Beliefnet
This statement was delivered by John C. Polkinghorne upon receiving the Templeton Prize, March 14, 2002.

I was in Rome attending a conference on science and religion, when I got a message to call Dr. Templeton about "an important matter." After a certain amount of wrestling with the telephone system, I managed to get through and I learnt the very exciting news that I was to be the recipient of this year's Templeton Prize. Of course, I am greatly honoured by the award, for which I am deeply grateful and which represents a recognition of my work that gives me profound satisfaction.

I have spent half my life working in theoretical elementary particle physics, concerned with using mathematics to understand the behaviour of the smallest bits of matter. In 1979 I resigned my chair in Cambridge to take up a very different vocation, as I began to train for the priesthood in the Church of England. I always want to emphasise that I did not leave physics because of any disillusionment with the subject. I value its insights and I seek to maintain an intelligent interest in its advances. I simply felt that after 25 years I had done my little bit for science and it was time to try to do something different.

I have been a Christian believer as long as I can remember and religious faith is central to my life, so that the transition to becoming a clergyman seemed a natural one, both to me and to my wife Ruth -- for the decision was, of course, a joint one. After a few years of service in parish life, I returned to the academic world of Cambridge because by then I had come to the conclusion that thinking and writing about how science and religion relate to each other was central to the fulfillment of my new vocation.

I want to take science and religion with great and equal seriousness. I see them as complementary to each other and not as rivals. The most important thing that they have in common is that both believe that there is a truth to be sought and found, a truth whose attainment comes through the pursuit of well-motivated belief. Of course, the two forms of enquiry view reality from different perspectives, science studying the processes of the world, while religion is concerned with the deeper issue of whether there is a divine meaning and purpose behind what is going on. I believe that I need the binocular approach of science and religion, if I am to do any sort of justice to the deep and rich reality of the world in which we live. I think of myself, and of some of my colleagues in this task, as being "two-eyed" scientist-theologians.

One important difference between science and theology is that the former subject is cumulative. I am just an ordinary physicist but, because I live at the beginning of the twenty-first century, I know much more about the universe than was ever possible for Isaac Newton, great genius though he was. I do not need to read the Principia, despite its being one of the great intellectual classics of all time. In the sphere of religion, it seems to me that matters are somewhat different. I certainly need to read the Bible. All faith traditions look back to their foundational events and the resulting conversation has to range across the centuries, for it cannot just be confined to the contemporary scene alone. All generations have brought their own insights to the theological task and these must not be lost to scholars in the present, though they may need re-evaluation in the light of contemporary knowledge. Two of my great theological heroes are Augustine and Aquinas. Progress comes not from abandoning the past, but from its consonant incorporation into the present. Or course, we cannot just take the insights of past thinkers without subjecting them to our own analysis. Each generation has to take the understandings of faith and make them its own, in its own day and in its own way. For us in the twenty-first century this means that the dialogue between science and religion is of great significance.

It has been a privilege for me to seek to contribute to that contemporary conversation. I have to say that I love writing. Bishop John Robinson, of "Honest to God" fame, was a great friend of mine. He once said to me that he could not think without a pen in his hand. I knew exactly what he meant. Ideas buzz around in one's mind but the act of writing is the act of crystalization. You have to decide precisely what it is that you want to say. I value that process of clarification very highly.

One of the most pressing contemporary issues is to understand how the great world faith traditions should relate to each other. I think that a shared concern with science can provide a fruitful place of mutual meeting. One of the valuable projects currently supported by the John Templeton Foundation is "Science and the Spiritual Quest," an initiative formulated exactly along these lines. I was involved with an SSQ Conference when I was in Rome and learnt the wonderful news of my Templeton Prize. I am deeply grateful for the honour that has been done me and for the further opportunities that it will provide.

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus