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Spirituality à la John Polkinghorne

I suppose for every one of us there is some favorite people who help us understand things.  In the realm of religion John Polkinghorne is on of those folks for me.  He is a physicist and Anglican priest.  He is one of the foremost thinkers who can cross the science and religion boundaries.  Most of us are stuck on one side of that divide and have a difficult time relating to the other side. 

For example, evolutionists can scoff at a literalist interpretation of the Genesis texts of creation.  And there are firm believers in God and the Bible who will defend the “hands on” approach of the Creator God.  Basically, I am not an either/or thinker.  On this example, I find myself assuming that some version of evolution must be the way to explain how our universe came to be some 13 billion years ago.  Clearly, I cannot explain it.  But I do trust the scientists (even the atheists) to offer a viable explanation based on evidence.

But that does not dismiss or discount God.  And for me, it does not even discount some fashion of creativity my God brought (and brings) to the task.  But I reach my limit to be able to explain it all.  That is where John Polkinghorne comes in and I can say that he is so helpful.

Let’s listen to him develop some thoughts.  “I think both science and religion are concerned with the search for motivated belief.  They are not just plucking ideas out of the air but they have reasons from experience to support the ideas they believe to be true.  But the way they seek them is somewhat different.”  So far, so good.  I like that idea of searching for “motivated belief.”  That must be a key to a significant life…a life with meaning.  I want my belief to be motivated…to be animated.

Polkinghorne continues.  “Science is looking at the world as an object—as an ‘it’—which you can pull apart and do with what you want.  And with science you can repeat things. You can do the same experiment over and over again until you feel sure you understand what is going on. And that gives science a great secret weapon.”

This is what gives me confidence that scientists know what they affirm.  Of course, things change and so do their theories.  But it is not different with theologians.  As our experience changes, we can alter our theology…our way of describing God and God’s work.

And it is to experience that Polkinghorne turns when he discusses religion.  He says, “there are great swaths of human encounter with reality where you meet reality not just as an object but where there is a personal dimension.  Unlike with the scientific experiment, no personal experience is ever going to be exactly repeated.”  This human experience is the laboratory for spiritual exploration and explanation.  Our English friend tells us “the encounter between persons, even more the encounter with the personal reality of God, has to be based on trusting and not on testing.”

The key to spirituality is to cultivate experience.  This requires motivation just as much as the scientific researcher.  Why should my spiritual pilgrimage be any easier than the laborer in the laboratory  (notice the similarity of labor and laboratory).  Spirituality is not any different.  I need to “labor” at it, too.

But this is where many of us want the spiritual journey to be all grace.  We want a free ride.  We want the prize without the laboratory time!  We only want grace, but God says, “go…go to work.”  It comes down to motivation, just like the scientist who is motivated to find truth and meaning.  In this I want to join the scientist…in that search for truth and meaning.

Thanks John Polkinghorne…thanks for the invitation to gird up my spiritual loins and go to work.  It is spiritual work.  It can be fun.  And it surely will bring me to the prize---to truth and meaning.  Join me!

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