Books on Science and Religion #8: John Polkinghorne and Science and Religion in Quest of Truth

Books on Science and Religion #8: John Polkinghorne and Science and Religion in Quest of Truth

SRFRIBERG-4a-WbNature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name, the Maker, the Creator. Nature is God’s Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world.


July 20, 2014

In our last six posts (Books #2, Books #3, Books #4, Books #5, Books #6, and Books #7), we have looked at books by Victor Stenger and A.C. Grayling, two writers closely associated with the new Atheist movement.

Stenger and Grayling and the ‘four horsemen of new Atheism‘, swimming against the consensus of modern historians of science, hold science and religion to be in irreconcilably in conflict. Thirty years ago, this would have been met with little or no dissent – and little interest – in the modern academic and intellectual community. That it creates such a stir now is due in large part to the efforts of John Polkinghorne, a Cambridge mathematical physicist and Anglican cleric whose indefatigable efforts over the last 25 years have made discussions of science and religion a central topic in the modern world.

Science and Religion Quest for TruthFrom a Baha’i perspective, i.e., one that endorses the view that science and religion are both essential elements of any practical and long-term solution of the problems of the world, Polkinghorne’s perspective is both closely in harmony and persuasive in detail. Where it differs, however, is with respect to religions that Baha’is view as equal in authority to Christianity – Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, and Islam. With respect to these, Polkinghorne is admirably open and ecumenical, but holds to the uniqueness of Christ.

In this blog, we review Polkinghorne’s Science and Religion in Quest of Truth, an excellent short introduction to his thought.

John Polkinghorne

John Polkinghorne is a Cambridge mathematical physicist who made a career change to the Anglican church – becoming a priest and a theologian – after 25 years of a very distinguished research career. After spending five years as a curate and vicar, he returned to Cambridge as Trinity Hall‘s dean of chapel and stayed as president of Queens’ College. He studied under Abdus Salam and Paul Dirac, he worked with Murray Gell-Mann at Caltech, he taught numerous students (including Brian Josephson and Martin Rees) and helped discover the quark.

170px-JohnpolkinghornePolkinghorne – who has written 26 books on the relationship between science and religion and five on physics – was instrumental in the resurgence of interest in science and religion that has taken place over the last two and a half decades. Uniquely, due to his experience as leading mathematical physicist, a leading educator, and as a priest serving as a curate, a vicar, and a theologian in the Church of England, he brings a unmatched breadth of experience and an excellent ability to communicate to bear on science and religion issues.

Polkinghorne’s Perspective

Summaries of Polkinghorne’s perspectives can be found at Reverend Dr John Polkinghorne – Star Course, at Polkinghorne on Wikipedia, at Discover Magazine (The Priest-Physicist Who Would Marry Science to Religion), on Biologos, and other places as well.

Briefly, Polkinghorne considers “the question of the existence of God [as] the single most important question we face about the nature of reality.” Belief in God, he proposes “makes more sense of the world, and of human experience, than does atheism.” He consider the intelligibility of the universe, the idea that the universe seems to “fine-tuned” for our existence, and the importance of ethics and aesthetics as support for this view.

Like Stenger and Grayling – whose views we have outlined earlier in this series of blogs – he views the problem of evil as the most serious challenge to belief in the existence of God. Like Stenger and Grayling, he accepts evolution. Unlike them, he looks for evidence of God’s action in the everyday reality of things, speculating, for example, that “the mysteries of quantum objects leave room for God in an explanation of the physical world.”

Cambridge_University,_King's_CollegeBut, this short summary doesn’t capture his appeal as a thinker, which is very broad and brings a well-thought through perspective – extraordinarily well-informed scientifically – to a wide variety of question that engage religious and irreligious people alike. In Science and Religion in Quest of Truth, he displays that broad appeal.

