INTERVIEW BY Karl Giberson, Kent Hill, & Donald Yerxa
John Polkinghorne is one of the world's leading thinkers in the area of science and religion. A former professor of mathematical physics at Cambridge University, he resigned his chair in 1979 to study theology in preparation for ordination in the Church of England. For five years during the 1980s he served as a parish priest in Bristol, Kent, prior to being invited back into academia as president of Queens' College, Cambridge. He is perhaps unique in being equally at home calculating the trajectories of elementary particles, reflecting on the nuances of the Trinity, administering the sacraments, and presiding over the academic affairs of a college.
In May 1998, John Polkinghorne visited Eastern Nazarene College, where he was interviewed for Books & Culture by professors Karl Giberson and Donald Yerxa and enc's president, Kent Hill.
Polkinghorne's visit to Eastern Nazarene College was the capstone of a semester-long seminar course that Giberson, Hill, and Yerxa taught in his work, and he was a part of the 1998 Templeton/asa lectures on Science & Religion. The unique "Polkinghorne Seminar" exposed the participants to as much of Polkinghorne's work as was accessible to advanced undergraduates who were not science majors. Seven of his books were read in their entirety, ranging from his semipopular science book, The Quantum World, through his prestigious Gifford Lectures, The Faith of a Physicist, to his Lenten meditations, The Search for Truth. The highlight of the course was a breakfast with its subject—held in lieu of a final exam!
Through the efforts of Communication Arts professor Ned Vankevich, Polkinghorne concluded his visit with an "uncommon conversation" at Eastern Nazarene College with the noted Harvard analytical philosopher and atheist Willard V. O. Quine. Quine, one of the leading English-speaking philosophers of the postwar era, discussed the case for and against theism with Polkinghorne in a conversation moderated by Hill and Giberson.
Giberson: You have described yourself as a "cradle Christian." Could you talk about your early experiences in the church?
I grew up in a Christian home. My parents were believing people; it was natural for us to go to church on Sundays. I cannot remember a time when I was not a part of the worshiping and believing community. My parents were not people who talked about religion very much—the English people are very reserved about these things—but it was perfectly clear to me that religion was central to their lives. And I absorbed a great deal of that. We went to a little village church in Somerset where there happened to be a vicar who was really rather a remarkable preacher, and I learned something from him. That was the beginning of my Christian life, and I have been within the community of faith the whole of my life.
Hill: Many folks, even if they are raised in the church, go through difficult periods when they are not sure they are ready to accept the faith of their parents. Did you ever have any periods of major religious doubt in your life?
I never had a period of prolonged doubt in which I stood outside the church. Of course, I have had to wrestle with the understanding of Christian doctrine to see how it makes sense and how it fits in with other things that we know about the world, including the insights we get from science. Sometimes it seems that Christianity is almost too good to be true. And when I am in those sorts of moods, if they persist, I say to myself: "Okay then, John, deny it." And I know that I can never possibly do that. Christ is someone on whose side I have to be, in whom I have to place confidence.
Hill: As you have considered the difficult problem of evil, have you also considered another problem: the problem of goodness or the problem of gratitude? It has been said that one of the dilemmas of an atheist is that there is no one to thank.
We live in a world that is a very curious mixture. There is a great deal of beauty; there is a great deal of joy; there is a great deal of fulfillment in the world. But there is also a great deal of bitterness and agony. And it's very hard to see how those two fit together. I think the problem of pain and suffering is a very great problem, and I don't think there is any very simple, one-line answer to it. When I was a parish priest, of course, I was very often with people in times of very great trouble and distress, bereavement, or severe illness. Very often all you could do would be to be with them silently, prayerfully, trying to hold them in the presence of God, trying perhaps to mediate something of the love of God to them. You certainly couldn't breeze in and say: "Look, this is why this is happening to you." There is a mystery there, and often we have to be silent before that mystery.
Giberson: How did you happen to choose physics as a career?
