On Being with Krista Tippett

John Polkinghorne

Quarks and Creation

Last Updated

January 13, 2011

Original Air Date

March 10, 2005

Science and religion are often pitted against one another; but how do they complement, rather than contradict, one another? We learn how one man applies the deepest insights of modern physics to think about how the world fundamentally works, and how the universe might make space for prayer.

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John Polkinghorne is Canon Theologian of Liverpool Cathedral in England and author of many books, including Quarks, Chaos, and Christianity. He served as Professor of Mathematical Physics at Cambridge University, and is a Fellow of The Royal Society.


January 13, 2011

KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: My guest this hour is physicist and theologian John Polkinghorne. He explains how he applies the deepest insights of quantum physics to religious mysteries — and finds new ways to think about prayer, evil, evolution, and the afterlife. John Polkinghorne’s perspective largely transcends popularized arguments that set scientific reason and religion at odds. He’s written, “Both science and religion are needed to interpret and understand the rich, varied, and surprising way the world actually is.”

From American Public Media, I’m Krista Tippett. Today, on Being, “Quarks and Creation.”

For 25 years John Polkinghorne distinguished himself in the field of elementary particle physics as a professor at Cambridge. In 1974, he was named a Fellow of the Royal Society, the scientific academy to which Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, and Stephen Hawking have also all been admitted. Then, at the age of 49, John Polkinghorne became a student again, this time of theology.

REV. DR. JOHN POLKINGHORNE: My life changed in all sorts of ways at that transition point, but not in relation to the search for truth, both as a scientist and as a theologian. That’s the absolutely controlling factor. “Is it true?” is the vital question.

MS. TIPPETT: John Polkinghorne eventually returned to Cambridge to think and teach at the interface between science and theology. In Great Britain, he’s chaired government initiatives to consider ethical issues raised by science. In 1997, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth. Though, as tradition dictates, Polkinghorne does not take the honorific title “Sir” because, as an ordained minister, he would not be expected to wield a sword. I sat down with John Polkinghorne in 2005. It’s striking right from the outset that his vocabulary about God and science tends to notions such as beauty, subtlety, and surprise.

DR. POLKINGHORNE: If working in science teaches you anything, it is that the physical world is surprising. And I was a quantum physicist, and the quantum world is totally different from the world of every day. It’s cloudy, it’s fitful, you don’t know where things are, if you know what they’re doing. If you know what they’re doing, you don’t know where they are. So that it’s a complex world and quite different from what we expected. But it’s an exciting world because it turns out we can understand it, and when we do understand it, we have a deep intellectual satisfaction. Now, if the physical world surprises us and is different from everyday expectation — common sense, if you like — it wouldn’t be very odd, really, would it be, if God also turned out to be rather surprising. Things that are just on the surface, easy to believe, are not the whole story. There’s a deeper, stranger, and more satisfying story to be found, both in science and in religion.

MS. TIPPETT: I think I’d like to ask you about a few other words that you use, concepts where I think you bring together both theology and religion and flesh them out for me. And another one is beauty?

DR. POLKINGHORNE: Well, beauty is a very interesting thing, and a form of beauty that is important to me is mathematical beauty. That’s a rather austere form of aesthetic pleasure, but those of us who work in that area and speak that language can recognize it and agree about it. And we’ve found in theoretical physics that the fundamental laws of nature are always mathematically beautiful. In fact, if you’ve got some ugly equations, almost certainly you haven’t got it right and you should think again. So beauty is the key to unlocking the secrets of the physical world.

MS. TIPPETT: What are the qualities and properties — how do you describe what’s beautiful about a mathematical equation?

DR. POLKINGHORNE: Well, it’s very hard, of course, to describe any form of beauty.

MS. TIPPETT: Of beauty, right.

DR. POLKINGHORNE: In some sense you have to perceive it. And it’s more difficult with mathematics, because you have to be able to speak the language. It’s a bit like saying, “This is a wonderful Icelandic poem,” but if I don’t understand Icelandic, I won’t get the gist of it. So mathematical beauty is connected, first of all, with things being elegant and economic. You don’t write a great sprawling equation that takes half a page to write down. It’s very concise, just perhaps a line with only a few symbols in it. But it turns out that it’s also very deep, so that when you explore its consequences, you find this very simple-looking thing. It implies this, it implies that, all sorts of surprising and unexpected things. And if it’s a successful part of mathematical physics, of course, it will imply all sorts of phenomena happening in the world. And that’s what we mean by mathematical beauty. It’s very hard in everyday language to get a closer description of that. What is striking, I think, is that those of us who happen to speak that sort of language can agree about mathematical beauty.


DR. POLKINGHORNE: But, in fact, I suspect we agree rather more readily about mathematical beauty than, say, painters do about artistic beauty.

MS. TIPPETT: You also talked about how, in the same way that we take seriously the insights of science, we need to listen to the words of poets and to the insights of saints and mystics, and to hearing that also in that context.

