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Karl W. Giberson

My Life with John Polkinghorne

The faith of a physicist.


In the film Nacho Libre, Jack Black plays a preposterous worker in a Mexican orphanage with a secret life as an incompetent professional wrestler. There is a scene where Black and his scrawny wrestling partner assess their competition—two vicious-looking men in the opposite corner. It appears to Black that his life as a wrestler will end immediately in serious injury. He says to his partner, in a horrible Spanish accent, "Pray to the Lord for strength."

His partner immediately replies, in only a slightly better accent, "I don't believe in God. I believe in science."

In a strange way, my career in science & religion has been a long ride on John Polkinghorne's coat-tails, from my first inspirational encounter with his books to my recent biography, Quantum Leap: How John Polkinghorne Found God in Science and Religion (with Dean Nelson), from which the above quotation is taken.

One caveat before I tell the story. A literary friend says that autobiography is actually a species of fiction. He adds that most memoirs, even the most apparently self-lacerating, could be published under a title Norman Mailer made famous: Advertisements for Myself. But I am not telling you this wonderfully improbable little story because it happened to ME, Karl Giberson, much as I have enjoyed the ride. I'm telling it because it Happened, and there's something in it (so I think) that bears on our common life.

The story begins in Gloucester, Massachusetts, a few hundred yards from where the Andrea Gail set sail in 1991 and made history by getting destroyed in The Perfect Storm. With my friend and colleague Don Yerxa, I was in Gloucester for a couple days at an oceanfront bed & breakfast. The occasion was a hermeneutics conference titled—ponderously, like all things hermeneutical—"Crossing the Boundaries: Interpretive Theory and the Christian Faith."

I had no business being at this conference, rubbing shoulders with literary types who were sure that poets I had never heard of exerted a profound influence on Darwin. The celebrity guest speaker was the colorful British theologian Anthony Thiselton, who talked a lot about Hans-Georg Gadamer, described by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy as "the decisive figure in the development of twentieth century hermeneutics." I had no idea what Gadamer had done to warrant this accolade, possibly because I wasn't entirely sure what hermeneutics was or how it had changed in the 20th century. I also had trouble paying attention to Thiselton's presentation because he pronounced "Gadamer" like he was cursing his wife.

The closest to a fellow scientist in the room was David Livingstone, the eminent Irish geographer and longtime contributor to Books & Culture. He would publish Science, Space and Hermeneutics in 2002, so he was probably exploring those ideas at the time. Livingstone made the case for the social construction of science, a theme that warmed everybody's heart but mine.

Chapter One

Weinberg and Polkinghorne famously sparred in a celebrated debate on the existence of God at the Natural History Museum. The showdown was a clash of two titans of science—similarly trained theoretical physicists who, one might think, would hold identical views of the world. How could a world described by mathematical equations be otherwise? But despite their similar education, titles and prestige, they live in two worlds. Weinberg believed that the intellectual pursuit of science supported his atheism, revealing, as he wrote so eloquently at the end of The First Three Minutes, "the more the world seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless." Polkinghorne believed that science supported belief in a loving, creative God that people could know personally. How could these two similar geniuses look out on the same world and yet see such different realities? (From Quantum Leap)

John Wilson, the editor of this publication, was also at the hermeneutics conference. Books & Culture was not yet three years old, and, like all editors of new publications, he was trolling for contributors. He later told me he couldn't help but notice my anomalous presence at the conference—and decided he should talk to me. As for me, I couldn't help but pay attention when the spitting image of Friedrich Nietzsche sat down at my table for dinner and introduced himself.

In the spring of 1998, Yerxa and I were teaching a seminar on the thought of John Polkinghorne. I had gotten a small grant from the American Scientific Affiliation to bring speakers to Eastern Nazarene College and had secured both Owen Gingerich and Polkinghorne, who was coming in May at the end of the semester. To make the most of the visit, Yerxa and I had created an honors seminar discussing his books. Intrigued, Wilson asked us if we would like to interview Polkinghorne for Books & Culture.

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.

Chapter Two

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.

Our interview with Polkinghorne took place in May of 1998 in a small basement classroom at ENC. We had worked up a set of questions in advance, intimidated by our first foray into the world of journalism. Our president, Kent Hill—who loved to take off his administrative hat and pretend he was a faculty member—joined us.

We videotaped the interview, thinking it might turn into something interesting, a plan that disintegrated when we saw how stilted and uncomfortable we were on camera. Yerxa painstakingly transcribed the conversation, producing thousands of words of text, most of which were never used. Polkinghorne's clipped British accent and machine-gun delivery posed a few interpretive challenges, the most memorable of which came from the phrase that gave us great difficulty: "evolution from alsathorpe."

