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.
In the next section is a summary of Polkinghorne’s basic attitudes toward science and religion, which (in his view) have a “cousinly” relationship. 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 likes to describe himself as a “bottom-up thinker,” whereas many theologians (in his view) are “top-down” thinkers. What does he mean by this?
“I like to start with the phenomena, with things that have happened, and then try to build up an explanation and an understanding from there,” Polkinghorne explains. The “top-down” thinker, on the other hand, will, “go the other way: start with some grand general ideas and use them to explain particular events.” He sees the former as the “natural” route for the scientist, who looks for “ideas which have reasons backing them up; these reasons will lie in the experience we consider, the events that motivate our belief.” (Searching for Truth, p. 14)
Thus, for Polkinghorne, theology and science are “cousinly” disciplines, in that both are open-minded searches for “motivated belief.” This contrasts starkly with the attitude of the “New Atheists,” for whom religion is a wholly unjustified leap of faith, in the complete absence of any evidence. Let’s be honest: many Christians do match that stereotype. Polkinghorne addresses this implicitly, when he says, “Revelation is not the presentation of unchallengeable dogmas for reception by the unquestioning faithful. Rather, it is the record of those transparent events or persons in which the divine will and presence have been most clearly seen.” (The Faith of a Physicist, pp. 5-6) For some Christians, this may be a step too far, but for many Christians who work in scientific fields it’s an accurate description of what makes sense. They want to know why something is worthy of belief, in religion no less than in science. Blind faith is not enough for them, and it’s not enough for Polkinghorne.
Perhaps his most fundamental challenge to the New Atheists, however, is his view that both nature and our ability to have a science of nature (i.e., our ability to understand nature at all) make more sense within a theistic worldview than without it. Where Dawkins and others seem to think that science comes with an atheist worldview attached at the hip, Polkinghorne realizes that, “Physics constrains metaphysics, but it no more determines it than the foundations of a house determine the precise form of the building erected on them.” In short, it’s a two-way street. While, “Science offers an illuminating context within which much theological reflection can take place,” science in turn, “needs to be considered in the wider and deeper context of intelligibility that a belief in God affords.” In the next few months, we’ll see more precisely what Polkinghorne has in mind. (Theology in the Context of Science, pp. 60 and 95)
As I’ve just implied, Polkinghorne devotes considerable attention to natural theology, more indeed than many other contemporary theologians, who largely ignore it for a combination of reasons that I cannot explore adequately here. However, his approach to natural theology is more modest than that of many previous authors, especially those who stand strongly in the line of William Paley, by emphasizing the inexplicable, stunning intricacy of living things as irrefutable evidence for God’s existence. I’ll develop this point more fully in a future column. Instead of seeking knock-down “proofs” of design in nature—thereby “proving” God’s existence to skeptics—Polkinghorne claims instead that theism makes more sense of our whole experience of the world than atheism does, all things considered.
His approach to natural theology can be understood specifically in terms of three larger, metaphysical questions about nature and our ability to understand it. I’ll present these in the words of three non-Christian scientists who also voiced them.
Why does the world make sense at all?
Albert Einstein is quoted as saying, “The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible.” (Antonina Vallentin, Einstein: A Biography, p. 24) Polkinghorne wants to know why a science of nature is possible at all—a fundamental question that science itself cannot answer.
Why is mathematics so powerful for understanding nature, down deep?
No one got at this issue better than Eugene Wigner. In his wonderful paper, “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences” (1960), Wigner spoke eloquently of, “the two miracles of the existence of laws of nature and of the human mind’s capacity to divine them.” Polkinghorne sees this as, “a hint of the presence of the Creator, given to us creatures who are made in the divine image.” He also underscores a related question, “Are mathematical truths invented or discovered?” (Belief in God in an Age of Science, pp. 4 and 126)
Wigner’s brother-in-law, Paul Dirac, once said, “God used beautiful mathematics in creating the world.” (Behram N. Kursunoglu and Eugene Paul Wigner, eds., Paul Adrien Maurice Dirac: Reminiscences about a Great Physicist, p. xv) I don’t mean to imply that Dirac believed in God—quite the opposite. But, like Einstein, he was not averse to invoking “God” to express his deepest convictions about nature.
