Today@Sam Article

Physics Lecturer Examines Science, Religion In Book

April 24, 2017
SHSU Media Contact: Lane Fortenberry

John Wilson, physics lecturer in the Department of Physics at Sam Houston State University, published his book, "A Physicist Examines Hope in the Resurrection: Examination of the Significance of the Work of John C. Polkinghorne for the Mission of the Church," in December 2016. —Photo by Brian Blalock

Science and theology often disagree, and the topics are often the subjects of heated debates at the dinner table and amongst friends.

However, a lecturer in the Department of Physics at Sam Houston State University released a book that examines the relationship between metaphysics and the material world.

John Wilson published “A Physicist Examines Hope in the Resurrection: Examination of the Significance of the Work of John C. Polkinghorne for the Mission of the Church” in December 2016.

“Any religion is successful to the extent that it promotes expectancy and hope,” Wilson said. “This book examines hope, principally in the crucifixion and the resurrection. In doing so, it moves away from these traditional positions of eschatology. For example, ‘The Late Great Planet Earth’ argues that Christ is not some far-off event, but a present event. 

“This is paramount in the last part of the book of John starting with the 14th chapter, when Jesus assures the disciples over and over again that he’ll be present with them through the Holy Spirit,” he said. “That’s the position of the church today—that Christ is present in the Holy Spirit.”

Wilson’s friends suggested to him that the work of John Polkinghorne because of his scientific background.

“Originally, I planned to do an investigation of the patristic period of the church,” he said. “That was in 2004. I finished my doctorate in theology in 2015, so it took me 11 years. I spent several years just going over the work in religion and science in order to formulate my own positions before looking at the work of Polkinghorne.”

Polkinghorne is a theologian, theoretical physicist, Anglican priest, ordained member of the Royal Society, and 2002 Templeton Prize winner.

“Polkinghorne writes in breathless style to unfold core Christian doctrine in dialogue with science,” Wilson said. “His work deftly addresses how one would interpret and commend Christian faith in the contemporary world as he elucidates the key topics in the dialogue of religion with science. 

“His work addresses the hope Christians have—present and future—in the faithfulness of a loving god who stands alongside them today and for all eternity,” he said. “Eschatological hope enables and empowers Christian life and emerges in God’s resurrection of Jesus from the horrific crucifixion.”

Wilson says the primary problem in the contemporary world is that science says we can only investigate the material world.

“The tools of science are only capable of that,” he said. “Science often tends to look down on the philosophical aspects of meaning and purpose, and particularly why there’s something here, rather than nothing.

“Only religion can answer those questions,” he said. “The argument which I make is that religion and science should have the opportunity to work together for a holistic view of the world around us. Unfortunately, people like Richard Dawkins, argue that we should be able to test the claims of religion, but the unseen reality of religion is not testable.”

However, Polkinghorne and Wilson as particle physicists are comfortable with unseen reality.

“He points out that in physics, we evaluate unseen reality all the time,” Wilson said. “For example, he’s a particle physicist, and they rely on the standard model, which develops sub nuclear physics based on the quark.

“No one has ever seen a quark,” he said. “No one has ever seen an electron. No one has ever seen a proton. However, we are comfortable with our derivations for unseen reality, just as we should be comfortable with our understanding of the unseen reality of God.”

Jurgen Moltmann’s book, “The Crucified God,” greatly influenced Polkinghorne.

“Moltmann argues when we look at the crucifixion and realize that God became humiliated for the sake of his intentions for creation, we can see that God stands alongside us today,” Wilson said. “It does not mean that suffering is eliminated, it just means that we have the presence of someone with us.”

This leads to the point many millennials make, which is “Why does a loving god allow suffering in the world, such as terrorism, murder and divorce?” according to Wilson.

“There hasn’t been an argument for that, but what Moltmann does, and so does N. T. Wright, Polkinghorne and I, is go to Philippians chapter two verse seven,” he said. “It says for the sake of creation, Jesus emptied himself when he could have powerfully taken over. The argument then is that God and creation, when he gives humankind free will, empties himself and allows that. 

“Free will then means God no longer responsible for the evil acts that I do,” he said. “He’s allowed me to make my decisions. Also, because God has allowed the world to evolve the way it has, God’s no longer responsible for natural evil.

“The alternative would be a god who’s a puppet master—and that would be a very boring world to live in,” he said. “We have a much more interesting world, and coming with a much more interesting world, we have to put up with the problems of suffering.”

Wilson says it’s impossible to satisfy everyone’s questions and that it’s up to his or her own free will to decide whether to believe or not.

“Polkinghorne’s strongest factual evidence is that something happened that caused the disciples, who were a rambling group of uneducated people in fear and despair in the crucifixion, to suddenly be empowered,” he said. “He argues that no one would be willing to die for something as a martyr that never happened. 

“He makes a very strong case,” he said. “It’s whether or not the millennials will accept that case or not—and that’s free will again. Everyone has the right to choose a relationship with God or to reject it.”

Christian faith, in many instances, hasn’t changed regarding its archaic language and cultural acceptance, according to Wilson.

“I argued for Vincent Donovan’s book, ‘Christianity Rediscovered,’ where Donovan went into Kenya to the Maasai,” Wilson said. “He was a Roman Catholic priest, and he did not do what Roman Catholics normally do, like establish hospitals and schools. He sat down with the Maasai and began to establish a relationship.

“He did not put down their culture; however, he communicated the similarities between their culture and the western culture, particularly the culture of the early church,” he said. “Through that, the Maasai moved over to accept Christianity.

“One of the great criticisms of the church is that it goes into another culture and arrogantly rejects the culture,” he said. “That needs to change, and particularly with the millennials. The church needs to put things in the language of today. William Abraham argues this very strongly in his book, ‘The Logical of Evangelism.’ We have to throw away not the central message, but the way we explain it.”

Wilson’s book, “A Physicist Examines Hope in the Resurrection: Examination of the Significance of the Work of John C. Polkinghorne for the Mission of the Church,” is available here.

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