On Being with Krista Tippett

George F. R. Ellis

Science and Hope

Last Updated

May 10, 2007

Original Air Date

June 24, 2004

Our guest straddles the worlds of cosmology and social activism. During a live audience interview in Philadelphia, he tells us how he unites his convictions about faith, ethics, and cosmology.


Image of George F. R. Ellis

George F. R. Ellis is Professor of Applied Mathematics at the University of Cape Town, recipient of the Templeton Prize, and the author of many books, including On the Moral Nature of the Universe: Cosmology, Theology, and Ethics.


May 10, 2007

KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: I’m Krista Tippett. Today, “Science and Hope” with South African Quaker cosmologist George Ellis. He’s an author and activist, and a recipient of the Templeton Prize for his work at the intersection of science and religion. George Ellis has worked on cutting-edge theories about the origins of the universe and the nature of space and time. He proposes that there is a moral foundation to the cosmos, just as there are physical laws that govern it.

DR. GEORGE ELLIS: We actually haven’t got a clue how the laws of physics are embedded in the universe. We know they’re there and we know they’re effected. We don’t know how they are embedded. And in the same way, I envisage ethics as being a universal thing. It is something we discover and don’t invent.

MS. TIPPETT: This is Speaking of Faith. Stay with us.


MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett. My guest today, cosmologist George Ellis, straddles several worlds. He is a scientist, a Quaker activist in his native South Africa, and a creative thinker on time, space, and social ethics. In recent years, he’s developed a theory that there are deep ethical truths built into the physical universe. He applies this idea to contemporary history and politics, including the war in Iraq.

From American Public Media, this is Speaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. Today, “Science and Hope.” George Ellis has had a prolific career as a cosmologist, studying the origins and evolution of the universe. He’s most recently investigated whether there is one universe or many, and how physics underlies the emergence of life. In apartheid-era South Africa, Ellis also established himself as a social activist. These accomplishments and others won him a 2004 Templeton Prize for research at the intersection of science and religion. I spoke with George Ellis after he won that prize in June 2004 before a live audience at the studios of WHYY in Philadelphia. Here is how our conservation unfolded.

The origin and evolution of the universe is quite a daunting idea. In fact, it strikes me right away. And I know you are working on religion and science for a long time explicitly, in the same way you are now. But it seems to me that some of the same impulses — some of the same questions of religion would be questions of cosmologies and where did we come from. Was that at all consciously a part of what interested you?

DR. ELLIS: Well, very explicitly, I got involved in a lot of very technical work about the question of whether the universe had a beginning or not. And that’s one of the big questions about the universe from a physical viewpoint. It’s related to theological questions, but not in a simple way. And, in fact, it’s an error some people sometimes make. In fact, many famous people have made it to think that, roughly speaking, ‘If the universe had a beginning, this shows there was a God who started it.’


DR. ELLIS: But way back to Saint Augustine, it was known this is actually incorrect, that whether there’s a start to the universe or not, the basic questions of existence remain, why the universe is what it is and what underpins its existence. So that’s actually quite independent of whether it had a start or not.

MS. TIPPETT: In your 30s, I think, in the 1970s, you studied at several distinguished institutions in other countries. You were in the United States, in Italy, in Germany. And you wrote this book that I think has a wonderful title, The Large Scale Structure of Space-Time, in 1973 with Stephen Hawking. You come back to South Africa. And in 1977, you publish a book on the squatter problem in South Africa.

DR. ELLIS: Yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: And then in 1979, on low-income housing policy in South Africa.

DR. ELLIS: Yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: How did you get from space-time to low-income housing? And then more interestingly, perhaps, are the two related in your mind?

DR. ELLIS: This is where I give a plug for applied mathematics.


DR. ELLIS: The link is mathematics because I came back to South Africa as professor of applied math and head of the department of applied mathematics. And this meant I had to look at applied mathematics in a much broader framework than just theoretical physics. And math can be applied to study populations of fishes, economics, you name it. Almost anything where there are quantities involved there’s a mathematical model.

And I had been intrigued in Cambridge by the Club of Rome studies. Now, I didn’t know if you know the Club of Rome studies, The Limits to Growth. It was one of the really first studies on the way that we cannot keep using our resources at an exponentially growing rate; there is going to be ceiling. So when I got back to Cape Town, I gave an inaugural lecture and I talked about these models. And so someone came up to me after and said, ‘Look, I’m working on housing problems. Why don’t you use some of that math to look at housing problems?’ And I said, ‘OK, why not?’

And the point about that was in the apartheid years, the government was a very strange mixture. It was doing these inhuman things to people, but it wanted to believe it wasn’t treating people badly. There was this kind of internal contradiction all the time. And so they were destroying people’s houses, taking away their livelihoods in one department. And another department was building houses and trying to do the best it could to make their lives good lives.


