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Quantum Leap, Part 2: Polkinghorne Leaves Physics for the Priesthood

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September 9, 2011 Tags: Lives of Faith
Quantum Leap, Part 2: Polkinghorne Leaves Physics for the Priesthood

Today's entry was written by Dean Nelson and Karl Giberson. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

The following is an except from Quantum Leap: How John Polkinghorne Found God in Science and Religion, a portrait of influential physicist and Anglican priest John Polkinghorne.

Weinberg and Polkinghorne famously sparred in a celebrated debate on the existence of God at the Natural History Museum The showdown was a clash of two titans of science -- similarly trained theoretical physicists who, one might think, would hold identical views of the world. How could a world described by mathematical equations be otherwise? But despite their similar education, titles and prestige, they live in two worlds. Weinberg believed that the intellectual pursuit of science supported his atheism, revealing, as he wrote so eloquently at the end of The First Three Minutes, “the more the world seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”1 Polkinghorne believed that science supported belief in a loving, creative God that people could know personally. How could these two similar geniuses look out on the same world and yet see such different realities?

Polkinghorne knew he could hold his own in a debate against Weinberg. What he wanted to communicate was that religion doesn’t tell science what to think, but religion makes science intelligible. Religion gives insight. The physical world of science is where the laws of nature hold, but the physical world is only part of ultimate reality. In the spiritual world is a deeper reality.

“I knew that I knew about these things,” he said, reflecting on the event. “I wasn’t trying to score debating points. I just wanted to be honest. I wanted to be a Christian witness that we don’t have all the answers.” Polkinghorne also knew he need not fear his opponent for, despite Weinberg’s atheism and Polkinghorne’s Christian faith, the two are actually friends.

Polkinghorne had even confided in Weinberg in his Cambridge kitchen when he was about to leave the university for seminary. Weinberg expressed respect for Polkinghorne’s decision, although he would later write that, when Polkinghorne broke the news to him, “I almost fell off my chair.”2

Weinberg, for all his bombast about science demolishing religion, is surprisingly spiritual in private and even in his popular writings. “Every time I am with Steve privately, he wants to talk about God,” Polkinghorne says. “But he also has a public persona and that night he was very dismissive of me. I heard that he even read a newspaper during my remarks.”

Weinberg is known for his scorn for people of faith. “With or without religion,” he wrote, “good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil – that takes religion.”3

For years Weinberg has publicly criticized scientists like Polkinghorne who have a Christian faith. Faith, Weinberg believes, has no place in the world of science, or any other world for that matter, and most scientists he knew didn’t think enough about religion to even bother calling themselves atheists.

Aware that the debate about to begin could erupt into rhetorical flames, Polkinghorne found a quiet place backstage to pray. Like the traditional Anglican he has been for his entire life, he recited the prayer he often prays before events like these, taken from the Book of Common Prayer:

“O God, because without you we are not able to please you,
mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts,
through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen”

After stating their opposing beliefs and putting up with the surprisingly rowdy audience, the debate ended amicably, with the scientists seated next to one another at a table, fielding questions. Weinberg said that proof of the existence of God could occur right then and there.

“Suddenly in this auditorium a flaming sword may come and strike me for my impiety,” said Weinberg, tongue firmly lodged in cheek, “and then we will know the answer.” Polkinghorne leaned toward him and disagreed, “Actually, we won’t, but that’s by the way.”4

A few minutes later Weinberg returned to the flaming sword image.

“The religious mystery is, well, a mystery of whether any of it is true… because unless the flaming sword descends, unless miracles start happening again in a reproducible way that they haven’t, there will never be any way of being certain about religion.”

Polkinghorne responded “May I just say that, God forbid, if a flaming sword were to come and decapitate Steve before our very eyes, that would pose a very big theological problem.”

Weinberg’s rejoinder could have been prepared by Woody Allen: “Well, it would pose not only a theological problem, but a janitorial problem.”