Well, I was a bright little boy at school, and I rather liked being top. I was good at mathematics and also later on got very much enthused with it. I went for mathematics first of all because I liked getting things right, and you can get things right in mathematics. But then I saw something of the beauty and power of mathematics. And I had a very influential, very fine teacher at school who opened up some of these aspects of mathematics. And when I went to university, I went to study mathematics. I went to Trinity College, Cambridge, which is Newton's old college, but it has a strong mathematical tradition. During my undergraduate days, I realized that we can use mathematics as a key to unlock the structure and secrets of the physical universe. That was a very powerful thought to me. So when I came to do a Ph.D., I decided that I wouldn't stick to mathematics proper; I would move over to theoretical physics. And that's what I did, and then I had a 25- to 30-year career in theoretical physics resulting from that.
Giberson: What do you consider to be your greatest contribution—the legacy of John Polkinghorne—to physics?
Well, I was a minor player in a very big collaborative exercise. There were very great and creative physicists who were the leaders of our thought, and the rest of us were filling in the details and doing little bits. I think probably the work I feel most happy about is that I learned how to make models of processes which combine quantum mechanics with relativity, which you have to do with small, fast-moving elementary particles. And we used some of those models to explore fairly extreme regimes, very high-energy regimes or regimes where there was a very great transfer of momentum. Those extreme regimes are also simple regimes, and in them one can exhibit something of the structure of matter. And those models played some small, but real, part in elucidating the quark structure of matter. I think those are the results for which I feel the greatest satisfaction.
Giberson: During this period in which you were working as a physicist, were you wrestling intellectually with the science-and-religion questions that engage you now?
I was thinking about them. I was a worshiping Christian, and I was trying to think about my Christian faith. Wrestling, I think, would be too strong a word. I tried to think about the complexities, but that was not looming enormously large in my life. I was a young parent, and I had all the demands of family life and all the demands of my professional career. That is what probably loomed largest of all during my late twenties, thirties, and early forties.
Hill: It was a great shock to people when you decided to go into the priesthood, and I think it would be interesting to hear a little bit about what you were thinking when you did that. And also a follow-up question is closely tied to this. You are an intellectual; you're an academic; you enjoy the life of the mind. Why did you become a parish priest rather than a theologian?
I enjoy being a scientist very much, and I didn't leave science because I was in any way disillusioned with it. But I felt that I had done my little bit for physics. In these mathematically based subjects, you probably do your best work before you're 45. I could do more of the same, but I did not want simply to stick with that. I began to think about what I would do. I talked with my wife, Ruth, about it; it was very much a joint decision. She's a Christian believer, too. And without drama, really, the idea of seeking to become a minister of Word and sacrament seemed important to me.
There were two basic reasons for that. I had become what is called a lay reader, a sort of lay preacher, in the Church of England. I had done a little preaching. I am a very pedagogic person; I try to explain things to people, help people understand things. And I enjoy preaching (I'd like to do more of that), but I'm also a person who values very much the sacramental life—gathering with the Lord's people around the Lord's Table on the Lord's Day in the Holy Communion. It's very, very important to me in my spiritual life. And the idea of having the privilege of bringing the sacrament to people (which, of course, I couldn't do as a lay reader, but I can do as a priest) was very attractive to me. I've always been interested in people, and I looked forward to pastoral ministry.
And I did work for five years in parish life. What I hadn't anticipated was the intellectual pull. I had an intellectual service still to offer to the church. And I began to realize after five years of parochial ministry that I wanted to use my intellectual side as well to think and to write on how science and religion relate to each other—which, since I had a foot in both camps, was very much my sort of scene. And so when I got an opportunity to return to Cambridge, an academic setting where I could have some sort of pastoral ministry and also some sort of intellectual activity, that seemed the right thing do to. I don't regret having gone back to Cambridge, though it was slightly embarrassing having said good-bye to all my friends. But I think it was the right thing for me.
Yerxa: Did your experiences as a parish priest shape your thinking?
Yes. Being with people, you see their problems more intensely in a parochial setting. I was in a very ordinary sort of parish—a large working-class parish in Bristol, a village in Kent. So I wasn't in a particularly academic or intellectual community. People are people, and I learned a lot from that. And I learned a lot from my first vicar. We believe in England in the apprentice system. So in the first three years of being a parochial clergyman, you are "serving your title," as we call it, so you are working with a senior clergyman. It helps you to find your way around the practicalities of the parish ministry.
