Sunday, 28 October 2012

Made from ashes of dead stars

Why is it that specific minerals derived from the ground (through plant and animal life and water) are necessary for human existence and we are not cognizant of the fact that what is from the ground keeps that which was derived from the ground {Gen. 2:7}physically alive?

Response: This is quite well understood in serious science and religion – as John often points out it’s a wonderful thing that we are all, physically, made from the ashes of dead stars

What about petitionary prayer?

I have heard clergymen and theologians state that God is unchangeable and immovable and He cannot be persuaded to do anything. But that idea seems to contradict the whole efficacy of persistent petitionary prayer. As you well know, there are passages in the Bible that suggest that persistent prayer will be answered. Therefore what is the point in persisting in prayer to a God who is immovable. To me, the two ideas are totally contradictory. Can you shed some light on this please?

Response: The nature of God does not change. But because God’s nature is Love then of course love responds to the beloved.

The “immovability” of God is to do with the argument about the Prime Mover – we would now say that God has no particular physical location and as the source of all physics (and all location) it makes no sense to speak of God “moving” in a physical sense.

But of course petitionary prayer does not seek to move God physically.

Reply: Thankyou for your prompt reply. Therefore I will conclude from  what you have said that petitionary prayer is worth it and I will persevere in my prayers.

Response: Definitely. Jesus is a much higher authority on this than anyone else is!

One of the great things about petitionary prayer is that we are aligning our wills to God. I think John Polkinghorne (but possibly John Lucas) makes the analogy with laser light – and how coherence greatly adds to the power.  John/John also makes the point that praying to God forces us to articulate what we really want to happen, which isn’t as straightforward as it might appear.

Reply: I have read this before in one of John Polkinhorne's books but I have difficulties with this idea because surely what I pray for comes subjectively out of my mind. My desires are not necessarily the same as God's. A concrete example would be if I prayed to win a large amount of money (which I am sure a lot of us would like), this idea would not necessarily align itself with God's will. I very much doubt if I prayed for this, even with absolute sincerity and faith, that my prayer would be answered.

I think the problem of unanswered prayer is a major stumbling block for a lot of Christians because there are such firm promises in the bible that prayer will be answered but most Christians will have had an experience of praying for something fervently and yet it never happens.

The whole issue of unanswered prayer is a complete mystery to me and maybe that is how God wants it.

Response: Yes but isn’t that the point.  We might think “I want to win a lot of money” but faced with the awesome responsibility of formulating this as a serious request for God we might realise it was inappropriate.

A solid apologetics book for a simple layman?

I recently purchased a copy of Socrates in the City.  This book was my first introduction to Dr. Polkinghorne. I’ve been raised in a covenant church and do my best each day to try and honor God.

I admittedly have only recently begun reading anything to be considered worthy. I’ve tackled Mere Christianity and started on the recommended Universes title. 

I’ve probably re-read the speech at Socrates in the City 10 times trying to absorb from it all that I can.  There are so many people in my life I desire to evangelize to, however I fear I’m not a very clever chap and quickly get hung up on what I think should be easy obstacles to overcome conversationally. I believe in God, fearlessly!  However, turning what I know and feel into logical arguments in defense of Christianity is a challenge for me. 

Can you recommend a solid apologetics book a simple layman like me can sink my teeth into that will help give me more fire power?

Response: We wrote “Questions of Truth” to help equip people who had questions about science and religion.

Tom Wright’s “Simply Christian” is a very good general book – in some ways an update for Mere Christianity.

A theological response to contact with Intelligent Extraterrestrial Life?

I am looking for help with my MTh Dissertation which is investigating a theological response to contact with Intelligent Extraterrestrial Life - particularly in the present climate where many planets are being discovered weekly. For example, what does a Christian Practice of Hospitality look like when communicating with Intelligent Extraterrestrial Life (and the inevitable time delays in that communication)? There seems to be little work available in this area to consult at present but, in the event of such contact happening, it is too late to be working out a response after the event!

I would be very grateful if you could pass this on to JCP. I am an ordained scientist and have benefited enormously from his work over the past 10 years or so.

Response: We have no theological problem with the idea of intelligent life on other planets (indeed a remark in Questions of Truth sparked a paper from Don Page and a testable-in-principle scientific hypothesis from me which I must say is looking more plausible by the month, that the fundamental constants might be such as to maximise the Expected number of Habitable Earth-Like Planets).  John has written elsewhere that if there are “Little Green Men” then God might well have taken Green flesh.

