The Divine in Time and Nature

Two authors draw different conclusions about humanity's search for God


By John Polkinghorne

Yale University Press

133 pp., $18


By Stephen Jay Gould

Harmony Books

190 pp., $17.95

Is it legitimate to find religious meaning in nature and the natural sciences? In his latest book, Belief in God in an Age of Science, John C. Polkinghorne tells us that any such meaning is merely our own interpretation because these sciences have no inherent meaning. "Those who construct metaphysical theories of wider meanings, or lack of meaning, must take science into account, but there is certainly more than one way in which to do so."

Polkinghorne, who is a theoretical physicist and an Anglican theologian, brings to his interpretation of the natural sciences a religious belief that "there is a Mind and a Purpose behind the history of the universe and that the One whose veiled presence is intimated in this way is worthy of worship and the ground of hope." Thus, he finds hints of the Creator's hand in the order of the universe. "The rational beauty of the cosmos indeed reflects the Mind that holds it in being." And he complains that those who see in man only "the strife of selfish genes struggling for continuing survival," are simply projecting on science their own dark interpretation.

Polkinghorne's religious interpretation of the natural sciences is still a work in progress and, after Chapter 1, his wrestlings get pretty complex. But for him the value of this kind of interpretation is never in doubt. Humanity's hunger, not just for meaning, but specifically for God, demands it. "It has become common coinage with contemporary writers about science to invoke, in addressing the general public, the idea of a reading of the Mind of God. It is a small, but significant, sign of the human longing for God that apparently this language helps to sell books."

By contrast, in Questioning the Millennium: a Rationalist's Guide to a Precisely Arbitrary Countdown, Stephen Jay Gould vigorously challenges the value of efforts to project religious meaning on nature and the sciences. In particular, this Harvard paleontologist and widely read science writer takes aim at the significance we project on decades, centuries, and millennia. For example, when Jesus Christ did not return quickly to govern the earth, early Christians were forced to postpone his return for a "long time."

That their concept of a long time was "a millennium," Gould explains, has no more significance than their counting system, based on tens, hundreds, and thousands. But this system is nothing more than an arbitrary choice.

To illustrate this, he invites us to imagine that the Mayans long ago conquered Europe and imposed their system of counting by twenties. In this imagined world, "The millennium - the blessed thousand-year reign of a local god known as Jesus Christ - then becomes a curious myth of a primitive and conquered culture."

By contrast, in history as it actually happened, "Jesus' error of timing did not dampen the enthusiasm of apocalyptically inclined supporters, and every subsequent generation has featured millennarian movements." Gould points out that the Bible likens a thousand years to a day (II Peter 3:8). This gives him a ready explanation for any excitement that may have gripped Europeans in the year 1000, one "day" after the birth of Jesus, or that may also grip Christians in the year 2000, six "days" after Adam and Eve left the garden. Similarly, Gould finds no substance in the religious meaning that physicists, like Polkinghorne, impose on nature.

Gould feels he understands the hunger to find religious meaning in nature and the natural sciences. Faced with a world that overwhelms and frightens, "no tool can be more powerful, or more distinctly human, than the brain's imposition of meaning upon the world's confusion." But, underlying almost every page is Gould's passionate conviction that there is a material explanation for everything, or no explanation at all.

Polkinghorne is clear that, by projecting on science his belief in God, he is following just one possible path in the human quest for meaning. This gives his book a feeling of mutual exploration that drew me in as a reader, even though I was not convinced by most of his arguments. What a contrast with Gould who presents his faith as something no rational person should question. As a result, Gould's book left me feeling preached at.

* David K. Nartonis is doing research on the evolving concept of science in 19th-century New England.

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