DR. ELLIS: And so there was that contradiction. And this gave an opportunity to people like myself to kind of try and leaver things over a little bit. And what we did was we made models of how many houses were needed, what it would cost, how many houses could be built, this kind of thing. And, basically, in a sense, what we proved, it was rather similar to the cosmology. We proved that the government policy could not provide the houses that were needed with the money available. In a sense, it’s a rather parallel result.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. And weren’t you also, in this same period of time, becoming Quaker?

DR. ELLIS: Yes. Yes. When I got back to South Africa, I was looking around in a religious sense because I got fairly disillusioned with the Anglican church that I’d been brought up in. And I just found that the Quakers were involved, as in England and America, elsewhere, they were always involved with issues of peace and poverty and trying to improve life. So I joined them, basically, in order to take part in their actual practical underground programs. And then I gradually found that their theology was extremely congenial for a scientist because it didn’t involve a creed that I had to believe in. It didn’t involve people telling me what I had to believe. So it was congenial for a scientist.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm. I mean, did that new practice of faith also interact with this mathematical work you were doing on social issues like housing?

DR. ELLIS: In a sense, it was a motivation. Because in terms of trying to improve the situation, you can do the short term, medium term, or long term. The short term is trying to change things on the ground quite quickly. And I got involved in that through the Quaker service fund, which the local meeting was running. The policy thing was trying to do thing in a medium term. And I quite like to try to do things by the short term and the medium term.


DR. ELLIS: And then science and religion debate in incidentally is long-term. So there’s…

MS. TIPPETT: You know, there’s a quote. I copied this down. This is how I think the rest of us imagine scientists and philosophers might speak about religion at worst. This is actually an ethicist of philosopher Bernard Williams. You quote him in your book On the Moral Nature of the Universe. And you conceded that if God existed, there might be special reasons for subscribing to morality. But concluded, “Unfortunately, the very concept of God is incoherent. Religion itself is incurably unintelligible.” I mean, is that a kind of attitude that was familiar to you previously as a scientist? Or is that a stereotype?

DR. ELLIS: I would say that’s a stereotype. There’s a group of very vocal scientists who are very antireligious. But they’re a relative minority. Quite honestly, a very large number of scientists simply aren’t interested. They’re not concerned one way or the other.


DR. ELLIS: They don’t regard it as particularly relevant.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. I mean, I think you described the field of cosmology as something that, to outsiders, might seem to have, to imply religious questions, but can exist very much in isolation.

DR. ELLIS: I like to think of cosmology as — there’s two separate subjects. There’s cosmology with a small “c,” which is physical cosmology — how galaxies came, gravity causing stars to come into existence, expansion of the universe, all of that. Cosmology with a capital “C” is when you bring in human interest. You talk about its implications for humanity and all of that. That’s the anthropological sense in which we use. Now, effectively, all of my colleagues at work look at the first one, not the second one.

MS. TIPPETT: The small “c.”


MS. TIPPETT: Quaker cosmologist George Ellis, recipient of the Templeton Prize for his work on issues intersecting science and religion. Ellis has committed half of that $1.4 million award to social initiatives in his native South Africa.

MS. TIPPETT: In the late 1980s, early ’90s, events in the world and in your country of South Africa, in particular, took a very dramatic turn, you know? I was living in Germany at that time. I had been in divided Berlin. And, like everyone else, I think, believed that maybe the Berlin Wall wasn’t eternal, but it would certainly never go away in my lifetime. And the change in South Africa was no less dramatic.

DR. ELLIS: Correct. Yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: You have this wonderful phrase. You’ve said that what happened in South Africa “confounded the calculus of reality.”

DR. ELLIS: Of rationality.

MS. TIPPETT: Of rationality. That’s better. So, I mean, I’d like to get into that. I’d like to know how, what happened in your country, and for you living through it, how that changed you as a person of faith and as a scientist? And how does that make you think differently about mathematical models?

DR. ELLIS: I belonged to a community that was fighting the apartheid system in a nonviolent way. Now, of course, there was the people who were fighting it in the violent way, the ANC and the PAC. And we were fighting it in a nonviolent way. And the people I was working with were very, very principled. The temptation was to turn around and to look at the evil which was being caused. And part of what we did was making sure that the public knew about the evil. We wanted to be absolutely certain that the National Party and the government would never be able to say, ‘We didn’t know what was happening.’ And that was part of what we were doing. So we’re very, very aware of that evil. But the temptation was then to turn around and to say, ‘These are hopeless irredeemable people. They’re evil people’ — rather than people who were causing evil acts. And the whole way that this opposition worked, which was based in the churches and in an amazing organization called The Black Sash and the Institute of Race Relations, all of these groups were working together. They were trying to do it in a way which was principled and which did not deny the humanity of the oppressors. And that’s, in a sense, is where this whole thing kind of got going. And it — the community, in which I was, which was really an extraordinary community, really was trying to fight apartheid, but not to do it in a way which demonized the government, which was causing all of this pain.

