Annual Templeton Prize Sermon

Story Preceding the Sermon: “The Dance of Elegba”

In the West African Yoruba tradition there are many deities, representing forces of nature and aspects of the universe both human and divine. The god Elegba is the deity of the crossroads, the messenger between heaven and earth. He has many aspects and many different roles to fulfill. Often he appears as a trickster. He can cause confusion, but he can also bring clarity and understanding. Here is a story in which illustrates this.

Once there were two farmers named Olefumi and Olushegun who lived side by side in a small village. Every day they planted their crops. Every year they gathered the harvest of yams and calabash, mangoes and plantains, and brought them to the marketplace. They each had their own stall, on opposite sides of the road. But being good friends, they enjoyed passing the time together as people came by to sample their fruits or trade some cloth or a good iron tool for a basket of fresh mangoes. Olefumi and Olushegun always made their decisions together.

Either it was picking the right way to plant their crops, or finding the best day to start a journey, or judging how to discipline their sons and daughters, they would make sure to consult with each other. And they always agreed. “How wise my friend Olufemi is,” Olushegun would say. “I agree with Olushegun,” said his friend, “because he is always right.” And they vowed never to fight.

One day, Elegba, the trickster deity of the crossroads, looked upon these two friends. “Their lives go well and they prosper,” he said, “but life does not go in a straight line. Sometimes there are zig zags. Life without contradictions is not the destiny of human beings. These two must come to know the meaning of my powers, given to me by Olorun, creator of all the deities and of the world itself, or their friendship is nothing but a hollow reed and not the strong tree they can truly depend upon.”

Market day came. Olufemi and Olushegun traveled together to their spot by the road to sell produce and meet their friends and neighbors as usual. That day, Elegba, messenger of fate, deity of chance and accident, prepared himself for his visit. He dressed himself in his many-colored cloth, and picked up his staff. He spun around and put a hat on his head. One side of the hat was red, the other black. Small cowry shells hung around the edges of the hat and jingled as he walked.

Elegba strolled down the road to the marketplace until he saw the two farmers talking, one to the other, from across the road. Dancing a little dance, and singing a song, he passed between them, tapping his wooden staff on the ground. After he had gone by, Olufemi said to his friend, “Did you see the fellow who just passed by? I liked his song, but what about that black hat he was wearing? I’ve never seen one like it.”

Olushegun looked at his friend. “Oh, I saw that man pass. I liked his song too, but he was wearing a red hat, so you must have seen a different fellow.”

Olufemi stared at his friend. “I can tell you, he just walked by, he was singing and tapping his stick, and his hat was black as the tar of my gum tree.”

“My friend, I do not like to contradict you, but you are entirely wrong, because the hat he was wearing was red as the berries I’m selling from my basket.”

Olufemi stepped away from his wares and walked to the middle of the road. “You really must be seeing things,” he said,” because the hat was black.” Olushegun stepped onto the road. “Are you telling me I’m wrong? That hat was red, red, and only red!” and he tapped his friend on the shoulder. “Do you get my point?”

“Oh, I get your point,” said Olufemi. “The man with the black hat—I saw him, and there’s no doubt about it, so take that!” and he pushed his friend back a little harder.

“It was red!” “No, it was black!” “Red!” “No, black!” Back and forth, they pushed and shoved until before you know it, the two of them were rolling in the dust of the road, pummeling each other with their fists. A crowd gathered around them and tried to pull them apart, but things just kept getting worse. Olushegun was kicking Olufemi in the shins with all his might, and each was yelling at the top of his lungs. “It was a black hat!” “No, it was a red hat!” You are a liar!” “No, you are the liar here!”

The fight continued, but suddenly, the crowd heard someone coming down the road singing a song. The song got louder and louder, and even as the fight was raging, people turned to hear it. Suddenly an old man burst through the crowd and stood before Olufemi and Olushegun.

“See, my friends—for all these years you have worked together and lived like brothers. Now you are willing to break up your friendship, but before you do, watch what I have to show you!”

And very slowly, the old man began to spin. First the black side of the hat appeared. Then the red side. Olufemi sat up. He forgot all about fighting with Olushegun when he saw the dancer spinning before him. Olushegun sat up and stared as the old man, with the lightness and grace of youth, spun around, faster and faster, till he could see only a whirl of colors: black and red, black and red, black and red, black and red, Then, in an instant, he was gone.

The crowd parted. Olufemi stood up and held out his hand to Olushegun. “My friend,” he said, “What a mistake was made here. I was seeing only one side, and that was mine.”

