Like an Anglican Clergyman From Central Casting

Well, that’s one way of looking at it.

The story of science and religion since the Middle Ages has been one of estrangement rather than conflict. When the Aristotelian synthesis shattered, science and theology drifted apart, becoming at last disconnected universes of discourse.

Quite a good way, if you want to avoid talking about some obvious inconvenient facts. Quite handy to pretend that science and religion are just two ‘universes of discourse’ as opposed to two fundamentally different enterprises. Shifty, though. For one thing, how did we get from science and religion in the first sentence to science and theology in the second? Shifty, shifty. But the crucial move of course is to call science a universe of discourse.

This bit is good too:

Polkinghorne also differs from the other scientist-theologians he discusses in his view of the proper relation between theology and science. Davies, Barbour, and Peacocke are all to some degree “assimilationists” who seek “to achieve a greater merging of the two disciplines.” Polkinghorne sees a danger in this: Christian theology has its own sources, insights, methods, and internal logic, so that it risks being denatured if “theological concerns become subordinated to the scientific.”

Well, yeah, there is a danger in that. Definitely. If ‘theological concerns become subordinated to the scientific’ then there is always the danger that it will become apparent that the ‘insights’ of theology rely on imagination as opposed to evidence. That is indeed quite dangerous if you’re trying to make theism (as Barr puts it) ‘persuasive.’ And Christian theology does indeed have its own sources, insights, methods, and internal logic (very internal indeed). That’s another useful trope. Disconnected universes, universes of discourse, its own insights and methods. They’re all the same kind of project, you see, each one with its own insights and methods and internal logic – so each one is true inside and just never mind outside. Language games – you know the drill.

Simon Blackburn took on Polkinghorne in The New Republic a few years ago – I linked to it in News when B&W was young. One gathers he is not entirely enamoured of this reconciliation lark.

Sir John Polkinghorne—fellow of the Royal Society, doctor of divinity, sometime professor of particle physics at the University of Cambridge, recipient of this year’s $1 million Templeton Prize in religion—beams out like an Anglican clergyman from central casting, white-haired, wholesome, and radiant: a one-man Ode to Joy. And on reading these volumes, one can see why. It is pretty uplifting to be a scientist-theologian, happy with the universe, confident of the ways of the Lord. It is especially fizzy to be such a figure in Cambridge…

Unless other figures are also lurking there, ready to write articles.

And yet I did end Polkinghorne’s books, with their supreme contempt for philosophical reasoning and historical thinking, in despair about humanity’s desperate self-deceptions and vanities and illusions. Everything will be all right in the end, we are washed in the blood of the lamb, we are blessed, and above all God is on our side. Who could dissent? Fantasy beats reason every time. People believe what they want to believe. I do not know how it is at Princeton, but at Cambridge there are eight established chairs in the Faculty of Divinity, but only two in the Faculty of Philosophy. Hallelujah!

That’s an interesting little fact, isn’t it.

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