Giberson: With your emphasis on empiricism and thinking "from the bottom up," were there individual experiences as a priest in which you were in sort of a "parish laboratory" and you saw the Christian faith where "the rubber is meeting the road"? Could you see the validation of the intellectual content of Christian faith there?
I suppose to some extent. Curiously enough, the most formative experience that happened to me during parish life is something that would have happened to me anyway. As I was coming to the end of my time in Bristol, quite suddenly, quite unexpectedly, I was seriously ill. And it was a devastating experience for me. I had to have an emergency operation; in fact, I thought I was going to die. There I was all geared up to these drips that were keeping me alive, and it was a period of very great desolation. My whole world was narrowed down to that hospital bed, and God seemed very far away. I was exhausted physically, and I found it almost impossible to pray. And I was very conscious of being prayed for. I was sustained by my family, which was praying for me; my church was praying for me. There's a community of Anglican nuns I have a close relationship with; I knew they were praying for me. And I was sustained by that. That was probably the most important lesson I learned. I found, of course, in my pastoral ministry after that, that I was better able to serve people who were going through the same experience, because they knew that I knew what they were going through. However sympathetic and empathetic you are, shared experience adds an extra dimension to it.
Hill: Two or three centuries ago, whether in England or America, there would have been a strong connection between academia and religion, but that is not the way it is today. Many people's experience is that the secular university is hostile to Christianity. England does not have a high rate of church attendance, and it would be even less, some would say, within the intellectual class. What is your sense of how Christianity was perceived at Queens'? Were there some who thought it strange to have a person so connected with the church as president?
Well, of course, you get a variety of perceptions. But I think that universities are about the search for knowledge (and I passionately believe in the unity of knowledge). I don't think you can truly pursue knowledge in the integrated sense that a university provides without taking into account religious experience and religious understanding. A university without a theology department in my view is not a complete university. There will still be a residual recognition of that. In England, while some of my academic colleagues were strongly opposed to religion, many of them were both wistful and wary about religion. They did not want to say that it was all nonsense; they feared that religious belief was simply a question of signing on the dotted line to a whole series of incredible propositions, which you just had to agree to because authority told you that's what you had to do. Naturally, they didn't want to do that. They didn't want to commit intellectual suicide. So I have always been trying throughout my academic life to say to my inquiring but unbelieving friends: "Look, I have motivations for my religious belief, just as I have motivations for my scientific belief. And they are rather different motivations, because religion takes me deeply, personally—the whole of me; whilst my belief in quarks and gluons, which is very passionate and real, doesn't really change my life." There is quite a lot of, as I say, sort of wistful respect for religion amongst English academics. So I didn't find it uncomfortable. Some people think that you're pretty nuts to be a religious believer, but you can live with that.
Yerxa: You delivered the prestigious Gifford Lectures, published in the United States as The Faith of a Physicist. What was that experience like?
Well, it was a great honor to be asked to give them. And it was a particular pleasure to me that I gave them in the University of Edinburgh, because as a young man, my first teaching post had been at Edinburgh. So I was returning to a university I had known 40 years before.
The Gifford Lectures were supposed to be about either belief in God or nonbelief in God (Lord Gifford offered both options), but to be defended not on an appeal to some unquestionable source of revelation, but on an appeal to reason and to evidence. Because, as a scientist, I am a bottom-up thinker, I like to start with experience and try to interpret that experience and gain understandings through that. The idea of speaking about religious belief in those terms was very attractive to me, and I decided to weave the lectures around phrases chosen from the Nicene Creed—a central, very concise, summary of Christian belief—and try in each chapter to take one phrase or sentence from the creed and show how a bottom-up thinker (as I describe myself) would reach Christian belief based upon experience (not, of course, my own experience, but the experience of the church and the foundational experience of the history of Israel and life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ).
They ask you about four years beforehand, so they give you time to think seriously about it. And I enjoyed the work of preparing for and delivering the lectures very much. It was something of the approach which I believe Lord Gifford had in mind, and it is a very congenial approach for me.
Yerxa: On this side of the Atlantic, you gave the Dwight Harrington Terry Foundation Lectures on Religion in the Light of Science and Philosophy at Yale, which have been published recently by Yale University Press as Belief in God in an Age of Science. To what extent has your thinking changed between the Gifford and Terry lectures?
