Dean Nelson
Karl Giberson
 on October 07, 2011

Quantum Leap: The Life and Legacy of John Polkinghorne

On the warfare view of science and Christian faith through the story of John Polkinghorne: one man who dared to cross the boundary from physics into priesthood.


john polkinghorn

In the film Nacho Libre, Jack Black plays a preposterous worker in a Mexican orphanage with a secret life as an incompetent professional wrestler. There is a scene where Black and his scrawny wrestling partner assess their competition – two vicious-looking men in the opposite corner. It appears to Black that his life as a wrestler will end immediately in serious injury. He says to his partner, in a horrible Spanish accent, “Pray to the Lord for strength.”

His partner immediately replies, in only a slightly better accent, “I don’t believe in God. I believe in science.”While that bit of dialogue appears in a comedy film, it echoes statements made in serious conversations throughout the world. Conventional wisdom seems to say that one either believes in God, or one believes in science. There is no third option.We don’t believe that at all, and neither does the deep thinker we profile in this book. We hope you won’t either, when you are finished reading. Much has been written about faith and science – the history of supposedly major conflicts and minor harmonies between the two; the rational and irrational accounts from people who read just one of the two books set before us – the Bible and the Book of Nature; the condemnation and condescension of one group toward the other. There is a lot of diatribe, but not much dialogue.We illuminate this issue by writing about John Polkinghorne. We chose this strategy because it involves a story. What we offer is not a conventional biography of John Polkinghorne. We didn’t read his correspondence, interview his family members, students and colleagues, search data bases for public and private records. Instead, we wrote the story of John Polkinghorne, probably the most significant voice in this generation’s conversation about science and religion. But we also unfold some bigger issues. How do we know Truth? How does a leading scientist think about the more mysterious aspects of faith—prayer, miracles, life after death, resurrection? How should people of faith approach science, especially when new scientific discoveries appear to contradict their religious beliefs? To get at those questions, we tell the story of John Polkinghorne.We conducted many interviews with Polkinghorne. Wherever the book shows a quote from him without an endnote, it came from a personal interview. The interviews occurred from 2007-2010 in the following locations: Quincy, Massachusetts; a monastery in Venice, Italy; the President’s Lodge at Queens’ College (while the president was away) in Cambridge, England; the chapels at Trinity College, Queens’ College, Trinity Hall and Westcott Seminary – all in Cambridge; the parlor of Queens’ College; the Senior Combination Room at Queens’ College, under both his own portrait and that of the Queen; the study in his home in Cambridge; the sitting room in his home; walking from the vicarage to his old parish church in Blean, England; in his car to and from Blean; at the Good Shepherd Church in Cambridge; and in pubs throughout Cambridge.As if to cosmically underscore the need for this book, when we approached Passport Control at London’s Heathrow Airport for a final series of interviews with Polkinghorne, the officer asked why we were coming to England.

“For a conference at Oxford,” we said.

“What’s the conference about?” he said.

“God and Physics,” we said.

“God and Physics, eh?” He paused and looked at us. “Which side are you on?”


Those interested in reading more from John Polkinghorne should view the BioLogos sponsored video, “An Afternoon with John Polkinghorne,” which can be found here.

Weinberg and Polkinghorne famously sparred in a celebrated debate on the existence of God at the Natural History Museum The showdown was a clash of two titans of science—similarly trained theoretical physicists who, one might think, would hold identical views of the world. How could a world described by mathematical equations be otherwise? But despite their similar education, titles and prestige, they live in two worlds. Weinberg believed that the intellectual pursuit of science supported his atheism, revealing, as he wrote so eloquently at the end of The First Three Minutes, “the more the world seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”Polkinghorne believed that science supported belief in a loving, creative God that people could know personally. How could these two similar geniuses look out on the same world and yet see such different realities?

Polkinghorne knew he could hold his own in a debate against Weinberg. What he wanted to communicate was that religion doesn’t tell science what to think, but religion makes science intelligible. Religion gives insight. The physical world of science is where the laws of nature hold, but the physical world is only part of ultimate reality. In the spiritual world is a deeper reality.

