Quantum Physics and Theology: An Unexpected Kinship By John Polkinghorne (Part 3d) – Lessons from History

Quantum Physics and Theology: An Unexpected Kinship
By John Polkinghorne (Part 3d) — Lessons from History

We are reviewing the book, “Quantum Physics and Theology: An Unexpected Kinship” by John Polkinghorne.  Today we will look at the fourth part of Chapter 3- Lessons from History.  John continues his comparative study of science and Christian theology with some additional historical examples of how the discovery of further truth proceeds in these two disciplines.  Last time we looked at: (3) Tides of fashion.  This week we look at:

(4) The role of genius.  Advance in understanding owes much to the insights of small number of exceptional people.

(a) The founders of quantum theory.  Certainly a great deal of development in science stems from the labors of the honest toilers in research and Polkinghorne would never fail to acknowledge that.  Still in the case of quantum theory, especially in the formative years of the mid-1920s the exceptional insights of Heisenberg, Schrodinger, and Dirac laid the foundation of modern quantum theoretical understanding. Of course the name Einstein is now synonymous with the word genius, although poor Niels Bohr doesn’t get the credit he deserves except by actual physicists.

(b) Apostolic insight.  Polkinghorne asserts that the writings of the New Testament are dominated by the profound insights of three particular authors, Paul, John, and the unknown person who wrote the Epistle to the Hebrews.  He believes that the depth of theological reflection found in their writings has meant that all subsequent generations of theologians had to engage with them.  He says their brilliant insights have shaped the form of Christian theology in a manner that the believer will see as the result of providential inspiration by the Holy Spirit, guiding the use of individual human gifts.  However, I’m not sure how that squares with Paul’s admonition in 1 Corinthians 1:26-29

26 For ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called: 27 But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty;

28 And base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are: 29 That no flesh should glory in his presence.

And Polkinghorne doesn’t mention Jesus here.  Was Jesus a genius?  This section makes me think about how history seems to be a celebration of great men (and rarely great women—which may be telling in itself).  Is this an all too human propensity to hero-worship?  Is the Enlightenment/Modern Project notion of “the progress of humanity” a real increase in human flourishing?  To a certain extent it is, of course; I love me some modern sanitation, I have a stent in my left circumflex heart artery—otherwise I’d be dead, slavery is universally condemned in theory if not always in practice, and so on.

Is the story of the Church one of progress? It certainly does not seem to be a progress that can be measured by worldly standards. Father Stephen Freeman said:

I often see examples of what I would describe as “comparative denominationalism.” It is the comparison of one Church to another (yes, I know that Orthodoxy is not a denomination). Indeed, the drive for a “better Church,” a “more authentic Church,” the “true Church,” the “New Testament Church,” is little more than a game invented in America during the 19th century. It is post-Reformation and represents the rise of Christian consumerism… Particularly after the Reformation, the notion that correct doctrine would produce a correct Church gained increasing acceptance. However, history has repeatedly proven this to be a false idea. No matter the corrective measures, Christianity, as Church, remains flawed. Apparently, allowing sinful people to be part of the Church ruins its excellence, and, even the most excellent people are revealed to be broken.

I’m inclined to agree with Father Freeman here, but I wonder if there is a counter-argument?  Polkinghorne’s final comparison is:

(5) Living with unresolved perplexities.  While the ultimate aim is a coherent and fully integrated scheme of understanding, it may be necessary to tolerate living with not all problems fully solved.

(a) Quantum problems.  John asks, how does it come about that the apparently reliable Newtonian world of everyday experience emerges from its fitful quantum substrate?  Almost a hundred years after the initial discovery of modern quantum theory, it is embarrassing to physicists to have to admit that there is no comprehensive and universally agreed answer to that reasonable question.  The theory enables us to calculate with impressive accuracy the probabilities of obtaining these different answers, but it is unable to explain how it comes about that a specific answer is obtained on a specific occasion.  John says:

No one rejoices at these perplexities in physics, and all physicists hope for their eventual resolution.  Meanwhile the subject is not paralyzed in its search for understanding.  Scientists can live with partial knowledge and a degree of intellectual uncertainty.

(b) The problem of evil.  Polkinghorne asserts the most perplexing problem that theology faces is the problem of evil and suffering.  If God is both good and almighty, whence come the disease and disaster, the cruelty and neglect that we observe in creation?  If God is good, surely these ills would have been eliminated.  If God is almighty, there is surely divine power to do so.  Polkinghorne believes a partial answer can be held to lie, not in qualifying divine goodness, but in a careful analysis of what is meant by ‘almighty’.  Almighty means that God can do whatever God wills, but God can only will that which is in accordance with the divine nature.  Christians believe that nature to be love. He says the God of love could not be a cosmic tyrant, whose creation was simply a divine puppet-theater manipulated solely by the divine Puppet-Master.  The gift of love is always the gift of some kind of due independence to the object of love.  This is basically the Free Will Defense of Alvin Plantinga.

The bigger problem is physical evil, disease, and disaster that seems to be much more the direct responsibility of the Creator.  Chaplain Mike has called this “surd evil”, and revisited the subject again this Monday with Richard Beck’s essay.

