Polkinghorne is a famous scientist-priest; he is famous for several things: perhaps first and foremost for having resigned his position as Professor of Mathematical Physics at Cambridge (back in 1979) to become a formally ordained and practicing priest (in 1982); secondly, for having written so much on issues relating to Religion & Science; thirdly, for having won the Templeton Prize in 2002 for “exceptional contributions to affirming life's spiritual dimension”.
Polkinghorne has stressed the idea that moving from the field of Science to that of Religion (as a practice) did not stop his quest for truth; on the contrary, he describes his new situation as seeing through a binocular. His philosophy is often referred to as “critical realism”, basically that some of what we can perceive of the external world is objective and accurate, while some of what we get from other senses is not accurate; in other words: reason and science are limited.
To encourage the study of Polkinghorne’s body of work, and on the occasion of the ‘God & Physics’ conference, the ISSR organized an essay competition on topics relating to (and honoring) his works. Four prizes were announced: two joint first-prizes, each worth £6000 (about $9,000), two joint third-prizes, each worth £3000 (about $4,500), and one essay awarded “a special commendation by the judges”; the list of winner and their topics can be found on the ISSR’s website.
The conference itself had two dimensions: the (invited) lectures and the (contributed) short papers. Among the invited lecturers, I should mention (with my own bias): Philip Clayton, Ian Barbour, and Keith Ward; and I should make a special note of Fraser Watts’s “The Interface Between Theology and Scientific Cosmology”. Among the short papers, I should note the contributions of two Muslim intellectuals: Munawwar Anees with “God and Physics in Abdus Salam's Worldview”, and Usama Hasan with “Allah & the New Physics: a review of Polkinghorne's Belief in God in an Age of Science from an Islamic perspective”. I am delighted to note the return of Munawwar Anees to the field of Science and Religion/Islam and the entry of Usama Hasan in the discussions – more on them some other time.
Finally, I should say that I have had the chance of meeting Polkinghorne several times, most particularly a year ago in Cambridge when we were both invited as lecturers in the Faraday Institute’s summer course on Religion and Science. In fact, Polkinghorne and I were scheduled on the same day, which put us together in the evening’s open discussion session, leading to some spirited debate (and disagreement) on the issue of divine action in the world. (This is a major and difficult topic, and I can’t address it here, for it would lead me too far away from the subject of this piece, but I should come back to it sometime.)