Science and Religion in Quest of Truth

He starts by addressing the view that science deals with facts and “religion simply trades in opinions,” saying that there are two bad mistakes behind this view:

The first is a mistake about science. There are no scientifically interesting facts that are not already interpreted facts. … The second mistake is about religion. The question of truth is as central to its concerns as it is in science. Religious belief can guide one in life or strengthen one at the approach of death, but unless it is actually true it can do neither of these things …

Science is successful in its quest for understanding in large part because of

… the modesty of its ambition. Its sets out to ask only the question of what are the processes by which things happen, bracketing out of its consideration other questions, such as whether there is meaning, value or purpose present in what is happening. Science is principally concerned to explore only one dimension of the human encounter with reality …

And because science progresses – and scientists are ever learning more – what we can say is that “science’s exploration of reality must be seen as resulting in the creation of ‘maps’ of the physical world which are indeed reliable, but only a particular scale.” These maps don’t cover everything. For example, consider the differences between Newtonian physics and quantum physics: “The immense success of Newtonian physics had eventually to be qualified by the recognition that understanding phenomena on the subatomic scale required the quite different insights of quantum theory.”

Centrally, “science requires commitment to the basic act of faith that there is a deep rational order in the world awaiting discovery.” And it is constantly describing unseen things like quarks, meaning that it is not a stranger to “belief in unseen realities.” To Polkinghorne, this means that:

299px-Queens'_College_(Cambridge)_shield.svg… theology can defend its belief in the unseen reality of God by a similar appeal to the intelligibility that this offers of the general nature of the world and of great swathes of well-testified spiritual experience.

But, we have to understand the differences between science and religion as well:

Despite the role of personal skills and judgement in the practice of science, the investigator is able to adopt a detached attitude to the actual objects of his or her inquiry. Theology, like any form of personal encounter with reality, must take the risk of a more vulnerable kind of engagement. God is not to be met with simply in a spirit of intellectual curiosity, but with openness to the experience of awe and a demand for obedience. Religious is much more ‘dangerous’ than scientific knowledge …

And because of those differences – because “science has bracketed out too much (meaning, purpose, beauty) from its consideration” – science cannot be a universal source of understanding. Religion is needed as well:

If we are truly to understand the rich, many-leveled world in which we live, we shall need the insights of both science and religion.

I strongly recommend reading the rest of this engaging book to see Polkinghorne’s rich, many-leveled view of our world.

Differences with the Baha’i View

Because he sometimes writes and speaks as an Anglican cleric, Polkinghorne’s explanations can have a certain edge. Some of the doctrines he defends owe more to church history and a Christian sense of exclusiveness than to an inclusive sense of what religion is. Dawkins in his way points this out, saying he is baffled “not so much by [Polkinghorne’s] belief in a cosmic lawgiver of some kind, as by [his] belief in the details of Christian religion: resurrection, forgiveness of sins and all.” (Dawkins, The God Delusion, p. 99.)

the-resurrection-of-christ-right-wing-of-the-isenheim-altarpiece.jpg!LargeIn Science and Religion in Quest of Truth, Polkinghorne is clear that he considers Christ’s claim as unique and proven by “the central Christian miracle of the resurrection of Jesus from death to a life of unending glory”. He writes:

If Jesus was simply another prophetic figure, or even no more than a messianic pretender, then no doubt after his execution he stayed dead. Yet if Jesus was more than that, the Son of God in some unique sense, then it is a coherent possibility that he was raised from the dead as a sign of that unique status. Conversely, if Jesus was resurrected, that surely indicates that there was something uniquely significant about him.

The Baha’i point of view, in contrast, is that the significance of the resurrection of Christ is not that Christ’s physical body was dead and then reborn but that Christ’s Cause – his true body – was as dead and then reborn. Here is how’Abdu’l-Baha says it in Some Answered Questions, on page 103:

Therefore, we say that the meaning of Christ’s resurrection is as follows: the disciples were troubled and agitated after the martyrdom of Christ. The Reality of Christ, which signifies His teachings, His bounties, His perfections and His spiritual power, was hidden and concealed for two or three days after His martyrdom … The Cause of Christ was like a lifeless body; and when after three days the disciples became assured and steadfast, and began to serve the Cause of Christ, and resolved to spread the divine teachings, putting His counsels into practice, and arising to serve Him, the Reality of Christ became resplendent and His bounty appeared …

Such is the meaning of the resurrection of Christ, and this was a true resurrection. But as the clergy have neither understood the meaning of the Gospels nor comprehended the symbols, therefore, it has been said that religion is in contradiction to science, and science in opposition to religion, as, for example, this subject of the ascension of Christ with an elemental body to the visible heaven is contrary to the science of mathematics. But when the truth of this subject becomes clear, and the symbol is explained, science in no way contradicts it; but, on the contrary, science and the intelligence affirm it.