Riffing off of Plantinga, Polkinghorne suggests there is a kind of “free-process defense” paralleling the free-will defense:

All parts of the created order are allowed to act according to their varied natures, being themselves and—through the evolutionary exploration of the potency with which the universe has been endowed—making themselves. In a non-magic world (and the world is not magic because its Creator is not a capricious magician), there will be an inevitable shadow side to fruitful process.  Genetic mutation will produce new forms of life, but other mutations will induce malignancy.  Tectonic plates will enable mineral resources to well up at their edges to replenish the surface of the Earth, but they will also slip and induce earthquakes and tsunamis.

Although I provisionally accept answers like Polkinghorne’s and Beck’s as probably the best we can do, as I get older, I have left off expecting easy answers anymore—or any answer at all.  The Christian God is the crucified God, truly a fellow sufferer who understands.  As Dorothy Sayers said:

“For whatever reason God chose to make man as he is— limited and suffering and subject to sorrows and death—He had the honesty and the courage to take His own medicine. Whatever game He is playing with His creation, He has kept His own rules and played fair. He can exact nothing from man that He has not exacted from Himself. He has Himself gone through the whole of human experience, from the trivial irritations of family life and the cramping restrictions of hard work and lack of money to the worst horrors of pain and humiliation, defeat, despair and death. When He was a man, He played the man. He was born in poverty and died in disgrace and thought it well worthwhile.”


Icon of Extreme Humility

I really think this insight touches the problem of suffering at the deepest level at which it can be met.  In fact, I no longer conceive of God as anything other than “Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2).  John 1:18 says, “No man hath seen God at any time, the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.”  That word “declared” in Greek is where we get the word “exegete”.  So “The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has exegeted Him”.  Christ is how we “read” God. We cannot get behind Christ to speak about God as though we knew anything of God apart from Christ.  Therefore, the crucifixion and the resurrection are the answer and there is no answer apart from them.

15 thoughts on “Quantum Physics and Theology: An Unexpected Kinship By John Polkinghorne (Part 3d) – Lessons from History

  1. Michael Spencer loved Mark for some of the reasons you mentioned here. Oh I so badly want to find the time to finish editing his commentary on Mark.


  2. Lightning strikes people because we allow it? Children die of rare cancers because we allow it? How does that work?


  3. Do I get to keep the 9-19 epilogue?
    I didn’t think so.

    However, I really like this alternative ending, too.

    [II] This age of lawlessness and unbelief is under Satan, who does not allow the truth and power of God to prevail over the unclean things of the spirits [or, does not allow what lies under the unclean spirits to understand the truth and power of God]. Therefore reveal your righteousness now’ – thus they spoke to Christ. And Christ replied to them, ‘The term of years of Satan’s power has been fulfilled, but other terrible things draw near. And for those who have sinned I was handed over to death, that they may return to the truth and sin no more, in order that they may inherit the spiritual and incorruptible glory of righteousness that is in heaven.


  4. I have not been commenting about this series so far mainly because I dislike being the Party Poop so I will await until the end of the series to comment about it as a whole. In the meantime… .

    “Polkinghorne asserts that the writings of the New Testament are dominated by the profound insights of three particular authors, Paul, John, and the unknown person who wrote the Epistle to the Hebrews. He believes that the depth of theological reflection found in their writings has meant that all subsequent generations of theologians had to engage with them.”

    Well it would be hard to argue with this. They certainly dominate subsequent discourse. But…and it’s a BIG DANG BUT…allow me to assert that the real genius of the New Testament is the unknown author of the Gospel of Mark. True, his Greek is not the smoothest but he and his community are living at a raw existential edge. His language is basic and taut. He is eloquent the way a slap in the face is eloquent.

    Mark sees the glory but it is glory born not of pleasure but of pain. Mark’s Jesus is familiar with the shadow lands. Only the demons are said to know him truly. Mark realizes that everyone is afraid and given the chance to speak will run away and hide.

    In the old days it was thought that Mark was some kind of condensation of Matthew, a lesser work. But eventually scholars realized Mark was first, the inventor of the Gospel genre. Matthew and Luke used him verbatim in vast swaths. How could you improve on it? What I tell people to do is find a clear modern English translation and read it straight through and imagine no other gospel exists. For a while this was the case! What would we know about Jesus then? Would we find the one we expect to find? Does he say the things we expect him to say?

    Then and only then get a copy of Joel Marcus’ brilliant two volume Anchor Bible commentary. Introduce yourself to all the things you thought you knew but didn’t. Things that become obvious after someone points them out!


  5. Ironic is right.

    It was Pilate who first ordered the proclamation announced to the world, in three languages no less.


  6. For all the rejection I have of Trump’s ‘trumpism’,
    I find Melania to present herself as a person who attempts to be dignified and relatively kindly . . . . a quiet, reserved figure that reminds us that it is STILL possible for persons to behave decently in public towards others. She is more of a contrast to than a mirror of her husband. I can see that she tries to behave with dignity in spite of all that happens around her.