My own guess is that we are probably the first evolved persons in the galaxy and that the mean time between evolution of persons may be of the order of 10^5-10^7 years. On this timescale many things can happen including of course extinctions and colonisations.  The chances of two species of persons meeting when they are at roughly comparable stages of scientific development (say within 10^2 years) seems very remote.

Our most important duty would be to love these other persons in the most appropriate way, respectfully sharing the best of our cultural heritage and most importantly the Good News of Jesus Christ.

But let’s see what John has to add.

John adds: I have nothing to add to Nick’s excellent response except that we should not seek to limit the creative generosity of God who if he wants “little green men” will enable them to exist and care for them appropriately.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Does God sustain the physical laws or matter or both ? And why ?

I would like to ask about the topic of divine action. Does God sustain the physical laws or matter or both ? And why ??

Response: God as creator sustains everything that there is.

Why?  Well God is free to choose what He does but as far as we can see the reason is Love.

God's love calls us into being and sustains the universe so that we can grow and learn to choose to love God and our fellow humans.

What works of yours I can read and reference.

A Christian of the Catholic denomination, I am also a mature aged postgraduate law student where I have undergraduate and post graduate training in engineering.  Lately, I have experienced a growing interest to clarify my understanding of the world of science with that of my faith.

With this in mind, I recently stumbled upon a PODCast hosted by +plus magazine which had a segment on the 'Quantum Physics and the Nature of Reality' conference held in September 2010.  Importantly, it introduced me to you.

In my younger years I was drawn to ideas of the absurd as put forward by Albert Camus where I had yet to discover Christ.  In my latter years, I feel that of things we do not clearly perceive or comprehend, we might well dismiss as absurd.  Here, quantum physics and the nature of reality captures my attention.

You have written a large volume of distinguished works.  Given my leanings, might you be able to advise me as to what works of yours I can read and reference.

Response: You might start with Questions of Truth which has advice on further reading in each chapter.

A 21 year old student on a quest to rediscover my faith

I am a 21 year old student on a quest to rediscover my faith in Christianity. I was an atheist but, through the all too human fear of death and the fear of a meaningless life, I decided to once again find belief. However, the problem has always been that I am too scientific to just 'accept' the existence of a god. I have begun talking to a local priest about all this but, though I like him very much and am grateful for the help he has genuinely provided, I am beginning to feel that I am still not much further towards the answer and am restless to acquire it. He gave me copy of your book 'The Way The World Is' and I am finding it very interesting as it tries to answer those big questions in a scientific, logical fashion that the vicar deduced was the direction I wanted to go in. It has been perhaps the greatest stride I have made thus far.

Sadly my quest for faith seems more and more null and void at the moment: my personal heroes are all atheists, there is so little 'evidence' for a God and there is so little 'reason' (I feel) other than fear of death and lack of meaning to believe. This is all rather sad as I would prefer to have faith but I cannot, for the life of me, find it.

Response: But lack of meaning is a HUGE problem.

In the light of Christ so many things make sense, from fundamental physics (anthropic fine-tuning) to relationships to art to our ability to understand the world (to the extent we do) to our deep intuitions that Love is the most important “thing” in the Universe.

To an atheist almost everything that makes life worth living is an “illusion”- yet it is only an “illusion” if you are determined to see it as such.

But could it not be that humans favour love beyond all else because strong social bonds help our society to expand and progress? Indeed, with our weak forms, isn't a deep affection for each other the only thing that CAN keep us alive? I'm an art student, so I like to view the World as being deeply meaningful and yet everything seems to have a logical basis to do with survival. I'd love to believe in an afterlife, but what is there to make me even consider that I may somehow continue after my body stops? Is it so hard to believe in an end? I mock beliefs in magic and yet isn't the faith I seek that of a sort of hocus-pocus?

I have a true regard and interest in religion but, though I have searched for over a year (even speaking to a vicar about it) I cannot truthfully believe (I have tried to 'trick myself' that i do believe but...well, not a good aproach!). The fact that most the people I know socially and people I admire as role models are atheists acts as a sort of 'nail in the coffin' for me...Although I do understand we must all attempt to be independant thinkers.