"Can you make this out?" Yerxa asked. "It sounds like 'alsathorpe,' but that makes no sense."

"Yes, it does," I replied, tongue in cheek. " 'Alsathorpe' is a Greek term meaning 'undifferentiated potentiality.' "

Yerxa, new to science & religion and inclined to defer to me, was fine for a while with this nonexistent word. I listened to the recording several times and clearly heard Polkinghorne saying "alsathorpe," which, unlike Yerxa, I knew was not a real word. Eventually, and in desperation, I turned to my nine-year-old daughter: "Laura, can you tell what he is saying here?" Laura listened to it once and said "evolution from animals-and-so-on."

Which made perfect sense.

Chapter Three

Both science and faith are means by which we seek to understand ultimate realities. But they are different in how they look at those realities and what questions they ask. Polkinghorne likes the homey and quintessentially British example of making a pot of tea: A person observes a kettle of water on a stove and asks "Why is the water in the kettle boiling?"

One answer—the sort provided by a scientist—is that burning gas is creating heat, which raises the temperature of the water to the boiling point. Another answer is that the kettle is boiling on the stove because I am making tea—and would you care to have a cup with me? Both responses are valid and in touch with reality, Polkinghorne says, and they certainly don't need to cancel one another or even compete. In fact, the two explanations complement each other, providing a more complete picture of the tea-making enterprise, answering more questions, and giving the activity a rich and satisfying description. The two explanations are "friends, not foes" he says. (From Quantum Leap)

Yerxa and I edited down our thousands of words and sent the result off to John Wilson. He liked it very much and saw quickly that our extensive preparation had resulted in a significant conversation, and not just an interview.

Wilson titled our piece "Quantum Metaphysics" and put it on the cover of the September/October 1998 issue. The lengthy conversation inside was embellished with the trademark Klaus Ernst caricature at the beginning of this piece. Polkinghorne later told me it was "ghastly," but I could tell that he liked it. The interview proved popular and the Giberson-Yerxa journalistic duo became a fixture in Books & Culture.

Completely off my radar, some top brass at the Templeton Foundation were elated to see Polkinghorne, one of their favorites, on the cover of a magazine. They watched as my interviews and science essays appeared with regularity. Eighteen months later, I got a call from a VP at Templeton asking me if I would like to edit a new science & religion publication for them.

Science & Theology News came to life in a dank, mildewed basement in a women's dorm at ENC. (Initially it bore the compelling name Research News & Opportunities in Science & Theology.) Working on a shoestring budget, I did almost everything, from writing editorials and book reviews to taking photos. One of my editorial assignments was to attend the press conference at the United Nations for the official announcement of the Templeton Prize award, which always occurred in mid-March, just as the April issue was going to press. (We received an embargoed press release announcing the winner earlier.) We would finish the issue and get our cover story all ready, except for some quotes from the press conference and a picture I needed to take. Polkinghorne won the Templeton Prize in 2002, much to my delight, and I headed off for the announcement.

I spotted Polkinghorne in the crowded room, surrounded by reporters and Templeton brass. I stood uneasily at the edge of the group, waiting to congratulate him. The moment he saw me he dropped his conversation with the reporters, stepped forward and gave me a warm embrace. I realized then that I was actually friends with this great man.

As the press conference got underway, I recall sitting nervously with my tiny one-megapixel digital camera, surrounded by professionals with cameras that resembled leaf-blowers. Polkinghorne spoke then, as he often has, about the harmony of science and religion, holding out his intertwined fingers as a metaphor for their interaction. I captured him doing just that, taking the picture that graced the cover of our April 2002 issue.

In the course of editing Science & Theology News and then Science & Spirit magazine, also under the Templeton umbrella, I was constantly struck by the contributions that Polkinghorne was making to all aspects of the growing field of science & religion. Every year one of his trademark small books would appear; he was routinely featured as a plenary speaker at major events; his essays appeared regularly in edited volumes. He was an inspiration to Christians everywhere who wanted to take science seriously.

