The Templeton Prize is one of the most prestigious in the world. It was established in 1972 by the late Sir John Templeton, who said he wanted to identify “entrepreneurs of the spirit”—individuals who have devoted themselves to deepening our understanding of human purpose and ultimate reality.
As the Templeton Prize website puts it, “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.” The prize’s monetary award is £1,100,000 sterling (a little over $1.5 million currently).
Recipients have come from a variety of religious traditions (the Dalai Lama won it in 2012), but most have been Christians, and some, evangelicals (Billy Graham, Bill Bright, and Charles Colson, to name three). This year the award was given to Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth. According to Templeton, he “has spent decades bringing spiritual insight to the public conversation through mass media, popular lectures and more than two dozen books.”
In particular it noted, “Central to his message is appreciation and respect of all faiths, with an emphasis that recognizing the values of each is the only path to effectively combat the global rise of violence and terrorism.” CT invited Miroslav Volf, professor of theology at Yale Divinity School, to write about the significance of this prize for Sacks, since Volf himself has argued along similar lines in his recent, Flourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World.Volf is likely best known among CT readers for his now classic book on forgiveness and reconciliation: Exclusion and Embrace.
I cannot think of a worthier person to receive the prestigious Templeton Prize than this year’s recipient, Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth. I am partial. I have known Rabbi Sacks for many years; I have shopped with him for Indian clothing in Amritsar; I have hosted him as a public lecturer for the “Life Worth Living” class that I co-teach at Yale; he serves on the Advisory Board for the Templeton-funded project at the Yale Center for Faith and Culture on “Theology of Joy and the Good Life”; and he has welcomed me as a dinner-guest at his home in London.
One need not be partial to recognize that Rabbi Sacks is one of the most significant public intellectuals today speaking in a distinctly religious voice. As his many books and public lectures attest, his brilliant intellect, deep devotion to his own religious tradition, and an exceptional ability to communicate ideas clearly combine to make his influence exceptional among his peers. All three of these qualities are amply demonstrated in his books, and especially in The Politics of Hope (1997), The Dignity of Difference (2002) and Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence (2015). But he is not the only public intellectual with such qualities—and, significant as these qualities are, they would not have sufficed to earn him the Templeton Prize.
So why is Sacks such a worthy recipient of this honor, and more to the point here, why can evangelicals celebrate this as well? There are four main reasons, and they form an integrated whole in public philosophy.
I am partial in naming them, of course. Over the years—especially in A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good (Brazos, 2011) and, most recently, in Flourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World (Yale, 2016)—I have advocated very similar positions from a Christian perspective, sometimes in explicit conversation with Rabbi Sacks.
Against the backdrop of a common disrespect for difference either in secular critiques of religion or in shrill contentiousness among religious people, it is significant that two persons, both deeply rooted and strongly committed to their own tradition, can share so much about the importance of religious traditions in public life and the nature of their engagement for the common good. This commonality is doubly significant since, given the long history of Jewish/Christian relations, we would not have expected anything of the sort only a few decades ago. Committed religious people can agree, and when they disagree, they can do so in a civil way.
First, while recognizing extraordinary achievements of modernity, Sacks is at the same time aware of its limitations and insists that religion has an indispensible contribution to make. He writes, “None of the four great institutions of the modern age—science, technology, the market economy or the liberal democratic state—offers a compelling answer to the three great questions every reflective human being will ask at some stage in his life: Who am I? Why am I here? How then shall I live?”
As citizens of modern democracies, educated in modern universities and working in market economies, we are experts at using sophisticated means to achieve desired ends, but we are amateurs when it comes to knowing what ends we should desire. As a result, we run hard but gain no ground in terms of fulfillment. Throughout the course of our lives, meaninglessness lurks at every turn. As Sacks puts it, the “21st century has left us with a maximum of choice and a minimum of meaning.”
