He should know. After a 25-year career as a theoretical physicist who played a role in discovering the quark––the world’s smallest known particle––Dr. Polkinghorne resigned from his job as chair and professor of mathematical physics at Cambridge University in 1979 to pursue a career in the ministry. Three years later he became an ordained Anglican priest and served a working class parish in Bristol and as the Vicar of a village in Kent.
When people learn that he is trained as both a physicist and a priest “they sometimes give you a funny look,” confessed Dr. Polkinghorne, who in 2002 received the Templeton Prize for his work on the interface between science and religion. “A sort of mixture of incredulity and suspicion, as if you’d said, ‘I’m a vegetarian butcher.’ ”
After his service in the Anglican church, Dr. Polkinghorne returned to Cambridge to serve as Dean of the Chapel at Trinity Hall from 1986-1989, and then as President of Queen’s College, Cambridge. He is a founding member of the Society of Ordained Scientists and the International Society for Science and Religion, and in 1997 was made a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire.
In his opinion, science and religion “are friends, and not foes,” he said. “The basic reason they’re friends is that they’re both concerned with the search for truth. The question of truth is as important to religion as it is to science. Religious belief can do all sort of things for you: it can guide you in life and strengthen you in the approach to death. It can’t really do any of these things unless it’s actually true, so the question of truth is central to religion.”
Science and religion ask different questions about the world, he continued. For example, science “is asking a single question about what’s going on in the world,” Dr. Polkinghorne said. “It asks the question of how things happen. What is the process of the world? Science has been astonishingly successful in finding answers to those questions. We should be grateful for that, and we should take the offerings of science in that respect with absolute seriousness and gratitude.”
But there are other questions about the world which science does not address, he added. “There are questions of meaning, and value and purpose. Science doesn’t address those particular issues. Nevertheless, we all know these are sensible and necessary questions to ask.”
The way he sees it, science and religion don’t trump each other. “I need the insights of science and the insights of religion to understand the rich and many-layered world in which we live,” Dr. Polkinghorne said.
The lecture was sponsored by the Biologos Foundation and the university’s School of Theology and Christian Ministry.
— Doug Brunk (on Twitter@dougbrunk)