Chapter Four

On Sunday, Mothering Sunday, the day of Ruth and John's fifty-first wedding anniversary, the family gathered around Ruth's hospital bed, coming alongside for the last time. "Here, Lizzy, this is for you," Ruth said, as she handed over the finished instrument with a new coat of varnish [a hand-made cello she had been working on for years]. Elizabeth, barely thirteen, understood the significance. It was Ruth's last conscious act. "We were all tearful. It was deeply moving. I saw it as one of God's well-engineered coincidences," John said. That night Ruth slipped in and out of consciousness. For two days the family sat alongside. John leaned in and whispered in her ear, "I'm here, darling. God's here. Come unto me all who are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." Within moments her lips turned blue, the family joined hands and, as John prayed, committed her into the hands of God. (From Quantum Leap)

My work heading two leading science & religion publications, plus my own writing, opened doors everywhere for me. Yerxa and I participated in the first set of summer programs that Alister McGrath ran at Oxford. While there we met people like Bill Shea, who holds the chair of Galileo Studies at the University of Padua; Ron Numbers, Edward Grant, and David Lindberg—premier historians of science and religion; and Keith Ward, Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford. During the second summer program a few years later, I was invited to speak. This was a humbling—and intimidating—experience. During this period I wrote several books on science & religion, spoke at the Vatican, and directed projects in Sicily, Venice, and at Eastern Nazarene and Gordon College. Polkinghorne, whenever I could arrange it—which was often—was on the program.

In the summer of 2007, Tom Oord and I ran a conference on "Open Theology and Science" at Eastern Nazarene College. Polkinghorne was a plenary speaker. By then, he and I were good friends, and I knew that he missed his wife, who had died just a year earlier, very much. He still lived in their family home, which he found strangely empty during the long evenings. So I invited him to come to the conference early and stay late to just "hang out." He was thrilled with the invitation. He went to church and Sunday school with my wife and me. He spent a few days at my house, getting to know my family. He was visibly delighted when my oldest daughter, Sara, told him she was majoring in math and economics at Gordon College. He advised Sara that working for the World Bank might be a way to engage her interest in third world economics.

Chapter Five

When Polkinghorne left science to train for the [Anglican] 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." 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. (from Quantum Leap)

In 2006, I spoke at the quadrennial meeting of the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities in Dallas, Texas. While there I had dinner with the administrator for science & religion at the Templeton Foundation. He reminded me that Polkinghorne would be turning 80 in 2010, and it would be nice if someone—meaning me—might plan accordingly. Various projects began to gestate, from anthologies and festschrifts to celebratory events at Cambridge. The most ambitious of the developing projects—and the only one I ended up working on—was Quantum Leap, the intellectual biography of Polkinghorne that Dean Nelson and I published in the fall of 2011.

Quantum Leap was inspired by my concern that so little of what was written about science & religion was engaging for non-specialists. Questions about whether divine action was mediated through quantum mechanics, or whether the multiverse undermined the Anthropic Principle, or whether mathematics was ontologically real, were so technical that few people had any real interest in them. So I came up with the idea of enlivening these ideas by connecting them to meaningful events in the life of a leading thinker in science & religion.

I fleshed out the outline of the book and started talking with my good friend Dean Nelson, author of several books and the most engaging journalist I know. I arranged for Dean to spend a few days in Venice with Polkinghorne during a workshop there, meeting him in person decades after encountering him in print. Dean was enamored. They had long conversations in Venice, with and without gelato; Dean started reading Polkinghorne's books intensively. He took a sabbatical and traveled to England to do real journalism "on the ground." Polkinghorne took Dean to his old haunts—his boyhood home and church, his offices at Cambridge University, his parish in Blean.

The co-authoring arrangement Dean and I had worked out involved Dean doing the human-interest part of the story—the journalism—and me doing the more theoretical part—the science & religion. I expected to get a rough draft populated with comments like "Explain quantum mechanics here" and "Outline the Anthropic Principle here." But Dean got so engaged with the subject that he produced a draft that needed little input from me. He even took the photo for the cover. (Fortunately our contract stipulated that I would get half the royalties regardless of how much—or how little—work I did, a circumstance that Dean has found many occasions to mention.)


Polkinghorne believes the future is wide open, waiting to be born, ever revealing the love of God. We catch glimpses of it where we can—sometimes in the cosmos, sometimes in our hearts, sometimes in other people. He is the first to admit that, despite all that's been said and written and discovered, there is more to observe, more experiments to conduct, and more to tell. Right now it's enough to know that the world is rationally transparent and rationally beautiful. (From Quantum Leap)

We often hear that "the Lord works in mysterious ways." Those of us with a skeptical bent are reluctant to make too much out of what appear to be coincidences. The hermeneutic—am I using that word correctly?—needed to make sense of our lives is elusive. But there can be no doubt that a chance encounter between a wayward physics professor and a disheveled editor on the windy shores of Gloucester in 1998 inaugurated a remarkable relationship between John Polkinghorne and me. It's a relationship that I would like to think was a small part of God's plan.


Karl Giberson directs the science & religion writing workshop at Gordon College. He is the author most recently of The Wonder of the Universe: Hints of God in Our Fine-Tuned World (IVP Books).

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