  7. The icon of Extreme Humility portrays Christ in the tomb, suggested by the stone surrounding his lower body. The nail prints are in his hands, and the Cross is behind him, figuratively time-wise as well as how it’s placed in the composition.

    The titulus on an Orthodox crucifix doesn’t read “INRI” (Jesus of Nazareth, king of the Jews). It’s not that the Orthodox are ignorant about what Pilate had ordered tacked up there; we hear what he did several times during Holy Week in the Gospel readings. On an Orthodox crucifix, the titulus proclaims who this One REALLY is, even more so than Pilate’s ironic and true statement. If you know your OT, it’s God Himself. And the Cross is the means by which he comes into the Glory of His Kingdom.



  8. This was in 1987, HUGster. Melania Trump was a Yugoslav teenager mugging for a camera jockey in Ljubljana, and his Donaldness was making headlines turning Atlantic City into Las Vegas East.

    I was Reformed but restless.


  9. “Who takes the place of Tonantzin for Protestants?” I asked him. “Nancy Reagan?”

    No, Melanie Trump.

    It made perfect sense to someone who had read as much Lewis (and Tolkien, and Charles Williams) as I had that of course, after the Incarnation men and women would have to take over from the bodiless powers, and basically take charge.

    Some years ago, the same subject came up in a back-and-forth about D&D pantheons. One gamer setting up a campaign said he was going to go with Saints instead of gods because “Saints were once human”.


  10. Sadly, much “christian” Theology and Moral Reasoning seems not all that different than IDH (the InterDimensional Hypothesis).

    And when applied to Ufology or similar Paranormal/Fortean Phenomena, Born-Again Bible-Believing Theology has only one explanation (FACT, not Hypothesis): “DEMONS! DEMONS! DEEEEMONS!”


  11. This again. Theodicy. As if the cosmos ought to be a toddler’s birthday party. I understand I am saying this as a person who hasn’t shouldered anywhere near his share of the load of suffering, but, c’mon…

    It may be sleight-of-hand to say so, but my imagination runs riot on the principalities and powers, as if there was a certain segment of the uncorporate creation who resented on some powerful level the emergence of organic life and what it represented, a first few stumbling steps towards the Incarnation and “the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”

    I remember a super-hyper-Reformed type of my acquaintance, a minister of the Van Tillian stripe, who poo-poo’ed the Cathodox cultus of the saints by saying they ‘were nothing more than the old gods and goddesses wno used to Run Things under new and Christian names. Think about it,’ he said. “You had a god of this and a goddess of that, but now you have a patron saint of this or that. Psychologically the same thing, really. You had to placate the Powers to get on in this world, and now you have to placate the saints.’ He gave the, to his mind, irrefutable case of the correspondence of the Aztec goddess Tonantzin with our Lady of Guadalupe.

    “Who takes the place of Tonantzin for Protestants?” I asked him. “Nancy Reagan?” He was not pleased.

    The Disciple of Van Til doesn’t know it, but his commentary on the saints definitely added fuel to the trajectory I was already on that eventually led me out of Protestantism. It made perfect sense to someone who had read as much Lewis (and Tolkien, and Charles Williams) as I had that of course, after the Incarnation men and women would have to take over from the bodiless powers, and basically take charge.

    There is evil in the world because we allow it. Indeed, we prefer it that way so we can continue to take unfair advantage, lie, dissemble, and look at teenage girls on the Internet. Like the Roman bishop who was asked by a brother bishop what would increase priestly vocations in his diocese responded ‘your canonization, your Eminence’, I think that theodicy would bother us less the holier we became and performed the work that Tolkien assigned to one of the greatest of his Valar, the changing of sorrow into wisdom.


  12. If such beings were important to human understanding of the moral condition, or the arc of Scripture, wouldn’t Scripture contain something of a coherent picture of such beings? [aside: it most certainly does not].

    Sadly, much “christian” Theology and Moral Reasoning seems not all that different than IDH (the InterDimensional Hypothesis).

    I much prefer doubt, consternation, and confusion to hand-wavery and word salad. I’m good with “For whatever reason God chose to make man as he is….”


  13. This in no way commits one to seeing a demon as the primary or only cause behind every natural, or human, evil. But it does leave open the possibility that in the operation of natural “free-process” from the beginning of creation, and today, there may be an element of intelligence that is part of the larger whole. And, once again, that it does comport with Biblical language about angelic beings, and Jesus’ language and actions (including exorcism), seems to me to recommend it as a way of understanding the origin and workings of evil in creation.


  14. If one layers over the “free-process defense” for surd evil with belief in powerful, super-intelligent non-human spiritual beings that existed prior to the existence of human beings, who had God-given authoritative power over the world (principalities and powers?) and continue to have such authority though they have fallen into evil and become malicious, then a more complete explanation that aligns with traditional Christian ideas about angelic/demonic beings comes into play. This in no way explains everything about evil, nor provides a thorough theodicy, but it is in keeping with the idea that God’s omnipotence is conditioned by his nature, which would not allow the creation of a world that was “simply a divine puppet-theater manipulated solely by the divine Puppet-Master” while also staying with traditional ideas drawn from Biblical sources and language about the angelic world and its power and authority.


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