I'm as much of a fan of the Dalai Lama as the next guy--well, more than the guys who run China--but His Holiness' award of the 2012 Templeton Prize does set me to wondering what the folks at the Templeton Foundation are thinking when they seek out individuals to give $1.7 of their eponymous founder's dough to.
Sir John Templeton, the billionnaire investor who would be 100 this year had he not died in 2008, intended the prize to be given for "spiritual progress"--a happy conceit more redolent of 19th-century religious optimism than of the weltanschauung of victimization that grips the religiosity of our time. Sir John was nothing if not eclectic in his understanding of great spiritual progressives: Christians and Jews, Hindus and Muslims and Buddhists, and those who merely think big thoughts.
When Templeton inaugurated the richer-than-the-Nobel prize 40 years ago, there was a certain preferential option for those devoted to helping the poor--Mother Teresa (1973); Brother Roger (1974), who founded the Taize community; Chiara Lubich (1977), founder of Italy's Focolare movement. But over the years there were also regular awards for ecumenical and interfaith pioneers like Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (1975), Inamullah Kahn (1988), and Sigmund Sternberg (1998). And evangelistic types like Billy Graham (1982), Charles Colson (1993), and Bill Bright (1996). And plain old prominent religious leaders like Cardinal Suenens of Belgium (1976) and Chief Rabbi Jacobovits of England (1996).
Increasingly, however, the prize came to be dominated by the Thinkers--scientists mostly, who had things to say about the universe and the Meaning of Life, and who were maybe religious themselves or at least not actively hostile to religion. Indeed, from Carleton College physicist-theologian Ian Barbour in 1999 to University of Cambridge Astronomer Royal Martin J. Rees last year, the Templeton Prize was exclusively the preserve of such characters. In that sense, the Dalai Lama represents a throwback to the laureates of the last century.
What's striking about the list is that it's been since 1981 since the prize was given to a woman--Dame Cicely Saunders, founder of the Hospice and Palliative Care Movement. Evidently, the Templeton Foundation has seen the spiritual progress of the past 30 years as led exclusively by men. Myself, I find that hard to believe.