MS. TIPPETT: Which is very much in the spirit of the Truth of Reconciliation Commission that came later.

DR. ELLIS: Yes. Absolutely.

MS. TIPPETT: You know, this phrase, “the calculus of rationality”…

DR. ELLIS: Yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: I got it right that time. That also sounds like a scientist reflecting on world events.

DR. ELLIS: Yes. Yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: And then, does that reflect back on your science? Or does it make you think about the limits of science?

DR. ELLIS: Well, I guess that’s — the interesting thing is to try to see how there could be unexpected forces at work. And the rationality was pointing out to this bloodbath. And many, many people believed it would come. Many, many of my friends either left or were very tempted to leave the country because of that. I think the interesting thing, in a sense, is the hidden, underlying thing, the unexpected things that were happening in the background. And while all of that opposition was taking place, which was getting worse and worse — there were kids being shot in the street, there were burning tires, there were police vehicles, the whole thing — there was also this quiet force working to try to change it. And what actually changed it, I think one should say, is not the military struggle. It was the economic boycott and the sports boycott. Those kinds of things were what actually changed it.

And so in a sense, what is interesting is to try from a cause and effect to see what are that things which really make a difference and what are the things, which people think will make a difference and don’t. And I think in a sense that’s part of what it’s about, that there are surprises in the causality and it’s difficult to actually understand before it’s happened what will be important and what won’t.

MS. TIPPETT: And also to be thinking about what is happening that might be making a difference that we’re not even paying attention to…

DR. ELLIS: Yeah. Yes.

MS. TIPPETT: …at any given moment.

DR. ELLIS: You’re right. Yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: Which sort of does bring you to the idea of hope. I mean, is that where hope started to enter your vocabulary?

DR. ELLIS: The South African situation all the time was teetering on the brink of disaster, and it’s been an absolutely amazing thing to all of us, yes. Every time it looked worse and worse, it looked like it was going to go right over the brink, something would pull it back and would save it. Because the worst things got, the more the repression, it would always generate a counter reaction, which would pull it back again. And so I — hope was very difficult in many times. In fact, on one particular part of time, I did really virtually lose hope, because there was a period when the government employed vigilantes in the townships to burn down the houses, the informal houses of about 10,000 people who were living in shanties. These were the townships in which my wife was working as a doctor.

And every day for two weeks, there was this smoke that I could see from my office, rising up from these burning houses. And I went out with various people, tried to talk to the police, tried to contact people in the government, tried, ‘Can’t you do anything about it?’ But, of course, they were behind it. And so at that stage, I did, in fact, for a while lose hope because I couldn’t see any way that one could change it at all. And, in fact, for a while then, I did actually lose hope and I took up a job in Italy for a while for about four years, but then I couldn’t stay away. I came back because there was stuff to be done.

MS. TIPPETT: You know, you said, it would almost go to the brink and then something would happen to pull it back.

DR. ELLIS: Yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: Is that something that you were aware of at the time or is it only something you could see when it’s over?

DR. ELLIS: I gradually became more and more aware of it, that every time it was looking just about — when it was really going to go over and everything would be destroyed that somehow the forces would pull it back. And of course, part of that, again, it’s this thing in the people who were causing the oppression that they also inside them had something which didn’t really want the whole thing to get destroyed despite everything that they had done.

MS. TIPPETT: Cosmologist George Ellis. I’m Krista Tippett. And this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. Today, we’re talking about the intersection of faith and science in George Ellis’ thought. He has studied such lofty topics as the structure of space and time. In recent years, he’s also become interested in whether the universe has an underlying moral foundation.

George Ellis points to the recurring ethic of nonviolence and self-sacrifice that runs throughout the major religions and the lives of human beings who’ve changed the world, figures such as Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and in Ellis’ native South Africa, Nelson Mandela and Stephen Biko. As a Quaker Christian, George Ellis values the key image of the ethic of Jesus found in the New Testament. It uses a Greek word, kenosis, to describe Jesus’ sacrifice of His life and His power for the freedom of others. The word “kenosis” means to empty oneself. Here’s more of my conversation with George Ellis that took place before a live audience in Philadelphia.

MS. TIPPETT:So in this book you’ve written with the theologian Nancey Murphy…

DR. ELLIS: Yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: …called On the Moral Nature

DR. ELLIS: Nature of the Universe.

MS. TIPPETT: You say that one important piece of the dialogue between science and religion, and I think also what you’re saying one important piece of how we view what happens in the world and what it means and what makes the difference is ethics.

DR. ELLIS: Yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: And you talk about the true nature of deep ethics.

DR. ELLIS: Yes, yes.

MS. TIPPETT: So talk about that. I think it’s also interesting that, you know, coming, obviously, you did have this wonderful miraculous turn of events in South Africa…


MS. TIPPETT: …for many — for decades and for longer than that. I mean, you say ethics is — you feel that ethics is something that’s in the universe to be discovered.