The audience laughed, as did the combatants.5

The prayer Polkinghorne prayed before the debate was the one he had prayed 20 years earlier, as he prepared for a much smaller audience in his office at Cambridge, the first time he spoke openly about his conflicting vocational commitments to physics and the priesthood. The academic year was ending, and it was time to select two post-doctoral students from outside the university to continue their research.

Polkinghorne’s office was on the first floor of a 100-year-old building that used to house the university’s printing press. The building was tired, its stone façade crumbling. There was nothing quaint or delightfully British about the three-story structure; it was packed into its surroundings like so many of the university’s facilities. The interior was equally bland, with the exception of the contents of one cupboard in a lecture hall. The cupboard held a blackboard with equations preserved for eternity by a clear coat of varnish. The equation had been written years before by a visiting lecturer named Albert Einstein.

The building had spacious rooms, including a tea room large enough to accommodate faculty and graduate students from the research areas housed in the building: Particle Physics, General Relativity and Cosmology, Astrophysics, Fluid Mechanics and Solid Mechanics. Reflecting their natural territoriality, though, scientists from each of these areas sat at different tables in the tea room.

Polkinghorne’s office was large enough for the five colleagues to gather and choose the post-doctoral students to continue at Cambridge. The faculty gathered in his office knew each other well. Two were former students of Polkinghorne’s. They discussed eight candidates, evaluating their strengths and weaknesses, and reached an easy consensus within twenty minutes. After a few moments of silence, the professors gathered their papers and began shuffling their feet, indicating they were ready to be dismissed.

“Before you go,” Polkinghorne said, “I have something to tell you.”

The tiny audience settled back into their chairs.

“I am leaving the university to enter the priesthood. I will be enrolling in seminary next year.”

There was stunned silence in the room for several seconds. Peter Landshoff, a long-time colleague broke the silence: “I did not foresee this, but had I been told that you were going to leave physics, I would have guessed what you would do next.” Another colleague said, “I don’t know what to say, but I am moved by what you’ve told us.” The lone Scotsman in the audience, an atheist, was both wistful and wary: “You don’t know what you’re doing.”


1. Steven Weinberg, The First Three Minutes: A Modern View of the Origin of the Universe, updated ed. (New York: Basic, 1993), 154.
2. Steven Weinberg, Facing Up: Science and Its Cultural Adversaries (Cambridge, Mass.; Harvard University Press, 2003), 230.
3. Ibid., 242.
4.Steven Weinberg and John Polkinghorne: An Exchange. “Was the Universe Designed?” http://www.counterbalance.net/cqinterv/swjp-frame.html
5. Ibid.

Dean Nelson directs the journalism program at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego. His book, Quantum Leap: How John Polkinghorne found God in Science and Religion, written with Karl Giberson, will be released in 2011 by Lion-Hudson Press of Oxford. His book God Hides in Plain Sight: How to See the Sacred in a Chaotic World, was published by Brazos Press in 2009.
Dr. Karl Giberson is a physicist, scholar, and author specializing in the creation-evolution debate. He has published hundreds of articles, reviews and essays for Web sites and journals including Salon.com, Books & Culture, and the Huffington Post. Dr. Giberson has written or co-written ten books, including Saving Darwin, The Language of Science & Faith, and The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age. He is currently a faculty member at Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts, where he serves as the Scholar-in-Residence in science and religion.

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Merv - #64609

September 9th 2011

Having just finished a book by Albert Greene: “Reclaiming the Future of Christian Education”, this line caught my eye in the text above: 

“The physical world of science is where the laws of nature hold, but the
physical world is only part of ultimate reality. In the spiritual world
is a deeper reality.”

One of the points that Greene repeatedly hammers on in his book is that our modern separation of the spiritual from the natural is nothing more than the old gnosticism the church fought in its beginnings.  When we think of Scripture as dealing with only spiritual truth while science deals with natural truth and effectively try to hermetically seal these compartments, we commit the same heresy.  I know that Biologos writers are generally sensitive to this and agree that the natural and spiritual are ALL under God’s sovereignty and that no area of life is cut off from God.  But my sensitivity to phrases like the one above is now heightened should it be used to claim that spiritual truth has no claim of reality in our physical world.