The Baha’i perspective can be viewed as a correction to Polkinghorne’s views. Yes, analogies and symbols are at play in talking about something as significant as the Cause of Christ. And how can there be anything more miraculous than the extraordinary rise of Christ’s Cause? The idea of Christ’s physical resurrection misconstrues the point, tying it much too closely to folk agricultural rites and putting it at odds with science.

Are the world’s religious perspective’s in disagreement?

Another area where Polkinghorne’ engagement with Anglican doctrine flavors his views is his quite traditional perspective on other religions. He believes, as a dedicated Christian, that there is an incompatibility of the religious perspectives of the world’s various and diverse religions:

oneness of religionWhat is clear is that all the world faith traditions are all testi­fying to a realm of human experience that can be character­ised as encounter with sacred Reality. The problem is that the traditions seem to have such different and incompatible things to report about the nature of this encounter. The disagree­ments do not relate only to core beliefs, such as the Christian conviction of the unique status of Jesus Christ or the Islamic conviction of the supreme authority of the Qur’an. They also relate to general metaphysical understandings. What is the nature of the human person?

The three Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, all say that the individual person is of unique and abiding significance. Hindus believe that the person is recycled through reincarnation, while Bud­dhists believe that the personal self is ultimately an illusion from which to seek release. These are not three sets of people saying the same thing, expressed in culturally different ways. They are three sets of people in fundamental disagreement, saying three quite different things.

This of course is a widespread perspective, and he is not among a few in holding to it. Nor does he hold to it in an opinionated and unkind way but as a consequence of his views as a Christian. But the Baha’i view is certainly the more expansive and the more logical, yet also explain the source of the differences between these revealed religions:

Bahá’u’lláh promulgated the fundamental oneness of religion. He taught that reality is one and not multiple, that it underlies all divine precepts and that the foundations of the religions are, therefore, the same. Certain forms and imitations have gradually arisen. As these vary, they cause differences among religionists. If we set aside these imitations and seek the fundamental reality underlying our beliefs, we reach a basis of agreement because it is one and not multiple. 

Disagreement is not fundamental to religion itself but to the “imitations” and interpretations that have grown up around it.

Next Blog

Polkinghorne’s Science and Religion in Quest of Truth is an excellent introduction to illuminating and careful thinking about science and religion by one of the father’s of our modern perspective. If you haven’t yet read Polkinghorne yet or need a good overview of his thinking, reading this book is an excellent way of exploring his thinking.

In the next blog, we consider Richard Olson‘s Science and Scientism in Nineteenth-Century Europe (University of Illinois Press, 2008.)

Olson – a leading historian of science – brings a careful eye and accomplished understanding of the history of science, of religion, and of ideas to the dramatic changes in the relationship between science and religion in the 19th century, highlighting the important developments in Germany and France – often left unexplored in the English-speaking world – as well as in England.  For Baha’is, it brings to life the context of thought in Paris, London, and the America’s during `Abdu’l-Baha’s visit one hundred years ago, helping to explain the perspectives of those listening to his speeches on science and religion. For everyone, it highlight the rise of materialism, the view that material things are all there is, and positivism, the perspective that science is the latest and highest stage of learning and eclipses all others


This is the 8th in a series of blogs on the modern science and religion literature. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked in Japan for 10 years before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.