My thinking has changed and developed a bit. The lectures also have a rather different focus. One of the major themes of my Terry Lectures is to say that science and theology (which is the intellectual reflection on religion) are in many ways intellectual cousins. They are both seeking understanding through motivated belief. And so some of the chapters in Belief in God in an Age of Science are comparisons; for example, in the second chapter I compare the struggles of the physicist to understand the nature of light with the even longer struggle of the Christian church to understand the dual nature of Jesus Christ. Nineteenth-century physicists discovered that light consists of waves; here in the twentieth century they found that light also sometimes behaves like particles—rather like bullets. Now that is terribly paradoxical: a wave is a spread-out flappy thing, and particles are little tiny pellets. How can something be sometimes spread out and sometimes not? In fact, it really all led to quantum theory. It's a fascinating piece of intellectual history—and it is strikingly analogous to the theological attempt to grasp the dual nature of Jesus.
Of course, Jesus was a first-century human being living in Palestine. But from the pages of the New Testament onward, Christians have never been able to describe their experience of Christ simply using human language. So you have the duality of Christian thought: the God-man of Jesus Christ—a paradox, bearing some relationship to the paradox of wave and particle understandings of light.
The quest for truth, the quest for understanding resulting from a response to the way things actually are, is common between science's encounter with light and theology's encounter with the figure of Jesus Christ. That's a cousinly relationship. That's why I feel at home really as a physicist trying to think theological thoughts; it's not so different a discipline.
Giberson: You describe God as working through the laws of nature, respecting those laws of nature, working noncoercively, rather than in violation of them. Of course, one of the historical definitions of miracle is "violation of the laws of nature." If we understand God working through the laws of nature, does this not imply that there are certain things that God can't do? Take, for example, the restoration of a severed limb; the mechanisms available for providential interaction simply would not permit that to happen.
I think that God in the act of creation has limited divine power. That is an act of love. When we say that God is almighty, we don't mean by that that God can do absolutely anything. God can't do evil, for example. The rational God cannot do illogical things. The rational God cannot make a stone too heavy for God to lift, which was one of the famous paradoxes that medieval logicians thought about. So God can do whatever God wills, but God only wills to do things in accordance with the divine character.
Now one of the things that God wills is to be faithful, and I think that the regularities of nature that scientists discern as being the laws of nature are reflections of the faithfulness of the Creator. The reason there are laws of nature is that God is not capricious—is not a magician—and makes a world that has order in it. That's one of God's gifts. But the order of the world that the Creator ordains, or the regularity of the world that the Creator sustains, is the regularity and consistency of a personal God, and not an impersonal thing like a force.
I think of God as ordaining the grain of natural law and, therefore, working within the grain of natural law. But we don't know fully the laws of nature, and I believe that miracles are actually, as John's gospel calls them, signs. They are windows into a deeper understanding of divine reality, where we see something more profoundly personal, more profoundly particular about the way God relates to the world than we might know otherwise. In other words, they are not conjuring tricks, not sorts of divine tours de force to astonish people and simply coerce belief. They reveal that God has deeper ways, a deeper consistency, than the consistency of everyday life.
Hill: And yet, empirically, we don't see people rise from the dead. And the most profound miracle in the New Testament is, of course, precisely that.
That poses another question: If God is consistent and God raised Jesus from the dead, why didn't God raise Auntie Flo from the dead, because it would be nice if she stayed around for a bit longer? Well, that is a serious question, obviously. The answer must lie along the following lines: there must be something special in the nature of Jesus and of God's relationship with Jesus that made it appropriate for God to raise Christ from the dead within history—never to die again—in a way that God has not done for any other person. I find the Resurrection, actually, the easiest miracle to understand, because it does make sense. You see, I believe that God was present in Christ, living a human life in Christ in a way that God has not been present in any other person.
So the Resurrection of Jesus, first of all, makes sense because it vindicates Jesus. His life did not end in failure. Without the Resurrection, Jesus' life just ends in terrible failure—deserted, executed, snuffed out. But that wasn't the end of Jesus' life; in fact, if it had been, I think that we'd never have heard of him. So his life did not end in failure, and that vindicates Jesus.
