Sir John Templeton wrote extensively on spirituality and the role that scientific research could play in expanding the spiritual horizons of humankind. The most comprehensive single account of his views is the volume titled Possibilities for Over One Hundredfold More Spiritual Information: The Humble Approach in Theology and Science (2000). Here he set forth his beliefs, his vision of the future, and his intentions for the John Templeton Foundation.
In a subsequent and complementary collection of essays, Wisdom from World Religions: Pathways toward Heaven on Earth (2002), Sir John expanded on his spiritual and theological beliefs. In this volume, he stressed the universality of the search for spiritual insight and underscored the historic contributions to human wisdom provided by the world's various religions and cultures.
In both of these works, Sir John frequently posed rhetorical questions designed to call attention to new possibilities for spiritual awareness and growth that previously may have been rejected, ignored, or overlooked. In the realms of both science and spirituality, he emphasized, we presently have far more questions than answers.
In an earlier book, Worldwide Laws of Life: 200 Eternal Spiritual Principles (1997), Sir John set out a number of what he saw as universal laws regarding the capacity of human beings to shape their own lives and minds in such a way as to promote personal happiness, social benefit, and spiritual progress. He firmly believed that the greatest truths might someday be available to us if we asked the Big Questions of life and existence with an attitude of humility, gratitude, and open-mindedness. As the motto he devised for his Foundation declares, "How little we know, how eager to learn."
Sir John was a visionary optimist. He believed that we are fortunate to live in an age with momentous opportunities for the future, brought to us by past achievements in commerce, technology, learning, and research:
Should we be overwhelmingly grateful to have been born in the 20th century? Is the slow progress of prehistoric ages now speeding up? It seems that centuries of human enterprise are now miraculously bursting into flower. Is the development of human knowledge accelerating? Is the present generation reaping the fruits of generations of scientific thought? [Possibilities, p. 51]
The answer to each of these questions was a resounding "yes":
More than half of the scientists who ever lived are alive today. More than half of the discoveries in the natural sciences have been made from 1900 to 1999. More than half of the goods produced since the earth was born have been produced in the 20th century. Over half of the books ever written were written from 1949 to 1999. More new books are published each month than were written in the entire historical period before the birth of Columbus. [Possibilities, p. 51]
Struck by the unprecedented speed of human progress today, Sir John asked whether we might not be a part of the creator's much grander purposes:
It is a novel concept, but maybe one of the purposes of god is progress. This may touch upon a deep mystery: the purpose of freedom and the openness of creativity in the cosmos. If the cosmos and our own minds have this capacity, then maybe our activities have great usefulness and great potentiality in the creator's designs.
Possibly divine design appears in our own freedom more than in any cosmically enforced order, such as many religious thinkers have presumed in the past when they conceived of god as having attributes of a wise king. [Possibilities, p. 37]
If so, we may now be living in an age with unprecedented opportunities for spiritual growth:
Evidence indicates that the rate of spiritual development is accelerating. Throughout the two hundred thousand years of our history as a species, there have been periods of gradual growth, followed by rapid development. . . . Now, a new vision of our place and purpose in the cosmos is unfolding. Possibly, we may be setting the stage for a giant leap forward in our spiritual understanding. [Wisdom, p. xxii]
As impressive as our current knowledge may seem today, Sir John believed that it was slight compared to the knowledge that humanity might yet achieve. Just as a person living 200 years ago could have had little understanding of what the human race has now achieved, so we, too, can have little understanding of what the next 200 years will bring:
In spite of the enormous strides made by science and the incredible power of our new instruments to reveal the secrets of the universe, large and small, we must accept in all humility that our knowledge is still limited. We cannot even be sure that the vast universe unveiled to us by our telescopes is all that exists. There may be other regions of the universe far beyond the reach of our instruments having very different properties. It is even possible that entire other universes co-exist in parallel with our own. [Possibilities, p. 58]
Moreover, our ignorance extends beyond the material to the spiritual:
Modern science has revolutionized our understanding of the world. This is quite obvious. But what impact have these developments had on our knowledge of God? How do we see human beings fitting into the overall scheme? We know very little—probably less than 1 percent of what can be discovered—about God and fundamental spiritual principles. [Wisdom, p. 80]
Sir John therefore believed it was necessary to adopt a "humble approach" in all of our investigations of the cosmos, both scientific and spiritual:
Our five human senses are able to comprehend only a small portion of the mysteries, forces, and spiritual realities surrounding us. Our scientific and technological achievements, while impressive, are nevertheless but a first faltering step on the road to ever greater knowledge of this wonderful cosmos, including its invisible and intangible intelligences and realities. [Possibilities, p. 59]
In particular, we cannot presume that the human race represents the final stage of God's creative process. Rather, we may be just the beginning:
Although we seem to be the most sophisticated species at present on our planet, perhaps we should not think of our place as at the end of cosmogenesis. Should we resist the pride that might tempt us to think that we are the final goal of creation? Possibly, we can become servants of creation or even helpers in divine creativity. Possibly, we are a new beginning, the first creatures in the history of life on earth to participate consciously in the ongoing creative process. [Possibilities, p. 41]
In spiritual matters, particularly, Sir John urged us
. . . to explore the possibility that developing a humble approach in theology, which encourages research and engages carefully with science, may be even more fruitful than endeavors to reinvigorate inherited systems of thought, whether they be polytheistic, deistic, theistic, monotheistic, pantheistic, panentheistic, or even older concepts. [Possibilities, p. 10]
If mainstream religious thinkers were to adopt this view, they might help open the door to new spiritual insights of immense importance to future generations:
The question before us is whether theologians and religious scholars, clergy, and laity can also take the humble approach. If they accept the inexhaustibility of god's revelation in terms of science, as do many scientists, should they hope that revelations in terms of the spirit are also inexhaustible, vastly exceeding our capacities to grasp them? Possibly, the greater part of divine revelation, both scientific and spiritual, may still lie ahead of us, not behind us. [Possibilities, p. 62]
Sir John believed that continued scientific progress was essential, not only to provide material benefits to humanity but also to reveal and illuminate God's divine plan for the universe, of which we are a part:
Each time new laws are discovered by scientists, we potentially can learn a little more about divinity. . . . It seems as if the evolutionary process rewards emergence of the capability of purposefulness as an adaptive advantage. Can this, and the vast, complex, and sublime order of mathematical physics which undergirds it, be a mistake? Would it not be strange if a universe without purpose accidentally created humans who are so obsessed with purpose? [Possibilities, p. 84]
All of nature reveals something of the creator. And god is revealing himself more and more to human inquiry, not always through prophetic visions or scriptures but through the astonishingly productive research of modern scientists. [Possibilities, p. 87]
For Sir John, any hope for advancement in our understanding of spiritual matters depended on strict conformity to the highest scientific standards:
A scientific approach has the benefit of being reality-focused and disciplined in relation to change. . . . So the development of new concepts in theology developed in close connection with rigorous science differs from unconstrained free thinking.
The difference involves differentiating between ideological enthusiasm versus following a careful, sober, and skeptically minded process of analysis, critical testing, and verification. Such a careful, humble approach helps ensure that experiments related to spiritual matters are done in a manner that can win respect among the best-educated people. [Possibilities, p. 115]
Our present treasury of scientific information is the result of centuries of intense personal endeavor and, in more recent times, of research designed to foster new discoveries. Should we not seize the present moment, Sir John asked, to make a similar effort—and expend commensurate resources—to increase our store of what he called "spiritual information"?
This is the blossoming time in human creation. Evolution is accelerating. Progress is accelerating. One of god's great blessings to human beings is change, and the present acceleration of change in the world is an overflowing of this blessing. Should those who love god devote over 1 percent of income to research for new additional spiritual information to supplement the wonderful ancient scriptures? [Possibilities, p. 43]
By "spiritual information," Sir John meant
. . . the concepts from religions which have proven beneficial and which need to be supplemented through millions of dollars daily for rigorous, verifiable research, especially on those neglected basic invisible realities such as love, purpose, creativity, intellect, thanksgiving, prayer, humility, praise, thrift, compassion, invention, truthfulness, giving, and worship. [Possibilities, p. vii]
Scientists would play a key role in this effort:
There may be significant promise in supporting a wide range of careful and rigorous research projects by well-regarded scientists on basic areas with theological relevance and potential. [Possibilities, p. 11]
A primary purpose of Sir John was therefore
. . . to examine or foster the idea that through an expanded search for more knowledge, in which we are open-minded and willing to experiment, theology may produce positive results even more amazing than the discoveries of scientists that have electrified the world with their discoveries in the 20th century. [Possibilities, p. 10]