MS. TIPPETT: So tell us how you can come to that.

DR. ELLIS: Let me just prepare the way slightly by saying in order to understand what I mean by that, the same is true of mathematics. Mathematicians discover the nature of mathematics despite what they want. What I mean by that is something like the following. It was a great shock to mathematicians when they discovered that the square root of two is irrational. That’s not something that they wanted. The number pi is irrational. That’s also not something mathematicians wanted. What I’m pointing out here is that mathematics exists and is discovered. It’s not invented by humans. It’s something which is discovered. Therefore, in some sense, it exists in order to be discovered.

The view on ethics I take as an ethical realist is it’s the same, the nature is sitting there in some sense waiting to be discovered. And the deep nature of ethics, which we were writing about, is what we call kenotic ethics. Kenosis being letting go or giving up on behalf of other people.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. And kenosis is a Greek word.

DR. ELLIS: It’s a Greek word meaning letting go or giving up, and it’s used in the Bible in Philippians. It’s central to my understanding of Christianity, and there’s a spectrum which goes through in practical terms from forgiveness, which is a crucial part in which you are giving up the need for revenge. And it goes through to self-sacrifice on behalf of others, which is what Gandhi was about, Martin Luther King was about. And to me, that’s the really, really deep transformative principle, which was also in the life of Christ, of course, when he sacrificed himself on behalf of others. I think it’s important to say that to me, kenosis is a generic principle which is much wider than just ethics. For instance, it’s actually central — this emptying oneself — it’s actually central to education and learning, because if you go into learning any subject with a preconceived notion, you can’t learn. You have to empty your mind of your preconceived notion that you can see something new.

In ethics, it’s, though the key point about kenosis is the willingness to give up, which makes way for contact with the human part of the other person. And it’s a kind of moral jujitsu in that they’re expecting you to react in the way that they want you to react. They are your enemy and they want you to be their enemy. And if you refuse to be their enemy, then they don’t know how to handle it.

As an example from my South African context, one of the people I worked with as a social worker and community worker was detained by the security police. So now, he’s in jail with them. He then started because of his nature, he’s outgoing, generous kind of guy, he starts talking to the jailors of — ‘How are your children?’ ‘How are you getting on?’ ‘Do you enjoy doing what you’re doing?’ ?’ All this kind of stuff. That totally undermines what a jailor is supposed to be about, because now you are treating the person who is holding you prisoner as an equal, as a person, and you are ignoring the fact that he’s the jailor and you’re the prisoner. And that just changes the context.

MS. TIPPETT: So that would be a really gentle form of this kenotic ethics.

DR. ELLIS: That’s a very gentle form, yeah, yeah, yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: And then the extreme form would be a person like Nelson Mandela, the example he set.

DR. ELLIS: Yes, yes.

MS. TIPPETT: Being in prison for 20 years.

DR. ELLIS: Being in prison for 20 years and not letting go of the grudges, the hatred, which he could have had. Yeah. Absolutely.

MS. TIPPETT: All right. So let’s just clarify, you believe that this ethos, this ethic of kenosis, in fact, is like a mathematical truth…


MS. TIPPETT: …and is sort of built in to the universe.

DR. ELLIS: Yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: And it finds expression in, I don’t know, every major religious church that I can think of. In some form…

DR. ELLIS: Correct.

MS. TIPPETT: …humility, self-sacrifice, serving others. On the other hand, is very counterintuitive to the way — I don’t know — than today’s newspaper would tell us the world works.

DR. ELLIS: Yeah. It’s counterintuitive because the way it works is it transforms the context. In the real conflict situations, the kind of thing which Gandhi was involved with — where he was trying to free India from the British oppressors — he trained his followers to accept suffering, not to retaliate. And by doing so, he reached into the heart of the British oppressors. But after a while, the pain is incredible at that deep level. The pain is — the training is incredible. Gandhi spent about 15 years studying and thinking before he did it. So did Martin Luther King.

MS. TIPPETT: The pain of what?

DR. ELLIS: Of doing what in a sense is incredibly unnatural. Of being willing to sacrifice, of being willing to — well, in that case, to be beaten up just as they were, to be beaten up and not to retaliate. It requires incredible courage, devotion, dedication in that extreme kind or form. The life of Christ, of course, is the ultimate kind of example.

MS. TIPPETT: I think I want to ask you, is this something that has to do with you as a person of faith more than a scientist, or does this also flow into this idea of this ethic that’s embedded in the universe? Does this also affect your — you as a cosmologist or the way you approach the field of cosmology?

DR. ELLIS: It’s this cosmology with the small “c” and the big “C.”

MS. TIPPETT: So this is the cosmology with the big “C.”

DR. ELLIS: Yeah. Absolutely.


DR. ELLIS: From the cosmology with the big “C,” it immediately gives one for a route into — in effect arguing for the existence of God, if you like, from the way that the whole thing is constructed.


