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Obituary: The Revd Professor John Polkinghorne

26 March 2021

Michael Polkinghorne

The Revd Professor David Wilkinson writes:

THE death of John Polkinghorne at the age of 90 brings the passing of one of the most influential figures in the field of science and religion. His autobiography was entitled From Physicist to Priest (2007), although this can be a little misleading. It represents his characteristic humility in conveying just how distinguished a physicist he was. In addition, it does not quite do justice to the way that his Christian faith engaged his science and the way in which his science shaped his ministry as a priest. This was not someone who saw these worlds as separate or in conflict, but both rooted in the graciousness of God.

Polkinghorne rose to the appointment of Professor of Mathematical Physics in the University of Cambridge. He had entered Trinity College on a major scholarship in 1949 after a year of National Service. In his third year, he specialised in quantum mechanics and was lectured by Paul Dirac. His Ph.D., supervised by Abdus Salam, was completed in 1955, the same year in which he was elected to a fellowship at Trinity. A Harkness Fellowship at Caltech was followed by a lectureship in theoretical physics at Edinburgh. He returned to Cambridge as a lecturer and then was offered a professorship in 1968.

The scale of his achievements in physics was recognised in 1974 by his election as a Fellow of the Royal Society. His work concentrated on the mathematics of quantum theory and the theory of elementary particles. He published a large volume of papers and his books ranged from research texts to popular science such as The Particle Play (1979) and The Quantum World (1984).

In 1979, he resigned from his position in physics and commenced training for the Anglican ministry at Westcott House, Cambridge. This was not because he had become disillusioned with professional science. It was in part, as he half-jokingly remarked, that most people do their best work in mathematics before the age of 45. More important was the sense that “Christianity had always been central to my life,” and priesthood was a new phase in his Christian vocation.

As a student, he had been a member of the Christian Union. Indeed, it was there that he met Ruth Martin, a mathematics student, who became his wife in 1955. From 1981, he served in St Andrew’s, Chesterton, St Michael and All Angels, Windmill Hill, Bristol, and St Cosmas and St Damian, in Blean, near Canterbury. He returned to Cambridge as Dean of Chapel at Trinity Hall in 1986, and then became President of Queens’ College until his retirement in 1996.

It was during this period in Cambridge that a trilogy of books on science and theology which expressed key themes in his thinking were published; and these were foundational for the many books that would follow. First, One World: The interaction of science and theology (1986) set out understandings of the nature of science and theology which led to fruitful dialogue. Second, Science and Creation: The search for understanding (1988) explored at more depth a theology of creation. His third volume, Science and Providence: God’s interaction with the world (1989), was perhaps the bolder of three, critiquing a range of models of providence and arguing for a God at work in the world in the midst of complex chaotic systems. While his subsequent writing extended into many areas, such as the Trinity and eschatology, it was anchored by the thinking set out in this trilogy.

In 1997, he was knighted in recognition of his service to science, religion, and contributions to medical ethics on several government task forces and commissions. In addition, he was awarded the Templeton Prize in 2002, and from 1994 to 2005, he served as Canon Theologian of Liverpool Cathedral.

It is difficult to overestimate the part that Polkinghorne played in the growth of the world-wide interest in the engagement of science and theology. With his “scientist-theologian” colleagues Arthur Peacocke and Ian Barbour, he created a new discipline and community within the theological academy which had previously been located in distinguished but often isolated voices such as Raven, Ramsey, or Torrance.

Significantly, this also led to the voice of professional scientists’ being heard within the academy and the Church. His key post in the Society of Ordained Scientists, the International Society for Science and Religion, and his involvement in the Faraday Institute meant that the position of the scientist with Christian faith was not simply seen in the occasional evangelistic outreach seminar, but as a vocation that could make a contribution to the Church’s theological task. He became a mentor, role-model, and conversation partner to many in the science-and-religion community.

Underneath these developments, there were several specific contributions. First, Polkinghorne argued that critical realism was the way to understand both science and theology. Against those who see uncritically science and theology as naïve realism whose models give us perfect and final descriptions, and against those idealists who see models as telling us nothing beyond ourselves, critical realism sees models giving a provisional but tightening grip of a reality that is discoverable. As both science and theology explore a common reality, they have, therefore, a starting point for meaningful dialogue. They, therefore, approach each other with intellectual humility, noting that one discipline does not have the final word.

Second, Polkinghorne clearly articulated the continuities and discontinuities in the way in which science and theology explore the world. He illustrated Michael Polyani’s concept of tacit skills in the human pursuit of science within his own scientific world of quarks and quantum theory, challenging the myth that science is only about fact and religion only about faith. His experience of the complex practice of science at the highest level gave him credibility among fellow scientists who were sceptical about theology.

Third, Polkinghorne advocated the value of bottom-up thinking in the engagement of science and theology. He was not keen on trying to work at a philosophical framework of the relationship of science and theology beginning with either the Greeks or Church Fathers. He preferred beginning with specific insights into the world such as quantum theory, chaos, the Big Bang, the end of the universe, or neuroscience, and bringing these into theological dialogue.

As he outlined in Theology in the Context of Science (2008), he saw parallels of this approach in feminist and liberationist theologies. As an apologetic strategy, it was highly popular, filling lecture theatres all over the world. Some of those outside of faith communities came to hear him because of his scientific achievements, but they stayed because of the authenticity and detail with which he engaged specific science.

Fourth, Polkinghorne advanced the view that both quantum theory at the micro-level and complex chaotic systems such as the weather at the everyday macro-level are inherently unpredictable. This challenged the Newtonian clockwork universe that had so dominated Western theology in recent centuries. In contrast, a majority of systems in the world are not capable of being fully predicted even if the physical laws are known. This leads to a view that the world is both “clocks and clouds”.

For Polkinghorne, this meant that the Universe was open, or that the physical process was given a freedom in creation in addition to human freedom. This built on the kenotic theology of Vanstone and others. God’s action in the world could then be hidden in the openness of complex systems. This was neither an endorsement of process theology, nor was it a promoting of quantum theory as a gap for God to work. It was a creative and at times controversial proposal attempting to engage an emerging scientific insight with Christian theology.

Polkinghorne was universally seen as one of the most outstanding Christian apologists of our time. Many of his books, reflecting his lectures, successfully spanned popular and academic audiences. They were not vast tomes or full of footnotes. Perhaps that is one of the reasons that some accused him of lacking philosophical or theological depth. Certainly, he often did not show his working!

His mind was so sharp that he did not see the need to go through long philosophical or theological justification. Just as, in mathematical physics, he intuitively saw the key question and possible solution, he did this in theology. There was something more in Polkinghorne, however, where he did not always show his working. His deep immersion in the Anglican tradition of scripture, tradition, and reason and the liturgical rhythm of his life anchored him within orthodox Christianity in creation, incarnation, bodily resurrection, Trinity, and new creation.

Thus, in a physicist who became a priest, we saw a world-leading and creative thinker, who embodied an engagement of science with theology characterised by faithfulness, fruitfulness, and humble service.

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