Kaufman Interfaith Institute
Lunch with Polkinghorne at Cambridge University
Reflections on a gracious and deep thinker
As the year comes to an end, I remember the life of John Polkinghorne, with whom I had the privilege of being with numerous times over the years and who passed away at the age of 90 this past March. He was considered by many as the leading figure internationally in combining insights from science and theology.
Polkinghorne had a distinguished scientific career of over 25 years in Cambridge, where he worked with the Nobel laureate Paul Dirac. He became a professor of mathematical physics and published six science books plus numerous articles. In his forties he decided to study for the Anglican priesthood, and following ordination in the Church of England, served for five years in parish ministry. He returned to Cambridge as a chaplain and then later as president of Queens’ College until his retirement in 1996. He published over 20 books on science and religion; was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1997 for distinguished service to science, religion, and learning; and in 2002 received the $1.5 million Templeton Prize, awarded annually for an “exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension.”
I had the opportunity to meet him and make a presentation at a conference at Oxford University in 2010 honoring his 80th birthday. During my visiting fellow appointments at Cambridge University, first in 2013, and again in 2016 and 2018, it was always a special privilege to spend time with him periodically at his home and to be inspired by his intellect as well as by his deep belief and gentle personality.
My long-term interests in science and religion began in college and continued throughout my time while serving as Dean of Science at Grand Valley State University. Reflecting back, I realized the two worldviews appear to be in conflict, and yet when properly pursued we find deep points of convergence and mutual insight. Now with my involvement in the interfaith dialogue I realize that I am doing the same thing. The various world religions, as well as the secular stance, are different worldviews that seem to be in deep conflict. While the world religions make significantly different factual claims they do have much in common when one goes deep into the values and insights into what is ultimately meaningful.
Religions have in common the impulse to care for others, to make the ordinary life of all people more just and equitable while at the same time affirming that life is much more than just physical well-being. The various religions or worldviews have different visions of life’s purpose but they also bring a transcendent perspective to what is truly meaningful.
The various sciences look at reality by asking different questions. The biologist pursues how life develops and evolves, while the physicist asks about mass and velocity, as well as probes the basic constituents of matter itself. Our various religious perspectives also ask different questions about reality and each provides its own lens through which we seek to make sense of the world. We can learn from the sciences as well as the various faith traditions that take seriously the ultimate questions of life, purpose and meaning. No one view can claim the whole of understanding. We are enriched by interacting and being in dialogue, both in the sciences and in interfaith efforts, with those whose experiences and questions are different from our own.
John Polkinghorne’s book, Science and Religion in Quest of Truth, explores what he calls “bottom-up” thinking by taking the evidence of both scientific experiments and religious experience to develop theories that seek to be coherent and explanatory. He attributes the success of science to limiting its scope to “only one dimension of the human encounter with reality, essentially that which can be called impersonal.” He also argues that because of this limitation, “scientific achievement cannot be claimed to constitute the attainment of complete and absolute truth. Instead science’s exploration of reality must be seen as resulting in the creation of ‘maps’ of the physical world which are indeed reliable, but only on a particular scale.”
The map image reminds me of the difficulty of making a two-dimensional map of the three-dimensional planet earth. When looking at a flat map of the flight route from America to England, it seems like one goes too far north rather than straight east. That is because the map distorts what is in fact the shortest distance on the globe, which is the arc of a great circle. My Muslim friends point out the same situation when in their daily prayers they are to face Mecca, for which the shortest “great circle” route is actually facing northeast from Grand Rapids.
Theology and religion use metaphor and symbolism to create maps which help us comprehend aspects of reality that go beyond the limits set by science. Because of the complexity and uniqueness of human experience the religious “maps” are not as specific and precise, but yet they can be invaluable in helping us make our way through the pathways of our human existence.
Polkinghorne also recognizes the difference between the cumulative nature of science and the importance of tradition and heritage in other fields. He points out that a “physicist today understands much more about the universe than Isaac Newton ever did, simply by living three centuries later than that great genius. In religion, as in every other encounter with reality, there is no presumption to be made of the superiority of the present over the past. Just as the individual creative works of Bach and Beethoven are an indispensable part of our present experience of music, so in theology the insights of great figures of the past … remain a necessary part of the contemporary conversation.”
For Polkinghorne, both science and religion require a rational strategy based on experiment and experience. Both build models and use metaphors. At the ceremony announcing his Templeton Prize in 2002, he said, “The two forms of enquiry view reality from different perspectives. ... I believe that I need the binocular approach of science and religion, if I am to do any sort of justice to the deep and rich reality of the world in which we live.”
I will miss his kind and gracious manner as well as his deep appreciation for multiple ways of understanding our world.