DR. ELLIS: From the small “c,” it’s — as a scientist, I work as a scientist and this just doesn’t enter into it. As a cosmologist in the big “C,” they’re just trying to understand the big pattern, the way humanity relates to the universe. It’s a central issue.

MS. TIPPETT: You also talk about the limits of science…

DR. ELLIS: Yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: …and about how ethics and human consciousness and human emotion, although they often get bracketed out as illogical and not a part of science, in fact are always causing things to happen.

DR. ELLIS: Yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: And in some sense, driving the physical universe and all the things that science can study. Is that fair?

DR. ELLIS: There were several kind of things, which — do you want to pursue the limits to science or do you want to pursue…

MS. TIPPETT: Whichever one you want to do. Or you can do them in order, you know…

DR. ELLIS: Yeah. Yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: …in order of your choice.

DR. ELLIS: I think it’s terribly important in terms of looking at science to understand it’s got these incredible achievements — and I love science. I love the way it works — but it has these limits. And the limits, which I think it’s really important to understand, that science sees nothing about ethics or aesthetics or meaning or metaphysics, all of these areas. And you immediately get told by some people, ‘Look, this is just the old God of the gaps thing and, you know, this is just discredited.’ It’s not the God of the gaps, it’s the God of the boundaries.

MS. TIPPETT: Which is that God is in what we can’t understand or work with in science.

DR. ELLIS: Yeah. But the point about the God of the gaps argument is saying, ‘Look, that’s a gap which will be filled in by science.’


DR. ELLIS: But the point about this is that there are boundaries to what science can handle and science will never ever get into those areas. And that’s crucially important. And the one which is important is ethics. So let’s go back to the ethics. There’s a whole lot of people out there trying to say, ‘Well, ethics is understood by science through sociobiology.’ There’s another lot of social scientists saying ethics is understood through sociology and psychology and anthropology, and so on. And they are just profoundly mistaken when they say that, for a whole host of reasons. And perhaps we don’t want to get technical about this, but the simple way to see how mistaken they are is to ask the following question to a scientist who says ‘Look, science can comprehend ethics.’ We can use science as a basis for ethics. ‘So fine,’ we say, ‘fine. Tell us what sciences we should do in Iraq today.’ OK? Then you get this deafening silence because science is totally unable to say anything about that. The reason is there are no experiments in science to do with what is good and what is bad. There are no scientific units for good and bad. There’s no experiment. It’s just outside the scope of science, not only now, but forever, never ever will be within the bound of science.

MS. TIPPETT: So, so what is good and what is bad, but also in just what human beings do, which is essentially what happens in the world.

DR. ELLIS: Yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: Cosmologist George Ellis of the University of Cape Town. This is Speaking of Faith. After a short break, how his ideas about ethics and the universe might influence our understanding of political history and contemporary crisis.

Visit our award-winning Web site, speakingoffaith.org. Listen to mp3s of George Ellis elaborating on how the kenotic ethic addresses suffering and injustice. Sign up for our e-mail newsletter and subscribe to our podcast. It includes a free download of each program with bonus material, starting with audio clips from my new book. Listen whenever and wherever you like. Discover more at speakingoffaith.org.

I’m Krista Tippett. Stay with us. Speaking of Faith comes to you from American Public Media.


MS. TIPPETT:Welcome back to Speaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. I’m Krista Tippett. Today, “Science and Hope,” with Templeton Prize-winning cosmologist George Ellis.

As a cosmologist, George Ellis has explored the nature of space and time, including such questions as whether the universe had a beginning. He’s also interested in how human behavior affects the physical universe. He believes that the peaceful end of apartheid in his native South Africa was an event that, in his words, “defied the calculus of rationality.”

Through his social activism in South Africa, his Quaker faith, and his scientific research, Ellis has concluded that there are deep ethical truths, an ethical compass built into the physical universe. He calls it a kenotic ethic, referring to a New Testament Greek word describing the ethic of Jesus. At the extreme end, kenosis implies sacrificing one’s life. In daily life, Ellis says, it is the basic work of relationship and community of balancing self-interest with the good of others.”

My conversation with George Ellis was recorded in June 2004 after he won the Templeton prize. We spoke before a live audience at WHYY in Philadelphia. Ellis also responded to questions from the audience. Speaking of Faith‘s founding producer, Bill Buzenberg, moderated that exchange.

BILL BUZENBERG: Why is the kenotic ethic inherent in the structure of the universe? Where does it come from?

DR. ELLIS: OK. Let me immediately say that there is no scientific proof of this kind of statement. This is a, like everything else to do with religion, this is a faith statement, and I can’t prove it’s right, but I can give you arguments that it’s right. Where does it come from? At one level, the answer comes from the nature of God. It’s what is evident for us by all the major religious traditions. And you mentioned this, but I really want to emphasize this, and Sir John Templeton has written about this. This — what just Sir John Templeton calls agape love, unconditional love. It is in all the major religious traditions.