DR. POLKINGHORNE: Absolutely. Yes. I think reality is very rich, many-layered, and science, in a sense, explores only one layer of the world. It treats the world as an object, something you can put to the test, pull apart and find out what it’s made of. And, of course, that’s a very interesting thing to do, and you learn some important things that way. But we know that there are whole realms of human experience where, first of all, testing has to give way to trusting. That’s true in human relationships. If I’m always setting little traps to see if you’re my friend, I’ll destroy the possibility of friendship between us.

And also where we have to treat things in their wholeness, in their totality. I mean, a beautiful painting, a chemist could take that beautiful painting, could analyze every scrap of paint on the canvas, tell you what its chemical composition was, would, incidentally, destroy the painting by doing that, but would have missed the point of the painting, because that’s something you can only encounter in its totality. So we need complementary ways of looking at the world. Bits and pieces, for sure, that’s a worthwhile thing to do, but not the whole story.

MS. TIPPETT: I mean, I’m thinking even when you talk about moving from testing to trusting, I mean, scientists do that, too. Right? I mean, quarks have become an explanation, but isn’t that something that scientists also take on faith, in a sense?

DR. POLKINGHORNE: Well, quarks are, in some sense, unseen realities. Nobody has ever isolated a single quark in the lab. So we believe in them, not because we’ve — even with sophisticated instruments, so to speak — seen them, but because assuming that they’re there makes sense of great swaths of physical experience. And I was lucky enough to be a humble member of the particle physics community during the time all that was being worked out, and it was great fun to be, in a small way, part of it.

MS. TIPPETT: You know, I should ask you to explain quarks.

DR. POLKINGHORNE: Yeah, well, when I began, many years ago, as a research student, a graduate student working in science, we thought that matter, nuclear matter, was made up of protons and neutrons. And then, as we experimented and as we began to find out more and more about what was going on, it became more and more difficult to understand things in those terms, and it gradually dawned on people, it dawned on some very clever people, that maybe the protons and neutrons themselves were made up of something yet smaller, yet more basic, and they would have some quite surprising properties. For example, they would have fractional electric charge, which nobody has ever seen directly.

And then people began to see that, though they couldn’t see these entities on their own, the way matter behaved, both the way it was organized, the patterns of structure that it had, the way projectiles bounced off target particles, all that made sense if these unseen quarks were sitting there inside, never capable of being knocked out, but nevertheless real. So, in this indirect way, the unseen reality of quarks became an absolutely fundamental aspect of our understanding of the structure of matter. And that remains the case. And I, in common with all particle physicists, believe very fervently, in a way, in the reality of quarks. But it’s an unseen reality. It’s the fact that they give intelligibility to the world that makes us believe that they’re actually there.

MS. TIPPETT: It’s such a fanciful word, quarks. How did that get named?

DR. POLKINGHORNE: Well, one of the people who made a great deal of the running in these discoveries was an American theoretical physicist called Murray Gell-Mann, who is also a polymath sort of person; he’s very interested in language. And he had read James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, and there’s a line in there which says, “Three quarks for Master Mark!” And these quarks come in threes, and so Murray picked that up and made this his …

MS. TIPPETT: It’s a literary word.

DR. POLKINGHORNE: It’s a learned literary joke, I think.

MS. TIPPETT: I love that. OK.

I’m Krista Tippett, on Being — conversation about meaning, faith, ethics, and ideas. Today, “Quarks and Creation.” My guest is physicist and theologian John Polkinghorne.

He proposes that recent scientific advances make new room for religious insights and questions. Twentieth-century physics, he says, revealed that contradictory explanations of reality can simultaneously be true. For example, the scientific puzzle of whether light is a particle or a wave was resolved with the explanation that light has a dual nature as both a particle and a wave. That was clarified with the help of one of the founding fathers of quantum physics and one of John Polkinghorne’s teachers at Cambridge, Paul Dirac.

MS. TIPPETT: There’s something you wrote that I thought made sense in terms of this idea that we’re — you and I are sort of dancing around that you can be a scientist and a religious person …


MS. TIPPETT: … and take seriously the insights of both and not necessarily find them to be in opposition. You talked about how wave and particle theories can both be true. And you talk about how Paul Dirac in 1920 at Cambridge suddenly made it clear how light could give a wave-like answer if you asked a wave-like question or a particle-like answer if you asked a particle-like question. Can you explain what he’s describing and what that means to you?

DR. POLKINGHORNE: Well, it’s a very striking example of how surprising the physical world is. People had been arguing about what light was like for a long time. Newton had some ideas about it. In the 19th century, people made some discoveries, both experimental and theoretical, that clearly showed that light behaves like waves. There are certain properties of waves, which showed up in an absolutely unquestionable way, and so the answer seemed to be settled. But right at the beginning of the 20th century, through the ideas of Max Planck and also a young chap, who was an examiner in a patent office in Berne, called Albert Einstein, people saw that what light also had, particle-like properties, and that was a real crisis, because, you see, a wave is a spread-out, flappy thing, and a particle is a little bullet. So how could something be sometimes spread out and sometimes bullet-like? And for about 25 years nobody knew. But the scientists just had to hold on to experience by the skin of their teeth even if they didn’t quite know how to reconcile it.

