John Polkinghorne in a Nutshell
Today's video features John Polkinghorne. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what BioLogos believes here.
Today's video is courtesy of filmmaker Ryan Pettey, director/editor of Satellite Pictures and features physicist and theologian John Polkinghorne.
I grew up in a Christian home and I can't really remember a time when I wasn't, in some sense, part of the worshiping and believing community of the church. So Christianity has always been central to my life. Academically, I was good at mathematics and so I moved into theoretical physics and I spent about 25 years working in that and enjoyed it very much and regarded it as being a Christian vocation to use such talents as I had. But you don't get better as you get older in mathematical subjects and after 25 years I found I had done my bit for physics and I'd do something else. So the idea of seeking ordination and becoming a Christian minister of Word and sacrament seemed a worthwhile thing to do--also, to my wife fortunately. So she agreed with that and that's how I made this rather unusual change.
Physicists do, I think, have a sort of cosmic religiosity. They do find it necessary to take seriously the order of the world. They are wary of religion because they have a picture of religion that is based upon blind faith, submission to authority, and so they don't want to commit intellectual suicide. Neither of course do I. So I've also tried to show my friends that my religious belief, not only explains the order of the world, but has other motivations which are also important.
Science has [achieved] its great success by the limit of its ambition. It doesn't try to ask and answer every question, but essentially asks the question "how do things happen"? It's a very important question to ask and, of course, science has been stunningly successful in answering it. But it is not the only question to ask about the world. There are questions of meaning and purpose. Is there something going on in what is happening? Now science, by its very nature, when it's honest and true to itself, doesn't seek to answer those questions. But they are questions that we know are meaningful and necessary and I want to have as full of an understanding of the world as possible which means that I need the religious answers to, if you like, the "why" questions about the world, the meaning and purpose and value of the world, just as I need the scientific answers to the "how" questions about the process of the world.
I worked in quantum physics and of course quantum physics is totally different to the physics of the world of everyday. So in the quantum world things can sometimes be like waves--spread out and flappy. Sometimes they can be like particles, little bullets. Now nobody would think that that is a sensible thing. Only the nudge of nature itself, only the way the world actually is could drive us in that direction. And now, of course, we understand many things on that basis. And that is one of the things, incidentally, that persuades me that science is dealing with truth. Not the complete truth. There is always something more to find out, there is something around the next corner which we wouldn't have thought of before hand. But we have to keep on looking for the truth and when we find it we have to commit ourselves to it and trust it.
I think that discoveries of new truth in science and beyond science are always in some continuing relationship to the truth that has been there before. When Einstein came along and discovered general relativity he didn't throw Newton away. He showed the limitations of Newton's understanding and was able to extend them. Newtonian ideas are still good enough to send an explorer satellite to Mars so they are not exactly useless. In the same sort of way, I think there is a sort of development of doctrines as people sometimes say. The understandings of truth in the present build upon the understandings of the past. They may modify them in various ways, see them in a different perspective. But I don't think they just wipe them away and start with a clean slate.
I suppose everybody would like certainty, but it isn't available to us in that absolutely black and white way. We have reasons for our beliefs. I commit myself to my Christian belief for reasons that are sufficient enough for me to bet my life upon it. But we don't have absolute certainty in the 2+2=4 sense. And that is true of everybody. Everybody has to make a commitment beyond what they know for certain to be true. I would define faith as commitment to well motivated belief, accepting the consequences of that, not only for my intellectual attitude to the world, but also the way I live my life.
Commentary written by the BioLogos editorial team.
Reverend Dr. John Polkinghorne, a British physicist and theologian, is widely regarded as one of the most important scholars in the science/religion discussion today. He worked in theoretical elementary particle physics at Cambridge University for 25 years before becoming an Anglican priest in the early 1980’s. Polkinghorne has written many books on issues in science and theology, including Science and Christian Belief, Belief in God in an Age of Science, and Questions of Truth (with co-author Nicholas Beale). Among his numerous honors, Polkinghorne was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II, and he was awarded the prestigious Templeton Prize in 2002.