Praise God for Dr. Polkinghorne and others like him!


sy - #64610

September 9th 2011


The line caught me too, but it was only after seeing your comment that I realized why. I completely agree with your concern, and I think it is vital to be  vigilant about avoiding any suggestion of a dualistic world view, where nature is seen as somehow a different form of reality from spirit. Science does a good job of describing nature, but science is itself a gift from God. This gift includes the laws of nature, and our ability to discover them. Science IS a spiritual enterprise (Weinberg et al would sharply disagree), and when we understand that, most of the so called “conflict” goes away. 

Roger A. Sawtelle - #64626

September 10th 2011

Merv and Sy,

Historically there are two types of world views, monistic and dualistic.  Monistic can be either physical or idealistic, but today only the physical view remains, which is what scientism maintains.  Dualism has been mind and body, where both the physical and ideal are real.  Dr. Polkinghorne as you point out talking about a different type of dualism, the scientific and the spiritual.  It is not clear if he is surrendering the ideal or mental to science as the scientism claims or not.  As I have said before, dualism does not work as you have said, but neither does monism.    

The question that must be raised is, how do we define the spiritual dimension of reality?  I have defined it as the meaning or purpose aspect of reality, which does correspond to what Dr. Polkinghorne says.  Physical monism falsely claims that the universe and life has no purpose or meaning, so on that basis it rejects the spiritual.  It also falsely claims that the Mind is strictly physical and thus ideas are physical or do not exist. 

In my opinion there are three clear distinct aspects of Life-Reality, physical-body, mind-ideational, and spirit-meaning.  The only reasonable world view needs to define and coordinate all three aspects, which neither scientific monism nor Dr. Polkinghorne fails to do, most likely because historical philosophy and theology does not have a precedent for a relational complex/one world view.  Philosophy seems to be the most conservative of disciplines.  

The problem is not dualism or even monism.  It is the absence of a good working model of reality.     

Merv - #64629

September 10th 2011

Thanks, Roger and Sy.  I didn’t get the sense, Roger, that Polkinghorne would be in any way aligned with scientism. 

But regarding dualism, I’ve repeatedly heard from various (and Christian) scholarly sources that it is Greek influence that eventually was conflated with Christianity giving us our modern Christian body/soul way of thinking.  And I always think I detect the implication simmering just below the surface that Christianity would have been better off or “more pure” had this pagan influence from Plato not been pulled into it.  But then the “fly in the ointment” (or for us Christians it should be the “elephant in the room”) is that Jesus himself often spoke in unapologetically dualistic terms.   Demons were not just some “bad meaning” or “purpose” that snared a person into some stupor or malaise or merely a medical malady like an epileptic fit.  They were spiritual beings that Jesus spoke with, and gave orders or permission to.  Don’t be afraid of those who can only kill the body, but fear Him who can destroy both body and soul…    Maybe scholars don’t pay attention to Jesus’ teachings on these things or they blame it on later mistranslation or misattribution.  But I don’t join them in that.  Taking the gospel accounts of Jesus seriously, (as well as historical accounts about Greek dualistic thought), I reach the conclusion that apparently Jesus did not reject such [dualistic] Greek influence as existed in this for his time, so why should we?  The kind of dualism I reject (and that was referred to as a modern form of gnosticism) is the kind that purports to *separate* two realms, calling one “natural” and the other “spiritual”.  They are both there, to be sure, but not at all  separated if we are to take Scriptures seriously.  The former is a subset of the latter, and our attempts to understand them as separate does violence to our understanding of reality as a seamless whole.  Jesus took it as one complete package from God—-one world that includes both physically seen and unseen things.  Perhaps that description is as close as we can come to making helpful categories out of things.  But I surely do wish I could read a Christian scholar who addresses this Greek influence but stays centered on a Christological foundation as he/she does so.


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