Yesterday I interviewed John Polkinghorne at his home in Cambridge. He’s past 80 and still extremely sharp, a real English gentleman with a very gentle manner. What a privilege to meet him; he has helped me a lot through his writings.
Polkinghorne has spent most of his life in Cambridge, first as a prof of physics who worked with some of the outstanding names of the last century. Paul Dirac and Murray Gell-Mann were close colleagues and mentors, and there’s hardly a name that you could come up with he didn’t know first-hand. Then, at 50, he turned into another career completely–he became an ordained Anglican priest.
He told me he had long thought that he would not stay in physics after 50. He thought one had inevitably done his best work by then, and he had seen colleagues who had overstayed. The obvious thing would have been college administration of some sort, but as he thought and prayed about it–he had always been a very devout Christian–he felt called to ordination. So he went back to school, studied theology, and did become ordained.
He didn’t particularly aim to spend his years writing about science and faith, though. He wanted to be a minister, preaching, praying, offering communion, and so on. But when he had made his decision, he found that it generated all kinds of conversation with his scientist colleagues. It was unusual, of course, for a prominent scientist–he is a member of the Royal Society, which is Britain’s highest honor for science–to become a priest. His colleagues’ curiosity was less about his vocational choice, however, than about his faith as a Christian. As he tried over coffee or lunch to give an adequate explanation of why he was a Christian, he began to realize that a lot of things he took for granted were not so clear at all to other people. And so his writing began, and it has never stopped. (He has another book, a kind of summation of his work, out this month from SPCK and Yale.)
A fundamental tenet of that writing is the assertion that science and theology are really quite closely related, in that both are attempts to understand reality. They have different ways of learning, and they consider different (though overlapping) aspects of reality, but both are concerned for truth. He found–and still finds–that many people think theology has nothing to do with acquiring truth. It is, they think, blind submission to somewhat crazy ideas, and just the opposite of science. In fact, many people think that science is the only serious and rational truth-seeking endeavor that exists. So much of Polkinghorne’s career has been explaining to scientists that Christians have reasons for what they believe and that the realms they consider are real and important and very worthy of study. And he has also spent much time explaining to Christians what they gain from science not only in understanding the material world but in gaining insights into its nature as God’s creation, and thus into what God is doing in the universe.