October 29, 2011

Reflections: If you can believe in quarks, God is within your reach


While vacationing I serendipitously came upon an essay in USA Today titled "Why certainty about God is overrated." Its author, Dean Nelson, who directs the journalism program at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, has a new book being released, "Quantum Leap: How John Polkinghorne Found God in Science and Religion."

REFLECTIONS is a column written by members of Maine's faith-based community. Opinions expressed in the column reflect the author's view and not necessarily that of the newspaper.

As scientist and theologian, John Polkinghorne's writings are among my favorite reads. As several of his books take shelf space in my library, the essay immediately captured my interest.

Now in his 80s, he has been described as a "world-class physicist and one of the world's leading voices regarding the relationship between science and faith." He has received the Templeton Prize for championing the positive relationship between faith and science.


PUSHED "TO THE WALL" about what he knows, Polkinghorne allows that he doesn't know anything. He has theorized about quarks and gluons; mathematically he has suggested their existence. On the other hand, he doesn't really know that they exist. What he says is this: "We don't believe in quarks because we've seen them. We believe in quarks because the theories that have quarks in them work."

Reasoning the same way, he confesses no knowledge of God; however, he is prepared to bet his life on there being a God because "the theories that have God in them work." But he doesn't really know for sure that there is a God. And he's OK with that.

So persuaded by this, Polkinghorne, mid-career, became a priest in the Anglican Church, there witnessing to another and different "unseen reality." It is Polkinghorne's refusal to wax dogmatic about this unseen reality we call God that gets my respect.


CHRISTOPHER FRY in his play "The Sleep of Prisoners" has David say to Adams, "Allow me to make the introduction. God: man. Man: God." Adams' poignant reply touches us deep where we live: "I wish it could be so easy."

How then are we to go on? Let me suggest this: You and I participate in a drama that began long before we arrived and will continue long after we are gone.

Moreover, our lives seem ever open to that which is both beyond and within us -- something reflecting "intimations of immortality" of which the poet Wordsworth wrote. And Jesus gave us something of an example of what this means, for he lived constantly in this world as if he were a citizen of another. Moreover, he preached and acted as if God were busy both in his life and in the lives of those who heard him.


THERE IS THAT about life which makes belief in God a reasonable position. Still, it is never going to be settled knowledge -- a fact like 2 plus 2 equals 4. Rather, nuance, doubt and uncertainty will always color the believing person's faith that God is.

For those who take the Bible in a literal way, may they be reminded that biblical talk about God does not guarantee God's existence; nor is biblical talk about God for the purpose of informing us about God's reality in the sense that a scientist looks for facts at the end of a theory. Rather, biblical talk about God is there for transforming us.


CHRISTIANS WOULD BE better served were they to make more room for uncertainty and doubt relative to their believing. When we try to pin down what it is we know for sure we soon discover that it makes for a very short list.

Years ago, Michael Polanyi, a leading Hungarian chemist and philosopher, wrote, "Complete objectivity as usually attributed to the exact sciences is a delusion and is in fact a false ideal." Just so!

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