Sir John Templeton: Mixing Science, Religion, and Humility

By T George Harris
Spirituality & Health – The Soul/Body Connection

Humility, in the life of the legendary international money genius Sir John Templeton, is not a passive attitude but a rigorous method of thought and action that has taken me four years to begin to understand. Not that Sir John achieves humility (how could one be humble with a cacophony of people calling you “Sir John” all the time?). Instead, his imperative to “work at being an humble person” has made him super-rich, put 22 honorary degrees in the trophy room of his Nassau home, won him his knighthood, and drives his Templeton Foundation to spend more than $30 million a year to forge an alliance between the great spiritual traditions and the skeptical, searching approach of science.

What I have come to realize is that behind those brown spaniel eyes, this international money genius hungers for ideas the way a boy loves ice cream. “Would you write me a letter, George, on what we might do on creativity?” he said last year, after an afternoon chat in London. Convinced that spiritual wisdom is collected in ordinary folk sayings as well as in most religions, he funded scholars to help him compile a book of interfaith proverbs, The Worldwide Laws of Life (Templeton Foundation Press), and he has organized many of our finest minds into a radical reexamination of human nature and nature. All the while his aggressive modesty keeps him from ever blocking his mind with vested resistance to new ways of knowing. He’s a quick study because he never pretends he already knows.

How the Meek Inherit the Earth

Sir John’s triumphs started early and, without a pervasive humility discipline, could have turned him into one more self-made bore who confesses the sins of others. Born in the rough ridges of Winchester, Tennessee, he became superintendent at the Presbyterian Sunday school by age 15. Comfortable being brighter than most, he was the first boy in town to go to college, and he chose Yale. When the Depression clobbered his father, a small-town lawyer and realtor, young John calmly resolved to earn his own tuition, board, and room, partly by regular night work as a gambler. He held three jobs, beat the preppies at poker for the top third of his income, and still graduated first in his class, with a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford. Forty years later he would repay that scholarship by building Oxford a business school, Templeton College.

Returning to New York from Oxford, he paid only $25 for used furniture to fix up a five-room apartment, a sixth-floor walkup in Manhattan’s Yorkville, then a German ghetto next to Harlem. From this exercise-promoting home, he and his wife reared three children and sent them all through medical school.

Humility constraints made him a “contrarian,” Wall Street’s double-edged put-down for money managers who don’t try to run with the momentum of the market. “The other boys at Yale came from wealthy families, and none were investing outside the United States,” Templeton recently told a writer for Wired magazine. “And I thought, ‘That is very egotistical. Shouldn’t I be more open-minded?’” His country-town modesty also gave him original insights into his investor-customers. It told him that millions of new investors would never have the ego to bet their nest eggs on one or two baskets of stocks picked by high rollers in big-name brokerage houses. Soon the financial scoreboard turned a poor-boy contrarian into a recognized genius. Investments in his Templeton Funds for the unproud grew a lovely 15 percent a year, compounded, from 1954 until he sold out for “about four-tenths of a billion dollars” in 1992. A $10,000 investment in the fund at the start would have grown to more than $3 million.

But wait a minute, Sir John will say when he reads this, all that sounds mighty egotistical. Not once but twice he reminded me, an old financial reporter, that he never pretended to be a picker of hot stocks. In fact, he had researchers run studies to prove how many mistakes he had made. In a letter from his Nassau home last October, he cautioned: “In my 45-year career as an investment counselor, humility did show me the need for worldwide diversification to reduce risk. That career did help me to become more and more humble because statistics showed that when I advised a client to buy one stock to replace another, about one-third of the time the client would have done better to ignore my advice. In other endeavors, humility about how little I know has encouraged me to listen more carefully and more wisely.”

Why No Progress in Religion?

Early in Templeton’s prosperous career, Princeton Theological Seminary, crown jewel of Presbyterianism, recruited Templeton to its board, eventually as its chairman. From this high academic post, he followed the main currents of religious thought and compared their progress against the brilliant revolutions in the sciences, visible in Einstein’s Princeton Institute for Advanced Study just up Nassau Street from the seminary. “In 30 years on the board, very few new ideas came to us,” he told a friend recently. “A doctor today would never prescribe the treatments that my grandfather used as a surgeon in the Confederate Army, but a minister says pretty much the same thing today that a minister would have said back then.”

The chief handicap of religious people, he told me, is that “they tend to start with all the answers and don’t change them, while scientists start with questions.” To encourage progress in religious thought, in 1971 he set up the annual Templeton Prize, $1 million (pointedly more than the Nobel award) for whoever makes the most substantial innovation in religion each year. Mother Teresa won the first in 1971 for her advances in loving the dying. Astrophysicist Freeman Dyson won last year for his brilliant synthesis of scientific evidence that atoms behave “like active agents rather than inert substances” and that “the universe as a whole is weird, with laws of nature that make it hospitable to the growth of mind.”

What won Dyson his million dollars is that he carefully uses the name of God to confess how little we do know: “God is what mind becomes when it has passed beyond the scale of our comprehension.” So the excitement in science is a function of moving beyond comprehension, beyond the confident laws of 19th-century physics into the divine uncertainties of today’s chaos and string theory. That’s just the kind of serene and searching mind Sir John hoped to nourish when he when he set up the Templeton Prize as “my first major program to encourage other people to become more humble.” His larger goal is “making people get over the concept that they’ve got the total proof. To get them to feel, ‘Gee, I want to learn more. I want to hear anybody who can tell me something in addition to ways I already know about God or my spiritual principles.’”

Sir John is genially aware of the irony he creates with an innovation award in a field that mainly looks into the rear-view mirrors of Scripture. That’s his point. “If we become increasingly humble about how little we know, we may be more eager to search,” he wrote to me recently. “Humanity now spends over U.S. $1 billion per day on research. If even one-tenth of that could be devoted to spiritual research, the discoveries might be even more amazing and beneficial than those in the past century in electronics, medicine, genetics, subatomic physics, astronomy, et cetera.”

“Awesome Mysteries” Beyond Old Certainties

Sir John does not attack anyone’s religious belief (“That would be egotistical,” he says) but his humbling mix of theology and science puzzles folks who know all about God and are sure He wrote it all down for us in the Bible. And certainly Templeton’s effort to encourage more modest claims on truth among less assured denominations has led him to many disappointments, but he is careful not to talk about them in public. Here’s one humility challenge he doesn’t have to work for. He would never have guessed that his life’s passion would nourish more thinkers outside the Church than inside.

Nevertheless, the scientists who now team with theologians under one of his new grant programs live in a more exciting, richer world than they knew before. And their theological partners discover that scientists on the cutting edge work, as they do, with evidence of things unseen and in fact with phenomena for which we don’t even have metaphors in the visible world, only abstract equations. The fact that some of this collaboration is already paying off in medicine, from Harvard and Duke to Mayo and California’s Scripps Clinic, means that the intellectual ferment is not wasted. (See “Applying the Humble Approach”).

“We may find the divine to be 3,000 times what we think it is now,” says Sir John. And while this assertion may seem a little too pat – and hard to take from a super-rich British knight – it comes from a man whose hard-held humility is bringing on spiritual transformation in the 21st century.