Karl W. Giberson

My Life with John Polkinghorne

The faith of a physicist.

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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)

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