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Theologians need to heed science story

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THEOLOGY IN THE CONTEXT OF SCIENCE
By John Polkinghorne
Published by Yale University Press, $26

The past 50 years have seen the birth and flourishing of what have come to be called contextual theologies -- theologies that take seriously the particular experiences and challenges of a specific setting. Liberation and feminist theologies arise out of the context of the insights of the poor and of women. Theologies that arise out of Southeast Asia or Africa have provided rich ways of shaping theological thinking.

John Polkinghorne is an Anglican priest and scientist, winner of the 2002 Templeton Prize for outstanding achievements in linking science with religion. In his latest book Polkinghorne argues that the insights of modern science also provide rich context for theology. The dialogue between science and religion in our time, he feels, can contribute significantly to creative theological thinking.

“Science has discovered that the fabric of the cosmos is shot though with signs of mind, but it does not know why this should be so. Theology can render this discovery intelligible, through its understanding that the Mind of the Creator is the source of the wonderful order of the world.”

Polkinghorne cites, for example, important scientific discoveries made over the last two centuries about the existence of “deep time” -- the immense span of gradually unfolding process that brought into being present forms, beginning with discoveries in geology. Today we know the Earth is 4.5 billion years old and the universe itself has an age of 13.7 billion years.

These vast time scales, he says, at least should encourage in the theological mind “the idea that the Creator God is not in a hurry.”

He also points to theology’s “parochiality” that ignores the vast scale of the universe, focusing only on planet Earth. “Yet the Sun is an ordinary star among the hundred thousand million stars of our galaxy, the Milky Way, and the Milky Way itself is a pretty ordinary galaxy among the hundred thousand million galaxies of the observable universe.” What are the role and meaning of the human in such a vast place? Theologians need to consider these questions.

Rich Heffern is an NCR staff writer. His e-mail address is rheffern@ncronline.org.

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