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Sir John the religion philanthropist is dead

by Brad A. Greenberg

July 8, 2008 | 3:30 pm

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John Templeton, the legendary investor who started a foundation that connected science and spirituality, died today in the Bahamas. He was 95.

In a career that spanned seven decades, Sir John dazzled Wall Street, organized some of the most successful mutual funds of his time, led investors into foreign markets, established charities that now give away $70 million a year, wrote books on finance and spirituality and promoted a search for answers to what he called the “Big Questions” — realms of science, faith, God and the purpose of humanity.

Along the way, he became one of the world’s richest men, gave up American citizenship, moved to the Bahamas, was knighted by the Queen of England and bestowed much of his fortune on spiritual thinkers and innovators: Mother Teresa, Billy Graham, Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, the physicist Freeman Dyson, the philosopher Charles Taylor and a pantheon of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus.

Inevitably, the Templeton charities engendered controversy. Critics called his “spiritual realities” a contradiction in terms, reflecting a fundamental incompatibility between science and religion. To many, the very idea of “progress” in religion seemed strange, and giving grants for “discoveries” in the field invited accusations that science was being manipulated to promote religion.

That’s from The New York Times. The London Telegraph has more.

Despite his investing genius, which both articles discuss heavily, Templeton would be best-known to readers of this blog for the John Templeton Foundation, which recently ran an ad in The New York Times Magazine with scientists’ responses to whether science made God obsolete. The annual Templeton Prize is a really big deal, complete with a big cash reward. (Michael Heller and the others thank you.)

To me, the great thing about Templeton was the way his foundation promoted the intersection of science and spirituality, his prize recipients ranging from Mother Teresa to Charles Taylor, author of “The Secular Age.” The passing of such a religiously minded philanthropist brought this insincere mourning from PZ Myers:

This is a sad event, since from all I’ve heard from those who met him, he was a very nice fellow. It’s just too bad that he threw so much money away into a fruitless and pointless endeavor that does nothing but prop up belief in unreality.

Three years ago, Templeton gave control of the foundation over to his born-again son. What this suggests about the future of the John Templeton Foundation, I’m not sure. Here is the story Christianity Today published after the changing of the guard.

The handover of the foundation from father to son also poses personal challenges. The elder Templeton is a universalist. He views God as a divine force of “pure unlimited love.” His son Jack is a born-again evangelical and member of the conservative Presbyterian Church in America.

The Templetons have vastly different life experiences. Sir John is a deeply spiritual businessman. Jack is a high-achieving trauma surgeon committed to science and medicine.

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The foundation’s charter and bylaws spell out the future in detail. First, the officers of the foundation must read Sir John’s books. “You must read his articles and books to know the mind of the donor,” Jack says. Every five years, three independent analysts will conduct a review to see if the officers are making grants consistent with Templeton’s intent. If they find that Jack is giving 9 percent of the grants to causes inconsistent with his father’s intent, he has one year to bring the grants back into line. If not, Jack and his top two people will be fired.

Through shared purpose, father and son have achieved a new level of trust. The foundation’s mission brought them closer together.

Former Pew officer Carpenter is confident about the foundation’s future. “There are no others I know of so resolutely focused on the one strategic area of faith and science. Should Templeton stay engaged there for the long term, it could help build a depth and range of inquiry to benefit the orthodox Christian community immensely as it seeks a mature perspective on faith and science.”

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Since launching the blog in 2007, I’ve referred to myself as “a God-fearing Christian with devilishly good Jewish looks.” The description, I’d say, is an accurate one,...

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