Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Why I'm Interested In How Young Adults See Science and Religion

In relating science and religion, I fall into the Integration camp—that is, I agree with those thinkers that conclude the two need to make a difference to each other by learning from one another. I’m also fascinated by how emerging adults (18-30 year olds) understand this interaction of science and religion. It might be worthwhile to comment briefly on how I came to find all these strands compelling and why I’m seeking to wind them together in the current grant project I’m working on, Science for Emerging, Young Adults. 
      The precipitating event seems reasonably clear: I became a Christian as a first year college student at age 18—that is, during what is now know as “emerging adulthood” (a term coined by the psychologist Jeffrey Arnett in 2000—and that’s most likely why faith for 18-30 year olds will continue to allure me. My conversion also occurred in the secular environment of UC Berkeley. (In other words, “Go to Cal and become a Christian” should sound like an oxymoron.) I wasn’t nurtured from the cradle in the Bible Belt. All this means I’m also absorbed by the challenges and questions that an unbelieving culture presents. And often those arguments against faith derive from science (or science poorly understand and misused). Nevertheless, the issues of science qua science were not at first at the forefront of my faith. Instead, as a literature major during the Berkeley years, I was more engaged with the overall questions of culture. During my undergrad, I was much more concerned with religious pluralism (and still am); it’s a topic I confront through my C. S. Lewis book in “Jesus and the Crisis of Other Myths.” For the purposes of this brief essay, I’ll merely say that I, with Lewis, believe that truth can be found in many other narratives, religions, and philosophies (“myths” for Lewis), but that in Jesus the full revelation of God is present and that Jesus fulfills the longings of all human hearts. That doesn’t mean science was absent in my earlier theological development. Science, as a part of culture, emerged more gradually, primarily first as a way of integrating my faith with wider human knowledge, as well as ways that our culture resists and impugns faith.

      Later—after a sojourn in business—I continued my academic study in the history of Christian thought, and I found that science often posed a barrier to belief. Put simply I began to encounter the “warfare thesis” (science and religion are two warring forces with the former clearly winning), a position associated with Andrew Dickson White in the 19th century and Richard Dawkins in ours. I also realized that this view was challenging, but simplistic... More on the next steps in a future post...

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Written During the Month of St. Clive (i.e., November)

This article first appeared in the Wall Street Journal. Nevertheless, there was a longer version lurking behind it (which didn't fit within the WSJ word count). So I'm posting it now (and, incidentally, it's a short summary of my new book on Lewis.)

