, the world which you decided to create would be extremely boring in its history. In particular, it would not produce anything like such interesting consequences as you and me. It is not just any old world which is capable of producing men and women -- a scientific insight which I'm sure you know is called the Anthropic Principle.

What are we to make of that? Again, you have a choice. You can either say, "Well, that's just the way it is; we're here because we're here." That seems to me unduly intellectually supine. I would like to understand why the world is the way it is. Shortcutting some detailed argument, I would say that for me the most satisfying insight is that the world is indeed not 'any old world,' but a creation whose given law and circumstance has been willed by its creator to be capable of fruitful process.

These are the reasons that make one think that there is a mind behind the world, and so encourage belief in a rational God who is the upholder of the world. The first action of God is holding a fruitful, rationally beautiful world in being. What then is the second action of God in relation to the world?

II. Freedom

The second action is that God is the allower of freedom. He is a lawgiver, but he is not a tyrant. He is not the cosmic puppetmaster, making everything dance as he twitches the string. Why is that so? It is so because God is characterized as being both faithful and loving. It is the characteristic of a faithful God to create a world that is reliable. It is the characteristic of a loving God to create a world that he has allowed to be other than himself, for the characteristic gift of love is to bestow freedom upon the beloved. I believe that God has given freedom to the whole of his creation -- not just humanity, but to the whole physical world in some appropriate way.

By way of an aside, I want to say that, as I strive to take the insights of science and the insights of theology seriously, it is very important that I think of creation as a whole. This universe is not just a backdrop for the human drama, which is lately begun after an ouverture lasting 15 billion years. God has all sorts of things at work in the world and he has a purpose and concern for the whole of his creation. That's a message that you find emphatically conveyed in the wisdom literature of the Old Testament, particularly the answer to Job. One of my favorite verses is when God says to Job, "Behold Behemoth, whom I made as I made you. Don't think you're the only one that counts."

So God has given freedom to the whole world. How does that work out? When we think about the universe's history, which started so simple and today has become so complex and differentiated, we find that fruitful process is characterized always by the interplay between two opposing tendencies which in a slogan kind of way we can describe as being 'chance and necessity.'

By chance I mean really just happenstance, the way things re, the quiddities of actual occurrence. It so happens in the early universe that there is just a little bit more matter here than there. That little bit of more matter here exerts a slightly greater gravitational pull, which draws in more matter, and so the condensation of galaxies and stars begins. It so happens in the course of biological evolution on Earth that a certain mutation takes place and produces a certain new possibility for biological life. Chance is happenstance, just the way things are, and it is the source of novelty. It throws up new things, galaxies or species or whatever, in the process of the world.

But, of course, those new things would disappear like smoke in the wind unless happenstance were operating within a context of lawful regularity to sift out and preserve the novel offerings of chance. That is the necessity side of the story. When the galaxies condensed we needed the regular law of gravity to produce the snow ball effect. When we talk about natural selection, we need a lawfully regular environment, for selection couldn't happen unless the environment had certain regularities within it.

The fruitfulness of the world is an interplay between chance and necessity. Some people have looked at that and have said that the role of chance subverts the religious claim that there is a purpose at work in the world. It carries the implication that you can't see from the beginning what the outcome is going to be. The great French biochemist, Jacques Monod, who wrote a famous book whose English translation is called Chance and Necessity, said, with all that Gallic rhetoric and intensity, "pure chance, absolutely free, but blind, lies at the basis of the stupendous edifice of evolution." And the point where Monod puts in the dagger is 'blind.' For Monod, the role of chance means ultimately that the universe is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

But you don't have to read it that way. There's no unique path from physics to metaphysics, and you can read it differently. I would understand it like this. I would say that fruitful interplay between chance and necessity is a reflection of the twin gifts of freedom and reliability which God has given to the world, gifts which are the reflections of his combined nature of love and faithfulness. That view is very beautifully expressed in the writings of an English theologian, W. H. Vanstone, in a book called Love's Endeavour, Love's Expense. Vanstone nowhere refers in his book to scientific insight about the world. He is influenced simply by reflecting on the necessary precariousness of creativity inspired by love. He says about such creativity that "it is the realization of a vision, but a vision only discovered through its own realization." I was very excited when I read that, because it's exactly what characterizes fruitful interplay of chance and necessity in the evolving physical process of the world. (It is the reverse of the Platonic idea where the vision is stored in eternally existing ideas to which the demiurge had to conform his efforts.)

