Science Book Club: Quantum Physics and Theology Ch 3

paradigm shift photo

Maybe progress in theology is less about sailing uncharted waters and more about rebuilding bridges according to current requirements and styles. (Photo by Shawn Clover )

Welcome to the third week of our blog book discussion on Quantum Physics and Theology by John Polkinghorne. We’re going a chapter a week through the book with posts and discussion here (chapter 1, chapter 2). For those that like more interactive discussion, we’ll have biweekly video chats too; the first one was last week and the next one will be next Wednesday, 10/11/17 at 9pm Eastern. Now, on to chapter 3.

Paradigm Shift

Polkinghorne discusses Thomas Kuhn’s concept of scientific revolutions, paradigm shifts, and how change in scientific thought occurs. While the distinction between ‘normal’ science and moments of paradigm shift may be overstated — Polkinghorne notes that Kuhn himself walked back some of his strongest assertions — the basic framework of fast and slow progress in science has stuck. Polkinghorne believes a similar account applies to the history of theology, dividing periods of ‘normal’ theology from significant shifts such as those initiated by the New Testament. He clearly thinks of the early Church era as one of paradigm shift, which got me wondering if any other eras qualify. If significant new revelation of the sort that would be deemed canon is required, then clearly there were only a few such periods and all in the distant past. But is that a necessary criterion? Does the Protestant Reformation, whose anniversary we will soon observe, count as a paradigm shift or should it be considered more of a return to an earlier paradigm? How about the move from geocentrism to heliocentrism, which might not seem like that critical of a doctrine change now but which casts a long shadow on church history even 400 years later? Are we in the midst of one now, as we consider questions about the doctrines of creation, original sin, and imago Dei in light of developments in genomics, neuroscience, and other scientific disciplines?

A complicating factor is the cyclical nature of theology that Polkinghorne refers to, relative to his more linear account of scientific inquiry. I believe one can make the case that none of the theological ideas involved in my proposed paradigm shifts were new at the time, with the possible exception of heliocentrism (I genuinely don’t know the history of that idea prior to Kepler, Galileo, et al). In those cases, the shifts were not a matter of innovation but could still have involved substantial redistribution of the number of people who accepted one perspective over another.

Tides of Fashion

The tides of fashion contribute to the cyclical flow of ideas in theology, and to an extent in science as well. Polkinghorne’s review of the history of ideas about the history of Jesus is an interesting case study. As an outsider to the academic realm of history, it is easy to think of history as static, to imagine that we can only ever know less about it as eyewitnesses die, then documents and artifacts are lost, forgotten, or destroyed. Yet the actual history of history is not nearly so neat. In some respects, we may know more about first century Palestine than was known a century or two ago, despite being further removed in time. I am intrigued to see how that applies to our understanding of Jesus and how the man from Nazareth relates to the figure at the center of New Testament scripture and Christian celebration.

A Quiver in the Voice

Polkinghorne acknowledges the reality of unresolved questions in both science and theology. Even if we admit some sense of progress in science whereby knowledge accumulates and truth is approached monotonically, if perhaps asymptotically, we can also appreciate that answering questions reveals more questions we didn’t previously know we should be asking. Discovering quarks leads to questions about why quarks have the properties they do; verifying general relativity leads to hypotheses about dark matter and dark energy; and so on. Theology has its share of open questions, some perennially debated and some whose significance waxes and wanes.

I think Polkinghorne is right to highlight the problem of evil as one of the most significant unresolved theological questions of our age. I have had a number of conversations on the topic, particularly in the context of questions about evolutionary biology; it is on the minds of many and a reason some question their belief in God or find it difficult to entertain such a belief. The headlines just from recent weeks testify to significant pain, suffering, and death in this world from physical phenomena and the conscious choices of humans. Polkinghorne sketches his approach to responding to these questions, and while I find myself reaching similar conclusions, I share his sentiment that the answers are incompletely satisfying and comforting. Suffering is clearly eminent; we can affirm God’s willingness to suffer alongside us, but that can still feel like a remote feature of the past.


  • Which examples from the history of science stood out to you as most relevant for understanding the history of theology?
  • How do you deal with unresolved questions and the tension they create?
  • Have you had experience with personal paradigm shifts, where your own view on a topic changed significantly? What led you to change your mind?
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Andy Walsh

Andy has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichéd notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two elementary school students, reader of science fiction and science fact, enthusiast of contemporary symphonic music, and chief science officer. Previous metaphorical hats include: comp bio postdoc, molecular biology grad student, InterVarsity chapter president (that one came with a literal hat), music store clerk, house painter, and mosquito trapper. Among his more unique literal hats: British bobby, captain's hats (of varying levels of authenticity) of several specific vessels, a deerstalker from 221B Baker St, and a railroad engineer's cap. His monthly Science in Review is drawn from his weekly Science Corner posts -- Wednesdays, 8am (Eastern) on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog. His book Faith across the Multiverse is available from Hendrickson.

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