Certainly many true beliefs are adaptive but that doesn’t make them false. We believe in gravity in part to avoid falling off cliffs.

If the mainline atheistic worldview were true then, amongst other things:
  1. There is no reason to believe that human reason leads to true beliefs as opposed to beliefs which promote survival value.
  2. There is no compelling reason for people to behave morally or altruistically when it doesn’t suit them to do so.
  3. There is no free will so no possibility of real moral choices or real love
  4. Love is an unimportant epiphenomenon
  5. Life has no meaning
  6. The fine-tuning of the universe is incomprehensible (or a freak accident because there are 10^200 other un-knowable universes)
  7. Aesthetic value is purely a function of our biology.
  8. There is no good reason to continue living and certainly no good reason to devote lots of time and resources to bringing up children. Indeed (in a delicious irony) atheists on average have far fewer children than replacement (eg Dawkins has one child,  Polkinghorne and I each have 3) and therefore the people who claim that the only purpose of life is evolutionary success are in fact evolutionary failures.

Now it could be just tough that these things were so, although if it were true it would be a “true belief which does not promote survival value” and therefore should not be possible for people to hold by (a).  But there is a beautiful, deep and true alternative which does not suffer from any of these problems. We know from Quantum Mechanics that deep reality is usually unseen and a bit counter-intuitive.  The same is true of God.

Further question:  I must admit I don't understand the 'without a God there's no reason to behave morally' arguament. Surely acting morally is in the best interests of a) human survival and b) self-preservation (annoying, angering or endangering other people is, on a primal leval, the easiest way to put yourself in danger or be excluded from the social group.). The fact we seem 'designed' to believe in God also makes evolutionary sense: cultures that are bound together by a faith and fear of a higher order, seem to flourish. Order equals success: The Egyptians, Vikings and, indeed, the entire western World owe their creation to religious faith (even in conquest and empire it has been one of the most powerful motivaters).

The situation for me feels a tad desperate. As I said in a previous email, I've talked to a vicar about this and still feel NO nearer to faith. What should I do now? What is the next constructive step?
All my heroes are atheist and, as I look up to them as superior intelligent beings, it knocks my attempts to believe further when it turns out they are faithless. Yesterday I discovered Steven Moffat (my main inspiration in life (I adore creative writing)) is also an atheist. If these men are so smart, I can't help thinking to myself, then isn't atheism a smart and powerful arguament? Perhaps that is my most childish view within the matter as there are many clever and influencial men/women within religion...But, none the less, it is a thought of mine and it would be to put myself in denile not to detail it as one of my reasons for...this struggle to accept.

I WOULD like to believe but have so many doubts I don't know what to do nor know if I can continue trying to find faith given all the my thoughts on the subject. I'd love (as some have suggested me to do) just to accept, perhaps pray...and then see...but I have tried and I cannot do this.

My family have been very supportive in my search and I am grateful that, whether I can be a theist or will be, in fact, an atheist, so many people (including yourself) have attempted to help me find the answer.

Further response:  Thanks very much  for your email. I think the next constructive step might be to find a local Alpha Course and go on it.  I guess you’ve read our Questions of Truth and this might help with some of the Science issues but questions of faith are much deeper.

To respond to your specific point about morality: I chose my words carefully: There is no compelling reason for people to behave morally or altruistically when it doesn’t suit them to do so.  Of course it’s a good thing if other people act morally but why should we not “defect” (to use the technical language of Evolutionary Game Theory)? Appealing to “do as you would be done by” doesn’t solve the problem – why should an individual accept this?

And I guess you may accept points a and c-h.

I too enjoy Sherlock (although as my daughter points out the original Holmes is a much nicer character than they have made him in the “update”).  But with the best will in the world, comic writers are not reliable guides to truth. As you have said, you need to make up your own mind.

Alien design and simulation

First off, thank you so much for your site and books. As a lifelong Christian studying science at an American university, your answers have been extremely helpful in my continued quest to maintain a strong faith.

My two questions come about two theories in response to fine-tuning that I find ridiculous, but some of my non-religious friends find ground in:

First, what are your thoughts on the possibility of alien design as proposed by Alan Guth (who claims that humans could eventually generate new universes)? My main response is to ask, even if this is possible, what makes the alien universe fine-tuned and how did that universe come into existence? Am I correct in asking such a thing?

