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Science and Christian Belief: Theological Reflections of a Bottom-Up Thinker.

Professor Polkinghorne explains the words 'bottom-up thinker' in his subtitle by saying that his ' to explore, as far as I am able, how one who takes modern science seriously, and whose habits of thought -- for good or ill -- are formed by long experience of working as a theoretical physicist, approaches questions of the justification and understanding of religious belief...The fundamental question to be asked about any theological statement is "What is the evidence that makes you think this might be true?".' He could scarcely be better qualified to ask such questions of the Christian faith than he is, for he is a Fellow of the Royal Society, a former Cambridge Professor of Mathematical Physics, and a life-long Christian and churchman. As such, he was invited to give the Gifford Lectures in Edinburgh University in the academic year 1993-94, and this book is the result.

Unlike most recent books on Science and Religion, which either discuss the relationship between the two subjects in general terms, or concentrate on one particular aspect of that relationship -- for instance, the theological doctrine of Creation and the scientific theory of the Big Bang -- this book is far more detailed. In fact, Professor Polkinghorne devoted his Gifford Lectures to the articles of the Nicene Creed, each of which here forms the subject of a separate chapter. The first two are entitled 'We believe...' -- the first looking at Humanity and the second at Knowledge (a short excursion into epistemology) -- and there follow chapters on Divinity, Creation, Jesus, Crucifixion and Resurrection, Son of God, the Spirit and the Church, and finally one on Eschatology with a postscript on other religions. Thus, the book is an extremely thorough examination of the basic tenets of the Christian faith as seen through scientific spectacles -- or, indeed, as viewed with the aid of a scientific microscope -- yet it is remarkably concise. If you do not count the Index, Bibliography and the short Glossary at the end of the book, the actual text is just under two hundred pages long. I found it, not only extremely informative and immensely rewarding, but very refreshing too. Some theologians and New Testament scholars sometimes give the impression of treading their chosen field as delicately as Agag for fear of treading on scientific toes -- but not Professor Polkinghorne. While being far from fundamentalist, and while always maintaining his chosen position as a 'bottom-up thinker', whose job it is to examine the evidence for any particular Christian belief, he is far more ready to look at events reported in the gospels with an unprejudiced eye than are some theologians without his scientific knowledge and training.

However, before reading the book -- and I hope that many people will do so -- everyone should be warned that parts of it do not make easy reading. Words like 'aseity', 'apophatic', 'heuristic', 'axiological', and -- in a slightly different category -- such horrors as 'facticity' and 'salvific' do not trip off the tongues of most people every day of the week; and phrases like 'the hadronic spectrum of octets and decuplets; deep inelastic scatterings' are unlikely to mean much to most people. But such instances of near-unintelligibility are rare, and most are easily put right with the aid of a dictionary -- or even skipped without grievous loss to the reader -- and they should not be allowed to deter anyone from reading this impressive and important book.

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Author:Bridge, Tony
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1994
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