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.
|We are indeed stardust. Every atom of iron in our blood cells was made in a supernova explosion before the Earth existed. So are we nothing but atoms? No.|
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 Professorship 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 networks 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 the 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 conviction 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 becomes 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 at 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 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 early 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.