Second, God did not abandon the one man who truly trusted himself to God. That vindicates God.
And third—and this is an important point to recognize—it vindicates human hope. There is a deep human intuition that death does not have the last word. Death is real, but it is not the ultimate reality. God is the ultimate reality, and Christians, of course, believe that what is special about Jesus—what makes Jesus different from Auntie Flo—is not resurrection, but when resurrection took place. Jesus is resurrected within history as the seed and the guarantee of a destiny that awaits the rest of humanity beyond history. Saint Paul wrote to the Corinthians and said, "As in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive." So Jesus' special character in relation to resurrection is that God raised him from the dead within history, while you and I will be raised from our deaths beyond it.
Giberson: Your discussions of natural history portray God's patient crafting as he works within the natural order, respectful of the laws of nature. You allow a lot of room for conventional theories of evolution. The Harvard sociobiologist E. O. Wilson makes an argument that those same processes have given rise to our moral sensibilities, but you part company with Wilson. What is the real difference between allowing our moral sensibilities to be evolutionary and allowing our physical character to be constructed in that way?
The difference lies in the adequacy of an exclusively evolutionary explanation. Of course, that we are evolved beings, that we have a long history behind us, that we derive genetically over periods of many millions of years from animals and so on is a fact about us, it seems to me, and it is a fact that conditions us in various ways. But it doesn't explain all about us.
I am very suspicious of any single idea that is put forward as the key to our lot, the key to understanding everything. People like E. O. Wilson say that evolutionary necessity is the key to understanding virtually everything. If we have survived, and if we have property X (whatever X may be), therefore X must be explained by it being somehow derived from our ancestors having had to survive in the struggle for life—whether X is our moral intuitions or our amazing intellectual abilities to understand the quantum world (totally different from the everyday world).
Some things are explained that way and some things are not. No doubt we have certain genetic impulses—our care for our children has a certain genetic component to it—but people care for adopted children for whom they have no genetic relationship. People commit acts of very great bravery, rushing into a burning house to save a child that is trapped there without any implicit genetic calculation that that would be a good thing to do, or if I do that this time, somebody will do that to one of my genetic kin another time. It seems to me that the claims of the sociobiologist that all ethical intuitions—love is a better than hate, torturing children is wrong—are simply disguised survival mechanisms is a claim that is not substantiated and is extremely implausible.
Yerxa: E. O. Wilson's latest enterprise is an ambitious effort to speak to the unity of knowledge, using the label of "consilience." Do you have any reaction to this? How do you understand the notion of the unity of knowledge?
I very passionately believe in the unity of knowledge, but I think that that is a given. My own defense of the unity of knowledge would ultimately be a theological defense. In many ways, the big question is this: Do we live in a world that makes sense? Is the universe—as Macbeth said it was—a tale told by an idiot, in the end full of sound and fury but signifying nothing, or is it a world that is a cosmos that makes total sense and fits together? I think it is a cosmos, and it is very much the instinct of the scientist to believe that and to seek an understanding of it. One of the attractions of theism is that it underwrites that assumption—that the world makes sense and knowledge is one, because there is one mind, one purpose, one God behind it all.
Giberson: You have made the criticism that theology tends to be overly anthropocentric (referencing creation primarily to humankind) when, in fact, the long creative process took billions of years. When we think of creation in this much bigger picture, humankind recedes dramatically into what some would say was a relative insignificance. We are demoted from "just below the angels" to "just above the apes." Is this now an appropriate view—to see God as interested in much more than simply us?
I think that God may very well be. We live in an absolutely vast universe, and we wouldn't be here unless we did. It could all be here just to make us possible. But it is equally possible that God has many other things that he is doing elsewhere in his creation. And we shouldn't make our God too small or simply human-oriented.
On the other hand—I'm an Anglican, you see, so I'm always balancing considerations—if I think about the history of the cosmos, as known to us, the most astonishing thing of which we are aware is the coming to be of self-consciousness in human beings. The universe has become aware of itself. Pascal, the great French thinker, said that we are just thinking reeds; we are terribly small, tiny, fragile beings in relation to this vast universe all around us. But we are thinking reeds; therefore, we are greater than the stars, than all the stars, because we know that, and they know nothing. So we shouldn't confuse size with significance. I think that self-consciousness is the most astonishing development in cosmic history. When you look to the very early universe—an almost uniform, expanding ball of energy, a very simple physical system—the reality that this system could from the inherent, built-in fruitfulness present in it over a long period of time (15 billion years or so) become aware of itself is a very astonishing phenomenon. It does suggest to me that the universe is going somewhere and has some meaning and purpose behind it.