And then the thing has a happy ending, I’m glad to say, back in my old University of Cambridge where Paul Dirac discovered something called quantum field theory. Now, a field is something that is spread out, and so it can be flappy. So it certainly has wave-like properties. But when you bring in quantum theory, it makes things come in packets. That’s the effect of quantum theory, it chops things up into little packets. And little packets look like little particles, and so a quantum field has both these sorts of properties. And if you ask it a wave-like question, it gives you a wave-like answer. You ask it a particle-like question, it gives you a particle-like answer. And you can’t ask both questions at the same time, which saves you from having, you know, a contradiction.

MS. TIPPETT: OK. But you take both answers into account.

DR. POLKINGHORNE: You take both answers into account. And the important thing I want to emphasize is that people had to cling on to taking both insights into account before they understood how they fitted together. We don’t make progress by chopping experience down to a size that fits into our current theories. We have to allow the way the world is to modify our understanding of the world. And, if you’re a Christian theologian, and you’re telling that sort of story that I’ve just told about light being both particle-like and wave-like, we know that the Christian story about Jesus Christ is that he is, of course, a human being but also, in some real sense, needs to be described in terms of divine language. And it’s the same sort of dilemma, if you like, and we’re not quite so clever, theologically, at finding the precise answer to that. But, again, we don’t make progress by denying our experience.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. I mean, I was going to say that model, that paradigm that you said, that you don’t explain things and come to more wisdom by squeezing things into a theory, maybe scientists are more open to that kind of way of moving through the world than religious traditions sometimes have been.

DR. POLKINGHORNE: They may be. Actually, I mean, scientists don’t find it easy to change their views either. I mean, people sometimes say scientists question everything all the time. I mean, of course they don’t. We would make no progress if we did. If you were an eternal skeptic, you’d never get anything done. So it’s painful and difficult. But there are times scientists do allow experience to mold their thinking. And, perhaps more slowly, I think religious people do, too, but it’s not quite so quick.

MS. TIPPETT: So one of the ways religious people dealt with science for a long time — and I’m talking about the last couple of centuries — was what we’ve now called the “God of the gaps” idea. Describe your understanding of how that worked to me. I mean, I think people in the science/religion dialogue refer to that a lot, but I don’t think lay people out there have a memory of that.

DR. POLKINGHORNE: Well, when science first came into being in the 17th century and then in the 18th century became very successful through the discoveries of Newton and the aftermath of all those, then some people began to say, “Well, OK, science can explain the solar system, it can explain everything.” And the religious people tried to fight back by saying, “No, science can’t explain everything, and there are gaps in our knowledge, which only God can fill.” And, for example, the human eye is a very complicated, a very beautiful optical system. How could that have come about other than being made, so to speak, directly by God? Well, of course, then Charles Darwin came along in the 19th century and showed how the eye could have evolved piece by piece, slowly and slowly, and so on, and drew the rug from beneath that argument.

And then people could see with hindsight that the God of the gaps type argument, the God who’s stepped in to do the things that science couldn’t currently explain was in itself a theological mistake. If there is a God who is the God who is the Creator of the world, that God is the God of the whole show, not the sort of cosmic stunt artist who does the difficult things, the obscure bits, and leaves nature, so to speak, to do the rest. It’s back to this fundamental mistake of feeling that if nature does it, we don’t need God. God is the God who ordains nature. God works through nature as much as through anything else. And, in these days, in the science and religion community, the most contemptuous criticism you can make of somebody is to say, “I think your argument is a God of the gaps type of argument.” Then he says, “No, no, no, I’m not trying to do that.” So we’ve learned something. We’ve learned something, and I think we’ve learned something that is theologically helpful.

MS. TIPPETT: There’s a passage in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison where he says — where he’s reflecting on that in the mid-20th century and says if God is consigned to the unknowable, we’re learning more and more, so God is always being pushed further and further back out of human experience.

DR. POLKINGHORNE: That’s right. Yes, I mean, the God of the gaps was a sort of Cheshire Cat deity, fading away with the advancement of knowledge.

MS. TIPPETT: Fading away, getting smaller and smaller.

DR. POLKINGHORNE: But actually, I mean, again we’re back to this question of truth. I mean, if God is the god of truth, then the more truth we have, the greater understanding we have, the more, actually, we are learning about God.