Olushegun smoothed the dust off his friend’s shoulder cloth. “I too, my friend, was only seeing one side, from my side of the road. Now we know always to look at both sides of the dancer before we decide what color hat he is wearing!”

The finished selling their goods and then set off down the road together. Before they entered their homes, they made sure to leave a special offering to the shrine of Elegba, who showed them to look one step beyond their own place on the road before losing a friend, or a good day of work at the marketplace.

(Story from The Cow of No Color: Riddle Stories and Justice Tales from Around the World, by Nina Jaffe and Steve Zeitlin)

The Sermon: “Annual Templeton Prize Sermon”

The mysterious universe. It dances into our awareness like the West African Yoruba god Elegba, a trickster deity wearing a hat that is red on one side and black on the other. This is our mysterious universe, primed for creating in us a kind of intellectual schizophrenia when we don’t give adequate room for the fact that different perspectives can call forth truly different answers, and that each of these answers honestly possesses a portion of the truth. When we don’t give this sufficient room in our friendships, or in our communities, or in our individual lives, then we have the schizophrenia of different perspectives living side-by-side but split off from each other, not blending, not realizing each is part of a larger whole—which leads to the schizophrenia of individuals and groups being out of touch with reality, cut off from it, since their picture of things is one-sided and incomplete and cannot possibly do justice the complexities and zig zags of life.

It’s intellectual schizophrenia. Consider how it can trouble the single, solitary person, when one part of that person looks upon the dancing god universe through the eye of science, and another part looks through the eye of religion. The eye of science discloses ways in which the world can be analyzed and understood in terms of its underlying dynamics and structures, and then modeled, contained, controlled, predicted, adjusted. As for the eye of religion—this discloses the world’s largest meanings, as well as ways in which we can be in a just and good relationship with it, how we can trust it as fundamentally worthwhile and meaningful, how we can appreciate it, commune with it, experience it with a sense of forgiveness and gratitude and freedom and love. Elegba comes dancing down the road, and the single solitary soul looks upon it through two different eyes. Each eye sees the same hat, though the color appears very different, and the result can be intense internal struggle, confusion, awkwardness—the kind of awkwardness that is so poignantly and pointedly illustrated by what can happen in worship, when we try to settle into the enjoyment and flow of singing a hymn even as we anxiously read ahead to make sure we agree with the words. Ultimately, the result is an inability to grasp the whole of reality in both its scientific and religious dimensions. We are cut off from its fullness.

This is what I want to talk about today: science and religion being in right relationship with each other, making human wholeness possible. And I will do this in conjunction with one aspect of the thought of Michael Heller, whose career defies intellectual schizophrenia. Michael Heller is a Catholic priest who is also a professor of philosophy at The Pontifical Academy of Theology in Kraków, Poland, and an adjunct member of the Vatican Observatory staff. He is the author of more than 20 books and has published nearly 200 scientific papers, not only in general relativity and relativistic cosmology, but also in philosophy, the history of science, and science and theology. He is also, I should add, this year’s recipient of the Templeton Prize, which is awarded on an annual basis for outstanding scholarship representing significant progress in spiritual understanding. Mother Theresa of Calcutta was the first recipient, back in 1973; and in 1980, it was awarded to the Unitarian Universalist scientist and theologian, Ralph Wendell Burhoe, whose work I encountered when I was still a seminarian in Chicago at Meadville Lombard Theological School. It is a major annual award, this Templeton Prize—the largest single financial award in the world, given to an individual. And so, as with the Nobel Prize, we are invited to take a closer look.

About science and religion, Michael Heller says, “Amongst my numerous fascinations, [these] two have most imposed themselves and proven more time resistant than others…. I am also too ambitious. I always wanted to do the most important things, and what can be more important than science and religion? Science gives us Knowledge, and religion gives us Meaning. Both are prerequisites of the decent existence. The paradox is that these two great values seem often to be in conflict.” i That’s what Michael Heller says. Both are prerequisites of the decent existence, and yet there is conflict between them, which is a paradox, a conundrum. Why, when the two can go hand-in-hand?

In fact, very often the two HAVE gone hand-in-hand. Nothing less than the father of modern science is an example of this. Isaac Newton (who also happened to be a Unitarian in the classical sense of that term, which was belief in one God and rejection of the doctrine of the Trinity). Remember Newton’s three laws of motion? The law of inertia, the “F=ma” law, and then the law that states, “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction”? But we need to know that the stamp of his Unitarianism is all over this. “He believed that the universality of his laws was grounded in the omnipresence of a single divine Will.” ii When Newton saw the dancing god universe, he accepted that its hat could be both black and red at the same time; he believed that there could be laws of nature only because there was a legislator who was one God and not many. The laws simply expressed how God chose to act in the world, and so science illuminated nothing less than the mind and will of God.