Second, Sacks is persuaded that the most compelling answers to questions of human identity and purpose come especially from the great religious traditions. Why is it, asks Sacks, that great nations, economic systems, and entire cultures come and go in the course of history, but the great religious traditions perdure through millennia? It is because they give compelling answers—contestable and contested answers, of course, but compelling to millions—to questions like, “Why we are here?” and “What kind of world should we seek to create?”
I myself have put the matter this way in Flourishing: “Whatever else world religions might be, they are, at their heart, accounts of life worth living, of life being lived well, life going well, and life feeling good under the primacy of transcendence. Accounts of the good life are the most important gift world religions can give to the world.” The accounts of the good life in world religions often don’t agree with one another, but they are crucial options to be taken into consideration in the human search for the truth of our existence.
Third, religions are not inherently violent. Put slightly differently, it is not the case that hidden in every religious person is an extremist “waiting to happen.” True, he contends that “the greatest threat to freedom in the postmodern world is radical, politicized religion,” the face of what he calls “altruistic evil,” which is to say “evil committed in a sacred cause, in the name of high ideals.” But Sacks believes that “when religion turns men into murderers, God weeps.”
And religion does so most frequently when it turns political—not when it is merely politically engaged, but when there is no separation of religion and state, when religion functions as the transcendental justification of the state. In contrast, the great monotheist traditions, starting with Abraham, insist that “every human being, regardless of color, culture, class, or creed, was in the image and likeness of God” and therefore possesses equal dignity to any other human being and should be free in the choice of religion (or a-religion).
Fourth, religious people should have a public voice. This last point follows from the previous three, if one assumes that each person’s having a voice in public affairs—that some kind of democracy—is desirable. “I believe,” Sacks writes, “that religion, or more precisely, religions, should have a voice in the public conversation within the societies in the West, as to how to live, how to construct a social order, how to enhance human dignity, honor human life, and indeed protect a whole from environmental hazard.” Sacks is making two important and related points here.
First, he is rejecting both secular exclusion of religion from the public sphere and religious imposition of a single religion onto the entire public space; he is against any form of totalitarianism or authoritarianism, whether secular or religious.
Second, he is advocating for something like liberal political pluralism; we need political arrangements such that people divided along important and enduring lines of difference would be able to participate as equals in the search for the common good. That’s where the two moral convictions about human equality and freedom of religion come in. These two moral convictions, which significant streams of thought in other world religions share with major branches of contemporary Judaism and Christianity, are the key building blocks of pluralistic political order appropriate for a contemporary globalized world.
We live in an interconnected and highly interdependent world made of nation states that are, due to intense migration of people, highly diverse and often deeply divided along cultural and religious lines. In the West, we are presently witnessing a wave of resistance to “the stranger,” especially when that stranger gives allegiance to the Muslim faith.
“I think Islam hates us … There’s an unbelievable hatred of us,” said the immensely popular frontrunner for the Republican nomination in the presidential race, Donald Trump. That is certainly not true of “Islam,” but it is true of many Muslims. But what Trump is not saying, and what is evident from how he is acting, is that there is also a corresponding hatred of Islam and of Muslims in the West. Religious tensions are rife elsewhere as well, especially in Asia. Consider the following facts, which speak in cold numbers about the warm blood and tears of many:
- 46 percent of the world population lives in countries with high or very high levels of social hostility involving religion.
- Almost 75 percent of the world’s roughly 7 billion people live in countries with high levels of government restriction of freedom of religion.
- In nearly 33 percent of countries, individuals were assaulted or displaced from their homes in retaliation for specific religious activities considered offensive or threatening to the majority religion, including preaching and other forms of religious expression.
- In 30 percent of countries, religion-related terrorist groups were active in recruitment or fundraising.
Today, more than at any other time since World War II, we need people who do not only condemn extremism, but offer a vision, rooted in their own tradition, of a world in which people with deep disagreements inhabit a common space and work for the common good. If this is a call to people of all faiths, it is certainly a call to evangelicals, who like many others, seek to be peacemakers in a troubled world. Rabbi Sacks is such a person in the Jewish tradition, and he has articulated such a vision in a most compelling way. That’s why he deserves the Templeton Prize.