MS. TIPPETT: Physicist and theologian John Polkinghorne. In his book Quarks, Chaos and Christianity, he writes this: “We can take with absolute seriousness all that science can tell us and still believe that there is room left over for our action in the world and for God’s action, too.” Polkinghorne continues, “Of course, this does not mean that prayer is just filling in a series of blank cheques given us by Heavenly Father Christmas. Prayer is not magic. It is something much more personal, for it is an interaction between humanity and God.”

DR. POLKINGHORNE: And, of course, there are all sorts of different forms of prayer. I mean, there’s sort of worshipful prayer. And I think a lot of scientists actually pray in that way without knowing that they’re doing it, because one of the rewards for what is actually a laborious business doing scientific research is a sense of wonder when you see the beautiful structure of the world or the way things work. And I think, though scientists don’t use the word wonder when they write formal papers for learned journals, they use it quite a lot in their conversation. And it is, as I say, the payoff for all the labor. And I think that actually is a form of worship, whether the scientists know it or not. But I suppose the crunch question is can a scientist ask God to do something? A petitionary prayer in that sense.

MS. TIPPETT: Knowing what you know about the laws of nature and, in fact, as you’re saying, respecting that it works and how it works.

DR. POLKINGHORNE: Well, that’s right. Well, if the world were clockwork, then I suppose you’d have to hope that God had designed the clockwork and wound it up in such a way that things wouldn’t turn out too badly. But 20th-century science has seen the death of a merely mechanical and merely clockwork view of the world. It came first of all through quantum theory. At the subatomic level, quantum events are not precise and determinate. They have a certain randomness to them. They have a certain cloudiness to them, so that that process isn’t clockwork. And we’ve learned, of course, from chaos theory, the “butterfly effect” — very small disturbances producing enormously big consequences — that even the everyday world described by the sort of physics that would have been familiar to Newton isn’t as clockwork as people thought it was.

So the world is certainly not merely mechanical. And I think, actually, we always knew that because we have always known that we are not mechanisms. We are not automata. We have the power to choose, to act in the world. It’s a limited power. We can’t fly, but we have the power of agency. And if we can act in the world, then I think there’s no reason to think that God can’t act in the world as well. So I think that 20th-century science has loosened up our view of the physical world. It’s no longer a piece of gigantic cosmic clockwork. It’s a world in which we can conceive ourselves as the inhabitants and acting in it and helping to bring about the future. And I believe also in God. So my answer will be that scientists can pray. Not, of course, as magic, but as cooperating with God, if you like, to bring about the best for the future.

MS. TIPPETT: So — I told you this before we began to speak — I think it was about 15 years ago I first heard your voice on the BBC late one Saturday night. I was not a scientist asking that question, but I was a person who had been completely political asking that question. And you, in five minutes, gave me a way to think about that, make it such an interesting question, because you were talking about, again, your idea of how you understand how the world works and that, for you, all that we’ve learned in science — and I want you to correct me if I’m not saying this right — suggests to you — again, this is to repeat what you just said — that there are things that function in their essence and move forward all the time, like we breathe or like the grass grows. But there are also these places of randomness and little openings in reality, and you also imagined that that is relevant to the idea of prayer.

DR. POLKINGHORNE: Yes. Yes. I think that the picture we now have of the physical world — I mean, the old 18th-century picture was a clockwork world. And there are, certainly, clocks in the world. The sun is going to rise tomorrow. We can tell you the exact minute at which it’s going to rise. But we’ve also learned that there are lots of clouds in the world. That’s to say a processes whose outcome is not clear and certain and is not clear beforehand what’s exactly going to happen, so it’s a sort of mixture of the two. And that means that that has a consequence for prayer. There are some things that it isn’t sensible to pray for. An early Christian thinker called Origen, who lived in Alexandria, which is jolly hot in the summer, said you shouldn’t pray for the cool of spring in the heat of summer. The seasons are going to be there. And of course, theologically, we think that the regularity of the seasons reflects, if you like, the faithfulness of the Creator. But there are other aspects of the world which are cloudy, and I think those are the areas where there is, so to speak, room for maneuver. And I think it’s through exploiting that room for maneuver that we act in the world and that God also acts in the world. So there are other things that we can pray for. I mean, the weather, for example, is certainly not just clockwork. And so, though it might cause a bit of a shiver to run down some people’s spines, I think we can pray for rain if we’re afflicted by a drought.

MS. TIPPETT: Well, give me another example, though. I mean, rain is one, but I mean, what would be another example of thinking about openings for human action?

DR. POLKINGHORNE: Well, I think most of life, actually, is cloudy, and in these cloudy areas, things can, so to speak, go either way. I think recovery from illness. I mean, of course, there are clearly illnesses that are mortal illnesses. There is a clockwork side to illness, if you like. But we also know that illness is very much affected, prior to recovery, very much affected by people’s personality and so on. And I think that there we can pray that somebody may be strengthened or encouraged or given hope, and that may very well lead to a form of healing that might not have been possible without that. So there is this quite extensive area where we can’t exactly — the point is, if God acts through these cloudy processes and we act through these cloudy processes, we can’t take them apart and say, “OK, I can see that God did that bit,” because we just can’t itemize them. And so we can’t perceive it directly, but, by faith, we may have the intuition that God is indeed working in that sort of way. I mean, there is going to be an ambiguity in interpreting these things.

