In Praise of John Polkinghorne

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The Rev. Dr. John Polkinghorne, an internationally recognized mathematical physicist who stepped down in his late forties from a Cambridge University professorship to become an Anglican priest, will undoubtedly remain a preeminent voice in faith and science. He died March 9th at age 90.

I met John Polkinghorne only once, at a small science and religion conference. I interrupted his breakfast for a notably awkward encounter. It was not unlike the Saturday Night Live skit in which Chris Farley interviews Paul McCartney and ends up fawning over the former Beatle without asking a useful question. I suppose I was channeling Farley because I was so awestruck, “Dr. Polkinghorne, my name is Greg Cootsona. I love your work.” Being a polite English gentleman, he nodded and gave me room to speak. And so I did: “You’re so intelligent. I’ve read so many of your books. You’re amazing.” Not knowing what else to say, I remember then hurriedly handing him one of my books, walking away, not entirely sure he wasn’t saying to himself, “Who was that bloke again?”

I was then—and still am now—in awe of the achievements of Polkinghorne and particularly the way he brought together faith and science. In that light, I asked three of his colleagues and friends (who apparently all had more productive conversations with him than I did) to comment. The second, by the way, reminded me of Polkinghorne’s unmitigated belief in the resurrection, which seems particularly timely in light of his death and last Sunday’s celebration of Easter.

Three Paeans of Praise for Polkinghorne

Dr. Polkinghorne was associated for decades with Cambridge University, and so I asked a key collaborator in the integration of faith and science, Ruth Bancewicz, from Cambridge’s Faraday Institute: “I am one of the many people who wish to express their gratitude for the life of John Polkinghorne. He explained his beliefs and convictions about the world in a way that helped many others to get past the barriers that are sometimes put in the way of scientifically minded people who are drawn to spiritual things. He has been an example to countless scientists who share similar convictions, and I’m sure his words will continue to inspire us to share the way our Christian faith and science interact in a satisfying and life-giving way.”

My mentor and Ph.D. advisor at the Graduate Theological Union (GTU) and the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences (CTNS), physicist and theologian Robert John Russell connected with Polkinghorne at a particularly high level of scientific-theological engagement. Bob wrote, “John was a cherished colleague, a fellow member of the Society of Ordained Scientists, a valued participant … of international research conferences on ‘scientific perspectives on divine action,’ and the 1990 J. K. Russell Fellow in Religion and Science at CTNS/GTU. I remember many lively interchanges with him on such topics as “are chaotic systems indeterministic?”, “how Polkinghorne differs from Peacocke and Barbour on panentheism”, “how the New Creation arises ex vetere out of the present universe,” and of course “epistemology models ontology,” which his wife, Ruth, emblazoned on a sweatshirt he proudly wore. Rest in peace, dear John, until, God willing, we meet again in that ‘New Creation.’”

Finally, my friend Tom Oord, editor of The Polkinghorne Reader, emailed me this: “John Polkinghorne established himself early as a leading physicist who in mid-life decided to become a priest and then university chaplain. John was especially attracted to the work of Jürgen Moltmann, but his scientific side never disappeared. As an open theist, he argued that an open God created an open and not determined world, one we could explore with a degree of confidence. His dozens of books reveal ingenious ways of integrating theology and science. He read both progressive and traditional Christian thinkers and charted a way that makes sense to me and so many others shaped by contemporary science, theology, and philosophy. John had the ability to think creatively while drawing from the profound insights of the historic Christian faith. There are so many moments in our friendship I won’t forget. But I’ll especially remember his eagerness to share insights, him speaking rapidly to get his ideas from his mind through his mouth and to my ears.”

I’ll let those words sink in as we mourn his passing and celebrate his life.

Our Resurrection

With the celebration of Christ’s Resurrection in mind, I recall how this eminent scientist affirmed an orthodox Easter faith.

For example, how does God raise us up into new bodies? (1 Corinthians 15) How does the bodily resurrection make sense in light of the biblical emphasis—which science reaffirms—that we are a body-soul unity? In his voluminous writings, Polkinghorne not only demonstrated how Jesus’s resurrection makes sense in a scientific age, but also how scientific thought connects with our own resurrection. “We can take with all due seriousness all that science can tell us about ourselves and this world and still believe that God will remember the patterns that we are and will recreate them when we are resurrected into the life of the world to come.”

In an interview last year with Church Times, Polkinghorne brought resurrection hope to the forefront. “I think it’s not a question of seeing our loved ones again, it’s the restoration—or continuation—of a relationship that you had with them. There will be some persisting relationship, and that is a good. I mean, one of the greatest goods of life in this world is our relationship to those who are near and dear to us, and that is a good that will not be lost, I think. It will be renewed and continued.”

When I remember John Polkinghorne, it’s easy for me to hear the words of Jesus, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Lord.” (Matthew 25:21.)

Requiem aeternam. Or if I may paraphrase, Rest in Paradise, my brother.


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