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Karl W. Giberson

My Life with John Polkinghorne

The faith of a physicist.

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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.

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