CSL memorial in Poet's Corner, Westminster Abbey
C. S. Lewis was born and died in November (116 and 51 years ago, respectively). Despite his long tenure as an Oxford and Cambridge scholar of Medieval and Renaissance literature—for which he could justifiable be remembered as one of the great lights of English academics—he remains best known as a popular spokesperson for Christianity, with a fourth major film poised for production from his landmark fantasy series, The Chronicles of Narnia. His bestselling books (with millions of copies sold) defend Christian belief by answering questions that a doubting public might be struggling with. As Anthony Burgess once commented in the Times Book Review, “Lewis is the ideal persuader for the half-convinced, for the good man who would like to be a Christian but finds his intellect getting in the way.” Thus, for many, the patron saint of intellectual doubters is Clive Staples Lewis and November is the Month of St. Clive. 
            This brings me to a concern. Many might conclude that Lewis represented the Christian Answer Man, and more importantly, that these responses to struggles and doubts came effortlessly to his pen. However fluidly ideas emerge from his writings, I don’t believe resolving crises was painless for Lewis. Instead, in reading him for 35 years, I’ve learned each of those responses came through crises and pain. That is what makes him continually compelling.
      Debra Winger, who played Lewis’s wife, Joy Davidman, in the film Shadowlands, when asked to evaluate C. S. Lewis, replied: 
He may make difficult questions accessible. I don’t think he makes answers ‘easy.’ I don’t think he answers questions. He discusses them.
Lewis doesn’t ultimately give us answers—he invites our response.
      And so his readers learn to engage their questions, grasp Lewis’s resolutions and ponder their own answers. That’s why I think his words have spoken to—and continue to resonate with—millions of readers.
      The crises that Lewis faced were substantial—his beloved mother’s death when at age nine, being sent within several weeks to a series of boarding schools which he detested, fighting and being wounded in World War I, living through the Great Depression and World II, caring for his alcoholic brother and for Janie Moore (the mother of a friend who died in WWI) who slipped into dementia toward the end of her life, and finally, experiencing the death of his wife, Joy. For these reasons alone, Lewis had to work through the crisis of suffering and death.
      And how did he work through those crises? His stepson Douglas Gresham records about Lewis’s response to the death of his wife, 
He did what he always did under extreme stress. He sat down at his desk, and looking into himself and carefully observing what was happening deep in his mind where we keep our inmost secrets, he picked up his pen and an old exercise book and began to write.
      So write he did. He wrote about the crises he faced with atheism, with the Christian faith, and those he faced simply as a human being. The first category I will summarize briefly. The middle—especially his crisis with the Bible—might be the most surprising.
      Lewis tells us that he became an atheist around fourteen, but that his prickly, cynical unbelief wasn’t entirely satisfied because he sought something beyond this world. He called this Joy, “an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.” Joy led him to conclude that nothing in this world could satisfy. 
If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy,the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.
He looked beyond this world and in his early thirties (recounted with pardonable overstatement) became “the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.” The point here is that Lewis did not emerge from the womb as a man absent of doubt who glided gradually and effortlessly into prominence as a leading spokesperson for Christian orthodoxy. He struggled, and that struggle and resolution animate his writing.
      The middle set of crises easily deconstruct the misunderstanding of St. Clive as patron saint of easy answers to puzzles about Christianity.
      As he pondered conversion, Lewis had to grapple with his love of myth, which he spoke of as “at its best, a real unfocused gleam of divine truth falling on human imagination.” How could he believe in the Bible in light of all the other myths he treasured?
      As a literary scholar, he how to read a book and prized what books bring. “There is nothing in literature,” Lewis determined in his famous academic study, The Allegory of Love, “which does not, in some degree, percolate into life.” He read the Good Book full of narratives, meaningful stories. He believed the Bible “carries” the word of God and that derives its authority from the one Word of God, Jesus Christ. He was by no means a fundamentalist, who believed every word from Scripture contained literal truth or that the Bible equals the Word of God. Instead, Lewis interpreted the Bible as a literary text, which is certainly not the same as taking the text literally.
      Finally, Lewis also took on crises that no human being can avoid—suffering, death, and what I call “the crisis of feeling.” The latter is that problem we face when emotions don’t lead us to contentment. Put another way, if life is supposed to feel good, what happens when it doesn’t? Feelings—particularly the emotional rush of life—remain for many the final arbiter of truth and decision-making.
    And yet Lewis found his own wisdom hard to take when his wife, Joy, died. The pain was excruciating and left him feeling “concussed.” Not only had he lost someone he cherished, but he saw his own life replayed—Joy had two young sons whom she was leaving behind at almost the same age as Lewis and his brother at their mother’s death. His anguish disturbed easy answers, and his searing honesty remains the most arresting feature of A Grief Observed, the book he wrote just after Joy’s death: 
Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him.
Yet as the book progressed, he resolved that even God himself does not respond to every inquiry: 
When I lay these questions before God I get no answer. But a rather special sort of ‘No answer.’ It is not the locked door. It is more like a silent, certainly not uncompassionate, gaze. As though He shook His head not in refusal but waiving the question. Like, ‘Peace, child; you don’t understand.’
Lewis himself did not receive every answer he longed for. And that, in the end, brought a resolution that transcended his understanding.

