Polkinghorne, “Science and Religion in Quest of Truth”

In America, one of the recurring controversies over the place of religion in public life has to do with the teaching of evolution in public schools. The extremes are defined by those people who reject any explanation for life other than a materialistic, “scientific” one and those who reject any explanation other than a literal interpretation of Genesis. But those are not the only possible positions. One could accept evolution as a  fact demonstrated by the fossil evidence, but still believe in a divine Creator who, somehow, in ways humans do not understand, guides the process. This position would not be “unscientific,” because science, understood as empirically-verifiable knowledge, does not deal in metaphysics.

Sir John Polkinghorne, a theoretical physicist, theologian, and Anglican priest, and winner of the 2002 Templeton Prize, addresses evolution and other issues in his new book, Science and Religion in Quest of Truth (Yale University Press 2011). A description follows.  — MLM

 John Polkinghorne, an international figure known both for his contributions to the field of theoretical elementary particle physics and for his work as a theologian, has over the years filled a bookshelf with writings devoted to specific topics in science and religion. In this new book, he undertakes for the first time a survey of all the major issues at the intersection of science and religion, concentrating on what he considers the essential insights for each. Clearly and without assuming prior knowledge, he addresses causality, cosmology, evolution, consciousness, natural theology, divine providence, revelation, and scripture. Each chapter also provides references to his other books in which more detailed treatments of specific issues can be found.

For those who are new to what Polkinghorne calls “one of the most significant interdisciplinary interactions of our time,” this volume serves as an excellent introduction. For readers already familiar with John Polkinghorne’s books, this latest is a welcome reminder of the breadth of his thought and the subtlety of his approach in the quest for truthful understanding.

Unity, Fragmentation, and Conflicting Social Visions

David Brooks has a column today about the problem of American decline and the need both for government and private intervention to improve the situation.  It’s a generally unremarkable column but this paragraph toward the end caught my eye:

Finally, there is the problem of the social fabric. Segmented societies do not thrive, nor do ones, like ours, with diminishing social trust. Nanny-state government may have helped undermine personal responsibility and the social fabric, but that doesn’t mean the older habits and arrangements will magically regrow simply by reducing government’s role. For example, there has been a tragic rise in single parenthood, across all ethnic groups, but family structures won’t spontaneously regenerate without some serious activism, from both religious and community groups and government agencies.

The call for government and religious/community groups to engage in “serious activism” to regenerate the “social fabric” of the family left me with this question.  If we are interested in this kind of re-generation in order to solve what Brooks sees as the problem of “segmented societies,” don’t we also have to have a fairly firm idea of what we mean by the family?  If there is disagreement — perhaps even deep and irreconcilable conflict — among government agencies, religious, community, and other groups about what a socially healthful family structure looks like, why should Brooks predict that activism from all of these quarters to re-generate the family as a social structure would serve to alleviate the problem of the “segmentation,” and possible fragmentation, of America?  Wouldn’t exactly the opposite be true — that as groups with increasingly different ideas about the healthy family become more active in expounding their respective views, social and cultural segmentation would increase?   — MOD [X-posted, MOJ]

Classic Revisited: Greenawalt’s “Private Consciences and Public Reasons”

Today’s Classic Revisited is Kent Greenawalt’s Private Consciences and Public Reasons (OUP 1995), a study of the circumstances in which it is appropriate for citizens, legislators, and judges to employ religious reasons to make judgments about political matters.  My old teacher, known for the carefulness of his analysis and for his fine and thoughtful distinctions between various issues, laces this discussion with lively thought experiments about the sort of political society we would want to live in if given the choice among a number of church-state arrangements.  And as is also common with Kent, sprinkled into the text every so often are personal stories or reflections that have shaped his thinking on these matters.  Finally, and in keeping with the book’s emphasis on the “accessibility” of reasons, Kent writes in a straightforward and easily accessible style.  You could not do better for an introduction to his intermediate, nuanced, middle-road, and deeply sophisticated views on these important questions.  The publisher’s description follows.  — MOD

Within democratic societies, a deep division exists over the nature of community and the grounds for political life. Should the political order be neutral between competing conceptions of the good life or should it be based on some such conception? This book addresses one crucial set of problems raised by this division: What bases should officials and citizens employ in reaching political decisions and justifying their positions? Should they feel free to rely on whatever grounds seem otherwise persuasive to them, like religious convictions, or should they restrict themselves to “public reasons,” reasons that are shared within the society or arise from the premises of liberal democracy? Kent Greenawalt argues that fundamental premises of liberal democracy alone do not provides answers to these questions, that much depends on historical and cultural contexts. After examining past and current practices and attitudes in the United States, he offers concrete suggestions for appropriate principles relevant to American society today. This incisive and timely analysis by one of our leading legal philosophers should attract a wide and diverse readership of scholars, practitioners, and concerned citizens.