Subtle and Supple: John Polkinghorne’s Engagement with Reality
The paper presents a critique of the two key planks at the heart of Polkinghorne’s approach to that field, viz. his appropriation of a critical realist stance, and his efforts to establish an equality of relationship and areas of consonance between the two disciplines. Both of these bring their own particular difficulties that he has also had to address and accommodate, sometimes explicitly and sometimes more obliquely. In the case of the former, there are inherent tensions for his theological thinking and commitments located at both poles of the critical realist label; in that of the latter, there are questions to be answered regarding the asymmetry of the dialogical and constraining relationship between the two disciplines. In each case I will delineate the key features of the strategy, discussing their associated challenges and examining how Polkinghorne responds to these, and the degree
or not to which he is successful in meeting them. In the light of this critique I will suggest that Polkinghorne’s talent for subtle and supple thinking, and the way in which he himself has engaged in the arena of science-theology debate, have many similarities with both the flexible transversal rationality developed by J. Wentzel van Huyssteen and his associated model of transversal space dialogue.2 When seen from this perspective I believe that Polkinghorne’s contribution points to possibilities for a new way forward for the science-theology field, and that it is in this respect, the value of his many and varied other contributions to it over the last 40 years notwithstanding, that he presents the strongest and most exciting challenge to new scholars entering the arena of engagement.