Friday, July 17, 2009

Saying the Creed without crossed fingers

In a review essay that should be interesting to those concerned about the intersection of science with Christianity, Edward B. Davis, a professor of the history of science, provides an appreciation of the work of John Polkinghorne whose work, he says has been able " steer a middle course between fundamentalism and modernism, particularly on issues involving science." Before discussing Polkinghorne's contribution, Davis provides a nice summary of the origins of the problem:
The word fundamentalist was first used in July 1920, and for much of the next decade American Protestants fought bitter internal battles over who would control their denominational seminaries, mission boards, and local churches. While those liberal Protestants who called themselves “modernists” sought to accommodate traditional Christian beliefs to modern science, politics, and culture, their conservative opponents were eager “to do battle royal for the fundamentals,” in the militaristic language of the Baptist preacher who coined the word.

As in most political fights, the biggest loser was the truth, with nuance and charity obliterated by bombast and malice. Issues involving science were particularly contentious, coming to a head in the 1925 show trial of John Scopes for teaching evolution in a Tennessee high school. William Jennings Bryan, the fundamentalist leader who assisted the prosecution, said that theistic evolution was “the anesthetic that dulls the pain while the faith is removed,” thus shortcutting any serious attempt at productive conversation. As Bryan told the editor of a fundamentalist magazine, evolution was “the cause of modernism and the progressive elimination of the vital truths of the Bible.” The Christian who accepted evolution, in his opinion, would almost inevitably descend a staircase of increasing unbelief, on which “there is no stopping place” short of atheism—a vivid image that Ernest James Pace soon converted into one of his most effective religious cartoons.

Bryan and Pace’s fears were not unwarranted. Most Protestant scientists and clergy who accepted evolution at that time coupled their high view of science with a low view of Christian theology, rejecting the Incarnation, the virgin birth, and the bodily Resurrection of Jesus—though they managed somehow to affirm personal immortality despite their inability to celebrate Easter in any traditional sense. American Protestants faced a grim choice: to affirm traditional Christian beliefs while denying evolution, or to accept evolution while seemingly compromising their faith.

This polarization has shaped much of the subsequent conversation about science and religion. The fundamentalist attitude remains widely influential, while some prominent theistic evolutionists sound like warmed-over versions of the modernists Bryan so detested. (In the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial, Roman Catholic theologian John Haught declined to affirm belief in the virgin birth and the historicity of the Resurrection: If the disciples had brought a video camera into the upper room, it would not have captured an image of the risen Christ.) Nevertheless, the landscape has changed significantly in recent decades, as thoughtful alternatives to both extremes have appeared in growing numbers—leading scientists and theologians who accept evolution, while at the same time affirming the Nicene Creed without crossing their fingers. ....
Polkinghorne is one of the most important of those providing an alternative to the extremes, Davis explains, with particular reference to two new books. In the latter part of the essay, Davis describes Polkinghorne's position on a central doctrine of the faith:
.... Many contemporary theologians doubt that Jesus was raised bodily from the grave—a startling state of affairs for the typical believer to grasp and impossible to reconcile with the Church’s celebration of Easter. In large part this reflects an exaggerated confidence in science and too easy an acceptance of the Enlightenment skepticism of David Hume. Polkinghorne, whose understanding of science is second to none, is unencumbered by either burden. He understands that the Resurrection is “the pivot on which the claim of a unique and transcendent significance for Jesus must turn,” and he does not turn away from embracing the risen Lord. It would be “a serious apologetic mistake,” he writes with typical British understatement, “if Christian theology thought that operating in the context of science should somehow discourage it from laying proper emphasis on the essential centrality of Christ’s Resurrection, however counterintuitive that belief may seem in the light of mundane expectation.” In an open-minded quest for motivated belief, Polkinghorne examines the evidence for the empty tomb, concluding that something truly miraculous actually happened—a foretaste of what will also happen to us, in the new creation that God will someday fashion from the dying embers of the old creation that has been our abode in this life.

In short, for Polkinghorne the universe is a created order, a beautiful and rational place that is also open to human and divine action—past, present, and future. .... [more]
The cartoon was also taken from the post at First Things

First Things - The Motivated Belief of John Polkinghorne

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous3:23 PM

    A 250 page biography entitled E. J. PACE: CHRISTIAN CARTOONIST is available at with hundreds of Dr. Pace's pen-and-ink illustrations and many rare photographs.


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