Reading through the address of the Templeton Prize ceremonies here in The Guildhall, one is constantly amazed at the diversity of the recipients, yet also amazed at the unity of thought and purpose that is evident in the life and work of each recipient of this prestigious award.
And this year is no exception. How different is the life and work of Baba Amte who continues to work with the lepers and outcasts of India and that of the joint recipient, Professor Charles Birch of Sydney.
Yet the common thread is there for all of us to witness and no doubt that by the end of this ceremony we will be deeply conscious of the task both have accomplished in their time.
Professor Birch was nominated for the Prize by the leading American Baptist, Dr. Paul Abrecht, who is with us today. Professor Birch had been engaged in new and adventurous reflection on questions of science and faith, and is a leading campaigner for an environmentally safe universe.
Baba Amte, a Hindu, is a lawyer by profession who was born unto a wealthy Brahmin landowning family. He is the originator and developer of modern day communities of lepers and harijans (outcasts) in India. Canon Edward Finch of The Church of England who co-nominated him for the Prize has called him the “Mother Teresa” of the Hindu world.
Professor Birch, was born in Melbourne, Australia and has had a wide and varied academic career. He has been Research Fellow at the University of Chicago, at Oxford, at Columbia University in New York, the University of Minnesota and visiting professor of Genetics at the University of California at Berkeley. Since 1960 until his retirement, he was Challis Professor of Biology at the University of Sydney.
During the twenty-five years of his professional life as a biologist-geneticist, Charles Birch has engaged in new and adventurous reflection on questions of science and faith. His experience as a research biologist only increased his determination to discover meaning in the world of specialized knowledge in which he lived. As he stated in one of his early books, “The most critical time in my own search or understanding was as a young research student dissatisfied with the answers of what called itself orthodox Christianity and excited about science”. At that moment he was introduced to the thought of three notable philosopher-theologians, A. N. Whitehead, Charles Hartshorne, and Paul Tillich, progenitors of what was to become the school of process philosophy. Their ideas decisively influenced his thinking. As a consequence he began to see his scientific work in a far wider perspective with the result that, as he says, “I….had to write about history, philosophy and theology as well as science.”
In doing so Birch has developed into a formidable lay theologian. It was not surprising that in the search for imaginative minds on the frontiers of science and faith, the World Council of Churches should have selected him to help oversee its programme of ecumenical study on the future of man and society in a world of science- based technology; and that this should have led to his being chosen as the first natural scientist to address a WCC Assembly (in Nairobi in 1975) on this theme. Professor Birch’s contribution to Progress in Religion may be summarized under three headings:
- The development of a new understanding of the nature and role of God for a scientific age.
- The reconciliation of the biological and the religious understanding of creation.
- The concern to link social justice with the new ecological awareness of humanity’s dependence on nature.
Baba Amte, who was born at Hinganghat in India, was awarded a United Nations Human Rights Award last year. He attended a Christian college in Nagpur where the seeds of the Christian values of care and service were first sown.
Baba Amte is quoted by Graham Turner in his remarkable book More than Conquerors:
“I am a Hindu Brahmin, but I’m also a follower of Christ. I want to be a contemporary of Christ, not the sort of Christian who says, ‘I have an executive meeting at four-thirty’ while there is a man dying in the gutter. The moment you are His contemporary, you remember Him every second of you life, the man who, when He was born, had no place to rest, the fisherman who did everything with the common man, who shared the mattress of fodder with the donkey. I love the description of Him, ‘He lived for others’. The cross is the emblem of crucifying one’s own life to make others happy. It asks us to yield up the love of life for the life of love; to back our conscience with our blood. Where there is fear there is no love. Fear of leprosy, fear of loneliness in the tribal belt, this scarecrow of fear cannot be allowed to guide you conscience.”
Today his leper complex near Nagpur of 450 acres accommodates 1400 lepers. It has a cottage hospital, an out-patient clinic, library. co-operative shops, bank, workshops, post office, primary school for children of leprosy patients, a residential school for blind children with 72, pupils, a rehabilitation centre for 240 physically handicapped, and he operates a technical college for 7500 students.
I mention all this about these two very worthy recipients to spell out the unity in diversity there is in our world today. It is that, which the panel of judges have recognised and it is that recognition we acknowledge here today.
I congratulate the judges on their excellent choice; congratulate Sir John Templeton for setting up this Prize that today is £410,000 and is among the largest in the world.
I am confident that the joint recipients who will share the prize equally will have no problems in knowing what to do with the money!
Join me in congratulating both of them.