Polkinghorne, former professor of mathematical physics at Cambridge University, is now an Anglican vicar, and assistant to the pastor of a large poor parish south of Bristol. He abandoned his prestigious academic career at 49 to dedicate himself to religion.
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 award given to an individual. It is now worth about $1 million. In 1973 the prize was awarded to Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Other recipients include Michael Novak and scientists Freeman Dyson, Ian Barbour and Paul Davies.
Q: Looking at relations between science and religion in our era, at times one has the impression that religion arrives a bit late with respect to science, that it is less able to explain reality.
Polkinghorne: In my opinion, science and religion should be in agreement because they are concerned with different but complementary questions. Science tries to describe reality, while religion responds to the question about the ultimate meaning of things. There is need for both points of view. Both science and religion share in common the search for truth.
I think that there is a long and consolidated tradition in Christianity of harmony between science and religion.
Q: Do you think that science has the right to explain religious phenomena?
Polkinghorne: No, I think that science is concerned with the realm of matter, and religion with the spiritual, and these are two different realms. “Testing,” namely the search for proofs, is not the same as “trusting,” to have confidence in persons and situations. I don´t think that science is allowed to interfere in the personal sphere.
Science can tell us of what material a picture consists, as has been done, of what the varnishes consist, but it is unable to understand, or to explain, the emotions that a picture stirs in us, the meaning it has for us as human beings.
For science, music is only an ensemble of vibrations. I think, also, that there are many things in the religious sphere that cannot be explained — that God is partly incomprehensible, and that it is difficult to exhaust the divine nature with the instruments of reason.
In any case, I think that theologians must acquire greater scientific knowledge. Theologians think in brief terms, several thousand years of human culture, instead of billions of years of the history of the universe. When they say “the world,” they mean our planet Earth, instead of the one hundred thousand million galaxies of the universe. They should broaden their horizons.
Q: What do you think of evolutionary biology´s attempt to give an explanation for moral behavior?
Polkinghorne: I do not think that the behavior of human beings can be explained with genetics or biology. We can say that we take care of our family because they are carriers of our own genes, but we cannot explain human altruism with biology. Human beings are capable of real heroism to save their fellow men, and this behavior cannot be explained by any scientific law.