That view, if it's correct, provides modest help with what is the most difficult problem in relation to theistic belief, the problem of evil. We believe that there are two sorts of evil: moral evil and physical evil. Moral evil is the chosen cruelties of humankind. Grievous though they are, we gain some slight understanding in relation to them by the so-called free-will-defense: that it is better for God to have created a world of freely choosing beings, however disastrous some of their choices, than a world of perfectly programmed automata. We acknowledge the force of that when, for example, we resist, in my view rightly, measures like the forced castration of sex offenders. We don't like to turn people into automata.

Of course, that insight does nothing to help us with the problem of physical evil. But if we believe that God's gift of freedom is not just a gift to humankind, but a gift in an appropriate way to the whole of his creation then, in relation to physical evil, the free-will-defense of moral evil is augmented by what one might call the free-process-defense in relation to physical evil. God allows the world to make itself will all the necessary raggedness and blind alleys which will inescapably come with that.

Austin Farrer once asked himself what was God's will in the Lisbon earthquake (that terrible disaster of 1755, when 50,000 people were killed in one day). Farrer's answer was this -- and it's a hard answer, but I think a true answer -- that God's will was that the elements of the earth's crust should behave in accordance with their nature. God has given them freedom to be, just as he has given us freedom to be.

So the second action of God is a passive action, of letting-be -- his acquiescent will, in a more traditional language. God wills neither the act of a murderer nor the incidence of cancer, but he allows both to happen in a world which is given the freedom to be itself.

Now, so far, what I have said about God's upholding the world and God's acquiescence in the free process of the world is as consistent with the God of deism as the God of theism. But the Christian God is not an impotent spectator of the world's history, which he has set in motion.; he is a God who is to be met with prayer as well as in worshipful awe.

III. Interactor

Therefore, I have to go on to ask whether it is possible, with integrity, to make sense of a third action of God in the world: God as the one who interacts with what is going on. Is such a view tenable with scientific integrity? Certainly our expectations in that respect seem to have been diminished by the advance of scientific knowledge. Indeed, has not the advance of science made this view of divine action incredible, for the world seems so well described by the regularity of natural law.

When the Church of England Prayer Book was revised in 1928, it still contained a prayer for seasonable weather for crops. When the Alternative Service Book was produced in 1980, that prayer was omitted, though the ASB does contain a harvest collect expressing thanks retrospectively for the fruits of the earth. Now, I'm not quite clear that it's sensible to be thankful afterwards for what you didn't think it was sensible to ask for beforehand, but I think we must recognize that the advance of science has, in many peoples' minds, diminished the expectation that God does anything in particular in the world. However, a God who did nothing in particular -- even if it were conceded that he did it very well -- would surely not be fittingly described as a personal God. So we have to wrestle with the problem.

In actual fact, I think that those who find this difficult are caught in an outdated scientific picture of the world. In the 20th century, we have learned that whatever the physical world is, it is not a machine. It is not the world of clockwork regularity that it seemed to the people of the 18th and (to a large extent) the 19th century. The process of the world is something more subtle and more supple than that.

How can I argue that's so? For a couple of reasons. One, of course, is quantum theory, lurking at the subatomic roots of the world. What seems so clear and straightforward in everyday experience suddenly becomes cloudy and fitful at that level. The quantum world is not a world which is tightly determined.

That is interesting but my feeling is that it is not the most significant line of attack on the question of mechanism. The reason is that, though quantum events may be random, they are very small-scale events. When we get to the larger scale things going on in the world, like ourselves and things around us, all those uncertainties in the quantum world tend to average out. It is rather like the basis on which insurance offices work. They don't know whether you are going to die in the next five years, but they do have a pretty good idea of how many people of your age group are going to die in that period.

Nevertheless, a number of other people have thought that quantum theory might be where the openness of the world lies. Some of it may indeed lie there, but I don't think it is the major thing. Where then is it located? The answer lies, I think, in the behaviour of large scale systems of some complexity. One of the most astonishing things that has happened in physics recently began when we started to realize in the last thirty years or so that the large-scale behaviour of many systems is quite different from what we thought it was. They are far from a clock-like regularity. The world, in Popper's phrase, has much more in the way of clouds in it than clocks. That is the basis of the celebrated, but not very well-named, theory of chaos.

What is that theory all about? I can't describe it properly this evening, but let me give you a flavor of it. It depends upon the fact that when we have systems of some complexity, they rapidly acquire and exquisite sensitivity to circumstance. A very simple example is the air in this room. It consists of lots of molecules moving around. They are not like billiard balls, but they behave in many ways as if they were. Let's take that model, for it's not too misleading. The molecules are whizzing around and colliding with each other. In a period of (ten to the minus ten) seconds (that's one ten thousand millionth of a second, a pretty short time!) each of these molecules has had about fifty collisions with its neighbors.