Also, if you have the time, I was wondering what your thoughts on simulation theory were? Again, I find it to be utter speculation that still doesn't solve the problem of an outright creator.

Response: Thank you. You have good points.  But interestingly they can be turned to “our” advantage:
  1. If people accept the possibility of “alien design” (as I think Dawkins did in the recent debate with Rowan Williams) then they accept that the universe is fully compatible with a (non-ultimate) Creator. But this is equally compatible with an ultimate Creator.
  2. Similarly if they accept that the universe could be a simulation then logically they have to accept that it could be a Creation as well.

Developmental understanding of God,

I am reading your 2011 book on "Testing Scripture". In it, several times you make a case for the developmental understanding of God, and God's relation to the world, found across the historical development of the canon.

When I make this case, I have been accused of implicitly violating Article XX of the 39 Articles: "the Church [may not] ordain any thing that is contrary to God's Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another."

By saying that a certain portion is "less developed" than later Scripture, and therefore superseded by it, I have been told that this is making one place in Scripture "repugnant" to another. I would assume that this same criticism could be, or has been, leveled at you.

If this is the case, what is your reply?

Response: It's rather encouraging to hear that people take the 39 Articles that seriously!

I don't think it is at all "repugnant" to say that all scriptures, especially the OT, must be interpreted in the light of Christ. It was long known to the Fathers that much of the OT should be interpreted allegorically and christologically, and indeed this was (I believe) considered the highest form of interpretation.  A favourite example (which we use in Questions of Truth) is St Benedict interpreting the (apparent) blessing on bashing babies brains out in Psalm 137 as an injunction to nip sins in the bud.

John adds: I see the 39 Articles as 'historic formularies', very much embedded in their own time. They do not carry the authority of, say, the Creeds. I have a great respect for scripture but part of taking it seriously is to recognise tensions within it, for example between the stories of genocide in Joshua and the Lord's command to love our enemies. I think this requires an acknowledgement of the unfolding developmental character of God's revelation through the biblical authors. You might be interested to look at my Encountering Scripture.

Follow-up: Thank you for your thoughtful responses. I think that what you say makes a great deal of sense, and I use similar explanations when describing the matter myself. However, what I am dealing with here is a Church culture that is heavily immersed in the southern U.S. "Bible Belt", and speaking of any style of interpretation other than "literal" is often interpreted as a liberal cop-out. Even if one points out both the historic antecedents found in the great Tradition of the Church.

And, I suppose that just has to be the way it is, and one must explain things as best they can.

Second Response: Well whatever St Augustine and St Benedict were, they were hardly “liberals”.

Universe eternal or ex nihilo

It seems to me that, apparently, there are two possibilities accounting for the existence of the Universe: it is either eternal, and if so, it has only been changing shapes eternally (Big Bang being only an episode in its history); or it came into being ex nihilo. Does science promise to give a self-contained explanation of either? Or is this question, in the words of Richard Swinburne, an Oxford professor of philosophy, too big for science?

Response: Science can never explain why science works, or why the particular laws that science discerns should apply rather than other logical possibilities.

Suffering and limited omniscience

My question relates to suffering. Most suffering can be explained as due to our exercise of free will. More suffering can be explained by our having to live in a rule-governed world. But why would God create such a world if (according to orthodoxy) he knew our future in his eternity, knew about Auschwitz. But if he is inside time then why create a universe not knowing where it would go???

Response: Trying to grasp a “god’s eye view” of anything is pretty well impossible for humans.  “my thoughts are not your thoughts” etc..

But John (and I) think that the least misleading way of thinking/speaking about this is that God chooses to limit his knowledge in order to give us true freewill and hence the possibility of true love.  Omniscience does not mean “God knows everything” but “God knows everything that God chooses to know” (otherwise it would be a limit on God’s omnipotence).  And we now understand through Quantum Mechanics that observing something is not quite the purely passive act that was previously supposed.

The only thing we know is that the ultimate answer to “Why does God to X” is “God chooses to do this motivated by perfect Love”

But the questioner said: It’s not good enough to say that God’s thoughts  are not our thoughts’ : that is Muslim theology: ‘What God does is right because God does it’. Just putting God as the subject of a verb doesn’t make the related action necessarily right. Quoting quantum mechanics is a real get-out. Exactly what does quantum mechanics have to say about the morality of creation (I have studied quantum mechanics)?  How can God choose NOT to know about Auschwitz unless he knows about Auschwitz and then chooses to dismiss it from his knowledge?