      So, if indeed November is the Month of St. Clive, and if Lewis has become a somewhat universal symbol of Christianity, let us not conclude that the best life can be discovered through the uncomplicated resolution of all crises, nor the easy answer to every problem. Instead, let Lewis model for us an engagement with crises and a life that lies beyond easy answers.

Monday, January 19, 2015

The Science of Christianity’s Future: Some Repetition, Some Additional Notes

As I peer into the future of science and religion, certain related questions fascinate me. How will the faith of emerging adults (18-30 years old) provide a lens for viewing what the future of Christian faith and science will be?     
As I've mentioned before and is worth repeating, according to the noted researchers Christian Smith and Kyle Longest, 70% of 18-23 year olds “agree” or “strongly agree” that the teachings of religion and science conflict. In addition, a complementary study by David Kinnaman found that one of the six top reasons that the infamous 30% of young adults have left the church is that the latter is seen as “antiscience.”
      I'll say it again: churches are going to have to engage science and its insights. There is a science to the future of Christianity.
      In the research project I lead (a bit more on that here), I’m analyzing the surveys by Smith/Longest, Kinnaman and others, as well as interviewing young adults (18-30 years old) on how they formed their ideas about religion and science and how these attitudes change. The classic typology for understanding how religion and science interaction comes from the late doyen of this discipline, the physicist-theologian Ian Barbour. It’s a typology that has remarkable staying appeal, and which I’ll modify just a bit. Accordingly, I’ve found that emerging adults fall into three categories. (He had a fourth category, Dialogue, which is Integration-lite, and hasn’t appeared much in my research. So I won’t include that.) Warfare: Religion and science will never agree. Independence: These are two completely different ways to look at the world who ought to go separate ways Integration: They need to make a difference to each other by collaborating.
      Let me say a word about each. First, Warfare—how prevalent is it in my study of young adults? I’m going to tentatively suggest that it’s about 10-20%. On the second view, Independence, my number here is 30-40%. Students take this approach when they’re not really sure what they believe, and as Christian Smith was surprised to find in his separate study, Souls in Transition, most 18-30 year olds remain remarkably vague in what they believe whether it’s about God or science or a host of other topics. Finally, about 30-40% of young adults (again I speak tentatively) endorse an Integration of science and religion. But they need to know science well, not just want suits their theology and endorses their doctrine, but also presents challenges and unresolved questions. As C. S. Lewis warned a group of Anglican priests, that Christianity must be careful about using science glibly, “Science twisted in the interests of apologetics would be a sin and a folly.”
      And that is a good admonition for the Christian church as it engages in this dialogue and seeks to secure a robust future.

