Templeton Winner Thinks Big

By Street, Nick | Science & Spirit, May-June 2008 | Go to article overview

Templeton Winner Thinks Big


Street, Nick, Science & Spirit


Michal Kazimierz Heller, recipient of this year's Templeton Prize "for progress toward research or discoveries about spiritual realities," is an unlikely believer in the idea that human history, spiritual or otherwise, is a chronicle of progress.

In September 1939, with German forces greedily devouring great chunks of his native Poland, Heller's father, a mechanical engineer at a chemical factory, helped to sabotage what was about to become industrial war booty for the Third Reich. He then fled with his family--including three-year-old Michal--to the relative safety of Lvov, a culturally Polish city in what was then the Soviet Socialist Republic of Ukraine.

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A few months later, the Hellers, along with a million other Poles, were relocated under Stalin's orders to labor camps, first in Siberia and later in southern Russia.

Only after Poland became a Soviet satellite in 1946 were the Hellers able to resettle in Tarnow, their hometown, near the Czech border. By that time, Michal had spent seven of his ten years either as a fugitive from the Nazis or a prisoner of the Communists.

Having become so intimately acquainted at such a young age with the grimmest aspects of human character, Heller could easily be forgiven a Manichean perspective on the world. But as an ordained Catholic priest and cosmologist, he flatly rejects both the aridity of strict materialism ("matter is all that exists") and especially the "God in the gaps" variety of magical thinking that informs the "intelligent design" movement.

"Such views are theologically erroneous," Heller said in his response to receiving the Templeton Prize. "They implicitly revive the old manicheistic error postulating the existence of two forces acting against each other: God and inert matter ... There is no opposition here. Within the all-comprising mind of God, what we call chance and random events is well composed into the symphony of creation."

This belief in the ontological continuity between the Creator and his creation puts Heller squarely in the center of the Western philosophical lineage that begins with Aristotle and grows in influence under Aquinas, Aristotle's thirteenth-century Christian apologist. The central features of this movement are, first, a belief that human reason can discern the mind of God in nature and, second, that this process of discernment is the engine that moves human civilization steadily closer to the state of perfection willed by God. …

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