Ted Davis (@TedDavis) brings a thoughtful reflection on the life and legacy of John Polkinghorne, one of the early pioneers in the advocacy of the harmony between science and faith.
Thanks Ted for this thoughtful reflection on Sir John. We were fortunate to have him spend a few days with us a Pepperdine University, and I was most fortunate to have several conversations with him. We had dinner with him at a small restaurant near our home, and among our group was a prof and his post doc. The post doc was ebullient, and John was gracious, humble and brilliant.
I don’t remember knowing much about Polkinghorne until as a graduate student in Boston, I stumbled across his book Science and Providence at the Trident Booksellers Cafe (anyone remember that?) in July of 1996 (yes, I write such things in the books I buy… it used to be more interesting before Amazon!).
I can’t keep up with @TedDavis in telling interesting anecdotes, and I never met Polkinghorne in person. But I’m very pleased that he was one of the important figures in science and Christianity we devoted a chapter to in my Blackwell Companion to Science and Christianity AND the only one of those figures who also wrote a chapter for the volume. He was already quite elderly, and evidently never took up the practice of email. So when it came time for the submission of his chapter, he sent through snailmail from the UK a printed copy of his chapter, “The Trinity and Scientific Reality” along with a 3.5" floppy disc!
Thank you, Douglas, for adding your own story to John’s wonderful legacy. Although he was knighted and therefore entitled to be addressed as “Sir John,” he made a point of declining to encourage that appellation. Here’s what he said in his autobiography: “One of the more arcane items of British protocol is that Anglican priests who are knighted do not use the prefix ‘Sir’. I am inclined to suppose it to have something to do with the fact that we are not allowed to stick swords into people, though in the Middle Ages the clergy were permitted to hit people on the head with a heavy mace, provided they did not draw blood.” He added that this message “has often proved difficult to get across to people, particularly in North America,” where “republican principles seem to coexist … with a fascination with titles.”
I never got an email from John either. I do have a few snail letters and I talked to him on the phone once or twice. He used computers, partly b/c his handwriting wasn’t very legible. I just found a letter from March 91, mentioning meeting me in London, so it was probably in Jan 91 that I ran into him at the Royal Society. I was in the UK for a couple of weeks at that point, partly to attend a small conference on Boyle.
Ted - I should have put a smiley face when I used the term “Sir John” because he gave us the usual light-hearted but direct discussion about his several titles. During his visit, he preferred to be called John, but many felt more comfortable with Dr. Polkinghorne.
Beautiful piece, @TedDavis. I wish I had met the man…in this life, that is. He’s long been one of my personal heroes.
I was advised to take a break after my uncompromising comment here, by which I stand. I managed a couple or three days : ) But the forum is full of voices. And I must learn to find mine yet.
It has been scientists like him who helped me in my early years as Christian that I could be both interested in science and faith.
Well done, @TedDavis .
Such a lovely-sounding, brilliant man! Thanks for this encouraging article.
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