Thursday, January 12, 2012
John Polkinghorne Finds Peace in the Faith/Science Debate
By Dan Wooding
Founder of ASSIST Ministries
SAN DIEGO, CA (ANS) -- The website (Religion Dispatches.org) recently posted its list of the Top 10 Peacemakers in the Science and Religion Wars for 2011, and while the list included the Dalai Lama, Jon Stewart, Karl Giberson, Jon Huntsman, Rachel Held Evans and Terence Malik, there should probably be a spot on that list with the same name year after year: John Polkinghorne. The physicist/priest has done more to portray science and religion as “friends, not foes” (his words) than perhaps all of the lists combined.
Trained at Cambridge University, then chair of the physics department at Trinity College at Cambridge, and a member of the elite Royal Society, Polkinghorne stunned the science world in 1979 when he announced that he was leaving the pursuit of one unseen reality – quarks – to pursue another unseen reality – God. He was leaving physics for seminary, to prepare for the priesthood in the Anglican Church.
A new book about Polkinghorne was released in late 2011, called Quantum Leap: How John Polkinghorne Found God in Science and Religion. Polkinghorne has written more than 30 books on the relationship between science and religion, but this is the first book about Polkinghorne and his contribution to both worlds.
“We found that biographies weren’t that attractive to readers unless the person was a former president or a celebrity,” Nelson said. “And while Polkinghorne is well known in England and elsewhere in Europe, he’s not that well-known in the U.S. So we thought we’d broaden the scope and use his story to discuss things like why scientists believe in God, why they pray, what they think of miracles, what they think happens after death and whether science makes a belief in God obsolete.”
Polkinghorne is similar in some respects to Francis Collins, the former head of the Human Genome Project, and current head of the National Institutes of Health in the Obama Administration. Collins was raised without a faith as a child, but became a Christian soon after he began practicing medicine. Both Collins and Polkinghorne have contributed to their respective country’s health policies. Polkinghorne was knighted by the Queen for his work in establishing national ethical standards for the medical profession and for stem cell research.
Quantum Leap lays out the arguments for why some scientists are atheists and why some (more than you might think) believe in a loving God. One of the common reasons for atheism, the book points out, is that terrible things that have occurred in human history in the name of religion, such as the Crusades, the Inquisition, the denunciation of Galileo, and the Salem witch trials. But Polkinghorne’s quick rejoinder is that terrible things have happened outside the halls of religion too, like the Holocaust, the killing fields of Cambodia, and the Rwandan genocide. “Evil acts arise neither from religion nor lack of religion, but from an inherent flaw in human nature,” Polkinghorne says. “All paths have dark sides to their histories. That’s the mistake Dawkins makes – he says all bad things come from religions, when it’s really human nature he’s talking about.”
“I am puzzled by Richard Dawkins,” Polkinghorne said. “He’s giving science a bad name. His book The God Delusion is full of assertions, not argument, and it’s incredibly naïve. It’s like saying the earth is flat because I can’t see the bend in the earth from my window. I wish he’d just shut up.”
Still, Polkinghorne believes atheists have a point.
“Atheists aren’t stupid,” he says. “They just explain less. They fail to grasp the argument.”
Science and religion have common ground, according to Polkinghorne, because they are both seeking Truth, but they approach that quest by asking different questions. “Science tells us how, but it can’t tell us why,” he said. “That’s a different question and a different quest.”
His favorite analogy for these different approaches to truth is in the question “Why is the water in the tea kettle boiling?” Science would answer by explaining that burning gas from the stove is creating heat, which raises the temperature of the water to the boiling point. Another answer is that the water is boiling on the stove because I am making tea – would you like to have a cup with me? “Both responses are valid and in touch with reality,” he says. “They don’t need to cancel one another or even compete. In fact, the two explanations complement each other, providing a more complete picture of the tea-making enterprise.”
After finishing seminary in his late 40s, Polkinghorne was assigned the parish of Blean, a village of about 3,000, just a few miles from Canterbury Cathedral, where he began writing in earnest about the relationship between faith and science. Three years later he became dean of the chapel at Trinity College in Cambridge, and was made president of Queens’ College, a position he held until he retired. He is 82, and he continues to write and speak around the world.
The idea for Quantum Leap came from Giberson, who was the editor of the magazine Science and Spirit out of Boston. Nelson had written for the magazine, covering religious persecution in Tibet, among other things. Giberson called Nelson and said that a science/theology conference was coming up in Boston, with Polkinghorne as the main speaker. Giberson wanted to know if Nelson had ever heard of Polkinghorne.
“I had read some of Polkinghorne’s books years ago, and thought he was one of the clearest thinkers I’d encountered,” Nelson said. “I told Karl I’d love to go to the conference and do a story on Polkinghorne.”
Giberson’s idea was bigger, though. Given the culture wars in the U.S. about science and religion, he thought it was time for audiences to hear Polkinghorne’s ideas on a bigger book-length platform. He put Nelson and Polkinghorne in dormitory rooms next to each other at the conference, arranged to have them sit together at meals, and organized social times where Polkinghorne and Nelson would have considerable time to talk.
“It was like literary speed dating,” Nelson said.
At the end of the conference, Giberson sat down with Nelson and Polkinghorne and described his idea for a book. He then asked the other two if they wanted to proceed. Both quickly agreed.
Nelson spent the next two years researching Polkinghorne and following him to speaking engagements, interviewing him in a variety of locations in Europe, as well as spending weeks at a time with him in his home and favorite haunts in Cambridge.
“It’s a daunting thing to spend that kind of time with a person who is such an intellectual giant,” Nelson said. “But his clarity of thought is so attractive, and he’s such a humble guy, that I felt like I was hanging out with greatness itself.”
About Dean Nelson:
He has traveled throughout the world covering stories of human interest — India, where he wrote about the slums of Bombay; Kosovo, where he interviewed and wrote about victims of terrorism; Africa, where he wrote about members of the Black Panther Party who live in exile in Tanzania, Tibet, where he wrote about religious persecution, Central America, where he wrote about poverty and contaminated water, and elsewhere. His book on the seven sacraments, God Hides in Plain Sight: How to Find the Sacred in a Chaotic World, was published by Brazos Press in September, 2009, and won the San Diego Book Award.
In addition to directing the PLNU journalism program, Nelson also hosts the annual Writer’s Symposium By The Sea, where prominent writers come to discuss the craft of writing. Nelson has interviewed Amy Tan, Anne Lamott, Gay Talese, Anchee Min, Ray Bradbury, George Plimpton, Otis Chandler, Kathleen Norris, Donald Miller, Bill Moyers, Jim Wallis, Chitra Divakaruni, Joseph Wambaugh, James Fallows, Barbara Brown Taylor, Eugene Peterson, Philip Yancey, Michael Eric Dyson, Bill McKibben and dozens of others. Many of those interviews are viewable on the interviews tab of this site and on UCSD-TV’s website. They have been broadcast nationwide. Contact: Dean Nelson at: email@example.com; 619-301-1662.
To buy a copy of the book, please go to: www.amazon.com/Quantum-Leap-Polkinghorne-Science-Religion/dp/0745954014/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1326406932&sr=1-3
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