Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Sir John Polkinghorn on Theism

"...I do believe that theism explains more than atheism ever can. I believe that those who with honesty and openness are seeking understanding through and through, are actually seeking God whether they name the divine by name or not. Oddly enough, some of the questions that religion answers are ones that arise from science itself. They're not scientific questions in themselves, those questions we can safely leave to science to answer, but they are what philosophers call meta questions, questions which go beyond that from which they started.

And I've just time for one of them. It's this: Why is science possible at all? Why can we understand the physical world so profoundly? Not just the everyday world, which of course we've got to understand in order to survive in it, but, say, that strange quantum world of sub-atomic particles, cloudy and fitful in their behaviour, totally different from the world of everyday experience. Or at the other end of the scale of things, the vast world of curved cosmic space. Our human powers of understanding are very profound. It puzzled Einstein that this was so. You may remember, he once said, 'The only incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.' So why is science possible on this grand scale? Physics explores a universe of great rational beauty that is also rationally transparent to us. Physics is happy to do so, but of course by itself, it is unable to explain its good fortune in being able to do it. I think that the physical world is shot through with signs of mind because there is indeed a divine capital-M Mind behind its wonderful order. "

Sir John Polkinghorn
Former President of Queen's College,
Cambridge University


Paul M. Harrison said...

Polkinghorne and Swinburne are both touted as being the most intellectual thinkers on theism in current philosophy, but I have never read more than blurbs like your post from them. I found "Belief in God in an Age of Science" by Polkinghorne in a used bookstore today for $7. Have you tried struggling through this guy? Yikes! Don't let British physicists write your theology, or farmers from Tulsa.

I am all for intellectual honesty and the rational pursuit of understanding what we can know about God, and I am also for knowing where the paradox and mystery kicks in and the intellect can go no further. But I've also had the hunch that the farther we get from very basic existential and simple questions, the more we are just contructing meaningless words about God.

Sometimes I believe in God, other times I don't, though my desire and hope is always pro-theism. I want God, not as a philosophical concept, a deistic principle, a mystical life force, or a totally sovereign-other. I want one who knows my name and cares about what I do, who loves me. Ask yourself, "What is a God good for and why should we want one" and my answers are almost always existential, not mathematical or philosophical.

I believe that God is possible, and is a sufficient explanation for everything in the universe. The key now is to move from the possibility of God's existence to demonstrating that He does exist. After establishing a generic theism we then have to move to specific arguments of God's revelation and interaction in the world, perhaps through evidential apologetics.

In all I've read and thought through, there is definitely a failure or a limit to what apologetics can establsih about God. I find some arguments strong in Christian apologetics, many weak, but nothing that doesn't leave room for reasonable doubt.

So I try to move to another leg, which is personal encounter or experience. I have had some very crazy experiences that seem very supernatural within Christian contexts, but nothing that isn't repeated in other contexts. Of course we hear anecdotes and miracle stories all the time and don't readily ask for verification (it isn't polite).

For me, the jury is still undecided. Many times I will say, "I believe in something more" without being able to put my finger on what that means exactly. So why not the specific leap into a fundamntalist system?

Well, the liabilities.

I have never been comfortable with the audacity of claiming to know absolute Truth on issues I cannot possibly demonstrate as such. This is also why I have never been drawn to fundamentalist atheism either.

And in the case of Christianity specifically, Jesus demands a lot. God is a hard man as you said in another blog. If I am going to surrender my life to something this demanding of me, it had better be true. It is a decision that causes me more stress than any worldly matter I can imagine.

The demand made upon lives in evangelism and what I ask people to do in becoming a follower of Christ is a hefty resonsibility. If I am wrong I will have changed many lives for better and for worse. Not to mention, what I am promising to others must be true in my life as well, and I was never all that confident God was doing anything at all. In fact, much of the Christian life for was in books finding qualifications for why things weren't adding up as they should.

To look at unbelievers as deceived by Satan or to see circumstances as attacks of an evil, supernatural entity never seemed to have integrity to me. The idea that hell awaits those who do not accept a certain fundamentalist formula of belief...these are very audacious claims indeed.

So my reluctance to adopt such views until I have good enough reason to I think is responsible. I am usually bombarded with people quoting Romans 1, telling me God has revealed enough to me and that I love my prideful distance from Him to protect my sin. Again, I leave the conversation there because the person is not reasoning or discussing, but flipping out party line answers on the authority of Paul, calling me a rebel if I disagree.

