An Interview with John Polkinghorne (RJS)

A few weeks ago I posted on an event held at Point Loma Nazarene University last November featuring John Polkinghorne (An Afternoon with John Polkinghorne). This last week I have been listening to the audio recordings (available on the PLNU website here) on my commute to and from work. There is much to ponder in these lectures, and fuel for several posts. The opening event, An Afternoon with John Polkinghorne, consisted of a lecture and an interview. My last post dealt with Polkinghorne’s lecture. Today I would like to consider some of the answers given by Polkinghorne in the interview. Dean Nelson, director of the Journalism program at Point Loma Nazarene, conducts the interview. Nelson is coauthor with Karl Giberson of an upcoming biography of Polkinghorne, Quantum Leap: How John Polkinghorne Found God in Science and Religion.

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The interview begins about halfway through the video embedded above, at 35:30, and lasts about 25 minutes.  Excerpts from the interview are transcribed after the break below. These excerpts motivate the questions I would like to consider today.

What motivates your beliefs?

How does this work in thinking about scientific or secular things? How does it work in you religious thinking? What’s the difference?

The excerpts from Dean Nelson’s interview with Dr. Polkinghorne transcribed below deal with mystery in religion and with motivated belief, topics that are intertwined in the conflict that many see between modern understandings of science and the orthodox and historic Christian faith.

Mystery. Dr. Polkinghorne was asked about mystery in theology and religion.

(19:10 audio; 46:20 video) I think there is bound to be an element of mystery in all theological talk because, science is easy in the sense that we transcend the physical world, we can put it to the test, we can manipulate it. God transcends us, we cannot put God to the test, I mean God is infinite in reality and we are finite beings, so no human thought will ever totally be adequate to thinking about the divine nature. … I think there is an irreducible amount of mystery in the divine nature, but the mystery card, in my view, is the last card to play, not the first card to play. Because we should seek to understand things as clearly and fully as possible as we can and we can only find out the scope of our understanding by exploring how far it can take us.

Mystery is not the trump card in theological discourse, nor is it the default position and claim. But there is, as Dr. Polkinghorne notes, an irreducible amount of mystery inherent in the fact that God transcends nature, he transcends time, and he transcends our finite understanding. We should not, in fact we cannot, put God to the test in any scientific fashion. The expectation that this would be possible in any fashion is a misunderstanding of the divine nature of God.

Ground for belief and motivated belief. Christian faith is not groundless belief in unbelievable thing based on submission to an unquestionable authority – authority found in a book, a person, or an institution. Nor is God the answer for otherwise inexplicable natural phenomena, rendered unnecessary by scientific explanations. Rather Christian faith can and does flow naturally and in symbiosis with the overall approach taken by a scientist to the world around.  This is not a natural theology in that there is irrefutable evidence for God, but a statement of the deep consonance between belief in God and an understanding of science. Dr. Polkinghorne is a physicist and Dean Nelson sets the stage for the question in this context.

(20:20 audio; 47:22 video) DN: Is it easier for a physicist to have this kind of a thinking than maybe, lets say a biologist or a chemist? Because, what I’m thinking about is that no one has actually ever seen a quark, right?

It is an unseen reality, yes that is right.

DN: And in fact some scientists say that we believe in quarks not because we have seen them we believe in quarks because the equations that include them work.

Yes, the belief in quarks explains whole swathes of directly accessible experiments, makes sense of it, the patterns that are present in it, and therefore persuades us that these hidden quarks are lying behind those phenomena.

DN: So is that why, would you say then that it is easier if a physicist if already thinking that way, is it easier for a physicist then to have some sort of religious belief, because that’s also an unseen reality?

Well it might be. It certainly isn’t foreign to a physicist to believe in unseen realities. For a physicist it is intelligibility which is the key to reality. If quarks help us to understand the world, make sense of the world, that is an argument in favor of their existence. And I would want to argue that belief in God explains whole swathes of spiritual experience in an analogous sort of way. But also, physicists are deeply impressed with the wonderful order of the world, and so there is a certain, even among physicists who are not in any sense religious believers, or attached to any particular religious tradition, there is a certain cosmic religiosity which comes naturally to them.

