John Polkinghorne on Cosmic Scope: Creation

In 1996 John Polkinghorne published the fascinating little book Scientist as Theologians. We give a short extract below where he begins a discussion on his ideas about creation.

Cosmic Scope: Creation

To scientists, theologians seem very Earth-bound and tied to human culture. The history they mostly survey is the 4,000 year period running from Abraham to the present day. When they speak of the world, they usually mean the Earth. Yet the Sun that our planet encircles is just an ordinary star among the more than 100 million million million stars of the observable universe; 4,000 years is the last fiftieth of a second in the 'cosmic day' of 15 billion years. Of course, size and significance are not the same thing. The coming-to-be of self-conscious life on Earth is surely the most remarkable event in the universe's history known to us. The power of culture to transmit information from one generation to another has, over a few thousand years, changed the face of the Earth and the course of terrestrial evolution. Although we are inhabitants of a mere speck of dust floating in a vast universe, that very vastness is itself an indispensable condition for our being here to wonder at it. Modern cosmology recognises that a universe capable of evolving people must be as big, and as full of matter, as is our world, for only thus could cosmic history last long enough, and cosmic process have the right character, for this fruitful event to happen. It takes 15 billion years to make men and women. It is a process that cannot be hurried and that requires a universe with at least as many stars in it as we observe in our own.

Although the historically changing character of the Earth's seas and land masses, and of its animal life, has been recognised for two centuries, it was only in the 1920s that people realised that the whole universe also had had a history. When Einstein discovered the general theory of relativity in 1915, he soon realised that it would enable him to construct a theory of the universe itself, since linking gravity to the curvature of space made it possible to discuss cosmic space made it possible to discuss cosmic space-time structure. Yet in those days it seemed axiomatic that it was a static, unchanging universe that should emerge from the calculations. Since this was not in fact the way it worked out theoretically Einstein made what he later described as 'the greatest blunder' of his life, by tinkering with the equations to make a static solution possible. Within a few years, however, the theoretical insight of the Russian meteorologist, Alexander Friedman, and the Belgian priest, Georges Lemaître, and the observational discoveries of the American astronomer, Edwin Hubble, had led to what we now call 'big bang cosmology'. The steady-state theory of Bondi, Gold and Hoyle was proposed in 1948 in a conscious attempt to return to an everlastingly unchanging picture of the universe. The discovery of the background radiation (a kind of lingering echo of the big bang) has resulted in the abandonment of steady-state ideas by almost all cosmologists.

These discoveries have greatly enlarged our concept of what it means to speak of an evolutionary world. Biological evolution on Earth had to be preceded by 10 billion years of stellar evolution, in whose course the heavier elements that would constitute the chemical basis of life were formed in the nuclear furnaces of the stars. These elements were then made available by being scattered into the environment through supernovae explosions. The universe is intrinsically dynamic. Nowhere does this seem to be more true than in the immediate aftermath of the big bang itself. Within a fraction of a second of the initiating event, cosmologists believe that a bewildering sequence of cosmic transformations took place, greatly expanding and smoothing the universe and breaking down the force of the fundamental, highly symmetrical, grand unified theory into the asymmetrical variety of the forces of nature that we observe today.

The scientist-theologians are well aware of the temporal and spatial setting in which the human story unfolds. They wish to take it seriously, particularly in relation to the theological doctrine of creation. A persistent problem in discussions with agnostic scientist colleagues is to get the latter to recognise that creation is not the answer to the temporal question 'How did things begin?', but to the ontological question 'Why does anything exist?' I have reproved Stephen Hawking for naïveté in supposing that, were his speculations that the universe has a finite age but no dateable beginning to prove to be correct, this would somehow make the Creator redundant. God is not there just to start things off. Hawking is nearer the mark when he asks, in relation to a supposed grand unified theory, 'What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?' The central concept of the doctrine of creation is divine ordaining and sustaining, not divine initiation.

Last Updated January 2021