Physics, Faith and the Myth of Intellectual Suicide

Renowned physicist and Anglican priest John Polkinghorne: “You don’t have to commit intellectual suicide to be a religious believer; otherwise I wouldn’t be one.”

A world-renowned physicist who taught at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom, John Polkinghorne stepped away from physics midcareer to study theology and became a parish priest in the Anglican Church. Eventually he returned to Cambridge as president of Queens’ College until he retired. A member of the Royal Society and knighted by the queen for his work on medical ethics standards, he is one of the world’s leading voices on the relationship between faith and science. Here, he tells his story.

Some people in the scientific world think that if you’re a scientist and you are a Christian, then at some point in your life, you have committed intellectual suicide. And some people in the religion world think that if you’re a Christian and you believe in science, then at some point you don’t believe the Bible. As both a Christian and a scientist, people think I’m something like a vegetarian butcher. I have devoted my life to the pursuit of truth. That pursuit has made me a better scientist and a more devout believer in God. Choosing science or religion is like being one-eyed. You can see with one eye, but you don’t see everything. We have two eyes and can see much more when we have them both open.

People in the science world questioned my decision to leave physics when I was in my 40s to attend seminary and become a priest in the Anglican Church. One of my colleagues at Cambridge even said to me in private, “John, do you know what you’re doing?” But I felt that I had done my bit for physics. Explaining the properties of quarks was gratifying, but there was another dimension of my life that I had been wanting to pursue, and that was the theological dimension. I wanted to study theology, and I wanted to participate in the activities of the clergy. The Eucharist is very meaningful to me, and being a priest meant I could administer it to others and, hopefully, make it meaningful to them.

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My early experience in believing in God came from my parents. I cannot recall a time when I was not a member of the worshipping and believing community of the church. I absorbed Christianity through my pores, growing up. But during my first year at Trinity College at Cambridge, in a Sunday service, the priest told the story of Zacchaeus and how Jesus called out to him as He passed by. Zacchaeus’ life was transformed when he responded to the call of Jesus, and I desired something similar. I felt a call for a change and moved to the front of the church when the priest invited us to come forward to pray. It wasn’t a devil-to-saint conversion that could be turned into a novel or road show, but a deepening or intensifying experience that built on what had begun at home. It was a moment of commitment—a course correction.

I began to study Scripture rigorously, prayed and attended worship services regularly, but the organization of Christian students, called the Christian Union, took on an atmosphere of rigidity. Instead of being liberating, the Christian faith seemed narrow-minded, fearful of other points of view, including other Christian traditions, and inhibiting. There was a certain bleakness that seemed to be expected of the faithful, which cast something of a shadow.