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Science & Religion: No Ends in Sight

Sir John Polkinghorne is a well-known physicist who spent twenty years doing research in theoretical particle physics and then switched to theology. He was ordained as an Anglican priest and has spent the last twenty years as an influential member of the Church of England, serving as a link between the Church and the academic community. This is the latest of many books that he has written about science and religion for the general public. It arose out of a gathering of theologians invited by the Center for Theological Inquiry in Princeton to discuss the theological implications of the end of the world.

The world here means the whole universe and not merely the planet on which we happen to live. The gathering was called the Eschatology Project, eschatology being the official name for the branch of Christian theology that deals with the end of the world. Polkinghorne was a participant in the project, and was invited to write this book after it was over. The formal proceedings of the project are published in another book, The End of the World and the Ends of God,1 edited by Polkinghorne and Michael Welker. This book is a personal response to the questions that the project addressed, written in a more informal style and for a wider audience.

Polkinghorne begins with two chapters, “Cosmic Process: Past and Future” and “Insights from Natural Science,” that summarize present-day scientific opinions concerning the end of the world. These chapters provide the scientific input for the theological discussions that follow. The scientific input is meager. Very few scientists have spent much time thinking about the end of the world, and those few have reached diverse conclusions. All scenarios for the end of the world are highly speculative. They cannot be tested or verified by observation or experiment. The beginning of the world in the colossal explosion that we call the Big Bang has left many physical traces that can be observed and analyzed. The science of cosmology is largely concerned with collecting tangible evidence of things that happened billions of years ago, going all the way back to the beginning. No such tangible evidence can exist for the ending. For this reason, most scientists consider that the end of the world does not have much to do with science.

At the end of his two scientific chapters, Polkinghorne summarizes their findings in a single sentence: “From its own unaided resources, natural science can do no more than present us with the contrast of a finely tuned and fruitful universe which is condemned to ultimate futility.” He quotes the statement of the physicist Steven Weinberg in his book The First Three Minutes, “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.” He remarks that Weinberg was “writing within the limited horizon of an atheist physicalism and with science alone as his guide.” According to Polkinghorne, the universe described by science is condemned to ultimate futility because life must become extinct before the end of the world is reached. The end of the world is either a universal collapse ending in a big crunch or a universal expansion growing steadily colder and emptier until all energy decays into low-grade radiation. The universe ends as a lifeless autoclave or as a lifeless deep freeze. Either way, the prospects for life are ultimately dismal.

Having disposed of the scientific evidence in a few pages, Polkinghorne is free to pursue the theological world-view which occupies the rest of the book. Since the world described by science is doomed to end in futility, the true end of the world must be a transition to another world that is beyond the reach of science. The other world is not unknowable. Polkinghorne is able to describe it in considerable detail. He bases his description on two principal lines of evidence, first the biblical writings of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and second the insights of Christian theologians from Saint Augustine to Michael Welker and the other professional colleagues who took part in the Eschatology Project. As deduced from the testimony of these witnesses, the other world comes into clear focus. It is, with minor variations, the afterlife depicted in Christian poems and paintings. It is a world in many ways similar to the world we live in: “The new creation will not be a timeless world of ‘eternity,’ but a temporal world whose character is everlasting. (It will contain music, that specifically temporal form of art.)” The new creation will be populated with human beings and other animals, but humans have a special status. Every human who has lived in this world will reappear in the other world, but other species will be present in reduced numbers. In a section devoted to nonhuman species, we learn that

we scarcely need suppose that every dinosaur that ever lived, let alone all of the vast multitude of bacteria that have constituted so large a fraction of biomass throughout the history of terrestrial life, will each have its own individual eschatological future…. Many people who are respectful of animals would nevertheless consider it permissible to cull individuals in order to preserve the herd. Perhaps there will be lions in the world to come but not every lion that has ever lived.

