I noted with some sadness today the recent passing (9 March) of John Polkinghorne, though he attained the ripe age of 90 and had an illustrious career as a scientist, theologian, and parish priest in the Church of England. Perhaps his greatest honour was receiving the Templeton Prize for Science and Religion in 2002. There’s a useful one-hour introduction to his thought here.
When you consider the many public figures today who stake their polemics to a 100% materialist and rationalist view of reality, Polkinghorne’s career stands in dignified contrast. That a distinguished physicist who was one of the discoverers of the quark should heed a call to a vocation as an Anglican priest is quiet testimony to the fact that science and religion are not polar opposites. As Alister McGrath notes in his tribute, in his life and work Polkinghorne never fought in the culture wars, and maintained his own “distinctively irenic and gracious approach”.
I was fortunate to hear him speak during a visit to Canada at McMaster University in 2002. He was an inspiration to my late wife Kay, who as a young adult was persuaded that her vocation as a scientist was incompatible with her faith. I’m grateful that Polkinghorne could model a balance between the two for her.
Here’s an excerpt from his book Faith, Science, and Understanding (Yale UP, 2000), where he is speaking of the necessary place of theology in the contemporary university.
“To speak of theology in this way is to speak of it as a first-order discipline of enquiry, taking its place alongside science’s investigation of the physical world or moral philosophy’s investigations of the nature of ethical decision. However, there is a further important role for theology to play, as a second-order reflection upon the whole of human knowledge. To seek to speak of God is to seek to speak of the One who is the ground of all that is. Such discourse, which we might call theological metaphysics, must take account of the first-order insights of science, aesthetics, morality, and also, of course, of theology itself in its first-order mode of particular investigation into the understanding and significance of religious experience. Theological metaphysics must respect the integrity of these primary disciplines. It is not its role to instruct them or to correct their conclusions, but to listen to what they have to say about their individual fields of study. The aim of theological metaphysics is the integration of these partial perspectives, afforded by the first-order disciplines, into a single consistent and coherent account of reality. Thereby it seeks to provide a more profound and comprehensive understanding than could be acquired through any single primary mode on its own” (pp. 19-20).