MS. TIPPETT: So this is kind of about ambiguity and variables that we may not be able to perceive at any given moment.

DR. POLKINGHORNE: That’s right. But life is like that. And we can’t have it sort of cut and dry. And that enables us to be what we are. There’s a very interesting scientific insight which says that regions where real novelty occurs, where really new things happen that you haven’t seen before, are always regions which are at the edge of chaos. They are regions where cloudiness and clearness, order and disorder, interlace each other. If you’re too much on the orderly side of that borderline, everything is so rigid that nothing really new happens. You just get rearrangements. If you’re too far on the haphazard side, nothing persists, everything just falls apart. It’s these ambiguous areas, where order and disorder interlace, where really new things happen, where the action is, if you like. And I think that reflects itself both in the development of life and in many, many human decisions.

MS. TIPPETT: I spoke with John Polkinghorne in our studios at American Public Media. That was in 2005. You can download an MP3 of that entire, wide-ranging, unedited conversation for free. Find the download link on our Quarks and Creation show page — at onBeing.org. Or subscribe to our podcast and listen to all our shows with diverse scientists and other fascinating thinkers and actors. I’d invite you, while you’re at our site, to subscribe to our weekly e-mail updates. These newsletters bring the best of what we’re doing online and on air right to your inbox. Subscribe by clicking the updates button on our home page. Right now for example, get our written interview with Kenyan environmentalist and Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai — she’s a listener favorite past guest and has a new book out: Replenishing the Earth: Spiritual Values for Healing Ourselves and the World. Again, our home page is onBeing.org.

Coming up, how John Polkinghorne approaches the tension between the will of God and the laws of nature. Also, how science helps him ponder the possibility of the afterlife and the nature of the human soul.

I’m Krista Tippett. This program comes to you from American Public Media.


MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett. Today, on Being, “Quarks and Creation.” My guest, John Polkinghorne, is a particle physicist who in midlife also became a theologian and Anglican priest. We’re exploring how his understanding of quantum physics and chaos theory flows into his thinking about religious mysteries — from his image of God, to prayer, the afterlife, and evolution. John Polkinghorne does not understand creation as God’s one-time production of a ready-made world. Instead, he understands creation itself as a continuous, ongoing process.

I wondered how John Polkinghorne thinks about the intelligent design movement that’s arisen in recent years in response to the theory of evolution.

DR. POLKINGHORNE: I think that the intelligent design people ask some interesting questions. They look at the molecular level of life. They look at things like the blood clotting process or they look at the little things that make entities swim around, the cilia that are sort of oars that make them go around. And they say, “These are quite complicated systems even at this molecular level.” And they have several component parts to them, and we can’t see how they would work unless you had all those parts in place. And so they say, “How could that have come about in an evolving way, bit by bit, piece by piece?” In fact, that’s how evolution seems to work. It seems to be, again, a sort of unfolding process, bringing forth, if you like. So I think the intelligent design people ask some quite interesting questions, and the questions are, in principle, scientifically answerable, but I don’t think we yet know the answers. So I’m very cautious about the line of argument they’re trying to make.

MS. TIPPETT: I think you also bring your theology and your science together interestingly in seeing that there’s also something going on in the world, and including human beings’ interaction with nature at any given time, that there are sort of competing freedoms. I think that’s a very interesting, complex idea.

DR. POLKINGHORNE: Yeah. Well, I think we live in a world of true becoming. That’s to say, I don’t think that the future is fixed; I don’t think God fixed it. I think God allows creatures to be themselves.

MS. TIPPETT: Does God know it?

DR. POLKINGHORNE: If we live in a world of true becoming so that we play our little parts in making the future — and I believe God’s providence also plays a part in making the future, and also the laws of nature that God has ordained play a part in constraining the form of the future — if that’s the sort of world in which we live, then I think actually even God doesn’t know the future. And that’s not an imperfection, because the future is not yet there to be known. Now, that’s a very controversial view, and not everybody, by any matter of means …

MS. TIPPETT: We’ll let you have it here.

DR. POLKINGHORNE: … has agreed with me about that, but that’s how it seems to me. And I think that, you see, there’s been a very important development in theological thinking in the 20th century, and it’s reflected in all sorts of quite different theologians, but they have this thing in common: They see that the act of creation, the act of bringing into being a world in which creatures are allowed to be themselves, to make themselves, is an act of love and it is an act of divine self-limitation. The theologians like to call it kenosis from the Greek word, and so that God is not the puppet master of the universe, pulling every string. God has taken, if you like, a risk. Creation is more like an improvisation than the performance of a fixed score that God wrote in eternity. And that sort of world of becoming involves God’s accepting limitations, and I believe, accepting limitations not knowing the future. That doesn’t mean, of course, that God will be caught out by the future in the same way that you and I are. I mean, God can see how history is moving, so to speak, but God has to react to the way history moves. Now, that makes, to me, quite a lot of sense about the world.

