John Polkinghorne sage doyen of Science and Faith: tribute from a physicist

By Prof. Jeff Tallon, physicist The Reverend Canon Sir John Polkinghorne KBE FRS passed away on 9 March 2021. While he distinguished himself in two separate careers, one as a professor of mathematical physics and the other, latterly, as an Anglican priest these were never separate endeavours in his own mind. My first encounter with […]

By Prof. Jeff Tallon, physicist

The Reverend Canon Sir John Polkinghorne KBE FRS passed away on 9 March 2021. While he distinguished himself in two separate careers, one as a professor of mathematical physics and the other, latterly, as an Anglican priest these were never separate endeavours in his own mind. My first encounter with John Polkinghorne was to read his lucid book One World which proposes the indivisible unity of scientific and theological truth in defining our place in the world. It’s a theme woven throughout his many books on science and faith (26), theological papers and his many talks available on-line, and one which I passionately embrace. Far from the non-overlapping magisteria that Stephen J. Gould espoused (that enabled him to countenance and legitimise what to him were mutually exclusive and mutually incompatible programmes) Polkinghorne argued that a Christianity physically anchored in history must effortlessly intersect with science – the study of the physical, temporal world. This led him to instructively employ paradigms from the realm of physics to illustrate theological insights andvice versa. Just one example is the idea of entanglement as applied to the Trinity, and as applied to our own relationship with God. It is hard to imagine him as just a vicar or just a physicist, these vocations being so intimately intermingled.

Some years back while in Cambridge I was privileged to hear John speak on the question as to how God can physically interact with the world while maintaining continuity of physical law. To him quantum mechanics embodied the principles that made this possible. Polkinghorne had a gracious unconfrontational manner that was able to address questions of opposing truth claims without provocation. He had a beauty of expression and of course a very deep well of scientific, theological and pastoral insight that made him a most compelling author and speaker. We have so few today with Polkinghorne’s commanding yet winsome authority that he will be greatly missed, but we are also greatly fortunate to be in an age in which many of his talks are available on-line, in addition to his rich repository of scholarly writing. 

John Polkinghorne was Professor of Mathematical Physics at Cambridge University from 1968 to 1979 (where he played a role in the discovery of the quark) before studying for the priesthood. He became an ordained Anglican priest in 1982 and served as the president of Queens’ College, Cambridge, from 1988 until 1996 and as canon theologian of Liverpool Cathedral from 1994 to 2005. He was knighted in 1997.

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