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10 thoughts on “Books on Science and Religion #8: John Polkinghorne and Science and Religion in Quest of Truth

  1. I agree with Polkinghorne, that the biggest challenge for believing in God is the problem of evil. I would add specifically that it is the biggest challenge for belief in an omnipotent good God. Other types of God might not be a problem to believe in. But naturally people would prefer to believe in a good omnipotent God, who is able to protect all, rather than in some powerful but not omnipotent God, who might be too busy on some distant planet, to come back to our earth and cure any of us of cancer or other deadly diseases. I too would like to believe in a good God who is able to cure all people, so they won’t have to die tormented in pain for months maybe, until one day they succumb to the disease and die. So the problem with such belief is why does God not cure all, preferably in the beginning of the disease, before they suffer on and on from pain?
    I wonder if Polkinghorne has some theory to explain it, or does he consider it a problem we can’t solve, but we should accept the problem and believe in a good omnipotent God anyway? As proven in part by the miracle of Jesus’s resurrection? I guess a non-omnipotent God might be able to raise Jesus and Lazarus and others from dead, and then travel to some distant planet to create life or something, and so not be able to prevent more deaths, much less raise people from dead.
    Though interesting that the Baha’i faith believes in an omnipotent God, who is unable to raise Jesus or Lazarus from death, because that would violate mathematics. So Jesus did not literally rise from death, rather the faith of his disciples was resurrected. Is such a God then even able to miraculously cure people from cancer or heart disease or diabetes, or would that too violate mathematics?

  2. Hi Tom:

    Excellent comments and I don’t yet know the answers although I’m starting to learn the questions – but this is the way to proceed, no?

    First of all, it seems to me, what is meant by the term “omnipotent good God” has to be parsed.

    What we mean by omnipotent, it strikes me, has to be something like all-powerful, or potent to do whatever one wants to do. (Merriam Webster has it as “having virtually unlimited authority or influence” and Google has it as “having unlimited power; able to do anything.”) The word “good” means of “high quality” or “of a favorable character or tendency”, and is opposed to the idea of bad (again Merriam Webster).

    So, according to the commonplace definition of the words, an “omnipotent good God” means a God that is able to do what He wants to do and He is good, not bad. No contradictions with common sense here.

    So there is some way that people are approaching the issue that is raising problems, not what the concepts actually mean – and I think that that is what we see in Polkinghorne, Grayling, Stenger, and others. And I think that the way that people are approaching the issue is through their own definition of good.

    Obviously, for very many, the very existence of suffering is not good. So, if God is omnipotent, why would suffering be allowed? But just as obviously, God is being asked to abide by a standard that is clearly idiosyncratic – we know that suffering is necessary for growth from both spiritual and scientific perspectives (think Darwinism) so that idea that suffering shouldn’t exist is idiosyncratic – and then on the basis of that idiosyncratic standard, God is found to fail. Obviously, God’s definition of good may differ from ours, and the growth of individuals and nations – like the growth of forests throughout the world – may require the searing heat of flames and burning to progress.

    And, just as clearly, as religions teach that the greater goal is spiritual progress of the soul in “all the worlds of God”, suffering in this world is only part of the picture – and clearly is an issue whose underlying reality is of secondary importance in the greater scheme of things (this is not to deny the reality of suffering, but to put it in perspective and to not embrace a purely 20th century materialistic take).

    The Baha’i Faith has an interesting take on miracles, not denying that they can take place (too many of us have witnessed too many extraordinary things for that to be believable), but denying that miracles are proofs. We could go into this in the future.

    Remember the cartoon showing two scientists doing a proof on a blackboard where one of them says “and then there was a miracle” as part of the proof. Of course, its meaningless though commonly attempted. The Baha’i Faith is ultimately based on the divine miracle of revelation, but the proof of something so exalted is not in something so mundane (and obviously “unmathematical”) as the meaningless resurrection of, lets face it, an aging physical body of decaying organs and muscle.


    1. Hi Stephen:
      Thank you for trying to answer this difficult question. You say that suffering is necessary for Darwinism to work, clearly alluding to survival of the fittest. Now it is true that some babies are born with some genetic defect, that will gradually kill them before they reach puberty, so they will not reproduce. But in that case, why would a good omnipotent God just not kill them immediately, to spare them all the suffering? They are going to die in a few years anyway, but after a lot of suffering. It just does not seem fair. And suffering in old age, like from cancer or diabetes, just is not needed for evolution to work.

