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Quantum Leap, Part 3: John Polkinghorne’s Faith

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September 16, 2011 Tags: Lives of Faith
Quantum Leap, Part 3: John Polkinghorne’s Faith

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. More than just a biography, they hope the book will shed light on the relationship between science and faith by presenting Polkinghorne’s unique story. Last week, we read a bit about Polkinghorne’s transition from the world of physics to the priesthood, and the responses it drew from fellow scientists, especially from fellow colleague and outspoken atheist Stephen Weinberg. Today we look as some of Polkinghorne’s personal views on faith.

John Polkinghorne’s Faith

In both his science and his faith commitments, Polkinghorne embraces Michael Polanyi’s thinking, taken from the chemist/philosopher’s influential book, Personal Knowledge. Polkinghorne summarizes Polanyi’s thinking into this maxim: “To commit myself to what I believe to be true, knowing that it may be false.” Polanyi, a Hungarian philosopher and chemist in the first half of the 1900s, rejected the idea that scientists were purely objective. Scientists were not heretics, as some were claiming at the time, but were part of a community trying to establish beliefs and dogmas, he argued. The scientific community, therefore, was not that different from the religious community. All knowledge is personal, said Polanyi, and observers cannot separate themselves from their backgrounds, experiences and judgments.1

Steven Weinberg’s (who we introduced in the last excerpt) experience of being raised in a Jewish home and having members of his family die in the Holocaust will, by definition, have an impact on the interpretations he makes in his scientific pursuits, according to Polanyi. Likewise, Polkinghorne’s experience of being raised in an Anglican home and nearly dying as an adult will also have an impact on the interpretations he makes in his scientific pursuits, even if the scientific pursuits are the same. Science gets its great strength from its ability to rise above these limitations and build an objective picture of the world. But it would be a mistake to suppose that science does this perfectly, or to suppose that religion cannot do it at all.

“All human knowing involves perception from a particular point of view, which will offer opportunities for insight but be bounded by its inherent limitations,” Polkinghorne said.

Both science and faith are means by which we seek to understand ultimate realities. But they are different in how they look at those realities and what questions they ask. Polkinghorne likes the homey and quintessentially British example of making a pot of tea: A person observes a kettle of water on a stove and asks “Why is the water in the kettle boiling?”

One answer—the sort provided by a scientist— is that burning gas is creating heat, which raises the temperature of the water to the boiling point. Another answer is that the kettle is boiling on the stove because I am making tea – and would you care to have a cup with me? Both responses are valid and in touch with reality, Polkinghorne says, and they certainly don’t need to cancel one another or even compete. In fact, the two explanations complement each other, providing a more complete picture of the tea-making enterprise, answering more questions, and giving the activity a rich and satisfying description. The two explanations are “friends, not foes” he says.

In One World, Polkinghorne wrote, “Theology and science differ greatly in the nature of the subject of their concern. Yet each is attempting to understand aspects of the way the world is….They are not chalk and cheese, irrational assertion compared with reasonable investigation, as the caricature account would have it.”2

Nor are they identical. There are many ways to see religious principles in everyday life, Polkinghorne believes. “Our goal is an integrated picture of the way the world is,” he continued in One World. “In that picture science and theology, reason and revelation, all find their place. There is indeed revelation of God, in those particular events and understandings preserved in scripture and tradition, but it is not insulated from the critique of reason or from evaluation in association with other forms of insight.”3

Some of the difference between faith and science lies in the motivation for seeking truth . “Religious motivations are more akin to the sort of motivations that lead us to trust our friends; that is they are attained through trusting rather than testing,” he said.

As for the atheists who say these different pursuits of truth cannot travel the same road, Polkinghorne is undaunted. He doesn’t accept their characterization of religion. Many of his colleagues are, to be sure, wary of religion. But that is because they believe that people with faith must believe in what their religious authorities tell them to believe.

