March 21, 2014 6:48 pm

Defender of the faith

‘Secular society underestimates the power of religion, which has great positive energy’

There is something of an irony in the fact that one of the world’s biggest cash prizes is awarded for contribution in the fields of religion and spirituality. Sir John Templeton, the investor, philanthropist and founder of the Templeton Prize, awarded last week to the Czech priest and theologian Tomas Halik, quite deliberately set the prize money (£1.1m) just slightly higher than the Nobel but you could not say the decision was entirely successful. The Templeton commands much less attention and respect than the Nobel Prizes. Richard Dawkins is one of a number of scientists and rationalists who are contemptuous about the prize: he wrote in The God Delusion (2006) that it tends to go to “a scientist who is prepared to say something nice about religion”. He went so far as to accuse the astronomer Martin Rees of being a “compliant Quisling” for accepting it.

On my way to interview Professor Halik I was pondering whether Dawkins was right to be sniffy. Was there something naive, or worse, about the prize and its ideology (the Templeton website speaks of “entrepreneurs of the spirit”, a phrase I had difficulty swallowing, and the current Templeton Foundation chairman, John Templeton Jr, is a devout Christian and big contributor to the conservative advocacy organisation Let Freedom Ring Inc)? Or was the general lack of attention to the prize, despite recent high-profile winners such as Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama, simply a reflection of the neglect of spirituality in our hyper-materialistic world?

The Templeton used to be awarded for “progress in religion or spirituality” – the criterion has now been slightly changed to an “exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension” – and the first question I asked Halik was whether the notion of progress in religion or spirituality made any sense. His answer was typically subtle and not evasive. “Secular society underestimates the power of religion, which can be abused and in the worst cases is associated with violence but which also has great positive energy. Much depends on personalities.”

Halik, a saturnine, heavily bearded figure with a wicked line in papal mimicry, knows whereof he speaks partly because of the history of religion in his own country. Religion was more savagely suppressed in the former Czechoslovakia than in any other country under Soviet influence; Halik himself trained as a priest in secret, and was unable to minister, publish or travel for many years but suffered lightly compared with those of an earlier generation, some of whom were murdered or sent to labour camps or uranium mines. But despite or because of the repression, religion did not die in Czech lands; no doubt this had much to do with the courageous personality of Halik’s mentor, Cardinal Tomasek.

The personality Halik mainly had in mind was a man he enormously admires, the current Pope. “He communicates great spiritual authority, with his simple lifestyle,” said Halik, noting Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s decision to take the name of Francis, the saintly friar who gave up the trappings of wealth and reacquainted the church with the values of poverty and humility.

But the quality of the Pope he singles out is a less well-known one. It is what Halik calls his affinity for “nearness”. Here, Halik, an intellectual as much as a prelate, and a former adviser to the late Czech president Václav Havel, throws in a quotation from Heidegger: “The frantic abolition of all distances brings no nearness.” Technology may seem to have bridged enormous distances, enabling us to cross the world in hours or “connect” with a million Facebook friends, but do we really get nearer to anywhere or anyone in the process?

Nearness and distance are complementary, not antagonistic: Halik also respects distance, and those who keep a certain distance. In fact, he seems to be one of those people himself, quite reserved and not easy to get to know. As a priest, he is less interested in preaching to the converted, or evangelising to enthusiasts, than in reaching out to doubters. “The main line,” he told me, “is not between believers and non-believers but between dwellers and seekers, people for whom belief is a path, not a doctrine.”

For those who associate religion with militant, and sometimes murderous, certainty, a voice such as that of Tomas Halik offers an antidote, an idea of faith as “not a matter of adopting certain opinions but the courage to enter the domain of mystery”. The religion Dawkins attacks is a fundamentalist version that has nothing to do with Halik’s vision of immersion in profound questioning, and ultimately in love.

For me, brought up in a Catholic faith I rejected for being too little open to doubt, too sure of itself, too arrogant, Pope Francis’s commitment to humility and Halik’s to questioning are good signs. I remain a doubter, at a distance, but I would not rule out the possibility of spiritual renewal, if not progress, coming from unexpected sources.

harry.eyres@ft.com, @sloweyres

More columns at ft.com/eyres

Harry Eyres appears at the FT Weekend Oxford Literary Festival on Thursday, March 27, oxfordliteraryfestival.org

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