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Karl Giberson, Ph.D

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The Top Peacemaker in the Science-Religion Wars: John Polkinghorne

Posted: 01/ 6/2012 2:19 pm

Paul Wallace wrote recently in Religion Dispatches, in a piece titled "Top Ten Peacemakers in the Science-Religion Wars," that 2011 is the "beginning of the end of the war between science and religion."

"Creationism," he says, "cannot last." And the so-called "new" atheists on the other end of the spectrum are not only not new any longer -- if they ever were new in the first place -- they are "getting old." Wallace looks hopefully for an expansion of the "middle ground" where science and religion co-exist in harmony. The outliers that oppose this harmony, he says, "continue to wage battle but they look increasingly irrelevant."

The article goes on to identify 10 people who have "helped to spread seeds of peace on the blasted-out battleground of science and religion." (I was flattered to make Wallace's list, coming in just two notches below Jon Stewart, who made the list because of a hilarious three-minute clip lampooning an atheist lawsuit to prevent a religious symbol from being erected at ground zero.)

I hope that Wallace continues his annual list but I would like to add an additional category: The Lifetime Achievement Award for making peace between science and religion. And for 2011, that award should go to John Polkinghorne, who has emerged in recent years as arguably the most significant Christian since C.S. Lewis.

Lewis was an important Christian for two reasons: He was clearly brilliant, undermining the argument that Christianity is a religion that only works for simpletons. He had, in fact, experience a celebrated conversion to Christianity from "old" atheism. And Lewis had something valuable to say. His books are still being read and studied and his classic "Chronicles of Narnia" stories are just now being given the full treatment on the big screen.

Polkinghorne wears similar shoes. He began his career as a British mathematical physicist and worked in theoretical particle physics for 25 years, making important contributions to our understanding of quarks, the basic building blocks of matter. I should add that, in the pecking order of science, mathematical physics is at the top. It is the discipline that explores the deepest and most fundamental questions in science. Newton, Einstein and Hawking all made their reputations as mathematical physicists.

In 1979, however, Polkinghorne stunned his physics peers by resigning his prestigious chair of mathematics at Cambridge University to become an Anglican priest, which he did in 1982. And he served for several years in the tiny parish of Blean -- population 3,000 -- visiting local townsfolk and becoming the spiritual leader of that small community. Every Sunday he administered the sacraments in a modest 13th-century church located in the long shadow of the famous cathedral at Canterbury where Thomas Becket was murdered. At no point did he find his celebration of the Eucharist every Sunday to be incompatible with the equations he once derived to describe quarks. In fact, Polkinghorne's entire life could be described as something of a double helix, with religion and science entwining, constantly make contact and often providing mutual support.

For the past three decades Polkinghorne has been an enduring symbol of the compatibility of science and faith. In his role as an ambassador joining these two worlds he has written more than thirty books, delivered the Gifford Lectures, been knighted by the Queen, debated with leading atheists like Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg, and won the 2002 Templeton Prize. He has been a continuing presence in the science-and-religion conversation, always cautioning of the dangers of taking extreme positions on either end of the spectrum. I have personally encountered him in many of these venues, from Oxford University and the Venice Institute for Arts and Letters, to Gordon College on Boston's North Shore where he helped me launch the Forum on Faith and Science a few years ago.

A few months ago Dean Nelson and I published the first biography of Polkinghorne, "Quantum Leap: How John Polkinghorne Found God in Science and Religion." What struck us as we worked on that project -- and the theme we developed in the book -- was the remarkable unity of Polkinghorne's worldview and the many points of contact between his science and his faith. His deep understanding of the elegant rationality of the laws of physics is supported by his belief that those laws are not simply random features of the universe: They originated in the mind of God. At the same time, those very laws serve as a pointer to God. In particular, their ability to generate a universe friendly to life suggests that there may be a purpose to our existence.

Polkinghorne, now in his 80s, admits that faith is complex and filled with paradox. But so is science he notes, as quantum mechanics has shown so clearly. His own faith acknowledges the legitimacy of doubt and he understands why some cannot believe. But for him, it all fits together in a way that he sometimes describes as "too good to be true." His Christian belief ties everything together. "I have never thought," he told us, that "the universe was a tale told by an idiot."

 
 
 

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