Quantum Leap, Part 5: Polkinghorne’s Faith Challenges

| 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. Today we look at Polkinghorne's reasons for his Christian faith and whether trying to prove God's existence is a worthy endeavor for Christians.

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 theLogos.”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


References & Credits

1. John Polkinghorne, The Way The World Is: The Christian Perspective of a Scientist (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), vii.
2. Ibid., ix.
3. Polkinghorne, Quarks, Chaos, and Christianity, 115.
4. Polkinghorne, The Way The World Is, 5.
5. John Polkinghorne, Quantum Physics and Theology: An Unexpected Kinship (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), 109-110.
6. Polkinghorne, The Way The World Is, 112.
7. Ibid.
8. Ibid., 112-113.

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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