MS. TIPPETT: Well, and really that’s a kind of theological way of describing evolution, in a sense, this becoming this creation that creates itself.

DR. POLKINGHORNE: Yes. Absolutely. Yes, and in fact, I mean, people — you know, Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859, and people think that was a great parting of the ways between science and religion, a big clash; all the scientists shouting, “Yes, yes, yes,” all the obscure religious people — the clergy, of course — shouted, “No, no, no,” and they just went their separate ways. Quite untrue. The scientist has — a lot of scientists had doubts about Darwin, actually, for a while. And some religious people — from the start, an English clergyman called Charles Kingsley said that God could no doubt have snapped the divine fingers and brought into being a ready-made world, that God had done something cleverer than that: God had made a world in which creatures could make themselves. And so that’s the picture that God brings into being a universe, it has great potentialities, great possible fruitfulness, but creatures are allowed to explore and bring that fruitfulness to birth. And that seems to me a very beautiful and fitting form of creation, a better world, so to speak, than a world which was ready-made. But it has a necessary cost. It has a shadow side.

MS. TIPPETT: Yes. Right. That’s what I wanted to ask you, the question, if all these terrible things happen, what does that say about the nature of God?

DR. POLKINGHORNE: Absolutely. I mean, the greatest difficulty of religious belief, obviously, is the way the world is. It is beautiful and it’s fruitful, but it’s also ugly and terrifying, and dreadful things happen in the world. And the problem of evil and suffering is a very great problem. Now, this scientific insight helps us a little bit with that. If creatures are going to make themselves, to explore this potentiality, there will be blind alleys and ragged edges in that exploration. That’s bound to happen. And, I mean, a very simple example is this: What the engine that has driven the three-and-a-half-billion-year history of life on Earth has, of course, been genetic mutation. I mean, for two billion years or so there were only bacteria. Then things complexified, because genes mutated and new possibilities came along. So that’s been a tremendous fruitfulness. But, if that’s going to happen, it’s inevitable that other cells will mutate and will become malignant. You can’t have one without the other. So, though the fact there is cancer in the world is obviously an anguishing fact about the world, it’s not, so to speak, gratuitous. It’s not something that a God who is a bit more competent or a bit more compassionate could easily have eliminated. It’s the shadow side of a world allowed to make itself.

MS. TIPPETT: What does that way of looking at the world say about something like a tsunami?

DR. POLKINGHORNE: Well, if God allows creatures to be, God will allow tectonic plates to be.

MS. TIPPETT: So creatures, not just human beings, but every aspect of nature?

DR. POLKINGHORNE: When I say creatures, I’m thinking of the whole created order, different parts of it. For example, we believe that having tectonic plates is an important necessity for a planet that’s going to have life because, between the plates, new material wells up from inside and replenishes, so to speak, the surface of the earth. But, of course, if there are going to be tectonic plates, not only will that happen, but sometimes they will slip. And when they slip, that will create an earthquake or, if it’s under the sea, will create a tsunami. I mean, again, it’s a hard answer. I mean, it’s not a …

MS. TIPPETT: It’s not a compassionate answer.

DR. POLKINGHORNE: Well, it’s not a — I think it has an element of compassion in it, but it’s not a sentimental answer.


DR. POLKINGHORNE: That’s for sure. I mean, a great Oxford theologian said — there was this tremendous earthquake in Lisbon in 17 — whatever it is — 55, and it killed 50,000 people in one day. And he said, “Well, it was God’s will.” I think the hard answer was that the elements of the earth clashed and behaved in accordance of their nature. They are allowed to be just as you and I are allowed to be. It’s not an easy answer, but I think, actually, it is the true answer.

MS. TIPPETT: Well that — that I mean, this is something I’ve come to understand through your work, this idea that free will is built in and that it’s a gift, essentially, that human beings experience it as a gift. We’re not robots. But earthquakes will be earthquakes, or tectonic plates also have their essence of being. Right? That’s what you’re saying.

DR. POLKINGHORNE: That’s right. They have their essence of being. And that is respected.

MS. TIPPETT: And that these freedoms — and this is the essential nature that’s given to every aspect of creation — can collide and cause effects which will be devastating for one side or the other.

DR. POLKINGHORNE: Yes, I think that’s right. I think that God does respect the integrity of creation. God is not a sort of magician or an interferer. I’m sure God interacts with the history of the world, but not in a way that overrules it. I believe that God wills neither the act of a murderer nor the incidence of an earthquake, but allows both to happen in a world which is a creation given a degree of independence by its Creator.

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, on Being — conversation about meaning, religion, ethics, and ideas. Today, “Quarks and Creation.” My guest is physicist and theologian John Polkinghorne.