“I knew that I knew about these things,” he said, reflecting on the event. “I wasn’t trying to score debating points. I just wanted to be honest. I wanted to be a Christian witness that we don’t have all the answers.” Polkinghorne also knew he need not fear his opponent for, despite Weinberg’s atheism and Polkinghorne’s Christian faith, the two are actually friends.

Polkinghorne had even confided in Weinberg in his Cambridge kitchen when he was about to leave the university for seminary. Weinberg expressed respect for Polkinghorne’s decision, although he would later write that, when Polkinghorne broke the news to him, “I almost fell off my chair.”2

Weinberg, for all his bombast about science demolishing religion, is surprisingly spiritual in private and even in his popular writings. “Every time I am with Steve privately, he wants to talk about God,” Polkinghorne says. “But he also has a public persona and that night he was very dismissive of me. I heard that he even read a newspaper during my remarks.”

Weinberg is known for his scorn for people of faith. “With or without religion,” he wrote, “good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil—that takes religion.”3

For years Weinberg has publicly criticized scientists like Polkinghorne who have a Christian faith. Faith, Weinberg believes, has no place in the world of science, or any other world for that matter, and most scientists he knew didn’t think enough about religion to even bother calling themselves atheists.

Aware that the debate about to begin could erupt into rhetorical flames, Polkinghorne found a quiet place backstage to pray. Like the traditional Anglican he has been for his entire life, he recited the prayer he often prays before events like these, taken from the Book of Common Prayer:

“O God, because without you we are not able to please you,
mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts,
through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen”

After stating their opposing beliefs and putting up with the surprisingly rowdy audience, the debate ended amicably, with the scientists seated next to one another at a table, fielding questions. Weinberg said that proof of the existence of God could occur right then and there.

“Suddenly in this auditorium a flaming sword may come and strike me for my impiety,” said Weinberg, tongue firmly lodged in cheek, “and then we will know the answer.” Polkinghorne leaned toward him and disagreed, “Actually, we won’t, but that’s by the way.”4

A few minutes later Weinberg returned to the flaming sword image.

“The religious mystery is, well, a mystery of whether any of it is true… because unless the flaming sword descends, unless miracles start happening again in a reproducible way that they haven’t, there will never be any way of being certain about religion.”

Polkinghorne responded “May I just say that, God forbid, if a flaming sword were to come and decapitate Steve before our very eyes, that would pose a very big theological problem.”

Weinberg’s rejoinder could have been prepared by Woody Allen: “Well, it would pose not only a theological problem, but a janitorial problem.”

The audience laughed, as did the combatants.5

The prayer Polkinghorne prayed before the debate was the one he had prayed 20 years earlier, as he prepared for a much smaller audience in his office at Cambridge, the first time he spoke openly about his conflicting vocational commitments to physics and the priesthood. The academic year was ending, and it was time to select two post-doctoral students from outside the university to continue their research.

Polkinghorne’s office was on the first floor of a 100-year-old building that used to house the university’s printing press. The building was tired, its stone façade crumbling. There was nothing quaint or delightfully British about the three-story structure; it was packed into its surroundings like so many of the university’s facilities. The interior was equally bland, with the exception of the contents of one cupboard in a lecture hall. The cupboard held a blackboard with equations preserved for eternity by a clear coat of varnish. The equation had been written years before by a visiting lecturer named Albert Einstein.

The building had spacious rooms, including a tea room large enough to accommodate faculty and graduate students from the research areas housed in the building: Particle Physics, General Relativity and Cosmology, Astrophysics, Fluid Mechanics and Solid Mechanics. Reflecting their natural territoriality, though, scientists from each of these areas sat at different tables in the tea room.

Polkinghorne’s office was large enough for the five colleagues to gather and choose the post-doctoral students to continue at Cambridge. The faculty gathered in his office knew each other well. Two were former students of Polkinghorne’s. They discussed eight candidates, evaluating their strengths and weaknesses, and reached an easy consensus within twenty minutes. After a few moments of silence, the professors gathered their papers and began shuffling their feet, indicating they were ready to be dismissed.