Later the interview gets directly to the issue of motivated belief. This is also discussed in much more detail in Dr. Polkinghorne’s lecture entitled “Motivated Belief“. The interview just touches on major ideas.

(24:55 audio; 52:05 video) DN: I have heard you use the term motivated belief. What do you mean by that?

What I mean by that is one has reasons for belief. Many of my scientific friends are wistful and wary about religion. They can see, many of them even if they are not religious believers, they can see that science doesn’t tell you everything. They can also see that religion offers you, potentially, a broader and a deeper view of things. But they fear that it offers it on unacceptable terms. That religious faith is intellectual suicide, shutting your eyes, gritting your teeth, believing impossible things because some unquestionable authority says that what you’ve got to do. Of course they don’t want to submit to that, and nor do I. So I want to say to my scientific friends, … I have reasons why I believe in the unique significance of Jesus Christ, reasons why I believe he was raised from the dead on the third day, and so on. And I would, if given the opportunity, want to explain what some of those reasons were. They might not find those reasons sufficient, but they should at least know that they exist. That I am not just a fideistic believer in the pejorative sense of that word. If someone just shuts their eyes and believes what they’re told.

There are some key ideas in this section of the interview. One of the most important is the deep consistency that can be found between an appreciation for the story that science tells us about the history and nature of God’s creation and the reasons for belief in God, something that transcends nature. Ultimately though faith in Christ arises not from natural theology but from the divine revelation of God, in his relationship with Israel; in the incarnation, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God’s Messiah; and in the work of the Spirit in the body of believers.

I am a Christian and I take a position of evolutionary creation because this makes sense of the available data – including evidence in nature, in revelation, in human social experience, and in personal experience. The motivations for various parts of this synthesis vary, but the general approach to the world is a coherent and integrated one.

How do you develop a coherent view of the world? What kind of evidence is admissible?

How does this change with time and understanding?

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  • T


    Thanks again for interacting with all of this. The story again reminded me of the quadrilateral. Polkinghorne seems to say that many unbelieving scientists think that religious people, by definition, shut down the experience and the reason quads and listen only to tradition and scripture. That’s very interesting, and he’s probably right. That may mean that honest discussions about how we build our thinking via all four quads and how they inform each other may be an extremely important conversation to have with scientists and similar folks who are at least somewhat interested in Christ.

  • rjs


    I think Polkinghorne does take an approach something like the quadrilateral.

    Certainly some scientists – and some of the most outspoken ones at that – assume that religious belief arises only from tradition (which includes scripture). Polkinghorne talks a lot in these lectures about being a “bottom-up” thinker. His rationale for faith arises in the same way (although from different evidence) as his scientific understanding.

    This post is not drawing the interest of the other more controversial post today, but I hope that people think about Polkinghorne’s points, and listen to his interview, especially those interested in the impact the science and faith discussion is having on the church.

  • Justin Topp


    I love Polkinghorne and usually find that my thinking jives quite well with his. But your comment highlights a key issue… not many engage with his or the other scientist-theologians’ words. Why do you think this is? I have a few ideas of my own, but was wondering what you thought.

  • Rick

    I don’t think the lack of comments is a reflection of the interest. I think most appreciate these posts and the time RJS puts into them.

    For me, on this specific post, I found T’s (#1) comment helpful.

  • T

    I wonder if this question has critiques for our typical modes of evangelism. To put the question within the quad framework, most evangelism I’ve known has relied heavily on the reason and scripture quads (with the particular reasons and scriptures that are particularly prized within my evangelical “tradition”). But I wonder if this kind of “top down” approach, to use Polkinghorne’s phrase, is over-rated and over-utilized.

    I remember reading Eugene Peterson say once that a big part of a pastor’s job is to see God’s grace at work in the lives of others and help them see it too. That strikes me as more of the kind of “bottom-up” thinking that Polkinghorne is talking about, and it strikes me as worth serious attention.

