Several times in my series of columns about “Science and the Bible,” I briefly discussed a few ideas from John Polkinghorne, one of the leading Christian thinkers of our time. Although I presented him mainly as a representative of the “Theistic Evolution” (TE) view, much of his published work is about other topics, several of them largely or entirely unrelated to TE. It’s time we got better acquainted with him. Over the next few months, with permission from Yale University Press, BioLogos will offer edited versions of chapters from two of his best books, Belief in God in an Age of Science and Theology in the Context of Science, in order to help readers delve more deeply into some of his most important ideas. I’ll begin today with an overview of Polkinghorne’s career and calling.
Introducing John Polkinghorne
An Englishman of Cornish descent, John Polkinghorne was born in 1930 in the coastal town of Weston-super-Mare, southwest of Bristol in North Somerset. Although his parents had three children, an older sister died in infancy and his older brother, who served in the RAF Coastal Command during World War II, died when his plane was lost over the North Atlantic on a stormy night in 1942. Effectively an only child from that point on, his family nurtured him in their Christian faith, leading him to say a few years ago, “I cannot recall a time when I was not in some real way a member of the worshipping and believing community of the Church.” (From Physicist to Priest, p. 7)
At the same time, his gift for mathematics did not go unnoticed, resulting in several years of study at Trinity College, Cambridge (where Isaac Newton had lived and worked in the seventeenth century). As an undergraduate, Polkinghorne studied applied math rather than pure math, a typical choice for someone interested in physics. There, he formed a close friendship with a classmate, Michael Atiyah, who would be best man at his marriage in 1955 to another mathematics student, the late Ruth (Martin) Polkinghorne. Later knighted, Sir Michael was President of the Royal Society in the early 1990s, the same period when Polkinghorne was president of Queen’s College, Cambridge.
Polkinghorne was particularly inspired by the course in quantum physics taught by Paul Dirac, whom he has described as “undoubtedly the greatest British theoretical physicist of the twentieth century,” an opinion with which it is hard to disagree. For Polkinghorne, Dirac’s lectures were simply unforgettable: “so profound was the material, and so closely structured was the argument, that one was carried along enthralled by the experience.” (From Physicist to Priest, p. 26)
Remaining at Cambridge for graduate study, Polkinghorne worked under the Pakistani physicist, Abdus Salam, who later became the first Islamic scientist to win the Nobel Prize, which he shared with Americans Sheldon Glashow and Steven Weinberg for contributions to unifying the electromagnetic force and the weak nuclear force. Then he did postdoctoral work at Caltech with Murray Gell-Mann, another future Nobel laureate for his work on quark theory, and attended the famous lectures by yet another future Nobel laureate, the late Richard Feynman.
After Caltech, Polkinghorne taught briefly at Edinburgh before returning to Cambridge, where he was soon elected to a new professorship in mathematical physics. Quantum mechanics (QM) is his specialty; his writings on both QM and its interaction with theological ideas are numerous. His book, The Quantum World, has sold more than 100,000 copies, and when Oxford University Press wanted a book on this topic for their highly successful series, “A Very Short Introduction,” it was Polkinghorne who wrote it. His former students include Nobel laureate Brian Josephson, “the most precociously brilliant undergraduate that I ever taught,” and Martin Rees, who was until recently President of the Royal Society.
Although Polkinghorne has never won a Nobel Prize, in 1974 he was elected Fellow of the Royal Society, the highest honor in British science. Three years later, at the top of his scientific career at age 46, he astonished his colleagues by announcing a decision to pursue ordination as an Anglican priest; two years later, he resigned his chair at Cambridge to enter seminary. Partly, he felt played out. As a former physics student myself, I do not find his diagnosis hard to accept: “In mathematically based subjects you do not get better as you get older. Somehow one needs mental agility more than accumulated experience, and it becomes progressively harder for an old dog to learn new tricks. It is unlikely that most people do their best work before they are 25, but most do before they are 45.” Or, to put it more succinctly, “I simply felt that I had done my little bit for particle theory and the time had come to do something else.” (From Physicist to Priest, p. 71)
Nevertheless, he also felt a genuine call to the ministry, for “Christianity has always been central to my life” and ‘becoming a minister of word and sacrament would be a privileged vocation that held out the possibility of deep satisfaction.” (From Physicist to Priest, p. 73) After seminary, Polkinghorne served as a parish priest for many years and later as canon theologian of Liverpool Cathedral. He was knighted in 1997—although, as an ordained minister, he declines to use the title, “Sir John Polkinghorne”—and was awarded the Templeton Prize in 2002. It has been altogether a life well lived for the kingdom of God.
I’ll return in about two weeks with a summary of Polkinghorne’s basic attitudes toward science and religion, which (in his view) have a “cousinly” relationship. In the meantime, readers are invited to read Zeeya Merali’s essay, “The Priest-Physicist Who Would Marry Science to Religion,” from the March 2011 issue of Discover magazine, and “An interview with John Polkinghorne,” by philosopher Paul Fitzgerald.
John Polkinghorne, From Physicist to Priest: An Autobiography (2008).