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Engraving from Camille Flammarion book in the 19th century

Posted: 09 December 2011, 23:45

Rev Dr Sir John Polkinghorne in conversation with Nigel Bovey

The theory runs like this: Religion and science are two conflicting worlds that never meet. Religion is outdated, irrational, irrelevant; science is superior, rational and has all the answers.

So what are we to make of the Rev Dr Sir John Polkinghorne? A PhD in quantum field theory, a DSc for research on theoretical elementary particle physics, a Fellow of the Royal Society. In 1979, after 11 years, he resigned as Professor of Mathematical Physics at Cambridge University to enter the ministry. Since his ordination as an Anglican priest in 1982 he has written and taught extensively on the relationship between faith and science. He was appointed President of Queen’s College, Cambridge in 1989 and was knighted in 1997. In 2002 he received the Templeton Prize – a prestigious global award made to the person who has done most to advance spiritual understanding.

His expertise in both fields testifies to the fact that faith and science cannot, at least for him, be mutually exclusive. So does the rationalism of science depend on scientists having some faith?

‘Scientists certainly need to commit themselves to the belief that the physical world is intelligible and that there are helpful ways of thinking about it,’ he says. ‘If scientists tried to proceed by being sceptical about everything we would never get anything done. A scientist will tend to believe the current theory until something comes along which makes them revise it. That, of course, is not dissimilar to the approach a religious person takes.

‘Faith is not a question of shutting your eyes, gritting your teeth and believing impossible things because some unquestionable authority says that’s what you have to do, no questions asked. Faith is belief and commitment. It is a leap – not into the dark but into the light.’

So science and faith are not in conflict?

‘No, I see them as being complementary. Science is looking at one aspect of the world – telling us how things happen, what is the process of the world, how matter behaves and things like that. Religion is asking a deeper question – is there a meaning and purpose behind what is happening? Is there a divine will – a mind behind what is happening?

‘It seems to me that you need to ask and answer both questions. I need to have ‘binocular’ vision – to look to science and take very seriously all that science tells me about the world, and to look with the eye of religion and gain its perspective. I need to see the reality of creation and the Creator. There are two views which need to be fitted together – they have to be consonant with each other.

‘For example, I could tell you I intend improving my garden. When you ask how, I say by covering it in green concrete. The two ideas – gardening and concrete – don’t really fit. So too, there is a dialogue between science and religion. Their two different perspectives have to fit together if they are perspectives on
 a single actual reality.’

After Sir Isaac Newton tried to explain the world in terms of gravity and laws of motion, people would describe the world in terms of a clock – finely engineered, regular, ordered, mechanical, predictable. And if creation was a clock, the Creator was a clockmaker – piecing it together, winding it up and letting it go. For Newton, the world was mechanical and predictable. However, thinking has moved on.

Dr John’s scientific speciality is quantum theory and subatomic particles. A quick layman’s guide to QT, Doctor, please.

‘What quantum theory says is that the world of atoms (and particles smaller than atoms) is very different from our everyday world. The quantum world is very cloudy – you know where something is, even if you don’t know what it is doing. Our everyday world seems very reliable but the quantum world is a world of probability rather than of predictable certainty. Scientists cannot be sure what atoms and particles will do. We may, for example, be able to say that half the atoms in a lump of uranium will decay in the next hour, but we cannot tell which individual atoms they will be.

‘But scientists believe that, even though they are largely unseen realities, atoms and subatomic particles are real. We believe they are real because they make sense of a great swathe of things we experience in the everyday world.’

A belief in quantum theory, therefore, does not seem dissimilar to religious faith, dealing as it does with a belief in an unseen reality.

‘I would certainly defend belief in the unseen reality of God on exactly the same grounds as quantum theory. There is individual religious experience, the collective religious experience of worshipping communities and, of course, the foundational religious experiences of the Church and the New Testament. I then make sense of those experiences in terms of my belief in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.’


Another scientific theory which requires an acceptance bordering on faith in the unseen is chaos theory.

‘Chaos theory says that the everyday world is not as predictable, tame and controllable as people once thought. Scientists talk not in terms of clocks as they did with Newton, but also in terms of clouds. By this they mean there are systems in the world that are so exquisitely sensitive that any disturbance totally changes their future behaviour and the behaviour of dependent systems. Scientists describe it in terms such as, if a butterfly flutters its wings in Africa, the movement of air will multiply and, in a few weeks’ time, could produce a storm thousands of miles away.’

