Tuesday, April 26, 2011
Polkinghorne on the future
When we start applying Polkinghorne's idea of science and theology conversing, how does such a conversation apply to the future of people and the universe? Some notes.
Q. What is the Anthropic Principle?
A. This states that the Universe was set up in such a way that, though simple in its start, it was pregnant with the possibility of intelligent life. If the relations between gravity and electromagnetism were slightly different in any direction, stars would not burn long enough for life to arise. If nuclear forces had slightly different values, complex atoms would never have been created. Most presumed initial conditions for the Universe lead to sterile universes. Hence the Universe looks extremely finely-tuned in its initial conditions -- 'primed for life'.
Q. How does this then lead us to a paradox?
Science cannot offer hope, finally, in the light of what is going to happen to the Universe. However brightly the spark of intelligence shines, it must be extinguished eventually as the the stars burn out.
This is a paradox: 'a finely tuned and fruitful universe which is condemned to ultimate futility' (p27).
Q. How can theology help resolve this paradox?
By positing both continuity and discontinuity in the future of people and of the universe, modelled on Christ's resurrection. He got his body back (continuity: people knew it was him); but it was a resurrected body, never to die again (discontinuity, radically different from the old). A seed contains the genetic essence of the future plant (continuity) but it has to fall into the ground and die (discontinuity). So with people and with the whole Universe.
What distinguishes eschatology from secular futurology is this expectation of discontinuity, of resurrection. Science can only extrapolate, it cannot suggest something entirely new. This can only come from theology. Only theology can argue for discontinuity.
Theology can teach us that, though our existence is as temporary as chalk on a blackboard, our essence can be retained in the mind of the one reading the blackboard long after the board has been wiped clean; and whatever was written can have a further existence in quite other, and greater, realms. It is not that the soul is immortal so much that the faithfulness of God is entire.
Q. What might be areas of continuity between this universe and the next?
- a balance between change and changelessness; as in many parts of the world, seasons change but the fact of changing seasons never changes.
- laughter, joy, creativity, worship, conversation; all these relational joys.
-- process. Creation started simple but pregnant with possibilities and was free to develop under God's hand. It took time. Might New Creation be the same?
-- Relational: everything is part of everything else: matter, time, space; body, soul, community, mind, culture. We might expect New Creation to be similarly holistic.
-- Polkinghorne makes the point that the universe is mathematical. Yet maths (prime numbers for example) exist whether or not anyone has discovered them. Does maths exist in some 'extra noetic dimension' that is 'beyond the flux of time' (p20,21)? If so, what about other things that we humans feel exist beyond us imagining them: goodness, beauty, purity even.
Q. What might the end of the world and the 'four last things' (death, judgement, hell, heaven) look like?
A. Both Polkinghorne and Christopher Wright (who wrote 'The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible's Grand Narrative, excerpted in 'Perspectives on the World Christian Movement' (2009, p 27-33)) quote works by Richard J Bauckham. Bauckham understands 2 Peter 3:10 to mean 'the earth will be laid bare' i.e. exposed, purged, cleansed, stripped down of its evil; but not a completely new creation from nothing.
As for death: Science teaches us that death/rebirth has been going on since the beginning of time. So how does death enter the world due to sin? And when did the Fall of Man happen? Polkinghorne's answer is that the Bible is referring to spiritual death. He asserts that self-consciousness and God-concsciousness grew up among proto-humans, and that there was a turning from the God-consciousness (hence a historic Fall) which led to spiritual death.
Another answer to this might be that the Fall account is a kind of summary of the Christ-less behaviour of the entire 100bn-strong human species, all integrated together into one account.
Heaven: is much as Polkinghorne has already talked about in the sense of a new heavens and earth. As for the 'intermediate state' Polkinghorne speculates that disembodied souls can exist, and even develop, in a sense in the mind of God between physical death and the eschaton.
Judgement, Hell: In view of the long time scales, and slow development, and refining suggested by the original creation, Polkinghorne is unwilling to see judgement as a one-off moment or hell as a permanent state. He is attracted by the idea of further refinement/redemption after the eschaton.