  • Dinah

    thank you for introducing me to this wonderful man … love the way he thinks!

  • John W Frye

    Lack of comment response is not indication of the importance of your post(s). I am a pastor, as you know, not a scientist and because I trust you, I will listen to you and learn from you. Your faithfulness to you calling as a scientist will benefit the beautiful body of Christ as you help us pastors escape the traps of reductionist thinking. Plus, “T” your reference to the quadrilateral was an “Ah ha!” moment for me.
    To both of you, thanks!

  • Tim

    Is predictability mentioned here? Correct me if I’m wrong, but it is my understanding that without being able to formulate testable predictions from a scientific hypothesis, the ability for the scientist to test their hypothesis is seriously compromised. The same hold true for theories. This is one reason why “string theory” is considered so conjectural by many physicists. It does a brilliant job of explaining things, but no one has come up with a feasible way of testing it yet. But the same is not true of quarks.

    Models based on the quarks existence have been formulated and tested – with the results strongly validating their existence. What Polkinghorne says here seems to sidestep that reality (though to be honest I haven’t watched the whole video so perhaps he covers this elsewhere):

    “Yes, the belief in quarks explains whole swathes of directly accessible experiments, makes sense of it, the patterns that are present in it, and therefore persuades us that these hidden quarks are lying behind those phenomena.”

    If i had to guess, I’d say that maybe he’s leaving this bit out such that he can better equivocate with religion. And if this is the case, I wouldn’t at all consider that appropriate. *Again, it might be mentioned elsewhere in the video, but I’m heading off to bed and don’t have the 25 minutes to watch it)

  • rjs


    Polkinghorne was involved in the development of the theory of quarks, held the chair in Mathematical Physics at Cambridge. He uses this example because it is in his area of expertise.

    There are many motivations for acceptance of a theory or model in science. Prediction is one, but only one. Usefulness is another, related to but not entirely the same as predictive capacity. I know very little about string theory – so I won’t comment on the connections here. Although I think string theory is on the fringe because it is not useful (at least yet). There is no reason for anyone other than an esoteric practitioner to learn it.

    Polkinghorne is speaking here about motivations and reasons for belief, using the quark as an illustration. There are similarities and differences from the approach to science as there are similarities and differences to the approach in different areas of science. But religious faith is not irrational belief in things unseen without basis in evidence or usefulness beyond.

  • rjs

    John and Rick, Thanks.

    Justin, I am not sure. One of the reasons I’ve been posting on his lectures though is because he has some good insights and an even better overall approach to the issues.

    Dinah, Thanks. Pokinghorne is well worth listening to and reading.

  • Tim


    I’m not challenging Polkinghorne’s expertise. Only how he presents information to his audience of Christians who want to hear why their belief in God in general, and their basic religious beliefs more specifically, are rational. I think Polkinghorne takes some liberties in how he presents this information to deliver an “edifying” message to his audience in this regard. In a private conversation, I’m sure he would candidly discuss these issues quite differently, acknowledging the central, and I mean extraordinarily central, role predictions plays – but that might not result in the same warm fuzzy feelings many of his audience benefit from.

  • rjs


    I think you are reading your distrust and skepticism into what Polkinghorne says here. Certainly these lectures were to a mostly, but not entirely Christian audience.

    He does not talk about proof, here or anywhere else in the lectures. The motivation is not incontrovertible and necessarily rationally compelling. This is in distinct contrast, for example, to evidence that the earth is not flat or that atoms exist. The evidence for these statements is rationally compelling. One deserves ridicule for disregarding the evidence once it is made known.

    While the motivation for belief is not rationally compelling, it also is not blind acceptance of things unseen. Nor is it wishful thinking or wish fulfillment, a mere delusion of our own making. There is a connection and a coherence with the evidence of our world and our experience that motivates religious belief.

    One can make sense of Christian faith in a bottom up sort of way.

    Beyond this the Christian faith is relational – and the relational aspect must be introduced.