The other world is divided into compartments that are given the names Heaven and Hell, but the judgment that assigns us to our places in the afterlife will not be irrevocable. Polkinghorne believes in Hell but not in everlasting fire and brimstone:

Hell is a place of boredom rather than a place of unending torture. Its color is grey rather than red. For an imaginative depiction of hell we should turn not to Dante, but to C.S. Lewis’s Great Divorce, where hell is a dreary town lost down a crack in the floor of heaven. Its inhabitants are taken, from time to time, on a bus trip to the celestial realm to see if they would like to transfer there. Sadly, most of them return, unable to endure the bright reality of heaven.

The last section of the book is entitled “Eschatological Verification.” Here we are concerned with the question of whether we can verify the truth of the account of the afterlife as it is presented in this book. As a scientist, Polkinghorne is accustomed to the idea that theories should be verified by experiments. For theories of the afterlife, scientific verification is impossible. But for a theologian, eschatological verification can be an effective substitute for scientific verification. Eschatological verification occurs when you arrive in the afterlife and verify the hypotheses with which you traveled there. At the end of the day, “Belief in the faithfulness of God is the ground of eschatological hope. Equally, eschatological experience will provide the ultimate vindication of belief in that God.”

Polkinghorne’s book is written for the general public, but it grew out of discussions with the author’s theological colleagues who share his vocabulary and his way of thinking. His arguments make sense if you accept the rules of theological argument, rules which are different from the rules of scientific argument. The way a scientific argument goes is typically as follows: We have a number of theories to explain what we have observed. Most of the theories are probably wrong or irrelevant. Then somebody does a new experiment or a new calculation that proves that Theory A is wrong. As a result, Theory B now has a better chance of being right. The way a theological argument goes is the other way round. We have a number of theories to explain what we believe. Different theologians have different theories. Then somebody, in this case Polkinghorne, declares that Theory A is right. As a result, Theory B now has a better chance of being wrong.

In the introduction to this book, Polkinghorne is arguing against Arthur Peacocke, another distinguished scientist-theologian, whose views about the af- terlife and the world to come are more skeptical. He quotes Peacocke:

What is the cash value of talk about “a new heaven and a new earth”? The only propounded basis for this seems to me to be the imaginings of one late-first-century writer (in Revelation) and the belief that the material of Jesus’ physical body was transformed to leave the empty tomb…. The latter is at least debatable and the former can scarcely be evidence. So what is left is belief in the character of God as love, and that God has taken at least one human being who was fully open to the divine presence into the divine life…. Is not all the rest of Christian eschatology but empty speculation?

Polkinghorne responds,

While I respect the scrupulosity that prompts Peacocke’s highly reserved approach, I believe his stance to be mistaken. We both share the conviction that trust in the God of love is the only ground for human expectation of a destiny beyond death, but I believe that it is necessary and possible to enquire more closely and specifically into how that steadfast love has been, and will be, acted out in history and beyond history.

If we translate this response into less polite words, it says, I believe I am right and therefore he must be wrong. Other theologians who disagree with Polkinghorne’s version of the afterlife are dealt with in similar fashion. The difference in viewpoint between Polkinghorne and Peacocke may be connected with the fact that Peacocke is a biologist while Polkinghorne is a physicist. Biologists are in closer contact than physicists with the oddities of nature and the limitations of human understanding.

What are we who are not Christians, or we Christians who are not theologians, to make of all this? We are in the position of anthropologists observing the rituals and liturgy of an alien culture. As anthropologists, we try to understand the alien way of thinking and we try to enter into the alien culture as far as we can. We make friends with individual members of the alien culture and listen to their stories. We respect them as human beings, struggling in their own way to deal with the mysteries of life and death, sharing with us our common weaknesses, fears, passions, and bewilderments. We respect their faith in the love of God, whether or not we share it. We observe them with a sympathetic eye, but from a distance. We do not for a moment imagine that their detailed vision of a world to come, with heaven and hell and eschatological verification, the vision that they find emotionally satisfying or intellectually compelling, is actually true.

