Archbishop Desmond Tutu has won this year’s Templeton Prize, awarded annually to “a living person who has made exceptional contributions to affirming life’s spiritual dimension”. In winning the award – the largest monetary prize in the world – Tutu joins the ranks of religious leaders like Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama. Perhaps it was this august company that made the Arch a bit less exuberant than normal at a media briefing on Thursday.
At the risk of sounding unbearably crass, the Templeton Prize is serious moolah. At $1,7 million – just over R15 million – it’s more than the Nobel Prize money, which fluctuates yearly, but for 2012 was set at $1,2 million. If the Nobel Prize committee suddenly decided to up the amount to $1,7 million, the Templeton Prize would have to rise too. This is because it’s a specific requirement of the founder – the late investor and philanthropist John Templeton – that the prize money must exceed that of the Nobel. The reason? “To underscore Templeton’s belief that benefits from discoveries that illuminate spiritual questions can be quantifiably more vast than those from other worthy human endeavours.”
To go from crass to churlish, one might also suggest that perhaps another reason why the prize money is pegged so high is to ensure the prize a high profile, and lend it some weight, since the credibility of the prize has been questioned at certain points in recent years. During the early years of the award’s inception, the winners were almost all religious icons like Mother Teresa. In the past decade, however, the winners’ list has been increasingly dominated by scientists, in a way which has occasioned much muttering among the scientific community.
When Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, was given the Templeton Prize in 2011, he was the fourth high-profile scientist in a row who was awarded the prize. Rees has no religious beliefs. It has been claimed that the prize is being awarded to renowned scientists in an attempt to give the impression that science and religion are gradually converging – a suggestion which the likes of Richard Dawkins adamantly oppose. In 2011 Nature quoted physicist Lawrence Krauss, a physicist who is a critic of the award, as saying that awarding the Templeton to Martin Rees “probably does much more honour to the prize than it does to Martin”.
There are other questions which hang over the Templeton. It has been claimed that there is a cronyistic element to the way in which the money is dispensed, with eight of the last 15 or so Templeton winners having reportedly sat on the Templeton board of advisors before having received the prize. Templeton money is also given to movies and TV shows which “increase man’s understanding and love of God”, and a previous recipient of this fund was Mel Gibson’s controversial The Passion of the Christ.
Nonetheless, it’s hard to find reports of anyone who’s ever turned down the Templeton Prize – maybe unsurprisingly, when you’re dealing with that much money. But perhaps it was a result of the particular criticism levelled at the Templeton Foundation after the award was made to Martin Rees in 2011 that in the two years since, the foundation has opted for utterly uncontroversial religious leaders to award the prize to. The only surprise about the Dalai Lama’s award (2012) or Desmond Tutu’s (2013), in fact, is that the two haven’t won it earlier. They would surely have been more logical picks for a “spiritual” prize than the procession of scientists collecting cheques in the 2000s.
The media briefing in Cape Town on Thursday to present Tutu as the award’s winner was not the official ceremony, which will take place in London next month. A special service was held in St George’s Cathedral to honour Tutu on Thursday afternoon. The press briefing, however, was a tightly-controlled event, a bit at odds with the normally relaxed atmosphere of events involving the Archbishop. Organisers were clearly keen to ensure that it was the receipt of the award that made headlines rather than any provocative political statements on Tutu’s part. Journalists fishing for soundbites of this kind were firmly told: “We are not going to go into modern politics.”
But there’s not much that can repress Tutu, who nonetheless managed to work in a critique of contemporary South African society beyond his humble acknowledgement of the award. Tutu ended his acceptance speech with a prayer for South Africa to “recover its own sense of worth” and become a “gentle, caring, compassionate society”. In a Q&A session thereafter, the Archbishop expanded a little on what he meant.
“I think that 1994 and what happened soon thereafter, particularly the setting up of the TRC, made us flavour of the month,” Tutu said. “We won the Rugby World Cup, the world really thought we were the cat’s whiskers. We can’t pretend that we have remained at the same heights. That’s why I did end with a plea that we can recover the spirit that made us great.”
Tutu said that the inequality that divides South Africa is not just a matter for politics, but also religion. “It is blasphemous that there are people who still live in shacks,” he said. “We thought that as soon as we could get rid of this horrendous thing [Apartheid], we would be moving onwards to being a more egalitarian society. But the statistics prove that we are the most unequal society in the world. And you don’t need statistics, you just need eyes.”
John Templeton Jr, the son of the award’s founder, was on hand to pay tribute to Tutu, who he described as a “leading moral voice for love, peace and justice” who has “long been one of the world’s most revered leaders”. A statement put out by the foundation explained why Tutu was considered a fitting recipient of the award: his message of love and forgiveness, created “through extensive contemplation of such profound ‘Big Questions’ as: ‘Do we live in a moral universe?’ and ‘What is humanity’s duty to reflect and live God’s purposes?’”
Tutu paid tribute, as he always does, to the support of his wife Leah and his family, together with other figures who assisted his calling, like the late Trevor Huddlestone. “Many in our country would say [Huddlestone] was a very special person to them,” Tutu said. “Hugh Masekela got his first trumpet as a gift from Satchmo – Louis Armstrong – and it was brought to him by Trevor Huddlestone.”
The Archbishop acknowledged in his address that the first question he was likely to receive would be about his intentions for the cash prize. “My friend the most recent Laureate [the Dalai Lama] behaved like a monk and gave all the money away,” Tutu chuckled. “I am certainly not going to want to hog it to myself.” He refused to be drawn further on his exact plans for the money, however, beyond assuring journalists that, “I will not disappoint.”
Written by: Rebecca Davis
Picture credit: Daily Maverick
- Rebecca Davis studied at Rhodes University and Oxford University. This article was published on Daily Maverick.