Quantum Leap, Part 3: John Polkinghorne’s Faith

| By Dean Nelson

The following is an except from Quantum Leap: How John Polkinghorne Found God in Science and Religion, a portrait of influential physicist and Anglican priest John Polkinghorne. More than just a biography, they hope the book will shed light on the relationship between science and faith by presenting Polkinghorne’s unique story. Last week, we read a bit about Polkinghorne’s transition from the world of physics to the priesthood, and the responses it drew from fellow scientists, especially from fellow colleague and outspoken atheist Stephen Weinberg. Today we look as some of Polkinghorne’s personal views on faith.

John Polkinghorne’s Faith

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 acommunity 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 (who we introduced in the last excerpt) 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


1. Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1974), vii.
2. John Polkinghorne, One World: The Interaction of Faith and Science (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987), 36.
3. Ibid., 42.
4. Steven Weinberg and John Polkinghorne: An Exchange.


About the Author

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, will be 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.


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