I am myself a Christian, a member of a community that preserves an ancient heritage of great literature and great music, provides help and counsel to young and old when they are in trouble, educates children in moral responsibility, and worships God in its own fashion. But I find Polkinghorne’s theology altogether too narrow for my taste. I have no use for a theology that claims to know the answers to deep questions but bases its arguments on the beliefs of a single tribe. I am a practicing Christian but not a believing Christian. To me, to worship God means to recognize that mind and intelligence are woven into the fabric of our universe in a way that altogether surpasses our comprehension. When I listen to Polkinghorne describing the afterlife, I think of God answering Job out of the whirlwind, “Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?… Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? Declare, if thou hast understanding…. Have the gates of death been opened unto thee? Or hast thou seen the doors of the shadow of death?” God’s answer to Job is all the theology I need. As a scientist, I live in a universe of overwhelming size and mystery. The mysteries of life and language, good and evil, chance and necessity, and of our own existence as conscious beings in an impersonal cosmos are even greater than the mysteries of physics and astronomy. Behind the mysteries that we can name, there are deeper mysteries that we have not even begun to explore.

The situation of scientists today is still as it was described by Isaac Newton three hundred years ago:

I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.

Somewhere in that great ocean of truth, the answers to questions about life in the universe are hidden. Do alien forms of intelligent life exist? If they exist, are their ways of thinking and their aims and purposes intelligible to us? Does their view of the universe include anything that we would recognize as science? If they do not exist, shall our descendants travel out from this planet to take their place and bring the universe to life? Are there any limits to the variety of physical forms and mental capacities that we may evolve, when species born of woman spread out over the universe and diversify for billions of years? Could it happen that creatures like Fred Hoyle’s fictional Black Cloud could evolve, creatures made out of interstellar dust clouds and adapted to living in space as we are adapted to living on planets? Could it happen that life will grow in scope and power until it dominates the ecology of the universe as it today dominates the ecology of planet Earth? Could it happen that life will dominate the universe to such a degree as to achieve mastery over the geometry of space and time and create a habitat in which life can survive forever? These are questions that we can already ask, however far we may be from answering them.

Beyond these questions are others that we cannot even ask, questions about the universe as it may be perceived in the future by minds whose thoughts and feelings are as inaccessible to us as our thoughts and feelings are inaccessible to earthworms. The potentialities of life and intelligence in the universe go far beyond anything that humans can imagine. Theology should begin by recognizing the vastness of the ocean of truth and the pettiness of our search for smoother pebbles.

Between science and theology there is a genre of literature which I like to call theofiction. Theofiction adapts the style and conventions of science fiction to tell stories that have more to do with theology than with science. Preeminent among writers of theofiction was Olaf Stapledon. When he was not writing fiction, he was a professional philosopher. The most explicitly theological of his stories is Star Maker, published in 1937. The hero is a nondescript character who sits down to rest on a hill overlooking his house and unexpectedly finds himself embarked on a tour of the universe. The first stop is a planet similar to Earth, where he finds a kindred soul to share his journey. From there he travels on to other worlds, enlarging his view of the cosmos and collecting a diverse group of fellow travelers to explore further.

He travels like Dante, through realms of horror and degradation, into realms of gradually ascending philosophic calm and understanding, until he stands finally in the immediate presence of the Star Maker. He then experiences the mystical union of the cosmos with the mind of the Star Maker. But that supreme moment is tragic rather than harmonious. Like God answering Job out of the whirlwind, the Star Maker strikes him down and rejects him. The Star Maker judges his creation with love but without mercy. In the end, our entire universe, in spite of all its majesty and beauty, is a flawed experiment. The Star Maker is already busy with designs for other universes in which our flaws may be repaired.