      You say that bodily resurrection should not be used as evidence of a religion. Yet the New Testament claims that Jesus himself said the main evidence of his messiahship will be like that with Jonah, that Jesus will be 3 days and 3 nights in the heart of the earth (Matthew 12:38-40). Or earlier, when John the Baptist was wondering if Jesus is really the Messiah, or whether we should look for another, he sent his disciples to Jesus to ask him, and Jesus answered by pointing out his miracles, like giving the blind their sight etc., including him raising dead people (Matthew 11:2-6). Of course the Bible implies that when he raised people from the dead, he also made them healthy, so they did not have decaying organs and muscle any more. Of course later they died anyway, but anyway, you have Jesus’s words, if Matthew reports the words correctly, that Jesus did use resurrections as proof of his messiahship. And certainly if I were to witness it, if I saw a dead body, and doctors declared him or her dead, then somebody comes and awakens the corpse from death and the person is now healthy, I would have to believe that that miracle worker’s religion must have some truth in it. And especially if the body were already clearly stinking of death after several days, due to decomposition, as allegedly happened in case of Lazarus, then there would be no question, the person was truly dead, it is not just some error from doctors in pronouncing him or her dead. Clearly something supernatural would have happened, so at least one supernatural being must exist, some God or somebody. You say the Baha’i Faith is ultimately based on the divine miracle of revelation, but Jesus did not point to his revealed words as evidence for his messiahship. I have Jesus’s words as reported by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, I have Muhammad’s words as written in the Qur’an, and I have some words of Bahaullah too, and I don’t see in those words much evidence that those words were revealed by God. Sure, they preached against stealing and other evils, but not everybody who talks against stealing etc. is using words revealed by God. I write against stealing etc., but I don’t feel my words are revealed by God. I think they are words I came up with, on my own. Sure they have been influenced by people who came before me, but still, I composed the words, I did not hear any God dictating the words.

      1. Hi Tom:

        Very helpful discussions for me! You write:

      2. Now it is true that some babies are born with some genetic defect, that will gradually kill them before they reach puberty, so they will not reproduce. But in that case, why would a good omnipotent God just not kill them immediately, to spare them all the suffering? They are going to die in a few years anyway, but after a lot of suffering. It just does not seem fair. And suffering in old age, like from cancer or diabetes, just is not needed for evolution to work.

      3. This famous problem that we are discussing – the problem of a how an omnipotent and good God would allow suffering – is a fascinating one. One way it is addressed in the Baha’i Faith is by reference to the life to come:

      4. The consummation of this limitless universe with all its grandeur and glory hath been man himself, who in this world of being toileth and suffereth for a time, with divers ills and pains, and ultimately disintegrates, leaving no trace and no fruit after him. Were it so, there is no doubt that this infinite universe with all its perfections has ended in sham and delusion with no result, no fruit, no permanence and no effect. It would be utterly without meaning. They were thus convinced that such is not the case, that this Great Workshop with all its power, its bewildering magnificence and endless perfections, cannot eventually come to naught. That still another life should exist is thus certain, and, just as the vegetable kingdom is unaware of the world of man, so we, too, know not of the Great Life hereafter that followeth the life of man here below (Abdu’l-Baha, Tablet to August Forel, p. 13)

      5. Suffering according to this perspective, has to be viewed in light of larger aspects of reality, a reality that doesn’t end with our earthly existence.

        Here is how I’m thinking now. Suffering clearly plays a role in our life. When I’m suffering from an illness, I will seek and usually find healing. If I’m lost in vain pursuits, guilty pangs of suffering can help set me straight. When my fellow country men and women are suffering, it makes me and other look to establish a just government to set things straight. So, clearly suffering is an essential part of who we are, how we live healthy lives, how we address things, solve problems, and how we advance humanity. So the question is not about all suffering, only unwarranted, unfair suffering. And yes, we see it around us constantly.

        My answer is that all suffering ends and passes in time – it is endured and has to be endured. To refuse it, to run away from it, is to not address its causes or to allow it to heal. With respect to our question about unwarranted, unfair suffering, it is always true that it passes and ends, and whether or not it is too great in our personal opinion. So, the judgement that we should hold God accountable for allowing it to happen is simply a judgement call on our part, and the judgement call may be wrong or based on incorrect assumptions. For example, if we conclude that this world is all that there is and that a surplus of happiness over suffering is, as it were, the measure of the quality of life, then, yes, those assumptions lead to the conclusion that God is at fault for allowing suffering. But, I don’t believe that those assumptions are valid.

