Man & God

Two interesting interviews I happened to catch today: Philip Roth on “Fresh Air,” discussing his new novel Everyman, as well as aging and mortality and religion (“I have no taste for delusion”); and physicist and theologian John Polkinghorne on a “Speaking of Faith” program called “Quarks + Creation.” In the first of those, Gross and Roth – who have clearly spoken before – talk about cemeteries and burials.

Gross: So do you have a plot picked out? Do you know what kind of cemetery you’d want to be buried in?

Roth: Where would it be easiest for you to visit my grave? I’ll pick a plot that’s convenient, so we can continue this interview series into eternity.

In the second interview, Polkinghorne tells host Krista Tippett about a development in theological thinking during the last century that describes the act of creation as “the act of bringing into being a world in which creatures are allowed to be themselves, to make themselves.” He continues: “The theologians like to call it kenosis from the Greek word, and so that God is not the puppet master of the universe, pulling every string. God has taken, if you like, a risk. Creation is more like an improvisation than the performance of a fixed score that God wrote in eternity. And that sort of world of becoming involves God’s accepting limitations, and I believe, accepting limitations not knowing the future.”

Tippett responds: “Well, and really that’s a kind of theological way of describing evolution, in a sense, this becoming this creation that creates itself.” The interview continues:

Polkinghorne: Yes. Absolutely. Yes, and in fact, I mean, people ‚Äî you know, Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859, and people think that was a great parting of the ways between science and religion, a big clash; all the scientists shouting, “Yes, yes, yes,” all the obscure religious people — the clergy, of course — shouted, “No, no, no,” and they just went their separate ways. Quite untrue. … A lot of scientists had doubts about Darwin, actually, for a while. And some religious people — from the start, an English clergyman called Charles Kingsley said that God could no doubt have snapped the divine fingers and brought into being a ready-made world, that God had done something cleverer than that: God had made a world in which creatures could make themselves. And so that’s the picture that God brings into being a universe, it has great potentialities, great possible fruitfulness, but creatures are allowed to explore and bring that fruitfulness to birth. And that seems to me a very beautiful and fitting form of creation, a better world, so to speak, than a world which was ready-made. But it has a necessary cost. It has a shadow side.

Tippett: Yes. Right. That’s what I wanted to ask you, the question, if all these terrible things happen, what does that say about the nature of God?

Polkinghorne: Absolutely. I mean, the greatest difficulty, religiously, obviously is the way the world is. It is beautiful and it’s fruitful, but it’s also ugly and terrifying, and dreadful things happen in the world. And the problem of evil and suffering is a very great problem. Now, this scientific insight helps us a little bit with that. If creatures are going to make themselves, to explore this potentiality, there will be blind alleys and ragged edges in that exploration. That’s bound to happen. And, I mean, a very simple example is this: What the engine that has driven the three-and-a-half-billion-year history of life on Earth has, of course, been genetic mutation. I mean, for two billion years or so there were only bacteria. Then things complexified because genes mutated and new possibilities came along. So that’s been a tremendous fruitfulness. But, if that’s going to happen, it’s inevitable that other cells will mutate and will become malignant. You can’t have one without the other. So, though the fact there is cancer in the world is obviously an anguishing fact about the world, it’s not, so to speak, gratuitous. It’s not something that a God who is a bit more competent or a bit more compassionate could easily have eliminated. It’s the shadow side of a world allowed to make itself.

Tippett: What does that way of looking at the world say about something like the recent tsunami?

Polkinghorne: Well, if God allows creatures to be, God will allow tectonic plates to be.

Tippett: So creatures, not just human beings, but every aspect of nature?

Polkinghorne: When I say creatures, I’m thinking of the whole created order, different parts of it. For example, we believe that having tectonic plates is an important necessity for a planet that’s going to have life because, between the plates, new material wells up from inside and replenishes, so to speak, the surface of the earth. But, of course, if there are going to be tectonic plates, not only will that happen, but sometimes they will slip. And when they slip, that will create an earthquake or, if it’s under the sea, will create a tsunami. I mean, again, it’s a hard answer. I mean, it’s not a —

Tippett: It’s not a compassionate answer.

Polkinghorne: Well, it’s not a — I think it has an element of compassion in it, but it’s not a sentimental answer, that’s for sure. I mean, a great Oxford theologian said — there was this tremendous earthquake in Lisbon in … and it killed 50,000 people in one day. And he said, “Well, it was God’s will.” I think the hard answer was that the elements of the earth clashed and behaved in accordance of their nature. They are allowed to be just as you and I are allowed to be. It’s not an easy answer, but I think, actually, it is the true answer.

It’s a fascinating idea, if not one I’m on board with.