Hill: There is one sense in which the scientific discoveries of the twentieth century have opened up a wonderful door. I have often read in G. K. Chesterton: "Whenever we feel there is something odd in Christian theology, we shall generally find there is something odd in truth." In the twentieth century, our scientific knowledge of the world is revealing that reality can be very odd. If this can be so in the world of science, why should it not be even more true in those dimensions of our lives which are immeasurably more important and complex?
If the study of science teaches you anything, it is that reality is full of surprises—that common sense is not the measure of everything. And, therefore, it is not the instinct of a scientist to say about some statement—whether it is a scientific statement or a religious statement—is it reasonable?—implying that somehow or another we know beforehand what's reasonable. We know the world is surprising, so what science is saying is not Is it reasonable, but What have you reason to think might make this the case?
Such a stance is helpful to religion; it is conducive to a generous attitude toward reality and a generous notion of rationality. The true nature of rationality is to respond to the true nature of the object studied, and that nature is not determined beforehand, whether it is God or light. It is learned only from reflective interaction with that reality, allowing reality itself—whether it is divine reality or physical reality—to shape our minds.
Hill: How can you have a quest for truth if there is not a commitment on the part of the seeker to find it or to acknowledge it when found? What if it turns out that there is a volitional element here that is very much at work? If we are predisposed not to discover truth that would make us subordinate, let's say, to God, or that would constrain us to acknowledge that we have responsibilities to a Creator, then there is something within us that is going to resist encountering that truth.
That is, of course, another interesting difference between science and religion. Now, I believe passionately in quarks and gluons, but that doesn't affect my life in any sort of way. I can't believe in Jesus Christ without it affecting my life in all sorts of ways, and that is part of this business of the proper response to the nature of reality. God is not just there to satisfy our intellectual curiosity. God is the answer to why there is something rather than nothing, but God is not just the answer to why there is something rather than nothing. Our response to God involves not only intellectual acknowledgement but also awe and worship and obedience. In the case of the Holocaust, that makes it a costly thing, and I don't doubt—and I have some scientific friends who would quite frankly say this—they don't want to meddle with religion in case it changes them.
Yerxa: You approach some very difficult questions with a great deal of humility. What would you say to those in the Christian community who have differing views with regard to science and these matters of the faith?
First, think seriously about science; don't see science as a threat. Scientism can be a threat. If scientists come along and tell you that science is everything and that you don't need anything else, of course we reject that. But there is truth in science, and those of us who seek to serve the God of truth should welcome truth from whatever source it comes.
So be careful and be open to that.
Second, there must be a certain liberty for Christian men and women to think their own thoughts. I recognize, for example, that I have Christian brothers and sisters who take a young-Earth creationist view that I myself couldn't begin to embrace. They should be free to make their case, but they should not insist on imposing their understanding on everyone else. What worries me is the attempt to require everybody to think in the same sort of way. Such an attitude puts an unnecessary stumbling block in the way of inquirers into the faith. It suggests that you cannot be a Christian without shutting your eyes, gritting your teeth, and believing, I think, impossible things—that the Earth is 10,000 years old, for instance. The young-Earth creationists shouldn't insist on that. They should have a certain Christian charity in their dealings with those who disagree with them, as I hope those who take my view will have in our dealings with those who disagree with us.
Karl Giberson, a professor of physics at Eastern Nazarene College, is author of Worlds Apart: The Unholy War Between Science & Religion and winner of a 1996 Templeton Award for an Outstanding Course in Science & Religion. Kent Hill, president of enc, holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history and is one of the framers of "Evangelicals and Catholics Together." Donald Yerxa is chair of the enc Department of History and director of its pre-law program.
Copyright © 1998 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture Magazine. For reprint information call 630-260-6200 or e-mail bceditor@BooksAndCulture.com.