        About Christ and miracles. All the powerful proofs adduced by Christ as to who He is and why we should have faith in Him make little sense to us now if they are due simply to miracles. And this is in no small part because there have been huge numbers of other people reported as being miracle workers, healers, rising from the dead, curers, etc. Is Christ just another miracle worker?

        So, what is meaningful about what Christ did? It is not healing someone’s physical sight – that sight would be lost in a few years anyway. Rather, it is opening someone’s eyes to the Kingdom of Heaven. This is the true healing, the true restoration of sight.

        We know now that Christ was not just one among a multitude of healers like those that flocked among the people two thousands year. Rather, Christ was the healer of humanity – an infinitely greater and more powerful accomplishment. And it is to that reality of Christ that those stories speak, although I certainly wouldn’t deny that the stories of physical healing were once an aid, like the parables, in leading people to accept Him. That doesn’t seem the case any more.


        1. Hi Stephen:
          Of course it would be wonderful if we have life after death and if this life after death is better than this one, with less suffering or even no suffering. Still, I can imagine, that if I live after death, after having suffered from some painful disease that finally killed me, that even in the afterlife I will still remember that dreadful suffering, and wonder, if God is really omnipotent, given that he allowed me to suffer so much, just like he allowed my parents to suffer so much from cancers in the 1980’s, which ultimately killed them. Now if God gives me some answer that will include his statement that he is omnipotent anyway, and explain why he does not stop such suffering, I will be informed. Surprised but informed. Though I suspect a much more likely answer would be that he is not omnipotent. That at least makes more sense to me now. I still do not see how the argument that the afterlife will be better, justifies the terrible suffering that people undergo, including the terrible suffering at the end of most people’s lives. For example, in Prague I suffered terribly in school from evil bullies. The fact that no bullies torment me today, does not suddenly make my previous suffering from those bullies OK. I still have many bad memories of that suffering. Even though of course I am glad that nobody is bullying me today. But I still need psychological therapy, in part because of all those evil bullies. So the fact that I am not depressed like I was in that school in Prague, does not make that suffering back then no longer important.

          Concerning Jesus and his alleged miracles. You say the only miracle of his relevant today is how he cured humanity. I guess you mean how he improved our thinking, our philosophy, our lifestyle. Well, the Roman Empire was not too bad before Christianity. But when Christianity, and soon one specific church, the Catholic church, became the official religion of the Roman Empire, serfdom became common, soon other religions and even other churches were outlawed, with only Judaism being tolerated to some extent, the rates of literacy started falling, until, especially after the western Roman Empire fell, Europe entered the Dark Age, with hardly anyone literate, with scientific research discouraged and basically nonexistent, people basically controlled by a totalitarian ideology, few things were allowed any more, and serfdom was very common. It took centuries of this, before Europe started being influenced with the new ideology of Enlightenment, influenced not by the Bible, but by people starting to remember the past glories of the Roman and Greek civilizations, to start taking us out of the Dark Age.
          And Islam too was influenced by Jesus’ teachings. And while Islam was usually more tolerant of other religions, at least those considered as religions of the Book (Bible), it still had some totalitarian tendencies, with people’s lives regulated in great detail, by all the many sharia laws. And while later Islam became somewhat better due to European influence, nowadays it is again becoming more conservative, more totalitarian, as living by all the many rules of sharia is becoming more popular among Muslims.
          So that seems to have been the main result of Jesus trying to cure us. On the other hand, if Jesus were to come today, and raise my parents from the dead, sure I would be able to believe that he has at least supernatural powers, if not believe he is the Christ. But so far all I can do is hope that there might be some God or gods who can give us life after death, and such afterlife that will be better than our present life. But I have little evidence for that. So I remain an agnostic, who finds it much more plausible that some God or gods might exist who are not omnipotent, than God or gods who are omnipotent.

