The Sir James Templeman I know liked nothing better than to instruct the groundskeepers to dig another foxhole and install into it another atheist. We had at the plantation at the time of the “accident” 145 full-time nonbelievers enrolled in the campus’s subterranean residency program: skeptics, freethinkers, atheists, agnostics, some of them scientists and some academics, and some just sad, angry, bitter individuals who took Sir James up on his offer of free room and board, as it were, and a generous stipend upon completion of the program, one of many grants, fellowships, and endowed chair positions sponsored by the International Templeman Prize for Faith in Science.
There had been only five vacancies that summer, though we at TempleLand held every confidence that they’d soon be filled too. The holes had since the program’s inception become quite elaborate, cozy even, each with carpeting and satellite, Wi-Fi, and hot meals delivered by our on-site service staff, island locals who live in the small fishing village at the far end of the bay. Among the professional and academic anti-god crowd the place had become, I was told, something of an easy prize, low-hanging fruit on the foundation and conference and grants circuit. Most of them didn’t take the challenge at all seriously, and TempleLand’s complex of palm-circled foxholes was considered by them, cynically if you ask me, a de facto artist’s colony or even a kind of writer’s retreat. It was a free tropical vacation away from the lab, classroom, or lecture hall, a respite from what must be for these cynics the exhausting if otherwise unrewarding work of setting good people against the divine, the miraculous, the unknowable. And, after all, as Sir James liked to point out privately, nobody listened to or compensated them adequately for their atheism, humanism, or rationalism, not the secular foundations or the government—not at the rates he did anyway—nobody except a sincere old man who loved and feared his Jesus.
Still, considering we had graduated only three scholars in five years of the program, it must be conceded that this was never what you’d call a particularly successful experiment. Lacking what they called a control model, the secular critics asked, how would results be measured? Faith, answered Sir James, is not of the quotidian or the calculable.
This was a problem, of course, or would have been except that the problem of calculating the unknowable, the unseeable had as far as I could tell most always worked for us, not against us, had worked to our advantage as believers and to the disadvantage, it seemed, of the nonbelievers, who demanded more.
Sir James liked to speculate further that, although the results of the program would be, like the divine itself, indeed difficult to quantify on the skeptics’ terms, these results would nonetheless exist, publicly documented or not. There would be, he was confident, deathbed conversions and secret confessions, children of our alumni baptized in private. There would be doubt and prayer, and submission and redemption, that no one would ever, ever know about except, yes, our Lord and Savior. Hard hearts would be softened. For that possibility Sir James Templeman, philanthropist, was willing to spend a few million dollars of a fortune one hundred times that size, built on faith, and yes, on prudent investing in commercial real estate and mutual funds.
We were located on a private island in the West Indies, with guest houses, a dining room, library, landing field, swimming pool, golf course and lawn bowling, a small chapel and on-site medical support, in addition to the magnificently restored colonial mansion in which Sir James, a widower, resided. I had my own comfortable apartment in the carriage house, with a view of the sea on one side and the hills from the other. Sir James took his tea each morning in the solarium of the main residence, among his beloved prizewinning orchids, often with a personal guest who was staying with us just then, a congressman, member of Parliament, college dean or chancellor, writer, minister, rabbi, lama, or mullah.
After breakfast they often toured the grounds together, Sir James and the visiting senator or journalist or clergyman, stopping occasionally to chat briefly with a subterranean-dwelling nonbeliever-in-residence working in his or her quarters. Walking with the aid of a cane, Sir James would point out a foxhole, sitting inside it a well-known prizewinner, esteemed scholar, PBS host, investigative journalist, or somebody else unable to resist what must have seemed the jackpot of free time to conduct research, read, collect no-strings-attached fellowship money—round-trip airfare from anywhere in the world included—just to show up the famous philanthropist even while, yes, the scholar humbled himself before God if also perhaps humiliating himself in the eyes of his colleagues back home. So, yes, the conversations were brief, if mostly cordial.
A residency lasted forty days, the same period Christ wrestled Satan in the desert. If the participants left early, they naturally forfeited the money. But if they completed their underground tenure, when they stepped out of their foxholes each received generous compensation and could take the opportunity to elaborate on the mystical or, as more likely occurred, exercise their God-given (as Sir James liked to remind them) right to brag that they still rejected the spirit, had found no evidence of it, and so had cheated the foundation after enduring five weeks in a luxurious burrow.
Image: Hidde de Vries
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