And I, particularly, from my own experience, was talking about this in Berkeley a while ago, at the Science and Spiritual Quest. And I finished talking, and a man rushed up to me with great excitement. He’s said, ‘Fantastic talk. I really enjoyed that.’ He says, ‘You spoke like a Muslim.’ Yes, he.


DR. ELLIS: And he was the director of the Muslim Centre in London. And I think that’s really important to understand in the present day, that the true deep understanding of the Muslim faith incorporates this idea. I, in turn, in London, was at — in New York, was at the State of the World meeting, and I heard Professor Jonathan Sacks, the chief rabbi of Great Britain, talking about this. And he is an absolutely marvelous person. He talked in exactly the same kind of way. So I had fun going up to him afterwards. I said, ‘Professor Sacks, you talk like a Quaker,’ and he looked at me, and he said, ‘I will choose to take that as a compliment.’ And the evidence that it is something more than just what some people invent is the fact that it is discovered independently by all the great religious traditions.

MS. TIPPETT: So this is the nature of God, this way of being.


MS. TIPPETT: This kenosis, this ethic. And it’s embedded in the universe as an expression of — an expression of that is embedded in the universe.

DR. ELLIS: This is why I introduced this thing about mathematics. We haven’t got a clue in what way mathematics is embedded there, but it is there in some platonic space waiting to be discovered. We actually haven’t got a clue how the laws of physics are embedded in the universe. We know they’re there. We know they’re effective. We don’t know how they are embedded.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm. OK.

DR. ELLIS: So, it’s important to understand that we don’t understand those, either. In the same way I envisage ethics as being a universal thing, which is applicable. It is there because of the nature of God. It is something we discover and don’t invent. That’s why I made that point about mathematics. And it is discovered to be the same by all these religious traditions. I’m confident of the following: If we were to one day make contact with people in Alpha Centauri…

MS. TIPPETT: Those are people in other galaxies, life in other…

DR. ELLIS: Yeah.


DR. ELLIS: …we would start talking with them about mathematics, because we are confident that they will have the same understanding of mathematics as we do. If we got on to talk to them about ethics, I’m confident we would find that they, also, had discovered kenotic ethics in the nature of the universe.


MR. BUZENBERG: We have a questioner who wants to know what is the evidence that ethics, like math, is in the universe, waiting to be discovered?

DR. ELLIS: The evidence is, firstly, in seeing that all these other religious traditions have come to the same conclusion. But the deep evidence is the same in all faith. It is by beginning to comprehend the deep nature of this transforming current. If you see the deepness and the quality of transformation that is possible through this, and if you really asked me to pursue it, then it is the life of Christ, which is the example. Giving up life in order that those that persecuted Him would have freedom. That is what it is about. And in the end, it is self-authenticating. There is actually no other way of saying it. It is just something you either see or you don’t see. There is no proof. It’s something you recognize or you don’t recognize.

MS. TIPPETT: I also hear you describing it as a model which replicates itself…


MS. TIPPETT: …which replicated itself in South Africa.

DR. ELLIS: Yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: Have you also had experiences in your life that are more personal and not as dramatic of, you know, of living this way, this counterintuitive way?

DR. ELLIS: Not dramatic. My life has been very un-dramatic in small ways.


DR. ELLIS: In small ways.

MS. TIPPETT: Well, that’s how, I mean, in small ways is how most of us would have a chance to do this, I think.

DR. ELLIS: Yeah. In a sense it’s a principle which can be applied all the time. I’ve never done anything dramatic about, sort of, offering up my life in behalf of others, and so and so. But it’s a kind of generic principle which underlies all of community living, being willing to, you know, just step back a little bit more so that there’s room for the community to function. I can’t claim any dramatic example in my own life. But I’m absolutely convinced of the power of the idea from thinking about it, seeing it — as I say, there is an entire range through, and very, very much experiencing it in the sense of trying with others to devise strategies and which one is trying to get at the fact that while the Nationalist Party was engaged in all of this, nevertheless, they didn’t want to think that they were behaving in that way. There was this kind of internal contradiction. And so one could try to strengthen the good by pointing out ways that they could behave better, by trying to make them see that what they were doing was causing pain, was causing damage, was killing people, and so on. You can’t make that contact if you have consigned them to the devil category.

MS. TIPPETT: So, it’s not just about how you are behaving. It’s also, at the same time, about how you are seeing and experiencing the person who is your enemy…

DR. ELLIS: Absolutely. Yes. Absolutely.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm. Who is making you suffer.

DR. ELLIS: Yeah.

MR. BUZENBERG: Given your path of peaceful resistance, do you have any advice for those in conflict in our schools, our boardrooms, and the military? Is there a path of thought to use as we evaluate confrontational situations in everyday life?

