Michael Heller: a thinker who bridges science and theology

The priest and philosopher from Poland wins the 2008 Templeton Prize for advancing a complex dialogue.

moises velasquez-manoff
'Science gives us knowledge, but religion gives us meaning.' – Michael Heller, 2008 Templeton Prize winner

Polish theologian, cosmologist, and philosopher Michael Heller, who lived through both Nazi and communist rule and has long sought to reconcile science and religion, has won the 2008 Templeton Prize.

The £820,000 prize (more than $1.6 million) is awarded "for progress toward research or discoveries about spiritual realities." The John Templeton Foundation, whose stated mission is "to serve as a philanthropic catalyst for discovery in areas engaging life's biggest questions," awards the prize yearly.

Author of 30 books in Polish and five in English, Mr. Heller, an ordained Roman Catholic priest and a professor of philosophy at the Pontifical Academy in Krakow, Poland, has made the fostering of dialogue between science and religion a priority.

"He's one of the key contributors in the international scholarly community dedicated to the creative dialogue on science, theology, and philosophy," says Robert John Russell, founder and director of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences in Berkeley, Calif. "He's a great example of someone who bridges these fields."

For Heller, these seemingly distinct realms of human understanding actually depend on one another for stability.

"Science gives us knowledge, but religion gives us meaning," he says. "Science without religion is not meaningless, but lame…. And religion without science [slides] into fundamentalism," he says.

Heller draws on deep understanding of cosmology, religion, and philosophy to tackle questions such as, "Does the universe need to have a cause?" and "Why is there something rather than nothing?"

Those familiar with Heller's work laud his rigor of thought.

"In an era when serious scientists and serious religionists declare themselves at war with each other and claims of connections are often by superficial thinkers, Michael Heller is the exception," says Philip Clayton, professor of philosophy and religion at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, Calif. "Rigorous thinkers seem to have fled the no man's land between the two warring factions."

Heller was born in 1936 in Tarnow, Poland, one of five children. His mother was a teacher, his father a mechanical and electrical engineer. When the Germans invaded in 1939, Heller's father sabotaged the chemical factory where he worked to keep it out of Nazi hands. The family then fled east into what is now Ukraine.

In 1940, Joseph Stalin ordered 1 million Poles, including Heller's family, to Siberia to log the forests. The hardships of exile made a lasting impression.

"[Heller] knew that many people survived the extreme Siberian situation because they found in prayer both their spiritual force and their will to survive," writes Joseph Zycinski, archbishop of Lublin, Poland, in the foreword to Heller's 2003 book, "Creative Tension: Essays on Science and Religion." "His main dream after coming back to Poland was to become a priest and to help people in finding solutions to the most basic problems of life."

Heller has a different take. On his return to Poland, "I was too ambitious," he says, smiling. "I wanted to do what was the most important thing to be done."

In his estimation, that was science and religion. In 1959, at a time when religion was officially discouraged under communism, Heller was ordained a priest. In 1966, he received his PhD in philosophy from the Catholic University of Lublin. And beginning in 1969, Karol Wojtyla, the archbishop of Krakow who later became Pope John Paul II, began inviting scientists, philosophers, and theologians – Heller included – to his residence to discuss how the disciplines interrelated. The group became known as the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies.

Heller also studied Marxist philosophy, primarily so he could rebut it. His time in Siberia had given him an all-too-close view of the reality behind the slogans. "Many young Poles were seduced by Marxism," he says. "But from the very beginning, I had no illusions."

Navigating these worlds sharpened Heller, says Professor Clayton.

"Michael had to work with the complexities of two very difficult systems – the communist system and the complexities of Vatican politics," he says. "Instead of being tempted to sell his soul, he used that complexity as a drive, as impetus to do more careful and more subtle work at the level of the science-religion dialogue where enduring connections could be discovered."

Heller plans to use his winnings to help launch the Copernicus Center in Krakow. It will offer an education in science and theology as an academic discipline.

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