Yet by the time we get to the nineteenth-century, the relationship between science and religion has seemingly changed for the worse. In the popular imagination, the story has become one of warfare. One historian describes it like this: “First, theology insisted that certain things were true of the world; next, science discovered that these beliefs were false; and then, theology resisted this new knowledge, until finally it was forced to give up its false claims about the world, one by one.” iii That’s how one historian describes the myth of warfare, and here is how nineteenth century writer Oscar Wilde describes it: “Science is the record of dead religions.”

One reason for this way of imagining the relationship between science and religion is surely the nineteenth-century’s track record of accomplishments, and what this track record suggested. Michael Heller puts it like this: “We must know … that the road from the candle to the electric bulb, and from a horse drawn carriage to the railroad train, was longer and more laborious than from the propeller plane to the intercontinental jet. In the twentieth century, technology made a great jump, but in the nineteenth century, it had started almost from nothing. Yet even then it was obvious that it would change the shape of the civilized world. In the nineteenth century, technology was treated, like never before or after, as a synonym of progress and of the approaching new era of overwhelming happiness. Positivistic philosophy, regarding science as the only valuable source of knowledge, and scientism, wanting to replace philosophy and religion with science, could be considered a philosophical articulation of this great experience—the experience of the efficacy of the scientific method. In the nineteenth century, any suggestion that there were any limits beyond which the scientific method did not work would have been regarded as a senseless heresy.” iv This is what Michael Heller says, but one of our Unitarian forebearers from the nineteenth century said it far more concisely and pointedly: The Rev. Francis Ellingwood Abbott: “Science is … destined to be the world’s true Messiah.”

Ever since, it seems, Western culture has been telling itself this story of warfare over and over. Intellectual schizophrenia, on a broad scale. Science as the true messiah, and religion as the pretender—and so to hear that there is such a person alive today like Michael Heller, who is both Catholic priest and scientific cosmologist, may give rise to feelings of suspicion…. We may wonder whether his science is truly science, and his religion truly religion… Something must be wrong with this picture.

The warfare story persists, and it does so despite clear evidence to the contrary. In the nineteenth-century, the ground level reality was this: most certainly, some resistance to scientific findings by religious thinkers who insisted on the inerrancy of scripture; but then, by other religions thinkers, an open-armed welcome. Enthusiasm. Excitement about how scientific discoveries would expand our religious sense of the world. Listen to how one nineteenth century theologian describes his excitement about Darwinism. The theologian is Aubrey Moore, and he is writing in 1889: “The one absolutely impossible conception of God, in the present day, is that which represents Him as an occasional visitor. […] Darwinism has conferred upon philosophy and religion an inestimable benefit, by showing us that we must choose between alternatives. Either God is everywhere present in nature, or He is nowhere…. It seems as if, in the providence of God, the mission of modern science was to bring home to our unmetaphysical ways of thinking the great truth of the Divine immanence in creation….” To this quote from Aubrey Moore, I could add so many others, including those from our Unitarian and Universalist forerunners. Even the Rev. Francis Ellingwood Abbot, who saw the world’s true Messiah in science, acknowledged that there was room enough for it and religion.

And yet the warfare myth persists. Science and religion at war. Despite their many partnerships at the ground level, the higher level story keeps on playing on like a broken record. And this is particularly ironic given the reality of the past 100 years.

Part of that reality includes the realization by scientists themselves that the scientific method has clear limits. For example, the power of mathematical deductions has always been a point of pride for science, and yet in the 1930’s, mathematician Kurt Goedel presented two theorems proving that there was an inherent limitation to mathematics. “If an axiomatic system can be proven to be consistent from within itself, then it is inconsistent.” v I’m not exactly sure what that means, but it doesn’t sound good. And by the evidence of the shock waves that this finding created in the intellectual community, it WASN’T good.

To the limits inherent in mathematics, add the limits of controlled experimentation. Results are always predetermined by experimental protocols, and so if there are realities that these protocols exclude up front, it’s just not fair to go ahead and then say that they don’t exist. That’s not good science; that’s scientism.