I asked him: If the possibility of suffering is built into the creation as he understands it, what does that say about the nature of God? Doesn’t it take us right back to the age-old question of theodicy? That is the question: How could a good God have made a world in which there is so much innocent suffering?

DR. POLKINGHORNE: I think I’d want to say three things. First of all, I mean, the sort of argument we’ve been having at the moment is an intellectual argument. And I think it’s mildly helpful, but it doesn’t, of course, answer all the problems. I mean, the problems with evil and suffering are deep existential problems. “Why is this happening to me?” or “Why is this happening to somebody I love?” And those are entirely legitimate questions to ask.

There’s a particular Christian insight that seems very, very important to me, indeed, in some sense, enables the possibility of Christian belief, and that is that the Christian God is not simply a compassionate spectator, invulnerable up in heaven, looking down on this strange and suffering world, but has also been a fellow sufferer, a fellow participant in the agony of creation. The cross of Christ, understood from the point of view of Christian theology, is God living a human life and nailed to the cross in the darkness and in the paradox of the dereliction — “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” — of Calvary.

So God knows human suffering and the suffering of creation from the inside and not simply from the outside. And also, I don’t want to play a sort of pie-in-the-sky type of answer to things, but I do believe that this life is not the only life we live. I do believe we have a destiny beyond death. And though that doesn’t explain away the suffering of this world, I think they would be even more bitter, really, if there were no such destiny to look forward to.

MS. TIPPETT: And that’s an article of faith, really.

DR. POLKINGHORNE: Well, it’s an article. Of course, as a Christian, I believe that it’s an article of faith that has been exemplified and guaranteed within history by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, but it’s not something with which we have direct experience.

You know, there’s a very deep human intuition of hope. Peter Berger makes this very beautifully in a little book of his called A Rumor of Angels. He takes everyday things and says, “Think about them for a minute. Where are they pointing you? They’re deeper than you think.” And one of the things he says is a child wakes up in the middle of the night, scared by a dream or something like that, a parent goes to the child and says, “It’s all right.” And Berger says, “Now, what’s going on there? Is that a loving lie? Because, obviously, cancer, concentration camps, the world is not exactly just all right.”

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, lots of perils. Yeah.

DR. POLKINGHORNE: But nevertheless, he says that is a deep human intuition, and the assurance that that’s so is an important part of enabling that child to grow up into full humanity. So there is a deep-seated human intuition of hope, the strangeness and bitterness of the world notwithstanding. And I do take that very seriously.

MS. TIPPETT: You take that seriously?


MS. TIPPETT: As part of the evidence we have of the truth we’re trying to get at?

DR. POLKINGHORNE: Well, I think Berger calls these things “signals of transcendence,” hints that take us beyond the everyday level of things. And I take it seriously at that level, yes.

MS. TIPPETT: This is a simple question, but when I was learning about evolution and — well, when I was, say, a teenager — now, obviously, the texts of Genesis 1 and 2 where religious people look to talk about creation or, as you say, they were not written as scientific textbooks. But it still seems to me that if you — the only real leap that you have to make for, at least the Genesis 1 story of “In the beginning,” and the sort of progression of life forms — the only leap you have to make for that really not to contradict with what we know from science is to say God’s days are longer than our days, that there’s a sense of time. I mean …

DR. POLKINGHORNE: Well, not quite.


DR. POLKINGHORNE: I mean, this is an extraordinary thing, Genesis 1. It’s the more sophisticated of the two stories, of course, and things don’t quite come in the right order. I mean, it’s striking that it begins with energy for light, “Let there be light.” It’s striking that life starts in the waters and moves onto the land. But of course …

MS. TIPPETT: When those would be true, essentially more or less what we’ve discovered. Yeah.

DR. POLKINGHORNE: But the sun and moon and stars only come on the fourth day. And of course, there wouldn’t be any life without the stars, because that’s where they make the raw material for life. So that isn’t right. And we believe that one of the reasons, we believe in theology, one of the reasons why the sun, moon and stars come downstream, so to speak, is that the writer is wanting to say the sun and the moon aren’t deities. They’re not to be worshipped.

MS. TIPPETT: Because that was the conflict of his day.

DR. POLKINGHORNE: They are creatures just like everything else. And that shows us that what we’re reading is a theologically oriented thing and not a scientifically oriented thing. I mean, you have to figure out, when you read something and you want to read it respectfully, you have to figure out what it is you’re reading. Is it poetry or is it prose? If you read poetry and think it’s prose, you will make the most astonishing mistakes.

MS. TIPPETT: And Genesis 1 is a poem, isn’t it?

DR. POLKINGHORNE: Yeah. It’s much more like a poem than like prose. And that’s, in a sense, the sadness of the “creationist” so-called position, that these people who are really wanting to be respectful to scripture are, I think, ironically, being disrespectful, because they’re not using it in the right way.