My question remains: at the point of creating did God know the course to be taken by his creation or did he not? No matter which answer is given to the question God stands condemned either for his knowledge or for his ignorance.

By the way, I am not an atheist trying to make difficulties, but a committed Christian trying to hold on to my faith. Having spent 24 years in one of the poorest countries in the world the problem of theodicy, a suffering world and an apparently omnipotent and compassionate but passive God, remains top of my list of moral perplexities.

Second Response: Sorry you don’t seem to have read the response clearly.

We say that God’s Omniscience means that he knows what he chooses to know (but does not know what He chooses not to know).

He deliberately limits His knowledge because only in that way can we have true freewill. He knew of course that evil would arise in the world, but chose not to know the specifics because only (we think) by not knowing the specifics can He endow us with the freedom for Love.

I’m sorry if I didn’t explain myself clearly enough before.

To which: No, I HAVE read you correctly. God cannot CHOOSE what he will know unless he has before him a mixture of what he will determine to know and what he will determine not to know. So at that point, presumably before the act of creation, he knows even what he will decide not to know. Eliminating some part of what he knows cannot absolve him from responsibility for what at some point he knew. But you appear to be suggesting that God gave us free will at the cost of not knowing where that free will would lead us. Isn’t that precisely my second point: it would surely be irresponsible to start a process deliberately not knowing where that process would lead us and without the possibility of interfering to eliminate evil?

Your last response to my question Why did God create?’ is to me meaningless: ‘God chooses to do this motivated by perfect love.’ Is it perfect love to put into our hands a free will that is not in some way limited in its choices by love...which would then not be free will at all?

Third Response: The statement “God cannot do X” can only be true if X is logically impossible. It is clearly logically possible to decide not to know/find out something that you could know/find out, without knowing it.  I do not know the value of 12345*6789*11 but I could easily calculate it if I wished. God is not some kind of “idiot savant” who automatically “knows” everything. Our point is that knowing is an act of will.  At no point did God “know” things that He chooses not to know.

You say it would “surely be irresponsible” to create the world in a way which gives true freedom. Well I can see that it might perhaps be irresponsible, it would depend what the alternative courses of action were, whether one had given them due consideration etc...   However the idea that we can accuse God of being “irresponsible” given our almost complete lack of knowledge of these topics is somewhat ridiculous, and there is a big difference between “X might perhaps be the case” and “X is surely the case”.  It seems to me self-evident that the present creation, with all its love and suffering, is vastly preferable to a creation with no love and no suffering.

It's also perhaps worth remarking that although we have free will our choices are obviously quite substantially limited. Most people can do very little evil, and even the vilest dictators and demagogues pass away after a few decades, and they can only do evil because other people let them.  But the value of love is eternal.

Time between my death and resurrection will not exist for me

My belief is that the next thing I will be conscious of  after my death will be heaven. Time between my death and resurrection will not exist for me.

Response: I have much sympathy with this view, but we are told to expect judgement first!
Though we can be confident that God will acquit us (not because of any “merit” of ours but through Jesus our Saviour) it may not be a completely painless experience!

Does QM really imply non-causality?

Does quantum physics really contend that particles can actually appear and disappear (and then reappear) into our time and space dimension without any outside cause or is it only a matter of that their measurement of them makes it appear like they do that?

Response: The correct interpretation of Quantum Mechanics is still hotly debated. It seems as if many possible interpretations (Copenhagen, Bohm, Many-worlds) are compatible with the equations and all the physical evidence. And no-one knows how to reconcile Quantum Mechanics and General Relativity, let alone how/whether String/M theory is correct.

So certainly in Hawking's highly speculative cosmology and interpretation things can happen "without any outside cause" and we do know that particles spontaneously appear and disappear in the so-called Quantum Vacuum - at a micro level this is very well confirmed by observation.

However (as John keeps pointing out) it is a ridiculous abuse of language to call the Quantum Vacuum "nothing" - this so called "empty space" is teeming with energy and an almost infinite number of particles.  Even if the existence of the Universe is a consequence of the laws of physics (and you can always formulate a set of laws of physics that "require" the universe to exist) this does not, and can not, address the question of WHY the laws of physics have the form that they do.  Hawking would suggest that anthropic selection answers this but that's really begging the question.

