SYDNEY — RELIGION'S ``Nobel Prize'' goes to ... an ecologist? Charles Birch - an Australian ``eco-philosopher'' - is co-winner of one of the world's biggest cash prizes: the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. To save the planet, says Professor Birch, people's perceptions of God and creation need to change.
``There's something wrong about the way we're operating in the world. Industrialization is despoiling the planet. We're annihilating 1,000 species a year. When you ask what is wrong, it comes down to there's something wrong about our values.''
As a maverick biologist, Birch was an early prophet of environmental degradation. His pioneer work, ``The Distribution and Abundance of Animals'' (with H.G. Andrewartha), outlined in 1954 the implications of unfettered population growth.
``He's one of the two or three most distinguished ecologists in the world,'' says noted American ecologist Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University. ``His first book made me want to call myself an ecologist.''
The son of a Methodist minister, Birch also has a less-trumpeted reputation (until now) as a radical Christian theologian. For almost as long as he's been a scientist, Birch has engaged in the ``adventurous reflection,'' as the Templeton announcement puts it, of questions relating to God and biological science.
Stroking a pet cat in his apartment overlooking Sydney Harbor, Birch argues humanity's ``flawed'' values stem from a general view of the Earth as a material stage filled with objects created for man's comfort and advancement. ``Ever since the rise of science in the 17th century, the mode of the universe people have tended to support is a very materialistic, mechanical model.'' The universe is seen as ``an object made in the past, out of material building blocks, now running itself,'' with God outside it.
But modern science is starting to see that it can't reproduce our world with a building-block model, says Birch. ``There's something mental in existence ... in life which we let slip through our fingers in the past. From protons to people, you have to look at them more as subjects rather than objects. Then you can see much more easily the relationship of God, not just to human beings, but to all of creation. That is because God can be incarnate in life, but God cannot be incarnate in machinery.''
This perspective gives all life forms, not mankind alone, inherent worth. And while Birch welcomes the recent upsurge in public awareness of environmental issues, he chastens conservationists for continuing to campaign on the anthropocentric ethic: ``Look after nature, then nature will look after us.''
``I want them to be concerned for animals whether or not they're useful to us. They are subjects, not just objects,'' says Birch.
``The $64,000 question is: `Where did subjectivity begin in the whole of cosmic evolution?' Most biologists would say, `Oh, somewhere below mammals. Birds, maybe. Certainly not frogs. ...' reptiles, and fish - forget about them.' There's a big problem in that approach, because you're saying mind and consciousness and all the characteristics of life have come out of something which is totally non-living, totally non-mental. The alternative approach is to say in some form or another the mental or the sentient was right there from the beginning. That's a different perspective.''
Birch's perspective on God also comes from another slant. God, declares Birch, is not all-powerful - at least not in the way he believes many Christian churches see God.
``I don't like the word `power.' It immediately suggests God as the manipulator who could have intervened to stop the Holocaust.'' God, says Birch, isn't a mechanic. Rather, God is ``persuasive love. Love that persuades creation to become what it can be. But the paradox is, there's power in love. And in the end, the only power that matters is love.''
Based on Birch's beliefs, solving the environmental problem requires a set of values, reflected in political and economic systems, that acknowledges the worth of all beings. Christian churches have been lax in expounding these values, he says. ``The advocacy of Western religious thought is most weak precisely here, where the ache of the world is most strong,'' writes Birch in a recent article.
He argues that the high standard of living enjoyed by rich nations will not eventually be shared by the poor nations, given current rates of pollution and limitations of the Earth's resources. ``The rich must live more simply, that the poor may simply live,'' he says.
Birch is entitled to spend his half of the $535,000 Templeton prize, announced earlier this month, in any manner he wishes. But recently retired from the University of Sydney, he makes a comfortable living as an author. His latest book, ``On Purpose,'' exploring questions about God's purpose and directions for today's society, is due out in Australia in April. (No US publisher has been found yet.)
Birch plans to give the prize money away. A big chunk will go to the Claremont School of Theology in California. He credits ``Process Theology,'' as espoused by the school's dean, John B. Cobb, with shaping his ideas. Another handout will go to a newly formed Geneva-based group working on Christian social and environmental ethics in Eastern Europe. And Birch wants to fund an annual lecture on human aspects of science and technology at the University of Sydney.
Birch shares the prize with lawyer Murlidhar Devidas Amte, who was recognized for work with the poor and lepers in India. The prize was established in 1972 by international investment manager John Templeton. Past winners include Mother Teresa, the Rev. Billy Graham, and novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.