Karl W. Giberson
My Life with John Polkinghorne
Trying not to seem overeager, I asked for more details. Successfully seeming totally uninterested, Yerxa informed Wilson that "Polkinghorne is going to be in Chicago in a few weeks. You could interview him yourself." Literally—not figuratively—I began kicking Yerxa under the table.
John Polkinghorne awakens in his quiet neighborhood between six and six-thirty in the morning. His days since retiring from the Queens' College presidency have involved travel around the world speaking on the compatibility between faith and science, but when he is home in Cambridge, he sticks to a routine. He eats a simple breakfast in his kitchen and says the Daily Office. He is usually in his study by eight a.m., a room packed floor to ceiling with more books than are found in many science or theology libraries. On one table are stacks of paper—manuscripts he's agreed to review, chapters he's agreed to write, drafts of speeches he's agreed to give. A recent tally showed 11 different projects silently lobbying for his attention that day. (From Quantum Leap)
We were well prepared for our interview with Polkinghorne. We had read and discussed his books, and even graded papers about our subject. We had been reading his books on our own for years, of course, profoundly encouraged by his winsome presentation of the historic truths of Christianity. We appreciated his Gifford Lectures, published as The Faith of a Physicist: Reflections of a Bottom-Up Thinker. And I was star-struck by a physicist who had worked on quark theory, which was far above the pay grade of my lowly experimental atomic physics specialty.
By the time I encountered Polkinghorne's books, I had been reading—or trying to read—theologians for years. The experience was discouraging. It bothered me that theologians had their own "insider" language that was different from ordinary language. It seemed to me that scientific language—my language—was less formal and more appreciative of complexity. In conversation with theologians, I would use a word like "creation" in a context where it meant "the creation of the universe," and I would be told, "That is not what creation means." Theologians apparently believed they owned all the words in their scholarly lexicon and nobody else could use any of them. Reading The Faith of a Physicist was liberating: here was a writer fluent in both the language of theology and the language of science.
I can still remember—20 years later—the impact of Polkinghorne's thoughtful discussion of the variant accounts of Jesus' resurrection appearances. He opened up the stories like a scientist considering evidence, asking my questions for me, weighing the various claims, acknowledging the contradictions without jumping through hermeneutical hoops to preserve some brittle and unsatisfactory assumption of verbal inerrancy. The resurrection is the central miracle of Christianity, of course, and Polkinghorne wants to know if it is really true and if we can have confidence in those that bore witness to it.
I liked Polkinghorne's acknowledgment of the small discrepancies between the gospel accounts of Jesus' resurrection as the normal and expected variations in the accounts of an extraordinary and confusing event. And the odd and unexpected features of the accounts—like the central role of women in a culture that did not value their perspectives—came into bold relief as marks of authenticity.
Polkinghorne's visit to Eastern Nazarene College was wonderful. We packed a lot of activity into a few days, including a debate on the existence of God with the great Harvard philosopher Willard Quine. The 90-year-old Quine had slowed appreciably and was no match for Polkinghorne—a youthful 68 at the time. Polkinghorne chatted with students, graciously—and pastorally—reaching out to them in conversation to help them get over their intimidation at meeting one of Christianity's greatest thinkers. Yerxa and I took him to restaurants all over Boston's South Shore. He consistently ordered New England clam chowder, admitting that it was better than its Old World analogue. He ordered beer on occasion. Yerxa and I were good teetotaling Nazarenes at the time and didn't know what to make of that.