DR. ELLIS: That’s, well, something I have seen in other places, I really want to say here. I think our biggest enemy in all of this is Hollywood. If you turn on the television, within 10 minutes and, absolutely, always, without exception, you will find the cinema TV is teaching people to — the way to solve problems is to kill people. And that is a message which is broadcast to the black people in the townships in my country, sitting there. This is the role model which is offered to them. And what we’ve got to do is try to make available the alternative models where children learn, from the smallest ages ’til they’re adults, that there are other ways to solve this, that there are peaceful solutions, there are ways in which you sit down and try and talk with people. You don’t pull out a gun and shoot them, which is what Hollywood is teaching people daily, 24 hours a day. And I really think that is one of the major problems we have at this time. I’m not sure what one does about that.

MS. TIPPETT: Do you know of projects or, you know what — do you have something in mind, how do we create these models, these other kinds of images?

DR. ELLIS: Well, one of the projects I’m involved with in Cape Town is the Quaker Peace Centre, and we run a school’s education program. They use a spectrum. And it’s a simple spectrum. It is kind of conflict resolution techniques — getting to use mediation, all that kind of sort of stuff. But I think it’s really important to try to take it further. The self-sacrifice is the far end, the really difficult end. But the part, which everybody can reach, which is difficult, but it can be reached, is the issue of forgiveness and the realization of the damage that resentments cause. The fact that you can let go of resentments and forgive and transform the situation by doing that, there is a very interesting phrase that comes in that. You cannot change the facts of the past, but you can change the meaning of the past by re-evaluating it. And I think it is possible and easy in schools to teach — relatively easy — the sort of the simple skills of conflict resolution, listening to the other, and trying to be in their sandals, all that kind of sort of stuff. I think it is possible at the school level to go through to try and to teach people about forgiveness. I think the far end is more difficult.

MS. TIPPETT: Quaker cosmologist, George Ellis, responding to audience questions during a live interview in Philadelphia. I’m Krista Tippett and this is Speaking of Faithfrom American Public Media. Today, “Science and Hope.” We’re exploring how scientific and religious ideas converge in George Ellis’s thought. He’s been speaking about the deep universal ethic of kenosis, or self-giving, which he believes is built into the cosmos. A member of the audience asked how this ethic might be applied in a situation like the current U.S. involvement in Iraq.

DR. ELLIS: I want to take just a little bit of time about this because this is very important. Let me first step back to an example of the historical kenosis, which was crucially important. It’s the difference between the end of the First World War and the end of the Second World War. The end of the First World War was the Treaty of Versailles, which was a vengeful treaty in which there was absolutely no kenosis. It sets up a situation in which vengeance was enacted on the German people, and one can argue whether or not that was a just thing to do. But it puts situations in place which let Hitler gain his power, and it put the German people in a place which guaranteed that the Second World War would take place. And that is shown in many of the studies of the beginning of the Second World War. The lesson was learned. And at the end of the Second World War, although the leaders were held to account, and some of them executed, the population at large of Germany was not treated in the same way as the end of the First World War. Instead, there was the martial plan, which was a giving to the German people who had cause this immense destruction. And it is that, which wouldn’t place the basis of peace in Europe for the next 50 years. And I think that is a really practical example of the kind of thing I’m talking about. Now, I’m going to read something, which I told you I would read about.


DR. ELLIS: In relation to Iraq, I want to read to you — when I got the prize, I got a lot of e-mails, and some of it was very interesting. This is from a man called David Christie. He says as follows: “In 1967, I was a young officer in a Scottish battalion engaged in peacekeeping duties in Aden town and what is now Yemen. The situation was similar to Iraq, with people being killed everyday. As always, those who suffered the most were the innocent local people. Not only were we tough, but we had the power to pretty well destroy the whole town had we wished.” This is the British Army. “But we had a commanding officer who understood how to make peace, and he led us to do something very unusual: not to react when we were attacked. Only if we were a 100 percent certain that a particular person had thrown a grenade or fired a shot at us were we allowed to fire. During our tour of duty, we had 102 grenades thrown at us. And in response, the battalion fired with a grand total of two shots, killing one grenade-thrower.

“The cost to us was over 100 of our own men wounded and, surely by the grace of God, only one killed. When they threw rocks at us, we stood fast. When they threw grenades, we hit the deck and after the explosions, we got to our feet and stood fast. We did not react in anger or indiscriminately. This was not the anticipated reaction. Slowly, very slowly, the local people began to trust us and made it clear to the local terrorists that they were not welcome in their area. At one stage, neighboring battalions were having a torrid time with attacks. We were playing soccer with the locals. We had, in fact, brought peace to the area at the cost of our own blood. How had this been achieved? Principally, because we were led by a man, who, every soldier in the battalion knew would die for him if required. Each soldier in turn came to be prepared to sacrifice himself for such a man. Many people may sneer that we were merely obeying orders. But this was not the case. Our commanding officer was more highly regarded by his soldiers than the general, one might almost say, loved. So gradually, the heart of the peacemaker began to grow in the men and determination to succeed, whatever the cost. Probably, most of the soldiers, like myself, only realized years afterwards what had been achieved.”

