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Angela Tilby: John Polkinghorne had vital questions for an unbelieving world

19 March 2021


John Polkinghorne at the Hay Festival in 2011

John Polkinghorne at the Hay Festival in 2011

JOHN POLKINGHORNE, who died, aged 90, on Tuesday of last week, had a face that conveyed quizzical good humour. With his pink cheeks and white eyebrows, he looked more like a character from Narnia than a former professor of mathematical physics. I consulted him when writing a book about contemporary cosmology, and I saw quite a bit of him when I was teaching in Cambridge.

I think it was in 2006 that we both attended a gathering at Lambeth Palace of academic scientists and writers sympathetic to the Christian faith. It was an initiative of the then Archbishop Rowan Williams and the topic reflected Polkinghorne’s life-long concern: How could science and Christianity make sense of one another in public life? As an undergraduate, Polkinghorne had joined the Christian Union; later, he studied in America with the particle physicist Murray Gell-Mann. After 25 years of academic science, culminating in his Cambridge chair, he stood down to train for the priesthood.

After parochial ministry, he became Dean of Chapel at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, and then President of Queens’ College. Having written five books on science, he began to write on science and religion, seeking both to explain contemporary science to people of faith and to offer a grounded Christian apologetic. His attempts to commend religion and science to one another predictably infuriated leading atheists such as Richard Dawkins and A. C. Grayling.

I love Polkinghorne’s oft-quoted remark about how he had come to see that nature was “more cloud-like than clock-like”. His writings explain how nature, whose mechanisms were so brilliantly demonstrated by Isaac Newton, turns out to be much less determined than Newton could have realised. According to contemporary quantum theory, nature is full of multiple interactions and genuine novelty. There is room for mind, body, and soul.

At the Lambeth gathering, I was sad to hear Christians in science saying that they played down their faith for fear that it might reflect badly on their work. Polkinghorne was never afraid to stand up to criticism from scientific colleagues. For him, theism simply offered a more intelligible, beautiful, humane, and satisfying explanation for the existence of the world than reductionist atheism. When you read what he said, it seems simply obvious.

What he did was important, though, because the challenge of Lambeth has not been answered. Many who dismiss faith are still captive to a naïve belief that science has disproved religion. Meanwhile, a Church that is increasingly illiterate both in science and theology seems content to focus on “mission”, without addressing the question whether the faith is credible. We are minds as well as feelings, as John Polkinghorne’s work demonstrates. That benign face was full of vital questions to a world that casually dismisses God.

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