Polkinghorne wants to go more deeply than Dirac into this astonishing fact about nature: “There is no a priori reason why beautiful equations should prove to be the clue to understanding nature; why fundamental physics should be possible; why our minds should have such ready access to the deep structure of the universe. It is a contingent fact that this is true of us and of our world, but it does not seem sufficient simply to regard it as a happy accident.” (Belief in God in an Age of Science, p. 4)
Overall, Polkinghorne seeks to go “beyond science,” to borrow the title of one of his books, in search of deeper explanations for such things as these. The New Atheists reject that sort of enterprise out of hand. Since science cannot provide the answers, they proclaim, the questions themselves are meaningless; therefore, our efforts to answer them cannot produce evidence for God’s existence.
I beg to differ. Surely it’s fully in keeping with the scientific enterprise to search for deeper answers than science alone can give about the intelligibility of nature, questions that many great scientists have raised about the ultimate mysteries that confront them when they do their work as well as they can.
John Polkinghorne’s interest in natural theology is important, but what really sets him apart from most others is that he combines it with an equally strong interest in theology of nature, which is not the same thing. Where natural theology involves, “metaquestions about the pattern and structure of the physical world,” theology of nature involves, “metaquestions about how its historical process is to be understood.” Rather than “looking to the physical world for hints of God’s existence,” we look “to God’s existence as an aid for understanding why things have developed in the physical world in the manner that they have.” (Belief in God in an Age of Science, p. 13)
On this front, Polkinghorne advances a strongly Christocentric theology of creation, stressing Jürgen Moltmann’s notion of The Crucified God . In the context of Polkinghorne’s theology of nature, the point is that the Creator is the crucified and resurrected second person of the Trinity. Since I devoted a column to this before, I won’t say more here, except to alert readers to the singular importance this particular idea has for him—especially when facing the problem of suffering. “The insight of the Crucified God lies at the very heart of my own Christian belief, indeed of the possibility of such belief in the face of the way the world is.” (Belief in God in an Age of Science, p. 44)
Situating John Polkinghorne: The Resurrection of Jesus
Many Christians today see science as posing dangerous threats to their faith, challenging their understanding of the Bible and undermining core tenets such as the bodily Resurrection of Jesus, the historical basis on which the Christian faith stands or falls. “Evolution” is often identified as the problem, but the real danger is unbridled naturalism. A commitment to naturalistic methods, known as “methodological naturalism,” (MN) has been an integral part of science and medicine since the ancient Greeks. Those methods have been highly successful at producing a coherent, often very convincing picture of nature and the history of nature.
Advocates of Intelligent Design and some other Christians reject MN, but many Christians who work in the sciences and related fields (such as engineering, medicine, or the history and philosophy science) support MN as a properly grounded and properly limited way of understanding reality. In their view, a robust Christian faith is consistent with a commitment to MN, provided that the limits of scientific inquiry are not simply equated with the limits of rationally grounded belief. Polkinghorne fits squarely in this category.
To understand more clearly where Polkinghorne lies on the larger landscape of science and religion, let’s consider his approach to the Resurrection. Many contemporary thinkers, including some theologians and clergy, believe that “science” has somehow made it impossible to believe in the Resurrection, the deity of Jesus, and even belief in the transcendent God of the Bible.
A prime example is John Shelby Spong, a retired Episcopalian bishop whose books have sold more than one million copies. Spong sees the bodily Resurrection as a figment of the disciples’ imaginations, a vestige of a theism that now we must throw away like a threadbare suit of clothes. For Spong, Christians today need to go “beyond theism” throwing out the baby of divine transcendence—the fundamental truth of monotheism—along with the bath water of the credulity and mythology of the pre-modern authors of the Bible and the ecumenical creeds. Spong’s message is that “Christianity must change or die,” and all in the name of “science.”
As Spong likes to say, his work is very controversial, and not just among rank-and-file Christians. Scholars have also railed against him. “I have been attacked in books from the religious right by such people as Alistair MacGrath [whose surname is actually spelled McGrath], N.T. Wright, and Luke Timothy Johnson,” he complains (Why Christianity Must Change or Die, p. xvi).
I understand (with much sadness) that we live in a highly polarized age. Nevertheless, it’s difficult for me to grant much credibility to an author who identifies McGrath, Wright, and Johnson as representatives of the “religious right.” Indeed, if anyone here is distorting the news it is Spong, not they. As the (late) great Catholic biblical scholar Raymond Brown once observed, “I do not think that a single NT [New Testament] author would recognize Spong’s Jesus as the figure being proclaimed or written about.” (Birth of the Messiah, note 321 on p. 704)