It is no wonder that John Polkinghorne has just been awarded the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. To enter his world is to enter a world where contemporary science and traditional Christianity not only converse but make strange and lovely music.
Polkinghorne has had two careers: that of a physicist, in which he made important contributions to particle physics, and that of Anglican priest and theologian. His latest book, "The God of Hope and the End of the World," had its origins in a three-year interdisciplinary conference on Christian eschatology. Eschatology is not a common word. It comprises the topics of death, judgment, and the final destiny of the soul and humankind.
Many believe that modern science has shown the futility of eschatology. Not so, argues Polkinghorne. As a particle physicist, he explored the extremities of knowledge. Here, he does so as a Christian thinker. In an earlier book, "Faith, Science & Understanding" (Yale, 2000), Polkinghorne places his own work in the tradition of English natural theology. As in science, so in theology, he says, "we have to believe in order to understand," (echoing the great sentence from St. Anselm that provides the epigraph to his book).
He recommends "the modest, unrhetorical tone that has tended to characterize English discourse." And that modest tone serves him well in the present book, focused as it is on topics most readers never think about. In fact, Polkinghorne's tone reflects a deeper discipline that separates him from many more fashionable authors such as Sir Stephen Hawking and Paul Davies. Polkinghorne is a model public intellectual; he refuses to distort one body of knowledge to advance his own position on another. He applies his Christian principles to tough cases and observes the limits of knowledge while recognizing the challenges posed by contemporary science to traditional belief. He accepts both continuity and discontinuity as part of his model of knowledge.
And yet the yield of the investigation is substantial. Any number of traditional topics gain new life under his examination. Polkinghorne has important things to say about the soul, time, evolution, the Fall, death, divine judgment, and revelation. His range does not lead him to sacrifice reason or particularity.
For example, his commentaries on biblical texts are fresh and sometimes piercing. Considering the accounts of Jesus' resurrection, he notes "a common thread" among what might first seem "a gaggle of made up stories": In each, "it was difficult to recognize the risen Christ."
The scientist in him responds well to this kind of difficulty. He goes on to note that the accounts contain both moments of "palpability" "even the eating of food" and moments of life-changing intensity. The scientist in him responds well to this kind of diversity.
Could it be that eschatology is avoided because it takes us deep into the mysteries of life, especially the mystery of time? Polkinghorne has much to say about time. He realizes that St. Paul used the science of his age when he compared the process of salvation to the image of the seed that dies.
Polkinghorne's grasp of the entire reach of earthly time, from the big bang to the biological end in a distant future, does not make him join his fellow scientists in embracing the futility of it all. On the contrary, he grounds his belief in God's faithful love for his creation.
"The Creator is patient and subtle," he says, "one who is very far from being a God in a hurry." And he concludes: "Already/not yet is an intrinsically necessary component to our eschatological thinking."
This mighty little book could well make eschatology sexy. That is: to return to these important topics some of their original charge. Should we not, more generally, understand desire within the context of judgment? Is identity separable from that longing for bliss that traditional thought reserves for heaven? Polkinghorne stands firm: He rejects the idea of perfection as static (and heaven as changeless) and accepts "a more dynamic concept."
"Music should be our guiding image, not sculpture," he says. Indeed, while his rhetoric is modest, his means rational, and his tone conversational, Polkinghorne's overall achievement here is musical. It brings the attentive reader closer to an underlying harmony, one that requires our desire and belief to apprehend, one that can only be called hope.
Thomas D'Evelyn is an editorial consultant in Providence, R.I.