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Science, Faith, and the Mystery of Life (March 29, 2019)

Theoretical physicist and cosmologist Marcelo Gleiser has been awarded the Templeton Prize for 2019. He is “a leading proponent of the view that science, philosophy, and spirituality are complementary expressions of humanity’s need to embrace mystery and the unknown.” Gleiser, a native of Brazil, presently teaches physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.

The Templeton Prize was established in 1972 by the late Sir John Templeton, who founded the Templeton Growth Fund, one of the premier investment portfolios. Money magazine called him “arguably the greatest global stock picker of the century.”

Templeton had “a profound respect for learning, a belief in the centrality of spiritual life, and a higher purpose beyond profit for profit’s sake,” reflected in the Templeton Prize which is awarded “to honour a living person who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works.” The Prize aims to identify “entrepreneurs of the spirit—outstanding individuals who have devoted their talents to expanding our vision of human purpose and ultimate reality. The Prize celebrates no particular faith tradition or notion of God, but rather the quest for progress in humanity’s efforts to comprehend the many and diverse manifestations of the Divine.”

Templeton Prize winners include Desmond Tutu (2013), Jean Vanier (2015), the Dalai Lama ((2012), Aleksander Solzhenitsyn (1983), and Mother Teresa (1973).

This news report caught my eye because it affirms my own belief that we can’t divide life into secular and sacred realms. Too often, people draw tight boundaries between different aspects of life which really cannot be separated.

Gleiser is a wonderful example of crossing those boundaries towards a more unified approach to life. There are many who say that faith and science are opposed to each other. Gleiser “is a prominent voice among scientists, past and present, who reject the notion that science alone can lead to ultimate truths about the nature of reality.” He believes that science, the arts, and spirituality are interlinked. Some questions cannot be answered by science alone, and other disciplines come into play.

In an interview with Scientific American, Gleiser says that we should be more humble in our approach to knowledge. “If you look carefully at the way science works, you’ll see that yes, it is wonderful — magnificent! — but it has limits. And we have to understand and respect those limits. And by doing that, by understanding how science advances, science really becomes a deeply spiritual conversation with the mysterious, about all the things we don’t know.”

He continues by saying that “atheism is inconsistent with the scientific method.” Why? Because atheism is “a categorical statement that expresses belief in nonbelief— ‘I don’t believe even though I have no evidence for or against, simply I don’t believe.’ Period.” Such a declaration is incompatible with the scientific method, which refuses to make declarations. It posits an hypothesis, and then seeks evidence to prove or disprove that hypothesis.

In this way, he stands opposed to people like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, or Christopher Hitchens, who declare definitively that God is nothing more than a delusion conjured by human beings. Gleiser calls himself an agnostic, which means that he, like the rest of us, doesn’t have the final answer to the mystery of life. Atheists, on the other hand, claim that there is no mystery of life. That kind of approach is a final answer in and of itself.

Rather, as Gleiser wrote, “Scientists, in a sense, are people who keep curiosity burning, trying to find answers to some of the questions they asked as children.” Atheism shuts the door on questions about the meaning and destiny of this grand experiment of life.

One of my favourite definitions of faith is to say that “Faith is not about finding the right answers. Faith is about learning to ask the right questions!” I believe this to be true not only of Christian faith, but of faith in all its dimensions and truths.

I think this is what Gleiser gets at when he talks about keeping curiosity burning. We never have the final answer. None of us do. We can’t. But the more we keep asking questions, and the better the questions we keep asking become, the closer we will come to truth.

There is an inspiring word of wisdom found in the Hindu tradition. Truth is one, sages call it by many names. The Real is One; it is known through many symbols.”

We call Truth by many, different names and symbols. As we gather around the same table to talk together, as we become conversation partners with one another, we may well discover more cogent answers which lead us closer to that Truth which is One.

Rev. Yme Woensdregt