Further Question: Does changing the very beginning of time and space from a single point to a less than distinct point really change the Big Bang’s occurrence from an external causality to itself?

Response: No it's a mathematical "trick" with no real philosophical implications, though of course it might look as though it had. As St Augustine realised in the 5th century, the "need" for God does not depend on whether there is a first moment in time - but why is there time at all? You can always mathematically re-scale "time" so that it has no beginning and re-write the laws of physics appropriately.

As noted above, no-one knows how QM and GR reconcile. QM doesn't like singularities. Until there is much clearer empirical evidence the scope for clever speculation is endless, and Hawking is very clever and certainly offers deep insights (which may or may not be correct) at a physical level.  But he is no theologian/philosopher and doesn't seem to understand that his theories have nothing to do with the existence of God at all.

Why is God important? How can I hear God?

I desperately need someone who is  scientist to describe why God is important?  And how I can "hear" this God?

Response:  God is (by definition) the Ultimate Creator and we have good reason to believe that God is the Loving Ultimate Creator.

If the Loving Ultimate Creator is not "important" it's hard to know what could be "important" - especially since God's love extends to you and me and those that we love and care about.

Hearing God is not straightforward. After all even "hearing" the Big Bang requires highly sophisticated equipment and deep theoretical reflection. Prayer, reading the Bible (not as an encyclopaedia but as something more like a spiritual "laboratory notebook"), listening to others and silence are all important.

We wish you well in your quest.
Seek and you will find.

What exactly do you mean by God?

What exactly do you mean by God? (There are many god concepts, and many are ill defined. This is an honest question since I'd have to know what the proposition is before being able to believe it. Specifically, there is a vast difference between a deist god and any particular theist god.)

Response: Philosophically “God”  means “the ultimate Creator”.
There can only be 0 or 1 “ultimate Creator”s and deism, theism etc.. are theories about God not descriptions of different Gods.

Follow-on: On what basis do you evaluate these different theories about God? In other words, how is Christianity more plausible than other options?

Response: There is, and can be, no algorithm.
You just have to use your judgement and decide.
One not unreasonable heuristic: if God exists then God is presumably not incompetent so one of the major universal theistic religions is likely to be broadly true.
Narrows it down to Christianity or Islam, and for me at least this is an easy choice!

Biblical inconsistencies, Herod, and water into wine

For many years I was a Christian, but always with some doubts.  I attended an Alpha Course and was recommended to read the Bible. This I did, but found a text full of inconsistencies and downright implausibility's.  To give two examples; one of inconsistencies ( topical for this season ) and one of implausibility.

Matthew 2, says that after Jesus Christ's birth he was taken to Egypt to escape Herod's men.  Now Herod, like all autocrats of his time, was no doubt very bad, but I do not think there is any evidence, historical or archaeological, that there ever was a massacre of children in Bethlehem ?

But Luke 2, says that after eight days Jesus was taken to the Temple in Jerusalem, where old Simeon was, in order to fulfil the prescribed Jewish rituals after a birth etc.

Now I think the Matthew story is a fabrication to make it appear that an Old Testament prophesy was being fulfilled; "Out of Egypt have I called my Son" ?

Then there is the story about changing water into wine, John 2.  Now water is hydrogen and oxygen yet wine contains carbon and nitrogen etc, elements synthesised in stars, and one wonders how these elements got into the water or how the conversion took place without incinerating the neighbourhood !!!  The Alpha people say the laws of nature must have been suspended ! But I do not believe this because then we are into myth and magic and anything goes.

If the above, somewhat trivial, stories are fabrications what about the serious stuff in the Bible, such as the resurrection ?  And how can this be believed with any degree of confidence since the accounts were written by the same people ?

I would really value your opinion about the above issues and about miracles in general, since I find that many other religious people have a very poor knowledge of the workings of the physical world / universe and have little facility for critical analysis, hence they tend to believe anything and are not at all convincing.

