Remembering a physicist and priest who advanced science-faith dialog

By Glenn A. Marsch

I was saddened to hear of the death, at age 90, of the Rev’d Canon Dr. John C. Polkinghorne.  An incredibly distinguished scholar, he was possessed of so many titles that it was impossible for this American to keep up with them, or to know in what order they should be given.  He was knighted, but as an Anglican clergyman, he was not called Sir John.  For five weeks in 1998, at one of the Calvin College “Seminars in Christian Scholarship,” he led a group of professors in a five-week examination of “Theology and the New Physics.” I was honored to participate in that seminar. 

A theoretician in the field of particle physics, Polkinghorne trained in Paul Dirac’s group under Abdus Salam (who unified electromagnetism and the weak interaction) and became a Fellow of the Royal Society.  He contributed to the world’s understanding of quarks.  In his forties, he decided he’d done enough for science (he had, indeed), and that he was called to the Anglican ministry.  I remember him saying that after serving a while as curate and rector, he was called by his ecclesiastical authorities to write books on faith and science.  He became president of Queen’s College, Cambridge, and served in that capacity until 1996.  He also wrote many books on the interface of faith and science, and influenced many young Christian scholars (many of us who are not so young now!).  He won the Templeton Prize in 2002 for his work reconciling faith and science—the monetary award amount, by intention, is greater than that of the Nobel prize. 

There are many aspects of John Polkinghorne’s thought worth reciting (and emulating), but I will just give a few here, from my memories.  First, the physical world (which includes biology) is far more supple and surprising than we can know. John used to say, “There are more clouds than clocks” in the universe. The indeterminacy and plasticity of the universe reflect God’s nature better than does the rigid determinism which, prior to the 20th century, dominated physics.  Second, this indeterminacy is real—that is, how and what we know through science reflects the way the universe really is.  He labeled that idea as “Epistemology models ontology.” Indeed, he said his beloved wife Ruth worked it into a sweater she knitted for him.

John Polkinghorne called himself a “critical realist,” in the vein of philosopher of science Michael Polanyi, whose work he admired greatly.  We know real things about nature; we have discovered true entities. But our ideas about them are always to be refined (and at times tossed in the dustbin of bad ideas). In our weeks of seminar, John used the electron to illustrate critical realism.  J.J. Thomson truly did discover the electron, but scientists originally had a naïve and primitive view of what an electron really is, or how it acts. The evolution of our concept of the electron came from deep explorations of quantum physics and particle theory.

This believing scholar saw the scientist’s vocation as overlapping the theological one at many levels.  Rev. Polkinghorne felt that the early church had to confirm ideas about the Trinity through the church councils—the doctrine of the Trinity is in the Bible, but it had to be extracted and affirmed.  Scientists had to do something similar with their conceptions of reality as they advanced their perceptions through the lens of quantum mechanics.  John repeatedly said that the theologian and the scientist go about the same business—finding the truth. 

I always appreciated John Polkinghorne’s theological rigor and his warm-hearted and serious attempt to defend Christian theism in the intellectual marketplace.  I think he annoyed all the right people.  One of the most beautiful expressions of his theological outlook was in his exposition of the Nicene Creed from his perspective as both a scientist and theologian: The Faith of a Physicist: Reflections of a Bottom-Up Thinker.  In this work he recites each main tenet of the Nicene Creed, and then explicates what it means to him as an orthodox Christian theologian and as a scientist.  If you are interested in the faith and science dialogue, I highly recommend it.

When I had the privilege of studying with John Polkinghorne at Calvin College, the participants were invited to bring our families with us.  We saw John as a humble man who lived right next to us in the dorms those five weeks, welcoming his wife Ruth for the last week or two, when we had them over for supper one evening.  John had a colossal intellect, but he knew how to talk to anybody. My children were quite taken by the fact that he was a real, honest-to-goodness knight.  My son David, who was then just seven, wrapped his plastic sword in a baby blanket and laid it in the hallway outside the Polkinghornes’ door—with a note (likely fashioned by his older sister Abby), conveying their idea that as a knight, John needed a sword. John knew from whence the fearsome weapon came.  He knocked on our door and presented David’s sword back to him, saying, “Thank you, but unfortunately I’m a clergyman also, so I’m not allowed to use this.”  We were charmed.

The world has lost a brilliant and godly man and a truly innovative thinker.  I will never forget the summer I spent with my family learning from John Polkinghorne.  He is, I trust, in the presence of his Savior and reunited with Ruth and all the saints.  Requiescat in pace.

Physics professor Glenn Marsch studied under John Polkinghorne, a physicist and Anglican priest and scholar whose contributions to the faith-science dialogue are legend.  

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