I first heard John Polkinghorne’s voice on the BBC in the late 1980s, at a time when I lived in England. Late one night, he presented a riveting radio essay. It couldn’t have lasted more than five or ten minutes, but it had a tremendous, lasting effect on me.
Polkinghorne spoke about reason and faith, science and prayer — subjects I was pondering deeply at that point, after a good decade in which I had dismissed religion and religious sentiments out of hand. He described connections between quantum physics and theology in inviting, commonsense terms. He applied chaos theory to make prayer sound intellectually intriguing. I was thrilled when I was able, in 2005, to talk with John Polkinghorne about the ideas he inspired in me 15 years ago and about many related questions I have accumulated since.
Just as I found myself speaking with him, of course, the centuries-old debate between science and religion — in particular the flashpoint of evolution versus creation — was taking on renewed energy in American culture. And even as that debate receded from the limelight, figures like Richard Dawkins popularized the thesis that scientific reason and religious faith are incompatible and at odds. But ironically, in this same historical moment, a lively, deepening international dialogue between scientists and religious thinkers has expanded its reach across the rift that developed after Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859. John Polkinghorne is a leading figure in that development.
Most striking, however, is how John Polkinghorne’s perspective simply transcends the parameters and arguments that drive our cultural controversies.
Polkinghorne takes the Genesis stories, the biblical accounts of creation, seriously. But he points out that these are lyrical, theological writings. They were not composed as scientific texts. The early Christians, he says, knew this, and only in the later Medieval and Reformation times did people begin to insist on literal interpretation. To read a work of poetry as a work of prose, he analogizes, is to miss the point.
The Duke of Edinburgh presents the 2002 Templeton Prize to the Rev. Dr. John C. Polkinghorne at Buckingham Palace. (photo: Clifford Shirley/The Templeton Prize)
Drawing on the best of his scientific and theological knowledge, Polkinghorne believes that God created this universe. But this was not a one-act invention of a clockwork world. God did something “more clever”: he created a world with independence, a world able to make itself. Creation is an ongoing act, Polkinghorne believes, one in which the laws of nature make room for choice and action, both human and divine. He finds this idea beautifully affirmed by the best insights of chaos theory, which describes reality as an interplay between order and disorder, between random possibilities and patterned structure.
I’ll let you hear for yourself how he approaches mysteries like prayer, and the problem of suffering, in this frame of mind. I’ll leave you with two evocative notions from our interview.
First, modern science increasingly suggests that contradictory explanations of reality can be simultaneously true. A scientific puzzle of whether light is a particle or a wave was resolved with the discovery that light has a dual nature as both a particle and a wave. And here’s the key that made that discovery possible: how we ask the questions affects the answers we arrive at. Light appears as a wave if you ask it “a wave-like question” and it appears as a particle if you ask it “a particle-like question.”
Second, there is the matter of quarks. Modern quantum physics has come to depend on quarks as a foundational element in understanding the way the world works. But in a very real sense, quarks are an article of faith. No scientist has actually seen one, nor do scientists necessarily ever expect to. They are believed to exist because the idea of quarks gives intelligibility to the whole of observable reality.
These scientific notions give me new, creative ways to imagine the credibility of religious modes of thought. They underscore John Polkinghorne’s personable and passionate message that we need the insights of science and religion together to “interpret and understand the rich, varied, and surprising way the world actually is.”