          1. Hi Tom:

            Tom Martin sound so English! I wouldn’t have guessed you are from Prague!

            Sounds like you are talking about trauma, not just suffering, something which continues to have an effect after the physical pain goes away. To live with trauma, with depression, with cancer, with the consequences of rape, with poverty, with sectarian violence, is a hard path to follow. But there still is life and hope – a true gift – and according to all of the great religious traditions, ways to deliverance from this suffering, if not in this world, then in the next. In many ways, that is one of the main messages of religion and a consequence of turning to God.

            I didn’t say “the only miracle of [Jesus that is] relevant today is how he cured humanity.” (I checked.) But it does seem clear that Christianity vastly improved the lot of most people – the fact that so many embraced it is evidence of that – although it didn’t solve all the problems of the world (how could it?) – and the institutional forms it created often had bad consequences. And it allowed slavery – a staple of Roman society – to continue until British Christian leaders, followed by American Christian leaders – led successful campaigns and wars against it in the 19th century. Oh, and please be careful of very slanted histories of Christianity – they are a widely discredited remnant of polemical battles against religion of the late enlightenment and hardened attitudes against religion that resulted when science and its modes of thought seemed a superior way for society to advance in the 19th and 20th centuries among western elites.

            There is a historiography about religion from the Baha’i perspective – its called progressive revelation – that helps tremendously in understanding both the ups and the downs of religion. Religion is a social institution that has phases like the seasons. When it is young and new, it struggles to find form and to encapsulate the teachings of a Christ or a Muhammed or the Buddha, as is the case in the spring. In the summer, as religion finds maturity, it transforms whole cultures, and yields the harvest of fall before it falls prey to the icy winds of winter. Or to say it another way, religion has its seasons and can decay and become a ruinous burden unless and until it is renewed. The succession of religions and the revitalization of religion are an inescapable part of the process of institutions which are led by men (very few women!) where ambition can be for the good or the bad. To view it otherwise is to avoid the lessons of history!


