In Memoriam: John C. Polkinghorne (1930-2021)

 Judith Harbinson

ECLAS wishes to mark the passing of noted Templeton Prize laureate, theoretical physicist and Anglican priest, the Reverend Canon Dr John C PolkinghorneHe died on March 9, 2021 in Cambridge, aged 90. 

A Fellow of the Royal Society, Polkinghorne was Professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of Cambridge until 1979 and ordained as an Anglican priest in 1982. He ministered in Bristol and Kent before returning to Cambridge as Dean of Chapel at Trinity Hall and President of Queens’ College. He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1997. 

In 2002, he received the Templeton Prize in recognition of his substantial work on theology as a complement to natural science. He authored over 30 influential books, including The Faith of a Physicist (1994) and Belief in God in an Age of Science (1998). 

Polkinghorne has been described as one of the world’s great theological minds. ECLAS co-directors, David Wilkinson and Tom McLeish, pay tribute to his outstanding contribution.  

David Wilkinson: 

I owe so much to John Polkinghorne 

I arrived in Cambridge fresh from a PhD in astrophysics with the intention of getting through theology at the Methodist Wesley House in order to get out into mission, ministry and church leadership. It was a strange transition from the world of mathematics, from learning and communicating through the visuals of pictures and diagrams to the dominance of texts, and from the robust but open disagreements of the scientific community to the polite and undermining dynamics of theological seminars! 

Polkinghorne became a friend, mentor and prophet. He embodied the transition from physicist to priest/theologian. He lectured me with the material that became the foundational book One World, helping me to construct the framework which would enable me to think seriously about science and religion. His lectures stood out – he didn’t read from a prepared text, they contained illustrations and for instances which were all about his bottom-up approach to the subject, and in the way that he cut through the confused but at times arrogant culture of some Cambridge theologians, he gave me hope that a scientific training could be of value to theology. But more than that, he began to show me that theology was more than just a hurdle to be cleared in order to get out and lead a local church. He showed me that theological reflection was about joy and worship, and was key to apologetics and mission.   

He supervised my final year undergraduate dissertation on natural theology with rigour and fun.  We were both surprised that it was marked by a colleague in the Divinity school as a 2:2, and we continued to smile when it was subsequently published without correction in a journal and translated into a number of languages! This was perhaps a small indication that Polkinghorne and the issues that he raised were never fully accepted as important or insightful by some of the theological mainstream. He was easy to dismiss as someone who had not had a normal route into the theological academy. In addition, his mind was so sharp that he did not show his working in long, drawn-out theological justification. 

His kindness and advice continued after I left Cambridge. Whether it was to provide a commendation for a book or to take part in apologetics events, his passion to make the gospel known and to support a younger friend was limitless. His graciousness when I took a different view to him in public or in his role as the external examiner of my PhD in theology was remarkable. That did not mean that we would not have honest and bold discussions, but he did have a natural humility and ability to listen and learn. 

As his physical frailty increased, I would visit him from time to time in his Cambridge home and find his mind as sharp as ever and his interest in what I was doing continuing. Some of these visits involved recording our conversations as a podcast. We would then privately pray together before I departed. 

Of all the people who have embodied scienceengaged theology over the years, Polkinghorne ranks for me as one of the most significant, and I give thanks for his life, his thinking and his Christian witness. 

Read David’s full obituary for the Church Times here. 

Tom McLeish:

A few of my class of physics undergraduates in the Cambridge of the early 1980s got together to explore how we might think of our science as a Christian vocation. Some of the opinions, ideas and questions of our ‘Christian Physicists’ group were jaw-droppingly naïve, to put it kindly, and make me shudder to recall, but one ‘elder statesman’ in the university at that time always had a patient, wise and kindly ear. I recall John Polkinghorne when he was Dean at Trinity Hall listening with such generosity and encouragement – and of course the fact that this top theoretical physicist had himself retrained in theology for ordination was just by itself the gift and signal we needed that it was possible to unite these two vocations and loves.  

Later, as a PhD student at the Cavendish, I took time out to attend his lecture course at the Divinity School on Science and Religion. One of the first of its kind globally, it was delivered with the same care, scholarly devotion, and care of the students – including the interlopers! 

His books kept us going for three decades at least – not the last word on the theology of science, by any means, but the first who really opened up a number of questions and demonstrated the huge advantage of thinking and writing in the theology of science by someone with decades of experience actually doing science.  

Many years later he gave an open lecture at Durham when I was pro-vice-chancellor for research there. The venue was packed out and the questions could have gone on all night, but the aspect that struck me was the way that his kindness and ‘gentle answers’ repeatedly turned away the edge of some of the more aggressive questions and attracted respect from everyone there. 

For the past 34 years John was a member of the Society of Ordained Scientists. Fellow member, Lucas Mix, shared this prayer. 

Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 

God of space and time, hidden order and revealing light for all creation; accept, we pray, your servant John, whose sight inspired others to see and whose life inspired others to live; grant that he, being raised with Christ, may know fully in eternity that truth he sought on earth; grant that he may find resurrection life and relationship to be infinitely more than he could ask or imagine. 

We pray also for all those whose lives were touched by his; grant us faith to see in this life the seeds of eternal life, so that we too may find the Spirit of Truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  




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