“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. Peter Landshoff, a long-time colleague broke the silence: “I did not foresee this, but had I been told that you were going to leave physics, I would have guessed what you would do next.” Another colleague said, “I don’t know what to say, but I am moved by what you’ve told us.” The lone Scotsman in the audience, an atheist, was both wistful and wary: “You don’t know what you’re doing.”

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 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

In his professional research, Polkinghorne was part of the team that began to challenge the longstanding conclusion that the smallest known particles that made up atoms were protons and neutrons. Experimental evidence suggested that there was something “inside” protons and neutrons. But what could that be? It became clear that those particles were made up of other particles, but no one could see what those smaller particles were. The physicists knew that the particles were “there” but they moved too quickly to be independently observed. Still, because of their experiments the researchers were motivated to believe that the particles inside the protons and neutrons were real. Eventually they were labeled quarks and gluons.

In high-powered accelerators, underlying patterns of activity could be inferred from the observation of collisions. Particles would be smashed into each other at great speed and the resulting “debris” analyzed to see what was going on. The process was very complex and might be compared to trying to understand how automobiles are constructed by smashing them into each other and looking at the pieces that result.

The researchers discovered that the patterns observed in the collisions in the accelerators could be described with mathematical equations. The unknown particles they were investigating had properties in common. In fact, similar components hiding inside protons and neutrons manifested themselves with suggestive regularity but the particles never appeared on their own. It would be like listening to two people talking in the dark but suspecting that it might be a ventriloquist with a dummy. How do you figure out what is going on?

The initial research was high on theory and light on observation. The mathematical arguments seemed compelling but it wasn’t clear exactly what the mathematics was describing. A question naturally arose: “Were there any actual elements, or was it all just math?” asked Murray Gell-man, who won the Nobel Prize in physics for “discovering” the quark. Gell-man, paradoxically was not sure the quarks were physically real in any simple sense, and described them as “presumably mathematical.” Perhaps they had no real existence outside of the equations describing them. Another scientist, James Bjorken, was able to show that light was bouncing off protons and neutrons in a way that suggested there were real, physical particles inside them. The flamboyant physicist and Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman extended Bjorken’s idea, adding support to the idea that quarks were more than just mathematical entities.

Polkinghorne’s research team helped make the existence of quarks mathematically precise, so that the models could be more effectively compared with the observations. “I didn’t discover the quark. My team made mathematically well-formulated models to show patterns if there were these things called quarks. The role my team played in quark understanding is that we made them mathematically respectable.”

This experience provides insight into why Polkinghorne can believe in both quarks and God, even though he has seen neither. “Physicists are quite prepared to trust in unseen realities, provided that the indirect motivations for the relevant belief are persuasive,” he said.1

After a year at Caltech, and attending a Presbyterian church nearby, Polkinghorne left the United States for a job as a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh. Two years later he was back “home,” teaching physics at Cambridge University. Even though his teaching career was just beginning, he discovered that he had a pastoral concern for his students. He experienced great satisfaction in assisting his students through successes and struggles, especially the ones he mentored in research. “Research is difficult, and that is a tricky and formative time for students,” he said. “You’re dealing with people as people, and seeing them every day. I enjoyed telling them things and helping them. The most difficult to help were those who were most confident.”

At Cambridge he headed a research group that helped to further establish what is now the widely held view of quark theory. For his contributions to developing this more complete method of seeing the world, he was inducted as a Fellow in the Royal Society.

Becoming a member of the Royal Society revealed something about Polkinghorne that surprised and disturbed him. Usually humble and self-effacing, Polkinghorne was startled by how much he obsessed over this award. “If you had to put me in some curious scheme by which my election would have been assisted by the murder of my grandmother, I would certainly have declined, but there would have been a perceptible pause for mental struggle before I did so.”2

Polkinghorne’s own soul-making took what looked like a dramatic turn when he left this distinguished physics career to become a priest. His spiritual leanings were as strong in his mid-career as they were that first day in the Holy Trinity Church when he was inspired by the story about Zacchaeus. As for physics, he felt as if he had done his bit for the subject, and that the future of his specialty was best left to younger people. Mathematical physics, like baseball, gets harder with age. He was 47.

