NEW YORK — At the heart of George Ellis's alternative cosmological view is the principle of kenosis, or self-sacrificing love - a force he contends is permanently embedded in the universe, and capable of inspiring humanity to reach ever higher.
"True hope goes a little beyond what is realistic," says the South African scientist.
The work of Professor Ellis, which some say scientifically codifies optimism, has won him international recognition over the years, and just this week, the $1.4-million- dollar Templeton Prize for research or discoveries about spiritual realities. (www.templetonprize.org). He will use the award to continue his philanthropic and academic work in his native South Africa - the country he credits with helping develop his vision of a moral universe.
"In the history of our country, there was very good reason to give up hope for the future," he says. "But in fact, the right thing to do was to hope it would come right. And hoping it would come right was already part of the force that helps to transform."
Since childhood, Ellis was immersed in ethical issues. His parents were tireless opponents of apartheid.
He was first interested in Anglicanism but in 1974 joined the Religious Society of Friends, attracted by the Quakers' emphasis on ethics and tolerance.
But at the same time, Ellis's intellect drew him to the sciences. As a mathematician and physicist, Ellis developed a high-powered career. He earned his bachelor's degree in physics from the University of Cape Town in 1960, and received his PhD from Cambridge University in 1964. While teaching at Cambridge, he wrote "The Large Scale Structure of Space-Time" with Stephen Hawking.
Along with his formidable start in general relativity theory and cosmology, Ellis also broke into social activism, publishing works on homelessness and unfair housing policies in the 1970s. More recently, he has begun to integrate his spiritual and scientific interests. "I don't think I've ever really doubted it," he says of the link between science and religion.
In 1996 he wrote "On the Moral Nature of the Universe: Cosmology, Theology and Ethics" with Nancy Murphy of Fuller Theological Seminary, and later edited "The Far-Future Universe," a group of articles on the tension between rationality and hope.
To Ellis, much of this conflict between science and religion arises when science makes claims outside its scope.
"There's a whole series of scientists that are claiming far beyond what science can actually state," he says. "And they have to be challenged just as the bishops of old had to be challenged when they were claiming too much."
Ellis contends that the world's religions concur on the principle of kenosis, this self-sacrificing love.
"All the major religions have a deep common understanding of love, sacrifice, and so on, and I think this is a common theme which deep spirituality is seeing and agreeing on," he says.
He contends that spiritual power is capable of overturning rational expectations for the future, as happened during the civil rights movement in the United States in the 1960s, India's war for independence from Britain, and of course, more recently, the end of apartheid in South Africa.