To be presented with a prize of this prestige, designated as for “Progress in Religion,” is both an exhilarating and a humbling experience — exhilarating because it represents an assurance that my own, somewhat unusual, path in the last few decades, unswervingly supported by my wife, has indeed not been misdirected — humbling both because I “stand on the shoulders of giants” who preceded me in the dialogue between science and religion and because I am but part of a growing corporate endeavour of inquiry in this field and one I shall now have the means to enhance. This great enterprise is now global and engages professional theologians, scientists, historians and philosophers in the academic world and is the concern of those of many faiths, and of none. It has been stimulated by the support of the Templeton Foundation, so generously and wisely promoted by Sir John’s munificence that also provides this magnificent Prize, for the award of which I warmly thank the Trustees and Judges.
By and large this intense activity has been in the educational milieu — for example, the establishing of a university chair in this field, the Andreas Idreos Professor- ship of Science and Religion at Oxford University — but is now beginning to enter the consciousness of many of the reflective adherents of the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. For I have found myself fortunate in being able to enroll the enthusiasm and support of a very wide range of people in forming net- works to grapple with the need for enlarging traditional religious perceptions in the light of our amazing scientific perspectives on the world. I found myself time and time again pushing at, as it were, doors already half- open whether in setting up of private discussion groups of scientists and theologians in both Oxford and Cambridge, of a national forum for science and religion in the UK, or of a European body with the same purpose. Most illuminating and encouraging of all was to find, with Canon Eric Jenkins, a core body of 12 Anglican priest-scientists to form a new ecumenical dispersed Order — the Society of Ordained Scientists, which now has, from seven different Christian denominations and five countries, 79 men and women as full Members and 29 Associates.
These experiences have strengthened my convictions that we are now witnessing the implementation of that enterprise advocated by the mathematician-philosopher A. N. Whitehead when he prophesied in the 1920s that the future course of history would depend on the decision of his generation as to the proper relation between science and religion, so powerful are the religious symbols through which humanity confer meaning on their lives and so powerful are the scientific models through which they manipulate their environment. In fact, it has transpired that it has been, with notable exceptions, the post-World-War-II generation that has significantly taken up this challenge, as witness some of the earlier recipients of this prize. However, the public image of the relation between science and religion has tended to be dominated by scientists who are not only gifted communicators of their respective sciences but who also, deeming science alone to be the source of knowledge and wisdom, seek to reduce human experience to purely scientific terms. This renders them antipathetic to the spiritual and religious experiences of humanity — and the name of the sport become science versus religion.
This has, without, philosophical support, unjustifiably polarised the public understanding of the interaction between science and religion, which both need each other, as I hope to indicate. However, what we can thank these scientists-gurus for is their often brilliant exposition of the dazzling vistas which the gamut of the sciences now unveils to humanity as this beginning of the first century of the new millennium. They are right in affirming that these vistas are intellectually beautiful and have a profound significance for our understanding of human existence in the universe. This is the unique privilege of our generation — even compared with 100 years ago.
We are the first generation of human beings to have substantial insights into the origin of our cosmos and of human life in it. Let me remind you of some of the stages in this compelling story in the time dimension in which we live — as to the nature of time itself and whether or not we can speak of its beginning is still an enigma wrapped in a mystery even for the theoretical physicists. What can be affirmed with some confidence is that at a point in our time some 10 or so billion years ago, there was an intense fluctuation and surge of energy — a hot Big Bang — which expanded, thereby making space and our universe. Vibrating fundamental particles appeared bathed in radiant light and some of these swirled and condensed into a billion galaxies. Five billion years ago, one star in one galaxy — our Sun — developed planets around it. On one planet, our Earth, when it had cooled sufficiently, complex molecular systems formed. Some of these became large and complex enough to make copies of themselves — the first specks of life. Life multiplied into creatures in the sea and plants on land and some of these produced enough oxygen to enable creatures to exist and proliferate on land and in the air. Thence life burst into many forms and along one branch of this diversifying bush of life there appeared creatures who, though relatively weak, lived by their capacity to know and learn and to pass their knowledge on to succeeding generations. Societies of these creatures found safety in numbers and the first words were spoken and the first laughs were heard, the first paintings were made and there appeared the first signs of a sense of individual worth and of a destiny beyond, for these earlier humans buried their dead with ritual. So the first prayers must have been made to some Ultimate Reality beyond the flux of their hazardous existence and they began to become aware of goodness, beauty and truth and of their opposites — for homo sapiens was free.
This stirring epic of evolution has two significant features for our purposes today. The first is that we have to recognise that we are indeed stardust. Every atom of iron in the hemoglobin of our blood cells, carrying oxygen to our brains and keeping you (I hope!) awake, was made in a supernova explosion before the Earth existed. So are we nothing but atoms? No, for the other striking feature of this story is that chance, operating in a law-like framework, has led along many lines in evolution to an increase in complexity. New levels of complexity of organisation of matter appear and can only be understood by new concepts and new kinds of causality. New kinds of reality go on emerging in time. The latest, the most complex and subtle and the most mysterious, is human persons who know, who know that they know and have inner experiences and creative capacities unique to each individual. Out of insentient matter-energy-space-time there has emerged persons — a Mozart, a Shakespeare, the Buddha, the Prophet, Jesus of Nazareth — and you and me!