The intellectual history of science goes back to the Greeks and has come to us through Christian culture and Christian thinkers, but this by no means means science is based upon Christianity specifically and that the removal of the Christian concept of God would cause science to fall apart.

I saw a debate with D'Souza and Hitchens, DSouza claiming that as an atheist Hitchens has to say he doesn't know why the universe is rational and can be comprehended, but as Christians we know why it is - because we are made in the image of God and because the universe obeys the order God has placed in it, etc. Well, of course he doesn't know and cannot demonstrate this. It is a rational inference and a possibility at best.

Most people are raised with their beliefs, adopt them in a time of crisis, believe based on a mystical or life-changing emotional experience, and lastly believe due to good evidence.

In apologetics, William Lane Craig says he already knows God exists by the inner witness of the Spirit, but whether or not he can show it isn't important because his faith does not rest on apologetics. Reason is not supreme he warns, so do not follow it when it takes you away from the inner witness. I find this reasoning to be convoluded. It is confirmation bias and a refusal to subject his beliefs to scrutiny (while feeling everyone else should have their cards on the table).

For me, the evidence should be laid out clearly and a rational infernece should be based on that evidence. Being undecided is not a moral or intellectual falure, but may have more integrity than rash belief and disbelief for emotional reasons.

But when you know you have the Truth and are winning souls from hell, can you really be satisfied with someone's agnosticism? Anything short of surrender to God in faith that pleases Him gets you on bad the side of the judgment stick.

With such emotional desperation, fear, and pressure, how can a rational decision be made? So for the liablility, I simply don't think there is good reason to believe these fundamental concepts accurately represents reality.

At best, these days, I accept the brute fact of Light and Love wherever it can be found and hope there is a transcendent source for it called God.

Pastor Dave said...

So you are asking for rational evidence of the "surety" of God. But faith is what is required. The more I study it- the more I see the genuis of the Lord. All the scientific baggage still does not increase or decrease the need for faith. BRILLIANT!

If you are looking for evidence- it is all around you. If you are looking for incontrovertible evidence- sorry out of luck!

Paul M. Harrison said...

When I believed God was speaking to me in 2003, I said, "No one has been able to refute any of my arguments against Christianity this past decade, I wish I could believe in You." The answer in an inner-audible voice was, "Name for Me any belief system or subculture that doesn't end in paradox, mystery, or have intellectual struggles, yet you won't write an essay against any of them. Ask your questions and have your doubts within belief in Me instead of outside of belief in Me. Can you deny the times I have encountered you personally?"

When I rededicated my life to God at that point, it was with that understanding, so my emphasis was much less on theological correctness and apologietcs and much more on relationship and personal encounter - sort of a Christian mysticism or Christian existentialism. I still dove into the Geisler, Sproul, Zacharias, etc. and keep my faith and questions in tension.

I agree with your point. I think math and logic are the only places proof is found, and even they have paradox. Everything else is reasonable inference with varying levels of faith.

But too many times since, that inner voice led me astray and had given me false information, so I abandoned that as delusion and reasoned that God was in fact not talking to me.

Generally I agree about having faith, but wouldn't faith turn to knowledge as God does things like answer prayer, deliver on promises, etc? When you speak of God always showing up or never letting you down, are you in fact claiming to know that God exists and is personally active in your life and community? Should not someone like me see God move that way and conclude to know He is real and does care about us? Is direct experience a good way to know as opposed to having faith?

A tape was given to me years back by a guy named Graham Cooke called, "God is the Kindest Person I've Ever Met." He asked the listener to give God a title or a phrase based on your personal testimony and experience with Him. I looked up without hesitation and said, "The God Who Never Comes Through. The God Who Always Pulls The Rug On Me."

In my personal experience, I have found myself with egg on my face whenever praying for something or obeying a supposed supernatural revelation. This by no means means there is no God, but I certainly have found nothing of value in the promises of God working in my life. Until there is a testimony, there isn't anything to testify to in my personal life except, "No God is availble to you here." Practical atheism, while affirming the benefits of belief in God generally.

What explains this? Well, pick your favorite qualification! I'm not saved, my doctrine is bad, I have secret sin, I'm praying with the wrong heart and motives, my hours of intercession in tongues is counterfeit tongues, God is testing me, etc. Who can tell?