What insight into faith can chaos theory offer?

‘It helps me see that things are interdependent and the future is open. And it seems entirely reasonable to me for God to act in the world in a similar way. So I believe not in a God who simply set the world spinning and then sat back. I believe in a God who providentially interacts with history. It’s a theory science and philosophy are wrestling with.’

It is the belief that God intervenes in our personal histories which encourages people to pray. How does prayer work?

‘First, prayer is not magic. For example, if someone is seriously ill, people pray for that person’s healing. Sometimes that person’s wholeness comes through physical recovery but it may come through accepting the imminent destiny of death.

‘Nor is the world God’s puppet theatre, where he’s pulling all the strings and we have no say. Nor does God just sit back and let things happen. God interacts but he doesn’t overrule the acts of creatures. Because he is a God of love, he has given creatures freedom to be themselves. So the unfolding history of the world is an interaction between the providential action of God and the individual acts of creatures, particularly creatures with free will like human beings.

‘Because I believe God acts in the world, it seems reasonable that we can ask God for things. If you believe that God is a personal God, then you would expect God to do particular things in particular circumstances.
’The question then is: Why do we need to pray? Why doesn’t God just get on with it?

‘Well, I believe we humans have some power to bring about the future and God has kept some power to bring about the future. When we pray we commit ourselves to trying to align our will with God’s will. When human and divine wills are aligned things become possible which are not possible when they are at cross-purposes.

‘It’s like laser light. Laser light is powerful because it is what physicists call ‘coherent’. All its waves are in step – all the crests add up, all the troughs add down. That makes it very powerful. What we are looking for in prayer is a laser light coherence between the human and divine wills. That will make things possible that would not be possible if we didn’t offer ourselves to God in prayer.’

One of the answers to John’s own prayers was the sense that God was calling him to be a priest. It was not, however, dramatic.

‘God speaks to different people in all sorts of different ways and it is very important not to make one’s own experience the definitive model. I regarded becoming a scientist as a calling. I enjoyed being a physicist very much, but after 25 years I decided I’d done my bit for science. I talked with my wife Ruth and started to pray about what to do next. I imagined I’d retreat to a convent or somewhere, have a big crisis and all would be revealed. It didn’t happen like that.

‘Because Christianity is central to my life, I started thinking about ordination. I chatted with some close friends and after a few months both Ruth and I concluded that this was the right thing to do. It was undramatic but genuine guidance from God.

‘God often speaks in unspectacular ways to people, very often through circumstances – an opportunity comes along, something needs to be done. God deals with us as individuals. He doesn’t have a one-size-fits-all approach. Of course, once we’ve heard what God wants us to do, we’ve got the painful necessity of following it through!’

Brought up in a Christian family, John calculates that prayer and a sense of the Almighty have been part of the equation for as long as he can remember.

‘There have been moments of deeper Christian understanding and commitment but I have always been part of the worshipping community. Again, no great drama or crisis.

‘I never felt I had to make a choice between faith and science – either one or the other. Today, as scientist-priest, I am missionary twice over.

I try to tell the scientific community of the reasonableness of the Christian faith and I encourage them to talk about things other than their speciality. I raise questions like: Is the universe a series of happy accidents or is 
there a mind behind the order?

Is there a purpose behind the fruitfulness? What do we make of Jesus? What makes him different from other founders of religions? What about the resurrection?

‘My message to Christians is: Don’t be afraid of science. Christians are seeking to serve the God of truth. We should, therefore, welcome truth in whatever source it comes. It won’t all come from science but some of it will.’

And can science prove the existence of God?

‘No. I don’t think you can prove the existence of God. In fact, I don’t think you can even prove the existence of quantum things like electrons. It seems to me, you can have good reasons for believing in them but you can’t prove them.

‘The line of thinking that helps us to reach well-motivated, justified beliefs in science is very similar to the line of thinking that enables us to reach well-motivated, justified beliefs in the sphere of religion.

‘We can’t prove God but we can experience him.’

Image taken from Camille Flammarion

This article first appeared in The War Cry and is reprinted with permission

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Photos at the top of this column by:
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