Your Royal Highness, Viscount Tonypandy, Dr. and Mrs. Templeton, My Dear Friends:
I must begin by expressing my profound gratitude to the judges who selected the recipient of the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion for 1986. It is a great honour to receive it, and I accept it not just for myself but on behalf of colleagues in the theological enterprise throughout the world who have contributed so much through their research and pursuit of the truth.
It has been my privilege to work in this enterprise for more than four decades and to have been associated with great minds and great spirits whose search for the truth is always in the confidence that ‘truth is in order to goodness.’
In reading past acceptance addresses given here in the Guildhall, I have noticed that several have been auto-biographical, at least in part. My own biography is very simple. Commitment to the Christian ministry antedates my memory, which is undoubtedly the result of the influence of godly parents and a good measure of Presbyterian predestinarianism! My professional career began at the age of 24 when I became Dean and Professor of Theology in Austin Seminary in Texas. During the 15 years that I served in this capacity I was closely related to the University of Texas, under whose shadow the Seminary dwells. University colleagues taught me much about devotion to scholarship, openness to any new evidence that appears, and generosity of spirit in human relations. From eminent scientists like Dr. Roger J. Williams, the distinguished biochemist, I learned that theology and science are not adversaries but, rather, co-workers in exploring the wonders of creation and in honoring the Creator. The same relationship continued to enrich my life when we came to Princeton in the summer of 1959 to assume the Presidency of Princeton Seminary, a position that I held until 1983. It was out of this background that a commitment came to work toward the creation of a post-doctoral research centre that would be interdisciplinary in character and that would attempt to do for theology what is being done for other disciplines in numerous research centres. To friends in both universities, Texas and Princeton, I owe a great debt of gratitude.
I am happy to have lived long enough to see a growing convergence between theology and science, as both disciplines have begun to discover what they have in common. Both sciences have made mistakes in the past and have reason to repent for various kinds of censorship. I need only mention the name of Galileo Galilei to evoke memories of the necessity of repentance on the part of the Church. Scientific censorship sprang up with the Enlightenment, when reality was sharply divided and religion was removed from the public arena. I shall discuss this in a little more detail in a moment. The other healthy sign is the convergence in epistemology between the two disciplines. A false, mechanistic, and debilitating dualism is being overcome, even though there are those in some areas, notably the social sciences, who have not yet recognized this metamorphosis. The result is, in my opinion, a very hopeful climate for dialogue between theology and science, for mutual sharing and mutual modification, and for a new humility as we recognize that we are all pilgrims, in via, humble seekers in quest of that which will not only reveal but also transform. Let me repeat: ‘Truth is in order to goodness’.
When Dr. Templeton was making plans to provide recognition for progress in the field of religion, he was careful to insist that progress be given a broad definition. Certainly he intended to emphasize triumphs of the spirit, the grasping of a vision of what faith can do to mould human character and to ennoble human life. He also was concerned for the spread of religious awareness, for efforts to translate the insights of the academy into affirmations that deal helpfully with the needs of believers and potential believers alike. And he was deeply interested in attempts to transcend narrow and provincial understandings of religion itself, suspicious of its exclusivities and holding it to be a far more inclusive phenomenon than many would suppose. Throughout all of Dr. Templeton’s thinking about advancement in religion there runs, however, a continuous and certain theme: that religious truth is a dimension of universal truth, and that knowledge of God is inseparable from knowledge of ourselves and of the created order. It is to an aspect of this theme that I should like to address my remarks today.
That theological knowledge should be regarded as a dimension of universal knowledge might not be immediately apparent. The thought of the western world, at least since the time of Immanuel Kant, has been moulded by the understanding that religion belongs to the realm of the subjective. Its principal foci are believing and feeling, rather than knowing and perceiving; and even when theological statements purport to address our common physical and social reality, they normally are talking about something different, something that is quite unassailable from outside the enclave of faith.
Hopeful signs are now appearing that suggest a new direction in the basis for theological investigation. We are beginning to witness a revival of concern for dialogue between theology and the disciplines of culture, especially with the natural sciences. Under the leadership of Professor Thomas F. Torrance of the University of Edinburgh, a series of volumes on ‘Theology and Science at the Frontiers of Knowledge’ has been begun; research centres are giving emphasis to the dialogue; and seminars throughout the world indicate that interest in such discussions is high.
That is the good news. The bad news, at least from initial impressions, is that theologians as a whole are less enthusiastic about embarking upon such a venture than are their scientific counterparts. Where the need is greatest, to paraphrase a law of fluids, the velocity is least. Perhaps we are entitled to hope, however, that the next generation of theological scholars, educated in the developments of science since Einstein, will move more confidently into the deliberations.