I then ask myself the following question: how accurately do I have to know how things were moving at the beginning in order to be able to calculate with tolerable accuracy how they will be moving at the end of that period, (ten to the minus ten) seconds? Each billiard ball collision is a perfectly determined event, but the way the billiard balls separate depends extremely sensitively on the exact angle at which they hit each other. If anyone here has ever played snooker or pool, they will be well aware of that fact!

In the course of successive collisions, the uncertainties mount up (they exponentiate, as the mathematically minded say). It turns out that my calculation of how these billiard ball molecules would be moving will be badly out if I have neglected to take into account the presence of an extra electron (the smallest particle of matter) on the other side of the observable universe (about as far away as you can get) interacting with the molecules through its gravitational force (the weakest of the intrinsic forces of nature).

In other words, such a system is unpredictable -- for I can't know about that electron on the other side of the universe -- and it is intrinsically un-isolable. So you see, systems of some degree of complexity really are exquisitely sensitive to circumstance. One of the first ways we learned this was when people started thinking about the weather. It is sometimes referred to as the butterfly effect: that a butterfly stirring the air with its wings in Beijing will affect storm systems over New York in a fortnight's time.

What are we to make of this? What we've learned is the complex systems are exquisitely sensitive and therefore intrinsically unpredictable. "Aha," you say, "but that is simply epistemology. It simply means we can't know what is happening; nevertheless, they may be running along perfectly rigid lines." Well, they might be, but we don't have to buy that. My instincts as a scientist are that what we can know and what is the case are very closely related to each other. That's why scientists are realists. A realist believes that what you can know and what is the case are closely connected.

Critical realists have written on their T-shirts the slogan, "Epistemology Models Ontology." It is therefore a possible move, and in my mind, a good move, to move from unpredictability (an epistemological statement) to openness (an ontological statement) -- to say that the future is not simply a tautologous rearrangement of what was already present in the past, but something really new.

Science through the theory of chaos seems to describe a world of genuine becoming, with a future which is different from the past, a world of real novelty. If that is so it is a gain for physics, for it means that physics begins to describe a world of which we can conceive ourselves as inhabitants. For we experience openness and choice.

Thus it seems to me that modern science tells us that we live in a world whose ground rules do not specify all happenings completely. Instead, they outline an envelope of future possibilities. Chaos theory is badly named, actually. It isn't just randomness; rather, it is a sort of structured openness that it produces. We live in just such a world of flexible openness. It is a world in which we can act, and if we can act, I don't see why God can't act in it as well, within the hiddenness of flexible process.

What does he do and what do we do? That is a difficult question that I am unable to answer properly. But it is a familiar question, for it is simply the theological problem of grace and free will written cosmically large. We live in a world whose openness and hidden flexibility mean that it is a world in which God can be at work.

Let me address two objections to that. First, isn't that just making God an agent among agents? I think not, because the way these sensitive systems go doesn't depend upon energy input (it doesn't require a push) but information input (this way). They face what are called bifurcated possibilities. Think of a bead at the top of a curved U of wire, perfectly smooth. It can fall either to the right or to the left. There is no energetic difference between the two possibilities; there is simply an information difference -- this way or that way. So I think this flexible openness represents a world in which interactions take place -- by ourselves and by God -- in the form, not of energy input, but information input. We can even speak of God as acting as the guide or even 'lure' of the world.

The second objection, which is really a variation on the first, is: am I not returning to a God of the gaps? Well, we have to be careful about what we mean by gaps. Gaps that are extrinsic, gaps that are imposed, are bad gaps, for they represent just arbitrary ignorance. A God of the gaps of that sort is no God at all. But I'm not talking about arbitrary gaps but rather about intrinsic gaps. If the world's process is genuinely open, it has to be 'gappy' in this intrinsic sense. We are people of the gaps, as we make our way through choice, and I don't think in that sense it is at all pejorative to speak about God as being a God of the gaps.

Now, have I not left out something? Have I not left out a fourth action of God, God as a wonder worker, the one who works miracles? After all, central to Christian faith, and certainly central to my faith, is belief in the resurrection of Christ. It cannot be that a man came alive never to die again simply through the exploitation of flexible process.

