At age 48, Dr. John Polkinghorne resigned his Cambridge professorship of mathematical physics to enter Westcott House, an Anglican seminary in Cambridge. It was somewhat shocking news to the scientific community, given his success in academic research. He had not only published many papers on theoretical elementary particle physics and two technical scientific books, but he also played a significant role in a very big scientific event, the discovery of the very small particle of matter--the quark.
By all measures he is as influential in the clergy as he remains in science. First serving as a curate in a working-class parish, he went on to become president of Queens’ College at Cambridge. He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1997, founded the International Society for Science and Religion, and has written a bookshelf full of articles and books on the interrelationship of science and theology. In 2002 he won the Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research for Discoveries about Spiritual Realities.
tothesource: It is all too common to see the relationship of science to religion either as one of antagonism or complete independence of one from the other. I take it from Science and the Trinity, that you heartily but respectfully disagree?
John Polkinghorne: Science and religion are complementary, both seeking truth through motivated belief but at different levels--science on the impersonal universe and religion on the level of the transpersonal reality of God.
tts: You speak of the "profound intelligibility of the universe." Is it profound enough that science could very well be pointing to God, rather than, as many prominent physicists have proclaimed, away from God?
JP: The deep intelligibility of the universe is no 'happy accident', but it reflects the fact that the Mind of God lies behind the wonderful order of the world and we are creatures made in the image of our Creator, that is, made so that we can understand that deep intelligibility.
tts: We are used to having theologians who are not scientists make grand claims about science, and scientists who are not theologians make even grander theological claims. You are both a scientist and theologian, a physicist and an Anglican priest. How has your dual background helped you curb some of the ambitions and excesses of such theologians and scientists?
JP: Scientists and theologians should listen respectfully to each other and not think they can tell the other side what they ought to think about their own specific concerns.
tts: I am sure that at least some of your fellow scientists find you taking Scripture with the utmost seriousness a bit odd. They might well ask, "How can a physicist lend any credence to the Bible, especially given the embarrassing number of alleged miracles?" How do you respond?
JP: In the realm of the personal generally, and in religion in particular, unique events can carry a unique significance. I see scripture as the record of God's special acts of self-disclosure. Miracles become intelligible in that context, not as divine conjuring tricks, but as unexpected consequences in unprecedented circumstances (rather like the way superconductivity goes beyond the everyday expectation of Ohm's law).
tts: In regard to evil, you state: "That there is cancer in creation is not something that a more competent or compassionate Creator could easily have eliminated, but is the necessary cost of creation allowed to make itself." Some might regard that as an inadequate account of evil. Or to approach the same difficulty from the side of God's power, what do you make of reports of cancer being cured by prayer? If such cures are real, then it would seem that a compassionate Creator can eliminate cancer.
JP: Prayer is deeply personal, and the wholeness sought may come in different ways to different people-sometimes through physical recovery, sometimes through the positive acceptance of what is happening.
tts: You do not give up the Christian doctrine of the afterlife. Yet, you do not believe that we have immaterial souls that exist after death. Is your position more the result of your being a physicist or a theologian?
JP: I believe that the human soul has no natural expectation of a destiny beyond death (of a kind that science might investigate), but I believe that it will be preserved from perishing by the faithfulness of God.