At least from the standpoint of theology, the restoration of substantive contact with modern scientific culture is imperative. As we are reminded by Dr. Torrance, ‘The increasing pervasiveness of science in our modern life is due not merely to the impact of new technologies on our everyday existence, but to the fact that science has been throwing up integrative modes of thought which have far-reaching implications for knowledge in every sphere of human enterprise.’ His point, of course, is that in the most fundamental areas of explanation and interpretation, scientific developments in this century are presenting us with new and powerful possibilities, and at the same time are rendering prior modes of explanation suspect or even incredible. Unfortunately, and due in part to our inherited discomfort with scientific movements, very much of modern theology is still locked into the worldview of a century ago, and is not fully aware that the ground beneath it has begun to shift. It is for this reason that the Center of Theological Inquiry with which I am associated is investing so heavily in theological-scientific research.
When theology does renew its ties with the scientific enterprise, I believe that avenues will begin to appear for the revitalization not only of doctrine but of the religious life of institutions as well. As in the day when the Bible was rendered into the vernacular, the expectations and possibilities of faith may come across as less arcane and more in the popular vocabulary. And moral education could also be transformed, were we to move from the notion of personal and cultural relativism to the emerging view that meaning and purpose may indeed be embedded in reality, so that the world as well as society becomes our teacher.
We do not know, of course, just what lines scientific discovery will follow, but it is painfully evident that a separation between theological and secular knowledge promotes insecure religion that ultimately loses the respect of others and itself.
If nature itself can be our teacher, not only in matters of physical processes but also in matters of faith and morals, perhaps the same should be said for the host of religious persuasions around the world.
A significant phenomenon of the last few decades, occasioned in part by revolutions in transportation and communication, has been the convergence of religious traditions on a global scale. There are at least two aspects of this convergence that ought to be considered. First, it has meant an enormous increase in the amount of information that must be handled in order for cordial relations to be sustained: calendars to be observed, customs and protocols to be remembered, points of conflict to be monitored, continuities and discontinuities to be distinguished. We are all acquainted with what can happen when religious turmoil is ignited, more often than not out of ignorance, and high on our list of priorities today must be a thorough appreciation of faith traditions with which we will be dealing in any capacity. It is simply impossible, for example, even to imagine entering upon any kind of relationships in the Middle East without a deep acquaintance with Islamic law, although in unguarded moments we may suspect our diplomats to be attempting just that.
Second, and more central to our theme for today, the convergence of religions has meant not simply a growing number of views or diverse issues, but a wider range of considered judgments on the same issue, as those traditions come into contact with globalized problems. And it is here where the cooperative exploration of issues from religious perspectives may take us into fundamental questions of revelation, the relation of God to history, the character of justice, and the virtuous life. If it is true that religion belongs to the subjective — which is little more than the private side of cultural relativism — then indeed Thrasymachus may be right: Justice is nothing else than the will of the stronger. If, on the other hand, true religion is reflected in the structures of the world, then the insights of other serious seekers may be means go truth for us all, and the phenomenon of convergence will prove to be a revitalizing element for the several traditions.
We are not, of course, arguing for syncretism or eclecticism, if by those terms is meant a combination of elements prompted by convenience or indifference, or lack of intellectual discrimination. What is being suggested, instead, is that all appropriations of truth are cast in human terms, and that through cooperative exploration what is incidental may be separated from what is essential. Underlying this perspective is that true religion is not a human creation, just as true science is not a human creation. The words and the formulas may be ours — indeed must be ours — but it is the reality beneath that finally gives shape to the expressions and constitutes the judge as to their adequacy.
Although the opportunities presented by Third World theologies perhaps could have been discussed in my earlier remarks, I should like to call special attention to this important religious movement. The theologians of whom I speak are not those who represent traditions with which the West has been only partially familiar, but rather those who identify themselves with the traditions of which they are in part critical. If I understand the essential thrusts of these theological efforts, they move in the direction of a challenge to much of the historical understanding of western scholarship, an understanding that has tended to identify the reality of a tradition with its earliest form and to limit the meaning of a passage of text to the intention of the writer. What is being urged instead is consideration of alternative methodologies that will enable historic traditions to speak to new situations without casting the constraints of truth aside.
This is an intellectual venture much akin to the pursuit of the unitary notion of truth through the sciences, where the reality being investigated is not simply a theory or a tradition, but an underlying structure that ultimately forms and orders the theory.
This may be the most serious challenge to biblical interpretation today, but its ramifications are so vast that we must place it on the agenda for future research in the field of hermeneutics. We live in a world in which we simply must begin to learn from each other.
The conviction that I express in these remarks is that the cause of religion today will require the most rigorous intellectual efforts of which we are capable, coordinated efforts that do not shy away from possible findings because they do not doubt the reliability of the God who both created and sustains.
Perhaps it is best to end these remarks with the words of an ancient prayer from India:
From darkness lead me to light; From the unreal lead me to the real;
From that which passes away, lead me to that which abides.