NEW YORK, March 14 — John C. Polkinghorne, a mathematical physicist and Anglican priest whose treatment of theology as a natural science has invigorated the search for interface between science and religion and made him a leading figure in this emerging field, has won the 2002 Templeton Prize. The announcement was made at a news conference at the Church Center for the United Nations in New York.
Polkinghorne, 71, resigned a prestigious position as Professor of Mathematical Physics at the University of Cambridge in 1979 to pursue theological studies, becoming a priest in 1982. Since then, his extensive writings and lectures have consistently applied scientific habits to Christianity, resulting in a modern and compelling, new exploration of the faith. His approach to the fundamentals of Christian orthodoxy — including the Trinity, Christ’s resurrection after death, and God’s creation of the universe — using the habits of a rigorous scientific mind have brought him international recognition as a unique voice for understanding the Bible as well as evolving doctrine.
The Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities, founded by Sir John Templeton in 1972 as the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, is the world’s largest annual monetary prize given to an individual, currently worth 700,000 pounds sterling, about one million dollars. It is the world’s best known religion prize, awarded each year to a living person to encourage and honor those who advance spiritual matters. The monetary value of the Templeton Prize always exceeds the Nobels as a way to underscore Templeton’s belief that benefits from advances in spiritual discoveries can be quantifiably more vast than those from other worthy human endeavors. Mother Teresa won the first Templeton Prize in 1973, six years before she received the Nobel Peace Prize.
The Duke of Edinburgh will award the prize to Polkinghorne in a private ceremony at Buckingham Palace on Monday, April 29.
Polkinghorne joins a number of other physicists who are Templeton Prize laureates, including Freeman Dyson, who has sought to reconcile issues of technology and social justice, Ian Barbour, a pioneer in the integration of science and religion, and Paul Davies, a mathematical physicist working at the forefront of quantum physics and cosmology who has gone on to examine their philosophical and theological implications.
In contrast to those Templeton Prize recipients, however, Polkinghorne has established himself as a scientist-theologian much more comfortable with traditional interpretations of Christian scripture and dogma. Still, he steadfastly defends the role of science in advancing understanding of the workings of the universe. He has written, for example, that belief in the Big Bang is compatible with belief in God as the Creator and that evolution is a perfect fit with the concept of a God-given gift of creation that continues to be and to make itself.
In his citation nominating Polkinghorne, Thomas Torrance, former Moderator of the Church of Scotland and Professor of Christian Dogmatics at the University of Edinburgh, wrote, “He has not only destroyed the idea that the world-views of science and theology are opposed to one another, but he has opened up the road ahead for a new stage in conceptual integration which cannot but make for immense progress in religion all over the world.” Torrance won the 1978 Templeton Prize for his pioneering insights into the rationality of the universe that attempt to evidence God through scientific reasoning.
The Rev. Dr. John Charlton Polkinghorne was born on October 16, 1930 in Weston-super Mare in Somerset, England. His quietly devout family regularly attended Church of England services. A bright youngster particularly good at mathematics, Polkinghorne majored in math at Trinity College, Cambridge. He earned his B.A., M.A., and a Ph.D. in quantum field theory, and a D.Sc. for research on theoretical elementary particle physics all at the University of Cambridge. In 1955, he married Ruth Martin, a statistician, with whom he had three children, Peter, Michael, and Isobel.
In 1956, he was appointed Lecturer in Mathematical Physics at the University of Edinburgh and two years later earned the same position at Cambridge. In 1968, he was appointed the university’s Professor of Mathematical Physics.
Polkinghorne soon established himself as an important figure in the world of mathematical physics at a time when the science was being revolutionized with startling discoveries about sub-atomic particles. One of his most important contributions was his creation of mathematical models that calculate the trajectory of fast-moving elementary particles, helping to reveal the structure of matter. His widely-published scientific papers in leading journals and his extensive work with graduate students in the field led to his selection as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1974.
By 1979, however, Polkinghorne began to question the likelihood that he could continue to bring advancements to theoretical physics, recognizing that the majority of those in math-based subjects make their most useful contributions in the first half of their working lives. With his children nearing adulthood and after attending bi-weekly Bible and theology study meetings for several years under the guidance of an Anglican priest, Polkinghorne began considering how he would spend the rest of his life.
In consultation with his wife and following a few months of pondering his future, Polkinghorne surprised his colleagues when he announced that he would resign his position at Cambridge and enter the priesthood. (About the same time, Polkinghorne’s wife trained to become a nurse.)
His decision led to wide-ranging discussions with theoretical physicists which became the foundation for the first of many books and other writings in which Polkinghorne grapples with issues of science and theology. Those writings, as well as his extensive history of lectures and debates have brought him a vast audience around the world, especially among those seeking to examine the very essence of theories that unify not only the physical world, but also the entire human experience, including the role of God.
After serving for two years as a parish priest in South Bristol, Polkinghorne became a vicar at Blean, a large village near Canterbury. It was there that he wrote One World, the first of a trilogy exploring a variety of issues involving science and religious faith. After two years he was invited to return to Cambridge to serve as Dean of Trinity Hall, where he often spoke from the chapel’s pulpit allowing him to live as “part academic, part parish priest.” After three years there, he was appointed as president of Queens’ College at the University of Cambridge, retiring in 1996.
His best-known books include The Way the World Is (1983), a short, but detailed explanation of how a thinking person can be a Christian; The Faith of a Physicist (1994) (in the UK entitled Science and Christian Belief), based on Polkinghorne’s Gifford Lectures which defend the rationality of the Nicene Creed phrase by phrase; and Belief in God in an Age of Science (1998), which defends critical realism as the proper philosophical attitude in both science and theology. Two new books, The God of Hope and the End of the World, and Quantum Theory: A Very Short Introduction, are scheduled for publication in 2002.
In 1997, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for distinguished service to science, religion, learning and medical ethics.
In remarks prepared for the news conference, Polkinghorne said, “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.”
Polkinghorne and his wife, who is now retired, live in Cambridge. Their daughter, Isobel, is a teacher, their son, Peter, is an Information Technology manager, and their other son, Michael, is a Chartered Accountant.