MS. TIPPETT: All right. Well, so you won’t say that the only leap is to say God’s days are longer. But let me ask you this, if it takes 14 billion years to get to where we got now, by your understanding of the best of science that’s out there, what is that long amount of time, that patience? How does that inform your understanding of the nature of God?

DR. POLKINGHORNE: Well, certainly God is not a god in a hurry. That’s clear. God is patient and subtle. God works through process and not through magic; not through snapping the divine fingers. And I think that’s what we learn from seeing the history of creation as science has revealed it, and I think that tells us something about how God acts generally. And, when you think about it, if God really is a God whose nature is best described as being the God of love, then that is how love will work. Not by overwhelming force, but by, if you like, persuasive process. So I think we learn something really quite valuable from that. Again, it’s an example of how religious insights about the nature of God and the scientific insights about the process of the world seem to me actually to be very consonant with each other. You can’t deduce one from the other, but you can see it and they fit together in a way that makes sense. They don’t seem to be at odds with each other, and I find that encouraging.

MS. TIPPETT: Another interesting and hard question, at least on the surface, is if tectonic plates, which will always eventually create earthquakes and tsunamis, act according to their nature, how does that reflect on the idea that there is also some kind of moral nature of the universe?

DR. POLKINGHORNE: Well, I think that — I don’t think that moral principles apply directly to tectonic plates. I mean, they apply to people who are moral agents. You could ask the question that, therefore, if there are questions about — moral questions, they’re about the morality of God …

MS. TIPPETT: Right. Is God moral if God created tectonic plates? Yeah.

DR. POLKINGHORNE: Well, there, I think that, back towards something I said before, that if God is going to bring into being a world in which creatures are allowed to make themselves, and God does that, because that is a greater good than a ready-made world or a magic world in which fire never burns anyone when they put their hands into it, and so on, when deeds, in fact, never have consequences, if that’s a better world, then even God, you see, can’t create that world without it having its shadow side. I mean, it’s very important to understand what we mean when we say God’s almighty. We mean by that not that God can do absolutely anything, but God can do what God wills in accordance with God’s nature. I mean, the good God can’t do evil deeds, the rational God can’t decree that two plus two equals five. And if God is going to bring into being a world in which creatures make themselves and God judges that to be a world of greater good than a ready-made world, then even God cannot make that world a world in which there isn’t a costly side to things.

MS. TIPPETT: Are there any cutting-edge developments in your field of particle physics or in the world of science that really challenge your faith or that pose questions that you’re holding in tension?

DR. POLKINGHORNE: Well, I’ve never, in my exploration of these things, felt I reached a sort of crisis situation in which I was faced with an either/or choice. I mean, either go with science or go with religion. There are, of course, puzzles all the time. And one of the things that’s happening in the science-and-religion world, to some extent, in the last few years, it has been that people are getting interested in questions of what the theologians call eschatology.

MS. TIPPETT: Which is the end of things.

DR. POLKINGHORNE: In other words, trying to make sense of the notion of a destiny beyond death. And then you raise questions of what’s the human soul? I don’t think it’s a detachable, spiritual bit, so to speak, I think it’s the real me. The real me is certainly not just a matter of my body, because that’s changing all the time. Through wear and tear, eating and drinking, the atoms change. But, in some sense, the pattern in which the atoms are formed, that I think, is what the soul is. And this is what Thomas Aquinas, the great theologian in the Middle Ages, would have thought it was, too.

MS. TIPPETT: And that would be the pattern of your personality and your effect.

DR. POLKINGHORNE: Well, it’s an immensely rich pattern. I mean, beyond our paths, right, it doesn’t finish at my skin. It obviously involves my memories, my character, my personality. It also, I think, involves all the relationships that help constitute me.

MS. TIPPETT: Right, it takes on substance in the course of your life.

DR. POLKINGHORNE: Exactly. And it’s very complex, and obviously we’re struggling to even say something about it. But that’s what it is, I think, and I think God will not allow that pattern to be lost and God will re-create that pattern in an act of resurrection. These are the sort of things that people are exploring at the moment. And I think that’s a — what’s happening, I think, is that the science and theology conversation is getting more theological. Theology is being allowed to set more of the questions. I mean, for a long time, and quite rightly for a long time, science set the questions. “Here’s Big Bang cosmology. Here’s biological evolution. What do you make of that?” And theology would seek to respond, and I think it’s been able to respond pretty well. But now theology’s asking some of the questions and saying, you know, “What’s the human person?” “What could be the carrier of continuity between life in this world and the world to come?” And I think that’s a healthy development. You want the conversation to be very even-handed in that respect.

MS. TIPPETT: John Polkinghorne is a Fellow of the Royal Society, a Fellow and former president of Queen’s College Cambridge, a recipient of the Templeton Prize, and former canon theologian of Liverpool Cathedral. He’s the author of several books, including Quarks, Chaos and Christianity.

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