Physicist Arthur Eddington makes this point plain, when he invites us to consider the following: “Let us suppose,” he says, “that an ichthyologist is exploring the life of the ocean. He casts a net into the water and brings up a fishy assortment. Surveying his catch, he proceeds in the usual manner of a scientist to systematize what it reveals. He arrives at two generalizations: (1) No sea-creature is less than two inches long. (2) All sea-creatures have gills. These are both true of his catch, and he assumes tentatively that they will remain true however often he repeats it. In applying this analogy, the catch stands for the body of knowledge which constitutes physical science, and the net for the sensory and intellectual equipment which we use in obtaining it. The casting of the net corresponds to observation; for knowledge which has not been or could not be obtained by observation is not admitted into physical science. Now, an onlooker may object that the first generalization is wrong. ‘There are plenty of sea-creatures under two inches long, only your net is not adapted to catch them.’ The icthyologist dismisses this objection contemptuously. ‘Anything uncatchable by my net is ipso facto outside the scope of icthyological knowledge.’ In short, ‘what my net can't catch isn't fish.’ Or–to translate the analogy—‘If you are not simply guessing, you are claiming a knowledge of the physical universe discovered in some other way than by the methods of physical science, and admittedly unverifiable by such methods. You are a metaphysician. Bah!’

This is a scientist critiquing science. Scientists being up front about the limits of science. And in light of this, it is amazing to me how the broken record keeps playing—the warfare of science and religion; science as the true world messiah. Hard to comprehend, especially in light of something else: the ways in which science actually calls for a vitalized religion and acknowledges our desperate practical need for it.

For one thing, science and technology have, in our time, been a primary source of cultural stress and upheaval. It’s NOT been the messiah and engine of total positive progress that people hoped it might be. Before the atom bomb, the idea of the earth’s total destruction at the hands of human beings was unimaginable; but ever since, we have been living in this shadow and trying to cope as best as we can. Life before the Bomb, life before the Internet, life before genetic engineering. Who can imagine what life was like before all that? But now, even as we enjoy the benefits of modern science and technology, we also find ourselves challenged as never before, anxious as never before, and we are trying to cope and make sense of our world. We are trying to discover sources of hope, sources of larger courage and meaning, and in this way science has made us urgent to enter into the realm of religious values, for what we are looking for can be found only there … a rich sense of reverence towards life; sources of hope and courage; sources of truth and purpose.

Science has just not turned out to be the world messiah that people thought it was going to be. People thought that science was an essentially humanistic enterprise, which would lead the world from superstition into enlightenment; and yet consider the record of Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia. They used science and scientists to do evil things; and clearly there were no core ethical values in the scientific method itself to resist this ill-usage. No core human-positive values to prevent its method from being turned to evil and destructive ends. It is the same with today’s terrorists, who, through the use of space-age technology like the Internet, flourish. What we are seeing is described very well by theologian Langdon Gilkey: “Science adds force and not restraint to fanaticism.” That’s what he says. “Science adds force and not restraint to fanaticism.” This would not be the case if there was an essential humanistic core to science, so that science and the scientific method were all the guidance that people needed to live the truly good and ethical life and bring heaven to earth. Clearly, to expect this of science is to expect too much. Once again, science has made us urgent to enter into the realm of religious values, for what we are looking for can be found only there….. A sense of reverence towards life, hope, courage, meaning….

Our mysterious universe dances into our awareness like the Yoruba god Elegba, wearing a hat that is red on one side and black on the other. It means that the universe yields itself to the workings of science and responds; it can be analyzed, mathematically modeled, controlled and predicted and adjusted. It can be. The hat is red. But it is also black too. The mysterious universe evokes in us a sense of spiritual awe; it invites us to find a way of being at home in it; it confronts us with right and wrong, justice and injustice; it challenges us to experience it with a sense of forgiveness and gratitude, freedom and love. The hat is red. The hat is black. And if we are going to stay connected with reality in its fullness and not succumb to intellectual schizophrenia, as individuals and as a culture we have to find a way of being that synthesizes science and religion, helps them dance together just like Elegba our mysterious universe dances in our midst. That’s one of the things that this year’s Templeton Prize winner, Michael Heller, is saying to us. Find a way to think and act scientifically and religiously at the same time, critically and worshipfully at the same time, technologically and ethically at the same time.

Find a way to give both impulses their proper due—and so do justice to the fullness of our lives and of the world.

John Hedley Brooke, “Science and Theology in the Enlightenment,” in Religion and Science: History, Method, and Dialogue, ed. W. Mark Richardson and Wesley J. Wildman (New York: Routledge, 1996), p. 8.

Wesley J. Wildman, “The Quest For Harmony,” in Religion and Science: History, Method, and Dialogue, ed. W. Mark Richardson and Wesley J. Wildman (New York: Routledge, 1996), p. 48.

Michael Heller, “Science and Transcendence,” in Science and the Search for Meaning: Perspectives from International Scientists, ed. Jean Staune (Philadelphia: Templeton Press, 2006), p. 230-231.