Quantum Leap, Part 6: The Legacy of John Polkinghorne

Bookmark and Share

October 7, 2011 Tags: Lives of 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 The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

Quantum Leap, Part 6: The Legacy of John Polkinghorne

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. Today we look at a day in the life of Rev. Polkinghorne.

John Polkinghorne awakens in his quiet neighborhood between six and six-thirty in the morning. His days since retiring from the Queens’ College presidency have involved travel around the world speaking on the compatibility between faith and science, but when he is home in Cambridge, he sticks to a routine. He eats a simple breakfast in his kitchen and says the Daily Office. He is usually in his study by eight a.m., a room packed floor to ceiling with more books than are found in many science or theology libraries. On one table are stacks of paper—manuscripts he’s agreed to review, chapters he’s agreed to write, drafts of speeches he’s agreed to give. A recent tally showed 11 different projects silently lobbying for his attention that day.

A pad of legal-sized paper sits on another table. Polkinghorne writes his book manuscripts longhand on those pads, then puts them away for a few months. Eventually he retrieves them from a pile and types them on his computer—the only time he uses his computer. His fax machine, in contrast, rings and churns throughout the day. One recent day saw a fax arrive from Yale University Press asking him to approve the cover of one of his books they are publishing. Another was from a different university press compiling a “John Polkinghorne Reader.” Another came from Germany regarding details of a talk he would be giving there soon. The BBC called. And on it goes—a Day in the Life of John Polkinghorne.

He stops writing around noon, and drives out of his quiet neighborhood, avoiding streets clogged with driving instructors teaching young people and immigrants the rules of the road, and heads to Queens’ College. As a former president he has a coveted parking place at Queens’. He walks up a flight of stairs and enters a familiar room through a high, thick door. Inside is a long table where Queens’ professors have gathered over the decades for lunch. This is no college cafeteria, though, with overcooked pasta and stewed tomatoes. The buffet-style food at Queens’ is an experience in fine dining.

On this particular day the mostly male professors were discussing the interviews they had been conducting. This was the annual interview season, when students hoping to attend a Cambridge University college come for a few days to try to impress the professors enough to be admitted. Judging by the conversations at this particular table, most of the students interviewing at Queens’ College that day will be going home disappointed.

After lunch Polkinghorne heads next door to the Senior Combination Room for a finishing cup of coffee. The room is full of small tables, where other faculty drink coffee and tea, discuss the day’s events, and read the newspaper. On one wall is a painting of the Queen Mother, commemorating her visit to Queens’. Other walls hold large portraits of past presidents, including Polkinghorne. The windows overlook the Cam River where students and tourists are trying to navigate in narrow, flat boats called punts.

Across the river is the building where Polkinghorne used to live, the President’s Lodge. It is where he designed the crest for his presidency, imprinted with what has become one of his favorite scripture verses – I Thessalonians 5:21 “Test everything. Hold fast to what is true.”

After lunch, back at his house, he picks up his writing where he left off and works until mid-afternoon. Then he reads theology for a few hours. He has a light dinner, and relaxes in the evening.

On some Wednesday mornings he is at the Good Shepherd Anglican Church. It’s a five-minute walk from his house, past a playground and a grocery store. He celebrates the Eucharist with those in the parish who are able to attend, and leads them in reciting the Nicene Creed. And when Rev. John Polkinghorne says “I believe in one God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible,” he’s not just showing what he memorized as a child. He knows what he’s talking about.

A few times a year he meets with a spiritual director. It’s a practice he started when he first became a priest. His first spiritual director was a retired Anglican bishop, and they talked mostly about spiritual disciplines. It was practical in its nature. When he was in Blean, he met with a vicar from a different city. Again, it was practical, sometimes about awkward people in their parishes. When he moved back to Cambridge he met with a lecturer on spirituality— a former Roman Catholic priest who taught at the Westcott Seminary. When that lecturer moved away, he recommended that Polkinghorne meet with a sister from the Community of Jesus, an organization started in the 17th Century as the female counterpart to the Jesuits.

This sister is a former Anglican, who became a Roman Catholic nun after her husband was killed in World War II. She’s in her 80s, a few years older than John. They talk about the complexities of life, of losing a spouse, of loneliness, of the desire to make a good death.

Spiritual directors are like mirrors. They are usually wise and insightful, and make people think deeply about themselves. Directors are similar to therapists, but one sees a spiritual director less frequently, and spiritual directors are much more deliberate in giving advice. Spiritual directors give a person an occasion to review, evaluate and confess in privacy.

Without intending to be, Polkinghorne himself is a spiritual director to countless scientists, priests, students and parishioners around the world. Through his teaching, writing, speaking and friendships, he assists those who lack certainty – which is most of us – to test everything, and hold fast to what is true.


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.
Karl Giberson directs the new science & religion writing program at Gordon College in Boston. He has published more than 100 articles, reviews and essays for Web sites and journals including Salon.com, Books & Culture, and the Huffington Post. He has written seven books, including Saving Darwin, The Language of Science & Faith, and The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age.

< Previous post in series


View the archived discussion of this post

This article is now closed for new comments. The archived comments are shown below.

Loading...