Re: Peacocke's Tune

From: Robert Schneider <>
Date: Sat Sep 24 2005 - 20:58:40 EDT

I have spoken with Arthur Peacocke, or rather he did most of the talking, on two occasions. The first was a Templeton Science & Religion workshop at MIT in 1998 (topic: Evolution), where he gave a paper that was published in the Vatican/CTNS collection on Evolutionary and Molecular Biology (1998). I was describing some aspects of the course I was developing, and brought up process theology. He proceeded to criticize it and distance himself from it (yet, I think there may be more process in his theology than he would have admitted at the moment); I enjoyed the brief exchange. The second time was another Templeton workshop, this one at St. Anne's College in Oxford in 2000 (topic: God and Time). Arthur did not give a lecture at this one, but he and his lovely wife Rosemary (that's her name, isn't it, Michael?) attended. My wife Maria was there also, and we chatted with Rosemary. She had given a most interesting presentation on teaching religion in English public (in the American sense) schools at MIT, and she was surprised and pleased when I complimented her on it.

Well, the last evening of the conference Maria and I were leaving the hall following a lecture by Bob Russell on eschatology and the fate of the universe. It was one of those mile-a-minute presentations Russell is famous for (and a bit difficult for me to follow in my still jet-lagged state) in which he integrated the two. Arthur walked out the door with us and proceeded to launch into a critique of Russell's thesis, and explained why we needed to abandon eschatology, because it doesn't make sense anymore. It was vintage Peacocke, and Maria and I listened with pleasure; and he enjoyed having an audience. He finished his critique, and then said, with the slightest pause, "But I am an Anglican, and I can say anything." We laughed as he strode away. As Anglicans, perhaps Michael and I can appreciate that quip in ways non-Anglicans might not.

The most recent thing I've read by Peacocke is his piece in the collection he and Philip Clayton edited on panentheistic reflections on God's presence in a scientific world, In Whom We Live and Move and Have Our Being (2004). Much of what he says there is recycled from things he's written or papers he's given going back at least to 1993, and which he has incorporated into a panentheistic ontological model of the God-world relationship. I can see why some have criticised him for not developing much theologically, or why one might see him as moving away from an atonement theology. Having said that I quickly add that I admire what Peacocke has done for the science/religion dialogue, and there are aspects of his understanding of God's relationship to the creation as science discovers and describes it that I find attractive. In my own view, if atonement is not conceived narrowly as satisfaction for human sinfulness, but more broadly as the reconciliation of the whole creation (e.g. Rom. 8:19ff; Col. 1:15-20), then there is room even for a panentheistic eschatology in the spirit of Eph. 1:10 and 1 Cor. 15:28. I think we need to pay more attention to Paul the mystic.

Bob Schneider

  ----- Original Message -----
  From: Michael Roberts
  To: Gregory Arago ;
  Sent: Saturday, September 24, 2005 3:44 PM
  Subject: Re: Peacocke's Tune

  I love the title! Of all bird song the peacock is the most raucous of all.

  On miracles Arthur argues that this is not the way God would work. I can see his point as at times miracles really becomes the behaviour of a capricious God. I reject the concept of a miracle as something which breaks scientific law - I see them more as a unique action of God which may or may not have a scientific explanation , but I cannot think of a scientific explanation for some eg water into wine or the Virgin birth.

  Arthur has long tried to support God against the atheist in academia and that was one of his main motives in starting the Society of Ordained Scientists in 1986, when he called together two meetings at St George's Windsor with about 20 clergy scientists present - all Anglican including myself and a country vicar who was a prof of physics called Polkinghorne. Peacocke's apologetic and missionary aim was foremost.

  I think Arthur is excellent on demonstrating that belief in God is reasonable for a scientist but less so on Gospel centralities.

  I also think he would buy into the global faith approach which ultimately does not accept the uniqueness of Christ. Here he would go along with theologians like Keith Ward

  On evolution he would baulk at evolutionism as a world view.

  If Arthur reads this post he would shoot back at me as he did to the Orthodox priest and probably tell me that I don't seem to want to change!!

  Please note that Arthur is a rarity in that he has an Oxbridge D.D. and D.Sc.

  I hope this is helpful


  PS Gordian Knot was the knot King Gordius of Phyrgia in Turkey tied up his wagon . It could not be untied so it was secure - until legend says Alexander cut it with his sword,

  ----- Original Message -----
    From: Gregory Arago
    To: ;
    Sent: Saturday, September 24, 2005 12:32 PM
    Subject: Peacocke's Tune

    Thank you for your response Michael. You raise several interesting and important questions/issues, which are beyond my possibility to answer. Obviously you are much closer to and aware of his thoughts than I am and it's good to hear about the personal connection too. People on this list seem to be well-networked indeed! This message therefore just touches on a few things mentioned, though I figured another thread may be suitable since it has nothing to do with "The Universe in a Single Atom" or the Dalai Lama.


    As for letting science call the tune, I would say this fits my impression of Canon Dr. Peacocke's approach also. It is not clear to me if he actually 'eliminates miracles,' or if he rather wants to 'find stronger proof for miracles,' which is what he mentioned in the feedback to his conference presentation. Those two may of course be nearly the same thing. Miracles are or can be explained by reason: God's reason (or Reason). Such an approach seems to be staying (safely) within a rationalist/modernist paradigm, which itself can no longer be maintained as absolute or as a universal truth in today's globalizing, electric-age earth. In this sense I found myself in disagreement with him also.


