Saturday, May 31, 2008

More "seems" than cloth

While the religious naturalist can find much to agree with in the atheistic screeds of Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens, he will no doubt feel a shudder of revulsion at the acrid and disheartening tenor of their discourse. It is not enough for them to batter the gods into senselessness; they insist on incinerating the remains and scattering the dust to the winds. Call it a scorched heaven policy. What is left is not only a world disenchanted of anthropomorphic spirits, but a spiritual landscape as sere and bare as the Sahara.

One turns to the scientific theists -- Francis Collins, Owen Gingerich, Kenneth Miller, et. al. -- for balm, only to find the kind of faith-based self-pleading one was trying to get away from. Surely, if these folks had been born into another culture they would be as energetically defending a different divinity. The dean of the scientific theists is John Polkinghorne, theoretical physicist turned Anglican priest and full-fledged Christian Trinitarian apologist. I've read his books because thoughtful believers have told me I should, but I can never quite escape the feeling that the good reverend's answers antecede his questions.

Polkinghorne's newest is Quantum Physics and Theology: An Unexpected Kinship. I approached the book with caution, fearful of finding some Deepak Chopraesque attempt to lodge a theology in the spooky interstices of quantum indeterminacy. But no, Polkinghorne is too orthodox a theologian for that, and too smart a physicist. What he wants to do is show that quantum physics and Christology are both rational, evidence-based inquiries in search of truth -- to the extent that truth can be known -- and that the quests have many parallels.

Well, indeed. Polkinghorne does an excellent job tracing the epistemological foundations of the two disciplines. But when he comes to elaborating the rational basis for Trinitarian Christianity -- with its central doctrine of the God-Christ's physical resurrection -- his language betrays the weakness of his argument. Almost every paragraph is riddled with phrases like "I think...", "Rather, I believe...", "For reasons that one might speculate about...", "It is as though...", "There does seem to be..." , "...the less likely it seems...", and "It seems clear to me..." -- all this in just a few pages on the historical evidence for the Resurrection. His conclusion: "Nevertheless, resurrection belief is well-motivated belief that I personally find persuasive."

No paper in quantum mechanics could get published with so many qualifiers. It is not enough in science to find a theory "personally persuasive." It is necessary to amass sufficient empirical evidence to create a consensus. Which is why the same quantum physics is taught in universities worldwide, to people of widely-varying religious faiths and none. In spite of Polkinghorne's earnest efforts to show otherwise, the epistemological foundations of quantum science and Trinitarian theology are as different as chalk and cheese.

With the "new atheists" on one side and the scientist theists on the other, religious naturalists are caught betwixt and between -- confident in consensus scientific knowledge of the world, suspicious of faith-based claims to know the mind of God, content to celebrate the ineffable Mystery that resides in every jot and tittle of creation.