Polkinghorne believed he had responded to his spiritual vocation by using his considerable talents for research and teaching but now it was time to step aside. “Somehow one needs mental agility more than accumulated experience, and it becomes progressively harder for an old dog to learn new tricks.”3 “I wasn’t disillusioned with physics—I just didn’t want to do it the rest of my life,” he said.

So Polkinghorne walked away from physics. Weinberg fell off his chair. Other colleagues looked on in disbelief. But Polkinghorne was more than just a physicist and he had made his mark on that ancient science. Walking away was not difficult. But he wasn’t walking away. He was walking toward a new calling, responding to his growing desire to be a minister of word and sacrament, toward a new life that he anticipated would provide “deep satisfaction.”4

Polkinghorne’s conviction that his spiritual side was rotating toward the sun came when he went on a Trinity College retreat where, except during worship, silence was the rule. Talkative and outgoing, heading off into a cloud of silence seemed like putting on a straitjacket. But he went anyway. He discovered something that many contemplative Christians had found over the centuries—that the rawness and intimacy of shared silence was spiritually rich. “I soon learned how positive is the experience of silence, and how genuinely related you become to the others who are sharing that silence with you,” he said. “One can really begin to enter into the inner space that silence opens up.”5

One of John Polkinghorne’s earliest memories is of being pushed in a stroller by his mother and asking, “Where are we going?” It’s an easy question for a toddler to ask and an easy one for his mother to answer. Most toddlers outgrow the need to ask this question, but little John Polkinghorne never did. Now almost eight decades after he rode about in that stroller, comfortable with the idea that his mother knew where they were going, he still asks.

He grew up pursuing both faith and science, and came to understand that the road that carries us where we’re going is much clearer if it is illuminated by both of them.

“Who has the better view of reality—faith or science?” he asks. “It’s a false question. You have to be two-eyed about it. If we had only one eye, then we would say it’s religion, because it relates to the deepest value of being human. Science doesn’t plumb the depths that religion does.”

Science, the other eye, is justifiably skeptical about religion, with its many competing claims and checkered history. Scientists want proof and religion seems short on that. Realistically, what can we prove about God? Polkinghorne is not put off by these concerns though.

“Proof in the strict sense of logic is a limited concept,” he said. Even in math and science you don’t always have proof. You can’t know there isn’t a lurking contradiction and there are historical examples where such contradictions appeared and sabotaged nice neat systems. “But that doesn’t mean we’re lost in a fog of ignorance” he says. There are a great many beliefs that are worth signing onto and, just because they cannot be absolutely proven, does not mean we should withhold our assent. On the other hand, there are those who demand a very high standard of proof—atheists for example— and are not prepared to sign on. Polkinghorne is inclined to be charitable toward those who cannot believe. “Atheists aren’t stupid,” he says. “They just explain less. They fail to grasp the argument.”

A healthy understanding of the world takes both science and religion seriously. Polkinghorne’s study of science, surprisingly, makes it easy for him to believe in God. In the first place, science has shown us that the universe is transparent and rationally beautiful but provided no answer for why it would be that way. That conclusion forces us to ask: Is that just our luck, or is there a reason for it? And when the Anthropic Principle, discussed earlier, shows that the universe is “just right” for life, with stars burning in a delicate balance that creates the chemical material necessary for our own lives, it seems like more than blind luck. There is harmony here between the scientific description of the world and the religious affirmation that this world is the product of a rational creator. Science and religion are not always in such harmony though.

There are examples of Christianity resisting the progress of science in history, to be sure. Who can forget that Galileo was confronted by the inquisition and censured for his belief that the earth moves about the sun? And we must certainly acknowledge the controversy over evolution today. But this is not the whole story. “Christianity was a major force in the development of scientific understanding,” says Polkinghorne. The early scientists—Kepler, Galileo, Newton—were all convinced theists who believed that God was responsible for the underlying rationality of the world that they were discovering. “Our picture of God is not that he’s just a mathematician,” notes Polkinghorne, “but that our concept continues to enlarge and expand, even to a destiny beyond death.” The “God as mathematician” metaphor, though, was very popular among the early scientists and may have encouraged their belief that there were important mathematical patterns to be discovered in nature.

