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Templeton Prize winner defends Christianity’s credibility in a scientific age


The Templeton Foundation announced March 14 in New York City that the 2002 Templeton Prize would go to the Rev. John C. Polkinghorne, a British mathematical physicist and Anglican priest, and a key spokesperson for belief in God in an age of science, defending that faith not against science but in concert with it.

The Templeton Prize is the world’s largest annual monetary prize given to an individual. Its founder, John M. Templeton, set the amount of the prize so that it always exceeds the Nobel, believing that advances in the spiritual realm are more important than those in the sciences. It currently stands at 700,000 pounds sterling, just over $1 million.

Formerly given for “progress in religion,” the prize was redefined this year as an award for “progress toward research or discoveries about spiritual realities including research in love, creativity, purpose, infinity, intelligence, thanksgiving and prayer.”

Polkinghorne, 71, resigned his position as professor of mathematical physics at Cambridge University in England in 1979 to pursue theology studies. He became a priest in 1982. Since then, his popular writings and lectures have consistently applied scientific habits to the tenets and beliefs of Christianity. He has become a leading figure in the ongoing dialogue between science and religion.

Knighted in 1997, he is the fourth consecutive scientist to win the Templeton. The award will be presented to him in a private ceremony by Prince Philip April 29 at Buckingham Palace.

Polkinghorne has written more than 20 books, helping other scientists to grasp the spiritual element in science, while pointing believers toward the shrewd honesty that is the scientific enterprise. Once in a debate, he noted how scientists are wary of religion because they think it involves accepting things on authority. “You don’t have to commit intellectual suicide,” he said, “to be a religious believer.”

Polkinghorne has said he will use the money to fund postdoctoral students working in the field of science and religion.

Sir John Templeton, philanthropist and global investment pioneer, believed that the Nobel Prize had overlooked one of humanity’s most important areas of exploration: religion. To remedy that, in 1972 he established the Prize for Progress in Religion. Funded in perpetuity by Templeton, the award each year honors a living individual who has shown originality in advancing understanding of God and/or spirituality. The first award was presented the following year to Mother Teresa, six years before she won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Other Catholics who have won the award include Benedictine Fr. Stanley Jaki of Seton Hall University, a specialist in the history and philosophy of science, in 1987 and political philosopher Michael Novak in 1994.

Polkinghorne was nominated for the prize by Thomas F. Torrance, a Presbyterian theologian retired from the University of Edinburgh and the recipient of the 1978 prize for his own work relating science and theology.

Polkinghorne “has not only destroyed the idea that the worldviews of science and theology are opposed to one another, but he has opened up the road ahead for a new stage in conceptual integration which cannot but make for immense progress in religion all over the world,” the nominating statement said.

According to John Haught, director of the Center for the Study of Science and Religion at Georgetown University, Washington, Polkinghorne’s contribution to the science-religion dialogue lies in providing a context for bringing intelligibility to very traditional Christian beliefs. “He stays close to classical theology,” Haught told NCR. “In his view there is no need to alter Christian religious thought drastically as do the process theologians in order to accommodate scientific inquiry. Polkinghorne looks science directly in the face, without flinching.”

On such issues as how the universe was created and developed, resurrection and immortality, Polkinghorne offers a fresh and sturdy defense of Christianity’s credibility, according to Haught. Moreover, Polkinghorne emphasizes that religious discourse can be framed without reference to or reliance upon any special exceptional or so-called “miraculous” revelation.

He writes that religious inquiry complements science. “Put the two together and we have an ampler view of the way the world is. Music, for example, is more than just vibrations in the air.”

His most widely read and praised book is Faith of a Physicist, subtitled Reflections of a Bottom-Up Thinker, published by Fortress Press. Polkinghorne maintains that he works from the bottom up, that is from empirically given data from nature, human consciousness or from events in the New Testament, to examine and validate Christian doctrine.

Polkinghorne studied under Paul Dirac, a 20th-century pioneer in the field of elementary particle physics. He then taught mathematical physics at Cambridge for more than two decades before resigning his professorship to study theology. He has used his experience as an elementary particle physicist to make sense of the Christian religion.

He points out that he’s completely convinced of the existence of elemental particles like quarks and gluons, the most basic constituents of matter that currently are known to us, without ever having seen them. He and his colleagues are sure of their existence because that belief makes sense of large areas of physical experience that otherwise would be difficult to understand. “It is the intelligibility that belief in quarks confers that persuades us of their reality,” he writes. “It is much the same for my belief in the unseen reality of God. That belief too makes sense of great swathes of human experience, from considering the wonderful fine-tuning of the universe to my encounter with the figure of Jesus Christ as I meet him in scripture, the sacraments and the church.”

When asked if his exacting scientific background makes him wary of the uncertainties of theology, Polkinghorne responded in an interview: “Far from it. Theology is much more difficult. Physics, at least at the undergraduate level, is a subject on which the dust has settled. In theology the dust never settles.”

Many puzzles remain, he said, “and the scientist and the theologian can make common cause in the search for understanding, pursued with openness, scrupulosity and humility, conscious of the great ocean of truth lying undiscovered before us.”

Rich Heffern is NCR opinion editor. His e-mail address is rheffern@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, April 12, 2002