That is kenosis in action. In a strange situation, an army armed to the teeth but acting in a way in which they were sacrificing because they were wounded, and they didn’t take revenge unless they were 100 percent certain what they were doing.

MS. TIPPETT: This is an example, I think, of the question, how do you prove this?

DR. ELLIS: Yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: You prove it by telling stories, right?

DR. ELLIS: Yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: You point at it when you see it?

DR. ELLIS: Yes. Yes. And my — I don’t know if V.V. Raman is here, my friend V.V. Raman. In relation to the September 11th event, he has said the following: ‘The situation would’ve been totally different if the following had happened: If the president of the United States, once it was established that al-Qaeda was responsible had said, “I do not understand why you did this. I want to meet with you in some neutral country so that you can tell me why you acted in the way you did.” If that had been what had happened, it would’ve been exactly the — not the reaction, which they had expected. It would’ve been totally the opposite of what they had thought. I’m not saying it would have changed things, but it would at least have had a chance of producing a totally different outcome.’

MS. TIPPETT: And it flies so much in the face of, you know, the very notion of having power with, you know, and I don’t even mean that as anything that is morally loaded one way or the other, because it is about being strong.

DR. ELLIS: It’s about the…

MS. TIPPETT: About being resolute.

DR. ELLIS: It’s about the nature of power.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. ELLIS: And this is the power of transformation instead of the power of destruction.

MS. TIPPETT: You know, I love something that’s implied in what you’re describing. There is this expression of the nature of the Creator of the universe which shows itself in this ethic, which we, again, we can point to in many places and many times, and that religious traditions have discovered that and articulated it, rather than thinking about religious people as championing something, which doesn’t sound efficacious, sort of flies in the face of the world’s logic. It’s religious traditions as explorers and…

DR. ELLIS: Yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: …in a sense, practitioners of the science of ethics.

DR. ELLIS: One of the words which, to me, is a mark of deep religion is paradox. G.K. Chesterton wrote about paradox. And often, the true nature of things is paradoxical. And the Christian paradox is that the true nature of power is in weakness and suffering. That is the true nature of power. And it is transformative. And the point about — if you talk about security, the underlying question is what’s the true nature of security? And the answer is very simple. You are secure if you have no enemies. That’s where security lies. So how do you change enemies into friends is the true question which underlies true security.

MS. TIPPETT: Before we end, that’s a wonderful place to end. I want to ask you a completely self-indulgent question. I’m slightly emboldened in asking this question, because one of the quotable things that Einstein said is that he started asking all the important questions that he pursued the rest of his life when he was a 3-year-old. Because he said young children are asking the big questions: Where did we come from and what does it mean? So my question was if God created the world, who created God?


MS. TIPPETT: How do you — because you’re telling me that you also, I believe, you’re telling me you have concluded that there is a God and there can be a God in your cosmology. But how do you think your way around into that question?

DR. ELLIS: It’s a very valid question, and it’s one for which we haven’t got any clue to the answer. But that is the same for every attempt to understand the foundations of the universe. Science runs into that and religions run into that. My colleagues are producing theories of what they call creation of the universe out of nothing. But when you probe them, you find they’re not producing theories creation of the universe out of nothing. They are assuming a huge machinery of quantum field theory and fields and particles and interactions, which generates universe, not creation of the universe out of nothing.

MS. TIPPETT: Which had to come from somewhere.

DR. ELLIS: Yeah, it had to come from somewhere else.


DR. ELLIS: And in the end, we run into a metaphysical blank, whether you pursue it scientifically or religiously, and you simply have to give up in wonder and awe and say, ‘I don’t know the answer, and it’s just marvelous the way things are.’

MS. TIPPETT: OK. That’s your last word. George Ellis, thank you so much. Congratulations on the Templeton Prize.

MS. TIPPETT: George Ellis is Emeritus Professor of applied mathematics at the University of Cape Town. He received the 2004 Templeton Prize. His books include On the Moral Nature of the Universe, Cosmology, Theology, and Ethics.

Send us your thoughts at speakingoffaith.org. Listen to more of my conversation with George Ellis and read the letter he received from a Scottish soldier. Sign up for our e-mail newsletter with my weekly journal and subscribe to our podcast. The podcast includes mp3s of current and past programs. And now, we’re adding bonus material. For starters, I’m reading a few passages from my new book, Speaking of Faith. Listen whenever and wherever you like. Discover more at speakingoffaith.org.

The senior producer of Speaking of Faith is Mitch Hanley, with producers Colleen Scheck and Jody Abramson and associate producer Jessica Nordell. Our online editor is Trent Gilliss. Bill Buzenberg is our consulting editor. Kate Moos is the managing producer of Speaking of Faith. And I’m Krista Tippett.

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