Response from NB: Thank you for your email – which I will pass on to John with this preliminary response.
The gospels are essentially verbal portraits of Jesus and his life. Portraits, even if painted from life, don’t usually agree in every detail. Of course in the ancient world they knew all about inconsistent testimony, and if the evangelists had been trying to fabricate accounts of Jesus’ life they would no doubt have coordinated to avoid these minor inconsistencies.  But you get the strong sense, especially with Luke and (in a different way) John that they are each wrestling with their data and doing their best to make sense of it – so for example they don’t remove serious criticisms by Jesus of all the then leaders of the Church. 

On the point about the Massacre in Bethlehem, you need to remember first of all that there are almost no contemporary written records from that period, apart from the Dead Sea Scrolls and even they span over 2 centuries. The one non-biblical history of that time comes from Josephus writing around AD94 (though the earliest manuscripts are 9th-10 century) and pretty much everything we “know” about Herod outside the Gospels comes from Josephus.  Herod executed his wife and several members of his family because he thought they were a threat to his throne, and would certainly have had no scruples in putting 20-30 little children to death.  There is no reason why Josephus would have recorded this and since infant mortality was anyway high in the ancient world there is no reason why there should be any other historical record.

However the Protoevangelium of James of c.150 AD does refer to it as does Macrobius (c. 395-423) who is one of the last Latin non-Christian authors. Macrobius was a very learned antiquarian and this is a quote he attributes to Augustus.

It’s clear from the account that the Magi visited Herod a year or so after Jesus’ birth (hence all the children under 3 were killed) so there is no conflict between this and the circumcision. There is no reasonable doubt that Jesus was circumcised on the 8th day – that was a basic duty under the Law.

On the water into wine, if we assume that wine is a solution of Ethanol and Water then “all God needs to do” is to turn Oxygen into Carbon which is physically quite possible (from an energetic PoV) and indeed powers Carbon Cycle stars. We don’t know how to make this happen in aqueous phase at room temperature (no-one has tried), but God presumably does. The reaction emits alpha particles which may be why Jesus told the servants to “stand back” a bit while the transformation was taking place.  I’d like to think that while God was at it He’d have made some CO2 so that the wine was more like Champagne.  (I haven’t done the calculation to see how much energy is released by this, and how much of this energy would go out with the Alpha particles, why don’t you have a go and email me?). Now of course it may be that God did this by quite other means – remember how little we know about what the universe is made of – but at least we can say that this miracle is not “physically impossible.”

On the whole therefore I think it highly likely that both these events were historical.  But even if they aren’t, and the evangelists have made a mistake, that doesn’t really undermine the essential veracity of the gospels.  Jesus lived, taught the most wonderful teaching, lived an exemplary life, was put to death and then his disciples were convinced that he had risen from the dead, and went on to “turn the world upside down”.  We can be quite certain that neither the Jewish nor the Roman authorities could produce Jesus’ body. All the rest is, in a sense, incidental detail which falls into place around the central fact.

John adds: 
  • While there is no independent account of the massacre of the innocents, the story is entirely consonant with what we know about Herod’s ruthless and paranoic character. 
  • On miracle, God is not condemned never to do anything radically new, but theologically believable miracles are not celestial conjuring tricks but windows into a deeper reality than is discernable in the everyday – ‘signs’ as John’s gospel calls them.  On the central Christian miracle of the Resurrection see, for example, by Science and Theology in Quest of Truth  Chapter 5.”
And Nicholas further adds: the more I think about the Water into Wine the more I think it must be true:
  1. There is the extraordinary incident of “what have I to do with you, woman?”   This very sharp remark by Jesus to his Mother would never have been made up by the early Church.
  2. The detail of the vast quantity of wine produced (120-180 gallons) would again be very unlikely to be made up. There is a theological point to the 6 water jars but not to the size of each!
  3. Almost all great miracles make a theological point by showing God doing quickly what he does more slowly in the natural world. Normally God turns water into wine through the medium of vines and yeasts – God cuts out the middle man.  Conceivably John could have made this up but he couldn’t possibly have known that…
  4. Normally God turns Oxygen into Carbon in stars and that is what needs to happen to turn water into alcohol.  The process emits radiation which is only dangerous at very short range, so it’s quite safe to do it with people present provided it is done inside a stone jar {I’m sorry I had the idea that he told the servants to stand back but I must have been woolgathering it’s not in the text} but it would not be a good idea to do it in a wineskin that people might be holding.

death before the sin of Adam and Eve

I read your article in the Saturday Evening Post Sept/Oct 2011 entitled 'God vs. Science.'