So what about miracle? The first thing to say is that the problem of miracle is not a scientific problem but it is a theological problem. And the theological problem is the problem of consistency. You may have noticed I never say God intervenes in the world; I always say God interacts with the world. Interaction is a continuous, consistent word; intervention is a fitful, episodic sort of word. It is inconceivable theologically that God acts as a celestial conjurer, doing a turn today to impress people that he won't bother to do tomorrow. God must be utterly consistent in his relationship with the world, but consistency does not mean a dreary uniformity. So the problem of miracle is to understand how it fits in with the rest of God's action. If you like, the problem of miracle is not 'do they happen?' but 'why don't they happen more frequently?'

That's a difficult problem, which is worth a whole lecture in itself. Just let me say that there is a little story from science that helps us with this. It refers to a scientific phenomenon that we see every day, but which if you hadn't seen before, would astonish you. It's simply this. Put some water in a kettle and boil it. If you put a thermometer in the water, what would you observe? The thermometer would rise steadily: 65, 75, 85, 95. It's perfectly regular and it's perfectly clear what's happening. As you put more heat in, the temperature of the water rises in a uniform way -- until you get to 100 (degrees) C. And then something happens which, if you haven't seen it happen every day, would absolutely astonish you. That regular rise suddenly stops and something totally unexpected happens: a small quantity of liquid then changes into a large quantity of steam. It's what physicists call a phase change.

The point is this: the laws of physics don't change at 100 degrees C; they are exactly the same all the time. But the consequences of the laws of physics change quite radically as we enter, as physicists say, a new regime, the change from a liquid phase into a gaseous phase.

I try to understand God's action that we call miraculous in the same sort of way. There is an underlying consistency of God's relationship to the world but the existence of a new regime may mean that consistency expresses itself in totally unprecedented, totally unexpected consequences. If it is true (and I believe it is true) that God was present in Christ in a way that he has not been present in any other person, then Jesus represented the presence of a new regime in the world. It is at least a coherent possibility that that new regime was accompanied by a new phenomenon. In other words, I want to assimilate miracle to providence. For me, miracle is an unexpected providence in an unprecedented circumstance. So I don't want to have a fourth, separate action of God; I want to assimilate that action to providential action.


So there are the three actions of God, and I think we can take them seriously in the world described to us by modern science. What's the ultimate point of all this discussion? I stand before you as somebody who is both a physicist and a priest, and I want to hold together my scientific and my religious insights and experiences. I want to hold them together, as far as I am able, without dishonesty and without compartmentalism. I don't want to be a priest on Sunday and a physicist on Monday; I want to be both on both days. So it is necessary for me to try to wrestle with these problems of how scientific understandings and theological understandings relate to each other.

But I think it's not just an activity for those who happen to have that particular background and concern. I think it is of wider value to the whole church, in three different ways. First of all, I know many people -- I'm sure you do too -- who are wistful fellow travellers with religion, who would genuinely like to believe but who don't believe they can do so with integrity. They think that believing means shutting your eyes and gritting your teeth and crying with Tertullian, "I believe because it's impossible." I think we should seek to integrate our beliefs in order to help such people, to show them that it is possible to take all human knowledge seriously, not to shut our eyes to it, and to still be Christian believers.
Secondly, I think it is necessary for us to regain a certain confidence in the church. I sometimes give a talk called "Can a Scientist Pray?" You will understand, from what I've been saying, my answer to that is "yes." I think it is necessary for us to believe that we can not only adore God for the majesty of his creation, but also believe in a personal God from whom we can ask particular things.

Thirdly, I think we have to seek this integration of science and religion, because I passionately believe in the unity of knowledge. I believe that theology, because it deals with God as the ground of everything, is the great integrating discipline. So I'm going to conclude this lecture with what is one of my favorite quotations. It comes from the great Canadian Jesuit, Bernard Lonergan. He said, "God is the all sufficient explanation, the eternal rapture, glimpsed in every Archimedean cry of Eureka." 

The Rev. Dr. John Polkinghorne was (when the lecture was given) the President of Queens' College, Cambridge, England, and an ordained Anglican priest. A Fellow of the Royal Society and former Professor of Mathematical Physics at the University of Cambridge, he is the author of many books, including ONE WORLD, SCIENCE AND CREATION, SCIENCE AND PROVIDENCE and THE WAY THE WORLD IS. He delivered this J.K.Russell Fellowship Lecture on April 6, 1990, at the Pacific School of Religion Chapel in Berkeley. 
P.S. (by John Keggi): Polkinghorne, along with Arthur Peacocke, is one of the guiding lights of the Society of Ordained Scientists, a dispersed preaching order of the Anglican communion. The above transcript is taken from the CTNS BULLETIN, Vol. 10, No. 2, Spring 1990. It is published by the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences, Berkeley, California. 
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