    He did note, however, that 'scientism' is a dead end. This places a much-needed limit or boundary on what science can and cannot explain or describe alone. On the other hand, he declared that theological truth (with a big T) is also a dead end. This is perhaps where he promotes an 'open theology' which is supposed to lead us into the third millennium (or at least the 21st century, in his words).


    "Since science is a truly, global, cognitive resource accepted across all cultures, might not these inferences from the scientific perspective constitute a common pool of resources for the exploration towards God of the seekers of many religious traditions, or of none?" - A. Peacocke ("The Future for Theology in a Scientific Age," 2005)


    His two-sided position (scientist/theologian) thus leads to some confusion, since Peacocke speaks out against reductionism while at the same time appearing to subscribe to some forms of reductionism of his own making. He argues in favour of self-organization and that unexpected degrees of organization can be more deeply understood by experimental science. But he excludes spiritual or creationary language, instead opting for theistic naturalism, immanence and panentheism, which, as Michael suggests, possibly leads to a theology with no atonement.


    After all was spoken and responded to, I was left thinking that Dr. Peacocke had perhaps not (yet) come full circle to return to theology the wonder that he has gained from studying biology and natural science; to help earn the respect that theologians deserve from scientists. They are different spheres of knowledge to be sure (i.e. science and theology), but building bridges between them doesn't mean that one-way traffic should dominate the paths of discussion. Thankfully, at the venue in which the presentation took place, there were other speakers who adequately balanced the qualified rationalism, or perhaps the positivism displayed in Peacocke's views.


    Here are the questions I asked to Peacocke (or wanted to ask*, since his answers in a brief private conversation went in their own direction and not exactly toward what I was inquiring about):


    *Have you found the place (i.e. relevance or role) of theology in your biology?

    When is evolution ideological and no longer 'strictly scientific'?

    What are the limits of evolution, for example, should evolutionary theory be used in social sciences and humanities?

    Do you agree with the poet T.S. Eliot that: "superficial notions of evolution become a means of disowning the past" (from Four Quartets)?


    To add some context to these questions, we were gathered for a roundtable discussion on the topic "Science, Ideology and Religion: Horizons for Mutual Interpretations of Creation and Evolution." Presenting were physics and astronomy professors, a philosopher, mathematician, two theologians (i.e. Priests, one holds PhD's in mathematics and physics), and myself, the lone social 'scientist' in the group. Peacocke didn't present here but offered remarks about his views of evolution and creation. No one spoke about ID (i+d theory).


    During the plenary presentations, the speaker who followed Peacocke was an Orthodox Priest. His comments on Peacocke's presentation were quite sharp, saying that Peacocke doesn't understand the pathos of the age (epoch) and that his views seem to be 30 years outdated. Peacocke, of course, shot back that he believes he's 30 years ahead of most people in the 'science and religion' discourse (or at least ahead of those in the room). The convenor picked up on this tension again in the closing discussions, helping to smooth over some of the more radical disagreements between a Priest-scientist and a scientist-Priest.


    "Our world is full of wistful agnostics - people wanting to believe with integrity, respecting the person and life of Jesus of Nazareth but unable to buy into the traditional ontology and images." - A. Peacocke ("The Future for Theology in a Scientific Age," 2005)


    A concluding remark here is to say that a scientist should know the limitations of his or her profession. Otherwise what they claim to 'know' with confidence can easily slip into ideology, or into speaking outside of what is truly understood and within the grasp of a given field of study. We clearly live in an epoch packed with scientific influence and impact, but the role of theologians to transcend science's boundaries is less well-known. Perhaps Peacocke and others involved in interactive dialogue between science and theology are trying to change that.




    p.s. what's a Gordian knot?


    From: Michael Roberts <>

    Date: Thu Sep 22 2005 - 17:44:51 EDT


    I suppose Peacocke has been an influence on me for over 25 years since I read his 1978 Bampton Lectures. I then discovered that in the late 50s when he want to relate his science to theology he went to visit my uncle Grenville Yarnold who was a physicist turned theologian for advice. (All 3 of us are Anglican clergy). I both like and respect Arthur, though we disagree with each other.


    However I do agree that he does let science call the tune and of course eliminates miracles as this is not the way God works. I am not to happy with his panentheism, but my most serious objection is the fact that his theology basically has no atonement in it. He pushes the liberal anglo-catholic emphasis on the incarnation to the extreme and virtually crosses out the cross. That was the comment of one or two when he spoke to our diocese a year or two ago.


    Now I would say that most ASA and CIS types have a creative dissonance present as there are unresolved issues of faith and science, Arthur has no dissonance as "science" takes over and that of a "modernist" sort which precludes the activity of God whether in "miracles"( whatever they are) and creation ex nihilo in favour of panentheism. Ultimately his theology is too rarefied to have any cutting edge except to a liberal Christian who wishes to hold on to Christ when he's scuttled his faith. He does regard CIS and thus ASA as far too biblicist.


    Could I suggest that YEC is trying to cut the Gordian knot of dissonance between faith and science in a very different way.



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Received on Sat Sep 24 20:59:16 2005

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