Like many successful professionals, John Polkinghorne didn't think he had time to cram one more thing into his busy schedule. But his wife persuaded him to attend a Bible class near their home in Cambridge, England.
It was a decision that changed his life. He ended up resigning his post teaching mathematical physics at Cambridge University in 1979 and becoming an Anglican priest.
What made Mr. Polkinghorne different from other vicars was that in addition to preparing sermons and visiting parishioners, he used his scientific skills to ask probing questions about the nature of God and the universe.
His treatment of theology as a natural science and his role as a leading figure in bringing together science and religion has earned Polkinghorne the 2002 Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. The prize, announced last week, has honored individuals, especially in the sciences, who advance spiritual learning. Polkinghorne has written more than 20 books, helping other scientists to grasp the spiritual element in science.
"I think that the sense of wonder in doing science is a religious experience, though not everyone who has it would certainly call it that," he says. "There certainly is a sense of awe, even of worship, at the beauty of creation."
Polkinghorne, who was knighted in 1997, is the fourth consecutive scientist to win the Templeton. But other winners say his search for truth in the universe has gone well beyond theirs. "Polkinghorne has really carried his science further than Peacock [last year's winner] and myself," says Ian Barbour, professor emeritus at Carleton College and the 1999 winner.
"John makes no compromises. He has managed to speak with a strong Christian voice without compromising the physics he knows best quantum physics," says Philip Clayton, visiting professor of theology at Harvard University. "Sometimes he irritates [his colleagues] with his caution and other times he shocks us with the furthering usefulness of his beliefs."
Polkinghorne says "pure" science is hard work but its reward is a sense of wonder at the beautiful structure of the world that is revealed. In his writings, Polkinghorne uses the scientific techniques of a bottom-up thinker who moves from experience to understanding to motivate belief.
As a young boy, Polkinghorne became interested in the idea that math could be used to understand the universe, he says. He met his wife, Ruth, while they were both working toward degrees in mathematics at Cambridge. He went on to earn a PhD in quantum field theory and in 1968 was appointed professor of mathematical physics at Cambridge. Later, he became a fellow of the Royal Society.
Polkinghorne acknowledges the majority of scientists are not traditional believers, but says many like to think there's a deeper meaning behind things. "They are wary of religion because they think it involves accepting things on authority," he once said in a debate. "But you don't have to commit intellectual suicide to be a religious believer."
Polkinghorne says the Big Bang theory is compatible with a belief in God as creator, and that evolution fits with the God-given gift of creation.
Polkinghorne sits on the Human Genetics Commission, which advises government ministers. He has also helped shape British law on stem-cell research. Research on stem cells in Britain is licensed case by case for purposes that can be achieved only through an embryonic route, and there is significant support for it, he says.
Polkinghorne will use his $1 million award to encourage the development of science and religion as a university discipline and to fund postgraduate research in the subject.