Seven years after Star Maker, Stapledon wrote Sirius, a less ambitious but more persuasive venture into theology. As a work of literature, Sirius is far superior. The story is more gripping and the characters more finely drawn. The most memorable of the characters is Sirius, a super-dog with a superhuman brain. Stapledon was writing in the 1940s, before the chemical structure of DNA and the technology of genetically modified embryos had been discovered. A modern writer writing a story about a super-dog would naturally assume that the animal was genetically modified. Stapledon did not need genetic engineering to imagine a super-dog. All he needed was old-fashioned growth hormones infused into the dog’s brain by an old-fashioned dog breeder. The setting of the story is sheep dog country, the hills of North Wales during the Second World War, a time and a place where dogs and humans live and work together with mutual respect.

The story of Sirius is a tragedy. Sirius understands both the world of dogs and the world of humans, but he can find no place for himself in either world. Searching for a place and a purpose for his life, he becomes increasingly frustrated and angry. Then, in a moment of desperation, he is overwhelmed by a religious experience: mystical peace descends on his soul, and an awareness of God that he is unable to describe in words. Afterward he talks to his human owner and attempts to formulate a theology. The theology of a super-dog is necessarily different from human theology. Sirius’s God is a supreme hunter rather than a supreme judge or redeemer. Stapledon does not develop Sirius’s theology in detail. Sirius’s intellectual explorations are cut short, and the story ends in tragedy, because humans who do not know Sirius regard him as a dangerous monster. At the end of the story, we are left with the theological moral. God may have qualities that only an intelligent dog could imagine. If we could enlarge our senses and our emotions beyond the human range, we would experience a very different God.

Octavia Butler is another gifted writer. She grew up poor and black in California, and her recent books of theofiction, Parable of the Sower2 and Parable of the Talents,3 describe the world she grew up in, as it might become in the future if things go badly. Her hero, a young black woman surviving in the ruins of civilization, founds a new religion which she calls Earthseed. Other writers of theofiction, such as C.S. Lewis and Madeleine L’Engle, have other visions of human destiny. Each of them is unique and distinctive. Only C.S. Lewis is close enough to orthodox Christianity to be quoted by Polkinghorne.

We cannot reach any agreed wisdom by reducing these writers to their lowest common denominator. What they have in common is trivial. It is their profound differences that are important. Their differences teach us that theology may have wider scope and greater freedom than it has had in the past. Just as science fiction shows us that there may be more things in heaven and earth than we are capable of imagining, so theofiction tells us that there may be more different kinds of God than we are capable of imagining. These writers, and others that I do not happen to know so well, give us glimpses of what theology may become, if theology grows to comprehend the abundant flowering of cultures and sciences and religions in the modern world. In the last thousand years, the masterpieces of Dante and Milton brought theology to millions of readers who never grappled with the writings of Augustine or Aquinas. Likewise, in the next thousand years, we may expect that future masterpieces of theofiction will do more than the writings of professional theologians “to justify the ways of God to men.”

A hundred years before Newton, Francis Bacon charted the course that was to lead to the rise of modern science and technology. “For the history that I require and design,” he wrote,

special care is to be taken that it be of wide range and made to the measure of the universe. For the world is not to be narrowed till it will go into the understanding (which has been done hitherto), but the understanding is to be expanded and opened until it can take in the image of the world.

Science and religion are both still close to their beginnings, with no ends in sight. Science and religion are both destined to grow and change in the millennia that lie ahead of us, perhaps solving some old mysteries, certainly discovering new mysteries of which we yet have no inkling. Bacon was the first writer to understand the greatness of the revolution that science would bring to human history. He was the first to see that science would lead to a future radically different from the past. He was aware that he stood at the beginning of an age of exploration that has not yet ended. “I do not think ourselves yet learned or wise enough to wish reasonably for man,” he wrote. “I wait for harvest time, nor attempt to reap green corn.”

  1. 1

    Trinity Press International, 2000.

  2. 2

    Four Walls Eight Windows, 1993.

  3. 3

    Seven Stories, 1998.

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