When Polkinghorne left science to train for the priesthood, colleagues thought he was changing more than just his occupation. Many felt he was shutting down the part of his life dedicated to finding out how the world works, in physics, no less, where highly reliable knowledge could be obtained and theories could practically be proven in some cases. And he was leaving physics to join a community of religion scholars that pursued the most contentious and uncertain knowledge. Polkinghorne, however, did not see it like this. While he did change the address of where he did much of his thinking, some fundamental things remained unchanged, “among them a desire to understand the rich and complex world in which we live and to seek the truth about it.”1 His scientific inquiry had shown him how beautiful and elegant the natural world is; but it had also shown him how everything doesn’t have a nice, convenient explanation.

Quantum mechanics, the most philosophically provocative set of ideas in all of science, taught him that common sense could be an entirely misleading way to think about things. Why then, should we assume that religious ideas needed to conform to common sense? Just as the new physics was profoundly counter-intuitive, Polkinghorne was prepared for the truths of faith be similar. Did this beautiful, elegant, transparent world have a meaning and purpose behind it? And, if so, could we find it? He decided to look for the evidence. As he studied Scripture and put his faith into practice, he felt that the evidence presented itself. “Christianity,” he wrote in his first book, “affords a coherent insight into the strange way the world is.”2

Scientists, especially early in their careers, rarely think like this: “Most scientists are philosophically unreflective,” he said. “When I was a mathematician, I just got on with my job. Only when I started reading the philosophy of science, and theology, did I start leaning toward seminary. It was a change in my thinking – an enhancing change.

One might think that top scientists, whose ideas shape our worldviews, have clear ideas about truth and reality. But this is not the case, says Polkinghorne. “I studied under Dirac, but he was completely unreflective. Anything out of his central vision was not a concern of his.” While religion is often described as a means for keeping one’s spirits up and anesthetizing the pain of real life, or a way to keep the masses under control, which is the message of The Grand Inquisitor, Polkinghorne sees it as so much more: “The central religious question is the question of truth. Of course, religion can sustain us in life, or at the approach of death, but it can only do so if it is about the way things really are. Some of the people I know who seem to me to be the most clear-eyed and unflinching in their engagement with reality are monks and nuns, people following the religious life of prayerful awareness.”3

As he pursued this, he wasn’t interested in whether Christianity provided comfort in crisis or a stiff upper lip when facing life or death. His question was simply: Is it true? And if so, what is the case? As with the existence of electrons, gluons and quarks—none of which can be seen directly—the best one can do is create a theory and test it. “Part of my reason for being a Christian is that I believe that a Christian understanding offers us such a coherent framework adequate to the perplexing way the world is.”4

Polkinghorne was searching for truth, both eyes open. “Religious people who are seeking to serve the God of truth should welcome all truth from whatever source it may come, without fear or reserve. Included in this open embrace must certainly be the truths of science. In the case of the scientists…they will have to be prepared to go beyond the limits of science itself in the search for the widest and deepest context of intelligibility. I think that this further quest, if openly pursued, will take the enquirer in the direction of religious belief. It is a search for the Logos.”5

Still, it’s not proof. “I have not been able to prove Christianity for you any more than you could demonstrate to me beyond a peradventure whatever view of the world you hold. When you come to think about it, there is very little of interest that is susceptible to that sort of proof.”6

Polkinghorne’s work in university settings has been in the field of the mind—experiments, theories, discoveries, mentoring, presiding over educational institutions. But being two-eyed about life is more than just a pursuit of the mind. “We are a great deal more than minds and a real view of the world will have to engage our whole personalities,” he said. “That is why religions always speak of an act of faith, a response at the deepest levels of our being to that One who is the ground of our being.”7 Ultimately, the possibility of God and of a personal relationship with such a Being is not a philosophical position, or an intellectual hypothesis. It is a personal commitment. It involves faith. “I do not think that it is a question of shutting our eyes and hoping for the best in a blind lunge at reality. Of course we should look before we leap. Faith cannot be proved, but it is not unmotivated.”8

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.

About the authors

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.
Karl Giberson Headshot

Karl Giberson

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, 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.

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