It is a privilege and an honour to be here this evening as we celebrate the twenty-fifth Anniversary of the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. It is a special coincidence that the recipient of the award this year has traveled from India as did the first recipient, Mother Teresa. Both persons in their own way have been recognized for helping others.
From the beginning, the Prize for Progress in Religion has had, at its core, the vision that progress in spirituality and in new spiritual information is more important than any other human endeavour. Progress in science and technology has produced an enormous contribution to our material well-being. From these material advances, people are eating better due to greater productivity in agriculture; people are healthier and are living longer due to advances in preventive medicine and curative medicine; thousands and thousands of new productive enterprises are being started every day resulting in millions of new jobs in all corners of the globe; and, we are exploring new frontiers of our planet and the universe at-large in ways that could only be dreamed of in the past.
But none of these material advances touch us at the core of who we are and why we are here. Religious faith and practice are at the core of how we live and how we relate to one another and to our Creator God. Most of life’s problems today are not ones of material want or the lack of the wherewithal to meet our physical needs. Most of our problems are of our own making. These include problems in communication, lack of tolerance, a failure to forgive and a failure to emphasize what we share together as children of God.
The purpose of the Templeton Prize is three-fold. The first to recognize a living person who has done something unique and original to increase humankind’s love and/or understanding of God. Second, the Prize is intended to inspire others to learn about the work of each recipient and to undertake similar or new spiritually-related endeavours. Third, the Prize is designed to encourage a mind set in which the world as a whole looks in expectation to progress in spirituality and spiritual information. As we pursue this programme in identifying unique contributors to better understanding of God, His love and His purpose for us, we seek to embrace humility, openmindedness and a celebration of diversity.
Since the origin of the Prize, there has been a remarkable diversity in the work of the various recipients which resulted in their recognition. In the twenty-five years of the Prize, including this year, there have been twenty-seven different recipients. Eight recipients were recognized for their contribution to breaching the barriers between science and religion. For example, Professor Thomas Torrance, who is here this evening, was honoured for his work in attempting to establish the rationality of the universe and thus evidence God through scientific reasoning. Five individuals in this category were scientists. One of these is Professor Paul Davies, who is also here this evening. Professor Davies was honoured in 1995 for his inquiry into the physical universe and his insights regarding purpose and design in human existence.
Three recipients were evangelists including, the Rev. Dr Billy Graham and Dr. William Bright, who is also here with us this evening. Eight recipients made their contributions in the area of peace and freedom including Aleksandr Solzhenitzyn whose writings awakened minds to the unique and indestructible quality of the soul. Another winner was the Rt. Hon. Lord Jakobovits whose work included opposition to violence and polarization in the Middle East and his advocacy of education and spirituality to promote religion. We are delighted that Lord Jakobovits is with us this evening, as is another former Prize winner, the Rev. Michael Bourdeaux, a leader in the struggle to reveal the systematic destruction of religion in communist countries. And, Brother Jean-Marie is here from the Taizé Community, representing Brother Roger.
Finally, there is the category of recipients which we celebrate today; this is the category of spiritual servants.
The first recipient of the Templeton Prize in 1973, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, exemplified a life of service to the destitute and the dying. The recipient this year also exemplifies spiritual servanthood.
As we can see, each of the recipients has made a significant contribution to progress in spirituality and new spiritual information. To many persons, ‘progress’ is a modern notion. In fact, it is a notion that has been around from the beginning of time. Indeed, we have noted, we have grown used to seeing progress in all departments of life. As I read books, magazine articles and newspapers from around the world, I notice that progress is defined in different ways, even by people of the same political or economic or religious persuasion.
Speaking as a Christian, I note that some Christians see in some period of history, be it the first century or any other century, a time when the Christian faith was rightly formulated. For those with that viewpoint, progress is measured by the degree to which man can gain in knowledge of God and in seeking to fulfill His purpose for each one of us. For others, there are those who view progress as recovering the beliefs and practices that make up our heritage which they see as threatened today. To them, recovery is synonymous with progress.
Yet, if history is our teacher, one thing we learn from it is that the full meaning of faith has not yet been fully expressed. Every religious tradition, including Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jew, Moslem and others, has yet to see the fulfilling of God’s purpose for us. That future lies before each one of us. As John Cobb, the American professor of theology and philosophy of religion wrote somewhere, ‘ … progress consists primarily not in recovering what has been lost, but in moving forward toward a faithful or fateful future different from the past’. History shows us that the future will contain many of the elements of the past. But, the future will not be the same as it is today for we shall focus on becoming what we have never been before.
That brings me to this evening as we gather together to honour one who has changed the conditions of living for millions of villagers throughout India. He is one, who by his faith in God, has realized spiritual and material progress for these millions in their daily lives. He is one who represents the tradition of India’s classical learning and what is best in social knowledge available in other traditions. His philosophy is based on total and absolute faith in God and service to God through service to others. Through this faith he has resolved the intractable problems of self-development and has thereby redirected those villagers in thousands of communities and given them a new lease on life. In his work, he has countered pervasive poverty, oppression and injustice with freedom, love and justice. In every endeavour, his work has sought to build on what we, as God’s children, share together, and not on what divides us.
That person, whom we honour tonight, is Mr. Shri Pandurang Shastri Athavale. Mr. Athavale was born in the small town of Roha in Maharashtra in October of 1920. In honouring his life’s work, the citation for his award reads: ‘Motivated by deep commitment to the service of God, Mr. Athavale has enabled several million Indian villagers to experience a better way of life through the spiritual revolution that began in 1956.’
It would be remiss of me if I did not say a most sincere thank you to Your Royal Highness for gracing this twenty- fifth anniversary celebration this evening. It was over in the Guildhall that you, Sir, presented the first award of the Templeton Prize to Mother Teresa twenty-five years ago. Your interest and enthusiasm has been greatly appreciated by the recipients and the Trustees.
In addition, I would like to thank Rev. Wilbert Forker for his guidance and organizational skills in the planning and producing of the Prize programmes for these past twenty-five years.
On behalf of the Trustees, I would like to thank the Dean and the Chapter of Westminster Abbey for their kindness in enabling this ceremony to take place here. And to Canon Colin Semper and the choir under the direction of Mr. Martin Neary for their participation.
And to all of you for coming and making this an eventful evening, thank you.