The $1.6 million Templeton Prize, the richest award made to an individual by a philanthropic organization, was given Wednesday to Michael Heller, 72, a Roman Catholic priest, cosmologist and philosopher who has spent his life asking, and perhaps more impressively answering, questions like “Does the universe need to have a cause?”
The John Templeton Foundation, which awards grants to encourage scientific discovery on the “big questions” in science and philosophy, commended Professor Heller, who is from Poland, for his extensive writings that have “evoked new and important consideration of some of humankind’s most profound concepts.”
Much of Professor Heller’s career has been dedicated to reconciling the known scientific world with the unknowable dimensions of God.
In doing so, he has argued against a “God of the gaps” strategy for relating science and religion, a view that uses God to explain what science cannot.
Professor Heller said he believed, for example, that the religious objection to teaching evolution “is one of the greatest misunderstandings” because it “introduces a contradiction or opposition between God and chance.”
In a telephone interview, Professor Heller explained his affinity for the two fields: “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.”
Professor Heller said he planned to use his prize to create a center for the study of science and theology at the Pontifical Academy of Theology, in Krakow, Poland, where he is a faculty member.
Professor Heller was born in 1936 in Tarnow, Poland, one of five children in a deeply religious family devoted to intellectual interests. His mother, a schoolteacher, and his father, a mechanical and electrical engineer, fled to Russia in 1939 before the Nazi occupation.
On returning years later to Poland, where Communist authorities sought to oppress intellectuals and priests, Professor Heller found shelter for his work in the Catholic Church. He was ordained at 23, but spent just one year ministering to a parish before he felt compelled to return to academia.
“It was one of the most difficult years of my life,” Professor Heller said. “This confrontation of this highly idealistic approach to life with everyday life is very painful.”
“When I was asked to attend to a dying person,” he said, “I was not prepared for life myself, so I had a difficult time to prepare someone to pass away. When you are confronted with such an immediate fact, you never think about the high goals of your life.”
The prize will be officially awarded in London by Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, in a private ceremony on May 7 at Buckingham Palace.
(For more information on the Templeton Prize: http://www.templetonprize.org/purpose.html)