You were quoted as saying about death before the sin of Adam and Eve, "It may not be in the Bible, but the evidence is everywhere else."

I would sincerely be interested in hearing more about this evidence, and look forward to hearing from you at your convenience.

Response: Not only are there many fossils which clearly pre-date the first hominids, but we are now beginning to understand enough about biology to see the wonderful way in which God has created us “from the dust of the earth” in a bit more detail, and to see that physical death is an essential part of the way in which we come into being with the capacity to be free to choose to love.

Of course spiritual death is another matter. The adverse spiritual effects of death are indeed a function of sin and our turning away from God.  As always, the Bible considers spiritual reality to be the most important, and speaks of spiritual truths, not scientific detail.

creatio continuo, and comments re Islam?

I want to thank John Polkinghorne and yourself for running this marvellous and informative website. For me it is unquestionably one of the finest online resources for the science and religion debate. Certainly, it is a very helpful resource for those of us who want to combat the shockingly naive attacks on religious put forward by the so-called "new atheists", Dawkins and Hitchens, etcetera.

If you don't mind, I have a couple of unrelated questions. In his published work, Prof Polkinghorne seems to hold the theological view known as "creatio continuo", or continuous creation. As far as I am aware there are certain recent christian philosophers who would deny this doctrine (Richard Swinburne comes to mind). My question, then, is this: what reasons does Prof Polkinghorne have for believing in continuous creation? And why does he think it important to affirm?

My other question is briefer: I'm wondering if Prof Polkinghorne has made any comments regarding Islam, especially the Qur'anic conception of God (Allah)?

Response from JCP: The long evolutionary history of the universe and of life on Earth, show us that the past was very different from the present in many respects and that God did not bring into being a ready-made world, but one whose potentiality has been explored and brought to birth over long periods of time. Hence the concept of continuous creation in which the Creator acts through the unfolding of the divinely ordained processes of nature. I have written about this in (e.g.) Theology and Science in Quest of Truth and there is much discussion in the writings of Arthur Peacocke.

All three Abrahamic faiths see God’s Mind and Will behind the order and fruitfulness of the world and so share much in common in their understanding of how scientific and religious insights relate to each other.

Differences between Ward's dual-aspect idealism and your dual-aspect monism?

Recently I've been trying to delve into Keith Ward's new book 'More Than Matter: Is There More to Life Than Molecules?'

Like yourself and John, he rallies against the philosophies of materialism and reductionism.  However, he proposes the view of 'dual-aspect idealism', which I admit I'm somewhat confused by.  You yourselves advocate dual-aspect monism, and yet he seems to believe that your position is a variation of non-reductive physicalism, citing John's statement on structural reductionism as indicating the belief that everything that exists is part of the physical world.

He further claims that things like perceived sound are not "information" or "meaning" attached to particles (which I took as a reference to Questions of Truth) , but can only exist in consciousness. 

I wanted to ask for some clarification, as I get the sense Ward may have misrepresented your view.  What, if any, differences are there between Ward's dual-aspect idealism and your dual-aspect monism?  What of his claim of John's non-reductive physicalism?

Response: I haven't read Keith's book.  But we certainly don't think that "everything that exists is part of the physical world" (and I'd be amazed if Keith thinks we do)

how you would answer a child's question- did God make diseases

Could you tell me how you would answer a child's question- did God make diseases? I've read what you say in your chapter on evil in 'Exploring Reality' but am struggling to explain it in a way that isn't too complex but at the same time is detailed enough to make sense.

Response (from NB, as are all the others unless indicated otherwise) Depends on the age (and intelligence and interests!) of the child.  For my elder grandson I might say:

God has made this world so that we can learn to choose to love Him and love our neighbours. Life and death, health and disease, joy and suffering are essential aspects of this.   If you always scored a goal how could you ever learn to play football?  If everyone’s life was always perfect how could we learn to love?

For my younger grandson I might substitute “If you had an automatic keyboard that played every piece after you’d played the first few notes, how would anyone learn to play the piano”

Not an easy question though!  The truth is that the laws of evolutionary biology which make intelligent adaptive intelligent life that is free to choose to believe in God possible also make diseases and death inevitable.