Our thinking leaps over, transcends, the aeons of time and light years of space and their contents — we know them but they do not, cannot, know us. Our heads contain the most complex form of matter in our known universe and, like Hamlet, we are indeed ‘bounded in a nutshell,” yet in our thought we can each count ourselves as “king of infinite space!”
We are tempted, and there are many who press this upon us, to believe that our brains are ‘nothing but’ glorified computers constituted by neurons and nerves; yet the reality of our mental lives is only too apparent to us and the reduction of mentalistic language to that of physics and chemistry has widely been reckoned as having failed. There are indeed good reasons philosophically for refusing to regard ourselves as molecular automata and also, I might add, good biological grounds for not thinking of ourselves as captives of our genes. We as persons are a distinctive new kind of emergent reality in the world and uniquely, as persons we seek not only the intelligibility afforded by the sciences but also for the meaning of our brief lives, physically based as they are. It is the search for meaning that has generated the quests represented by the great religions of the world. Appropriately the complementary double-strands of the DNA on which our lives and inheritance depend prove to be an appropriate symbol for that double quest which constitutes human life — the searches for intelligibility and for meaning.
Today the intertwining of these two enterprises is more apparent than ever for it is the meaning of the world that science describes which we seek. Science encourages us to go on asking “Why?” both in the ancient and perennial form of “Why is there anything at all?,” which has evoked the postulate of an Ultimate Creative Reality that is the Source of all being and becoming; and also, in light of the epic of evolution, the question “Why should the universe be open to rational explication and why should it have the inherent capacity to develop from insentient matter-energy in space-time thinking persons who can know that they so originate and are free to shape their lives on the basis of overriding values?” Such questions are posed by the vistas of science but cannot be answered by science. It has been the perennial quest of the great religions of the world to respond to such questions by seeking both for intelligibility and meaning — along with the intelligibility provided by the sciences.
Hence the vistas of the sciences constitute both the greatest new challenge and also a new impetus to the religious quest as it seeks for meaning in our lives in such a world. The challenge is global, for scientific perspectives on the world set an agenda and a context for re-consideration of the received insights of all religions. Global too is the impetus that science gives to the religious quest to use its methods of inference to the best explanation employing the normal criteria of reasonableness — namely comprehensiveness, fitting with the evidence, fruitfulness, cogency, plausibility and coherence. These are implicitly accepted at international scientific conferences made up of scientists from every conceivable culture, religion and ethnicity. Quantum theory does not change when one crosses the Equator as an English astronomer working in Australia famously affirmed when fundamental science was being accused of being corrupted by North/South ideological and economic divides.
The responses of the religions of the world to the global perspectives of science will determine their credibility and so their viability in the century ahead. Already Christianity, certainly as embedded in a Western culture in which science has flourished, has had both fruitful and bruising encounters with new scientific knowledge of the natural world. It has thereby, in my view, been purified of unnecessary legends and false beliefs and stimulated to a more precise focusing, exposition and revision of its essential understanding of the nature of the Ultimate Reality, named in English as ‘God,’ the creative Source of all-that-is.
In this encounter Christian thinkers, at least, have had to learn that God endows the world with its own autonomy to function according to its God-given relationships thereby generating new entities. God works in, with and under what we call the ‘natural’ processes of the world and does not coerce but invites the co- operation of humanity in the divine creative process shaping that world and human life — and science is essential for our part in cooperative work. There can be no greater quest of humanity than to seek the purposes of God for all-that-is so that our knowledge and internets of information can be deployed with wisdom — the ability to cooperate harmoniously in the divine purposes in creation in evoking the personal and spiritual in and through the natural.
Such a quest involves human beings becoming more fully human by instantiating their distinctive values, and becoming more self-offering in their mutual love, thereby sharing in the quality of their Creators own self. Christians have had their own particular way of experiencing and speaking of this when they refer to the divine World being expressed in creation and as revealed in a particular person in history, Jesus the Christ. However the divine Word cannot, in principle and by definition, be exclusive and “cabin’d, cribb’d and confin’d” to anyone person alone, or to anyone religion, culture, race or time. The universality of science strongly points away from such exclusiveness and its global vistas now incite and excite us to a new joint, human, global discerning of the divine self-expression, the Word of God, in the natural and human created order. This discerning will engage all the insights that we can gain from the exercise of the creative capacities of human beings, other than science — the arts, music, literature and personal experience and relationships. William Blake, that devout, eccentric 18th-century seer — no lover of institutional religion — spoke of his religion as “the liberty both of body and of mind to exercise the Divine Arts of Imagination” and urged his fellow-Christians to engage themselves openly and publicly before all the world in some mental pursuit for the building up of Jerusalem, a city, the symbol of culture.
The sciences have drawn back the curtain for us now to be able to perceive the natural, evolved commonalities of humanity in a new light — in the light of a perception of that Ultimate Reality, God who, giving everything its existence, is both the common agent through nature of our created creativity and will be the destiny of our fulfilled humanity. Thus, with T. S. Eliot:
‘We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.’ (Little Gidding)