“Religious belief isn’t shutting your eyes, gritting your teeth, believing six impossible things before breakfast because the Bible tells you that’s what you must do,” he said at a debate with atheist Steven Weinberg. “It is a search for a motivated belief – a difficult search and different people will reach different conclusions about it. But you don’t have to commit intellectual suicide to be a religious believer; otherwise I wouldn’t be one.”4


1. Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1974), vii.
2. John Polkinghorne, One World: The Interaction of Faith and Science (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987), 36.
3. Ibid., 42.
4. Steven Weinberg and John Polkinghorne: An Exchange.

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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Loren Haas - #64782

September 16th 2011

So much interest in the lack of transitional fossils yet no comments posted?
(sound of crickets)

Merv - #64800

September 17th 2011

...interrupting the crickets for just a bit…

I would love to hear more from anybody present who doesn’t accept the teapot example—does there exist any rebuttal for it?  I was reminded of Bertrand Russel’s orbiting teapot (his assertion that just because he could claim something was true, even if unfalsifiable, it would be silly to then think it true.)  The inviting teapot on the stove is so much more appropriate than launching the same into an interplanetary orbit.  What a wonderful graduation for the metaphor!  It’s no longer a teapot we’re supposed to find significant, but somebody who’s behind that kettle.

...crickets again.


Open Circle - #64803

September 17th 2011

It was a great article - I’m not sure anything needs to be said because I don’t think anything substantial can be said against it.

*Crickets resume.*

sy - #64804

September 18th 2011


I agree that the teapot analogy is brilliant, but I can easily imagine an atheist’s (new atheist that is) refutation. Since Sam Harris has just published a book in which he claims that even moral issues can fall under the domain of “science”, I believe the line would be that both answers to the question are related. The water is boiling, because I put the kettle on the fire, knowing that the heat would cause the water to boil, and I did so because of my desire to drink tea caused by a combination of factors including my thirst for a hot liquid, the cultural history of drinking a cup of tea every day, my desire to be hospitable to you, as called for by the propensity of natural selection to produce bonding between members of the same tribe, thus mutually ensuring genotype survival, and so on.

It appears to me that anti theists do seem to have an answer for everything, even including Polkinghorne’s wonderful argument on the fine tuning of physical constants. And when there is no apparent answer, they can use the standard “We don’t know that yet, but we will, look at how much we have discovered already” which in not easily refutable. On closer examination, some of these answers seem to be quite contrived. But, they are still answers.

Merv - #64805

September 18th 2011

...and Atheists would be correct in their response if Polkinghorne’s boiling kettle was being presented as a proof or even evidence of something—anything—theological or scientific.  But I don’t see it used that way at all.  It is just a brilliantly simple metaphor to establish that all people can and do commonly accept multiple layers of explanation for a given phenomenon.  

So to each of the atheists’ assertions that ...  Oh, we can explain that; or  —we probably will be able to explain that ... the Christian need only smile and exclaim, “why what wonderful explanations!  I want to help find or clarify more of these explanations so they help me understand God’s ways even better.”

Cal - #64824

September 19th 2011

I feel as though the Tea Kettle experiment may run true for the atheist to wave his hand and say “begone superstitions!”, for the most part.

The rock that seems to stand there is this Jesus fellow and if He did rise from the dead and He indeed said the things He claims to say.

That’s the cornerstone of the whole of our Faith, so to speak, and that’s what has to be moved.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #64843

September 20th 2011

The issue is not that non-believers have answers, but that these answers are not based on physical natural scientific thought.  I see three basic answers to the question of the boiling teapot, 1. Water boils at 100o C at sea level which is the physical answer, 2. I put the teapot on the stove, which is why it is happening now, and 3. Tea time is an old English social custom, which is why we are having tea and not coffee.  The last two are very valid and important, but not physical scientific responses.      

The “evolutionary” answers given for social customs are not naturalistic or within the realm of the physical sciences, and this needs to be pointed out.  An “atheism of the gaps” response should be treated in the same manner as they treat “God of the gaps.”  If atheistic materialistic monism clams to have adequate answers for life’s questions, then it should be held to this standard.    

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