Dean Nelson
 on February 09, 2011

An Afternoon with John Polkinghorne

A theme that emerges in Polkinghorne's work is the phrase “But that’s not the whole story.” Science, life, God, the universe, are always surprising us with something else, or Something Else, he says.


John Polkinghorne remembers the day when some of his colleagues thought he had lost his mind. He was already famous as a physicist for his work in helping explain the existence of quarks and gluons, the world’s smallest known particles. He was a member of England’s Royal Society, one of the highest honors bestowed on a scientist—Isaac Newton is also a member. His students at Cambridge University had likewise moved into leading roles in scientific research.

It was the end of the academic year, and he and some other professors had gathered in his office for a brief meeting. At the conclusion, they gathered their papers, ready to leave.

“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, then murmuring, some of it kindly supportive. The lone Scotsman in the audience, an atheist, was both wistful and wary: “You don’t know what you’re doing,” he said. Others later wondered if John Polkinghorne was committing intellectual suicide.

His decision brought to light a much larger question that has been discussed for centuries, well before Darwin and Dawkins: “What Is the Relationship Between Faith and Science?” In the years following this decision to leave the physics world, where he specialized in one kind of unseen realities, and enter the spiritual world where he explored other unseen realities, Polkinghorne has become one of the most significant spokesmen for making the relationship between faith and science one of harmony, not conflict.

He has written more than 30 books on theology and science (and the relationship between the two), served on national boards to determine ethical standards for scientific research, and was knighted by the Queen for his contributions in ethics and science. He is the founding president of the International Society for Science and Religion. He was awarded the Templeton Prize—the highest honor given in regard to the relationship between science and religion. He has studied and lectured on most continents, at the most prestigious locations, including Yale, Princeton, and the Smithsonian Institution, and appears regularly on documentaries regarding the beginning of the universe, Albert Einstein, C.S. Lewis, and countless other topics. He was featured recently on The Science Channel in the U.S. for the program Through the Wormhole, narrated by actor Morgan Freeman.

While much is made in the popular media and some religious circles that one is either a person of science or a person of faith, he has never seen how the two could be in conflict. As both a physicist and a priest, he embraces and embodies both.

One thing that did not change when he moved from academia to ministry was that both involved a quest for truth. In both science and religion he moves from evidence to interpretation to motivated belief or conclusion—a process he calls “bottom-up thinking.”

After serving as a parish priest just up the hill from the Canterbury Cathedral, Polkinghorne returned to the world of academia in Cambridge—first as the dean of chapel, and ultimately as president of Queens’ College until he retired. He continues to study, write and administer the sacraments.

I met Rev. Polkinghorne at a theology conference in Boston in 2007, at the suggestion of an editor who had an idea for a book. The idea was to make the book biographical in form, so that the world could read about the life of this very fascinating man and important thinker. But the book would be bigger than that, too. It would use Rev. Polkinghorne as a launch-point to then discuss bigger questions about the relationship between science and faith. How can a scientist really believe in miracles? How, or why, does a scientist pray? And how could a physicist possibly believe in the Resurrection of Jesus? Behind these questions is, essentially, this one: Aren’t science and faith fundamentally at odds with one another? The answer is no, and the reason is that John Polkinghorne embodies the relationship between the two. I interviewed him at his home in Cambridge several times over the next few years, as well as in Venice, where he was lecturing at a God and Laws of Nature conference at the Venice Institute, and at Oxford, where the entire God and Physics conference was dedicated to Polkinghorne’s work and to commemorate his 80th birthday.

The resulting book, Quantum Leap: How John Polkinghorne Found God in Science and Religion, by Dean Nelson and Karl Giberson, will be released by Lion-Hudson Press of Oxford, in 2011.

The book captures Polkinghorne’s views on the big cosmic questions regarding Evil, the Trinity, Evolution, the Big-Bang Theory, Adam and Eve, Intelligent Design, Atheism, the Resurrection, Salvation, Eternity, and other issues that seem to pit science against faith.

Atheists, especially those in the present realm who sell millions of books, have a faith of their own, Polkinghorne says. It may be faith in selfish competition, in Marxism, or in freedom to live as one pleases without responsibility, but there are often elements of faith, nonetheless. Sometimes the faith is in those who proclaim to not have a faith.

A theme that emerges in both his writings and in personal conversation with Polkinghorne is the phrase “But that’s not the whole story.” Science, life, God, the universe, are always surprising us with something else, or Something Else, he says. So after all these years of research and reflection, Polkinghorne is comfortable with the posture that there is always more. To everything. Looking at the world both through the eye of faith and the eye of science improves the vision over what using just one eye or the other would provide, he says.

He appeared recently at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, where I teach with Darrel Falk of BioLogos. He gave a 30-minute lecture on the relationship between faith and science and then let me interview him for 30 minutes. The interview has the feel of a couple of old friends talking.

“He doesn’t do all the work for you,” said one of his former parishioners. “He’ll discuss things with you and then say, ‘You can do some of this thinking yourself, you know.’”

That’s our hope as you watch this program—you’ll hear some things that will make you want to think more deeply. Because there’s always more to the story.

About the author

Dean Nelson Headshot

Dean Nelson

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, was 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.