          2. Hi Stephen:
            Thank you for you reply. Yes, I was born in Prague. When I was 14, after the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, my parents escaped with my sister and me from Czechoslovakia and finally we ended up in America, where I learned English. So I have been here from near the end of the ninth grade, so I learned a lot of English. And it has been much better here, no kid bullied me here. I don’t know what is the reason. My mother’s theory was that the communist government led the Czech people into a much worse ethical state, with a lot of hate and divisiveness and mistrust among people. And of course there was a lot of torture in the communist prisons, including against political prisoners. So all that might have led to the fact there were so many bullies in our school in Prague.
            I am certainly not against religion. Sure, when I was a child, I was influenced by the communist propaganda, so I was an atheist, with a contempt toward all religion. But after coming to America, one day I realized I don’t have a proof that there is no God, so I became agnostic and started being interested in religion. And I can acknowledge that sometimes religion can influence people for the good. I can imagine if those boys in Prague were not atheist but had read the Bible, and read about how when some evil boys mocked the prophet Elisha for his bald head, some bears came and killed the boys. So maybe reading that might have influenced them not to make fun of me. Though they might have seen that nobody is killing them for making fun of me, so they might have figured that because I am not a prophet, it is OK to mock me. And certainly another story in the Bible is quite opposite, the prophet Elijah was mocking the poor priests of Baal, who were hoping for a miracle and none came, since Baal did not exist. So then Elijah prayed to God and God did a miracle to him, a fire came down from heaven to burn Elijah’s sacrifice. So such a story might influence evil kids that it is OK to mock people. Though at least the Bible is more clearly against such evils as stealing.
            Certainly the Czech lands, which are now the Czech Republic, have had a sad history with Christianity. First when the Catholic church became official, paganism was outlawed, and pagans were persecuted. Then in 15th century a famous preacher, Jan Hus, was influenced to some extent by Wycliffe, and started preaching against problems he saw in the Catholic church. So he was invited to attend the church council in Constance, to defend his teaching, and promised safety. But when he arrived in Constance, he was arrested, charged with heresy, and finally burned at the stake for heresy, in 1415. This outraged many Czechs, so most rejected the Catholic church dogma, and soon Hussites were dominant. So the Catholic church launched crusades against the Hussites. In bloody battles the Hussites defeated each crusader army, but later there was civil war in the Czech kingdom, with Hussites defeated by Utraquists, who accepted almost all Catholic doctrines, and got an agreement with Catholics. Later, Luther started preaching in Germany, this was very influential among Czechs. So soon most Czechs were Protestant. But the Habsburg ruler wanted to end Protestantism in the Czech lands. So at the battle of White Mountain in 1620, the Protestants were defeated. This started the Thirty Year War in Europe, but in the Czech lands Protestantism was outlawed, many Protestant noblemen were executed, some Protestants went into exile. But most people were serfs, so their masters then enforced the Catholic faith, and soon enough Protestantism was almost extinct in the Czech lands, except for a few people practicing it secretly in more remote regions. During the Thirty Year War, at one point Protestant Swedish soldiers came, but instead of acting as liberators, they were interested mainly in looting. So then when finally in the eighteenth century, two Protestant denominations were legalized, very few Czechs joined. Still, the Protestant denominations were under all kinds of restrictions. For example you were not allowed to be a teacher unless you were Catholic. So my grandfather had to pretend to be still Catholic. Still they suspected him, so they often transferred him from one village school to another. When Czechoslovakia became independent in 1918, we got finally total freedom of religion. So my grandfather and his wife left the Catholic church, along with many other Czechs. My grandfather declared himself atheist. And soon he was appointed the principal of a village school, where he remained until retirement. Like him, many Czechs were disappointed with Christianity. So when the Communists took over in 1948, their atheist propaganda came on often very receptive ears. So then persecution came from the other side, most churches were closed, most preachers arrested. Communism finally fell in 1989, but still, with such sad history of Christianity in the Czech lands, no wonder that only about 20% of Czechs are still Christian. Of course today churches are much more tolerant and often good, but still most Czechs don’t trust them.
            So concerning what you say that religion can fall prey to the icy winds of winter, with Christianity that came very early, already in the 4th century the Catholic church started persecuting other Christian churches, along with other religions. But now Christianity is no longer in winter, it is much more benign, except for a few dictatorial cults, like the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, led by the infamous prophet Warren Jeffs, who now sits in prison, for having forced girls into underage marriages.

          3. Hi Tom:

            Fascinating! I know of the Hussites and their history, and the subsequent influence of the Hussite and Moravian churches. And there is an interesting term – defenestration – that has become part of a popular culture. According to what I read, it was a very important precursor to Protestantism that many people don’t know about.


          4. Hi Stephen:

            Yes, the Hussites were indeed a very important precursor to Protestantism. The history of the Moravian church is slightly different. It has its roots in the Unity of Brethren, one of the denominations that grew from the Hussite movement, and the only one that was able to survive the subsequent persecution. In the beginning the Unity of Brethren was quite radical, preaching doctrines like pacifism and non-involvement in government, similar like for example the Jehovah’s Witnesses, some Mennonites and a few other groups believe. Then later, after the founder Chelčický died, the denomination became more pragmatic, abandoned such radical ideas, and became quite similar to what Luther later was teaching. Then Luther started teaching, the Unity of Brethren tried to become friends with Lutherans, but Lutherans condemned them for rejecting Catholic baptism. So they changed their doctrine, and started accepting baptism of Catholics and all Christian churches as valid. So then they became friends with Lutherans and Reformed Protestants, so they became part of the Protestant majority in the Czech Kingdom. Later, after the battle of White Mountain in1620, Protestantism was outlawed and persecuted. Most Protestants, mainly the serfs, were forced to convert to the Catholic church, some were killed, some went into exile. Some exiles from Moravia of the Unity of Brethren started in Saxony the Moravian church. Though to be legal in Saxony, they had to preach Lutheran doctrine, so they started doing that. From Saxony some came to America, and so the Moravian church, differing little from Lutherans in teachings, survived in America, and sent out missionaries to other lands, most prominently to Surinam, where there is still a lot of Moravian believers.

        2. How did my reply get shoved to the left, rather than being indented correctly as a clear reply to you? Must be some problem with the software. So see my reply there.

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