Rev. Dr. John Polkinghorne worked for years as a theoretical elementary particle physicist and then a mathematical physics professor at Cambridge University before resigning to train for ministry in the Church of England. Earlier this year, he was awarded the 2002 Templeton Prize for progress in religion. He is the author of The Faith of the Physicist (1994), Belief in God in an Age of Science (1999), and Faith, Science and Understanding (2000).
At what point did science emerge as a passion in your life?
I went to Cambridge to study mathematics, and during my undergraduate time I got interested in the fact that you could use mathematics to understand the physical world. And so when I came to do a Ph.D., I did it in theoretical physics. That led me onto my career in that area. I enjoyed doing all that very much, but after 25 years of it I felt I had done my bit for science and I would try and do something else.
Was there ever a conflict for you between science and faith?
I've never felt an either/or situation that I had to choose either my science or my religious belief. Of course, there are puzzles about how the two relate to each other, and I tried to think about those during my science days. And, of course, I've thought a great deal more about them since then.
I try to hold the two together as far as I can myself. I want to be, so to speak two-eyed: looking through my science eye and my religious eye at the same time. I'm glad that I'm both a physicist and a priest and, though I'm puzzled by how those aspects of me fit together, I want to hold them in dialogue with each other.
Why should a scientist believe that theology has a place at the academic table?
I think all scientists are imbued with a thirst for understanding. They want to make sense of the world in which we live. Science helps us to a very significant extent to do that. But not every question that we want to ask is a scientific question and, therefore, not every question we want to ask will have a scientific answer.
For example, scientists are very struck with the beautiful order of the world—this universe that started as a ball of energy 15 billion years ago now is the home of saints and mathematicians. Science explains some of that process but it doesn't explain where the beautiful laws of nature come from.
How does it come about that this physical world that's made up of quarks and gluons and electrons is also the arena of moral choice? Religion explains that because just as it sees God's mind behind the scientifically discerned order of the world, it sees God's will and purpose behind our ethical intuitions. So it ties things together for me.
You talk a lot about theology as an integrating discipline. A lot of scientists recoil at that notion.
The integrative part of theology is in setting science within an even broader and more profound setting of understanding. Science is really trying to know the world in an objective way, treating reality as an "it," as an object. This gives science its secret weapon, which is, the experimental method.
We know that there are other encounters with reality where we get to know things in a different way. There, testing has to give way to trusting. If I'm always setting little traps to see if you're my friend, I destroy the possibility of friendship between us. So that's a different way of knowing, which is adapted not to the impersonal world that science describes, but to the personal world of human encounter.
The transpersonal world of encounter with the divine reality requires yet another way of knowing, which involves worship and awe and obedience. And I think it's very important to recognize that we don't meet reality in a single way.
Revelation is a huge stumbling block for scientists. What perspective do you give on the revelation?
I think there's a tremendous misapprehension in many scientists's minds. They think the revelation is some sort of unquestionable authority. You shut your eyes, grit your teeth, [and] believe six impossible things before breakfast, because you're told that's what you've got to do.
They don't want to do that, nor do I. I don't want to commit intellectual suicide. I'm trying to persuade my scientific friends that I have motivations for my religious beliefs just as I have motivations for my scientific beliefs.
Revelation is the account of those particular events and people in whom the divine presence has been most clearly revealed and discerned. They are like critical experiments, so to speak. So I see the Bible as the laboratory notebook of the spirit in the way that a scientist notes down the results of his or her experiments in the laboratory.
What is divine self-limitation and how does it work itself out?
I think it's an extremely important idea, which, in the twentieth century, became pretty dominant in many forms of theological thinking. And it's this: That when God brings into being a creation, because God is a God of love, God allows creatures to be themselves, indeed to make themselves.
That's how we might theologically understand an evolving universe. Creation is not God's divine puppet theater in which God pulls every string, but God allows creatures to be themselves. That means that not everything that happens will be in accordance with God's will. I don't think that God wills the act of a murderer. But, of course, because God has given free will to human beings, God allows murders to happen. I also actually think that God does not will the incidence of a cancer, but God allows that to happen in a world in which malignancy is an unavoidable possibility.
Divine self-limitation is important to me because it is the sort of relationship a loving God would have with creatures: to share with them rather than to dominate them. I think that God interacts with the world but does not overrule it. It also explains … the deepest theological problem, which is the problem of the existence of evil and suffering in the world.
What is the current relationship between the scientific community and the theological community?
There's quite a brisk conversation going on. I think the difficulty is that the scientists are wary of religion. A great many scientists can see that science by itself is not enough. But they are wary of religion because they think it is based upon unquestioning authority. Theology has to be a bit more up front in exhibiting that it doesn't have all the answers put up its sleeve, but it, too, is in the search for truth.
One of the big differences between scientific faith in that sense and religious faith in another sense is that religious faith involves commitment of the whole person. I believe in quarks and gluons very strongly, actually, but it doesn't affect my life in any very critical way. I can't be a Christian without it affecting my life in all sorts of ways. There is moral demand in religious belief as well as an intellectual demand, which does make it more costly, more challenging, and in the end more worthwhile.
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