QUANTUM LEAP: How John Polkinghorne Found God in Science and Religion
Dean Nelson and Karl Giberson.
Oxford, UK: Lion Monarch, 2011.
192 pages. Paperback; $14.99.
Readers of this journal [Perspectives of Science and Christian Faith] will need no introduction to John Polkinghorne. He is the author of over thirty books on science and faith, including an autobiography; so it was with some surprise that I discovered this new biography. This, however, is no traditional biography. Nelson and Giberson attempt to “tell the story of Polkinghorne, and along the way … unfold some bigger issues” (p. 7).
We are presented with the life of Polkinghorne, from his birth in 1930, the death of his brother during World War II, his education at Trinity College, Cambridge, his career in particle physics, through the ordination process in the Anglican Church, to parish life in Kent, and back to academia in Cambridge. In between this, we are introduced to many of the key ideas of Polkinghorne. These include the relationship of science and faith, the nature of reality, the resurrection of Jesus, the role of prayer, miracles, the problem of suffering and pain, and life after death.
As I read, I kept getting a sense of déjà vu. There is little or no new material here, but what we have is a well-constructed summary of Polkinghorne’s books interspersed with biographical details. Interviews have been conducted with Polkinghorne of which we have a few extracts, but the majority is material gleaned and edited from Polkinghorne’s writings. This is a strength of the book; it provides a good introduction to Polkinghorne. It is also its weakness as it provides no new information or insight.
Unfortunately, there is a tendency toward the hagiographic—very little or no criticism of Polkinghorne is presented. This is a shame as some of Polkinghorne’s views will be controversial to many Christians, particularly his view of post-mortem salvation. The strength of this approach is that the authors let Polkinghorne “speak” for himself; the weakness is that we are left wondering what Nelson and Giberson’s views are.
At times, what is presented here is a rationalistic, almost evidentialistic, view of Polkinghorne. This is even suggested by the book’s subtitle, “How John Polkinghorne Found God in Science and Religion.” It seems to imply that we find God, rather than that he finds us: “it’s the evidence that leads a physicist to believe in the equations, and it’s the evidence that leads a person of faith to believe in God” (p. 183).
This well-written book will provide an amuse-bouche or a taster into the life and work of Polkinghorne. It is strong on description but weak on evaluation. The book is not aimed at readers of this journal who have thought through issues of the integration of science and faith; rather, it is aimed at those who think that being a Christian and a scientist involves “intellectual suicide,” or is as logical as being a “vegetarian butcher” to use Polkinghorne’s phrase. There are five pages of endnotes, but no index and no list of Polkinghorne’s books.
For those who want to know more about Polkinghorne’s life, I suggest obtaining a copy of his autobiography From Physicist to Priest. For more on his view of the interaction of science and faith, a good first place is his Quarks, Chaos and Christianity and then his Reason and Reality.
This review first appeared in Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith Dec 2011 available on-line here.