Friday, January 16, 2015

C. S. Lewis’s Acts of Imagination

While speaking recently about C. S. Lewis and the Crisis of a Christian, I’ve been asked the question of why he’s so popular. Why are more people reading him today then when he died over 50 years ago? One answer keeps coming to mind: that Lewis’s writing doesn’t ultimately give us answers—he invites our response. And he often does that through an act of imagination. His genius imagination invites us as readers to engage our questions, grasp his resolutions, and ponder our own answers. 
I love this picture of Lewis
      Let me put this another way: I’ve often heard that Lewis was the “rationalist” apologist who produced the multi-million selling Mere Christianity, which (it’s argued) seeks to deduce the reality of God and the uniqueness of Jesus from logical arguments. Admittedly, Lewis was trained at Oxford in philosophy (more particularly ancient philosophy) and employed its insights and methods, but imagination was a deeper and older root of his inspiration than logical arguments.
      Lewis learned the power of imagination in the service of theological insight as a seventeen year old. In February 1916—fifteen years before he became a Christian—Lewis first read George MacDonald’s, Phantastes, which “baptized his imagination” and impressed him with a deep sense of the “holy.” Ten years later, in 1926 Lewis read G. K. Chesterton, who led the still-atheistic Lewis to grasp “the whole Christian outline of history set out in a form that seemed to me to make sense.” Indeed, that is what Lewis wanted to do with his readers years later in his The Space Trilogy from the 1930s and The Chronicles of Narnia from the 1950s—to give his readers’ imagination the view of another world, even past the prejudices, the “stained glass and Sunday school associations” that bar readers from engaging Christ’s reality. Through the acts of imagination, Lewis posed the question, “Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons?” To which he replied, “I thought one could.”
      And Lewis’s imagination was so amazingly fertile and nimble. I’ve been reading The Magician’s Nephew from Narnia, and what strikes the reader—at least this reader—is how easily the ideas and narratives flowed for Lewis. Famously, this ease of writing frustrated his good friend J. R. R. Tolkien, who fretted over every sentence and who left the narrative of Lord of the Rings for over a year dangling with Gandalf having plunged down the Mines of Moria, and not knowing what would come next.
      The argument in my book  is that Lewis’s life was really deeply challenging (for example, his mother’s death, two world wars, caring for an alcoholic brother, the death of his wife). But for him imagination was easy. He even spoke of the main character “Aslan bounding into” some fragmentary story ideas. And he let his imagination run with the Great Lion and see where it led. “I don’t know where the Lion came from or why He came. But once He was there He pulled the whole story together, and soon He pulled the six other Narnian stories after Him.”

      And it’s not simply Aslan. Who of Lewis’s readers could forget Puddleglum or Lucy or Jadis or Ransom or the talking Beavers? We, I believe, are the better for that Lion and all those characters running through Lewis’s imagination and thus through ours.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

The Science of Christmas Future

An estimated 62% of our country will attend Christmas services this month, and right at the center of the message they’ll hear are angels singing about Jesus, the fulfillment of ancient prophecies, and a baby born to a young virgin. For many who want to believe—or at least be inspired by the Christmas story—it’s hard to accept these decidedly strange teachings in an increasingly technological and scientific world. That’s especially the case if you’re part of the 30% of 18-30 year olds in our country that list “None” when presented with the question, “What religion are you?” 
      Having just finished teaching a college course on science and religion, certain related questions fascinate me. Can my students still believe today? And, if they do, what accommodations will be made for their faith and vice versa? 

    There are some challenging statistics. According the noted researchers Christian Smith and Kyle Longest, 70% of 18-23 year olds “agree” or “strongly agree” that the teachings of religion and science conflict. In addition, a complementary study by David Kinnaman found that one of the six top reasons that the infamous 30% of young adults have left the church is that the latter is seen as “antiscience.”
      Congregations are going to have to engage science and its insights. There is a science to Christmas’s future.
      I’m currently working on a research project where I analyze these and other surveys and interview young adults (18-30 years old) on how they formed their ideas about religion and science and how these attitudes change. So, over cappuccinos and chai at Starbucks, or across the desk in my office, or lounging at the student center, I talked with students one-on-one.
      Partly this research arises from a personal interest in figuring out where this interaction is headed. If religion and science are going to be with us for a while (and there’s no indication that either is going away), then minimally we’ve got to find a way for them to coexist. And who is going to lead this discussion? Put another way, who’s going to attend Christmas services (or not) in 20 years? It’s emerging adults. Or not.
      On how to relate religion and science people usually fall something into three categories: warfare (religion and science will never agree), independence (they are two different ways to look at the world that ought to go separate ways), and integration (they need to make a difference to each other.)
      The result of my study of young adults? Along with Longest and Smith, some students are hardcore adherents to what’s known in my business as the “warfare thesis.” As one student, Elaine, commented, “I think that science and religion will always be in conflict because science and religion will never be able to agree, and there are such contradicting views.” But most emerging adults I’ve interviewed, however, aren’t themselves convinced religion and science are incompatible. Instead, they’ve heard about the conflict between the two (maybe they caught Bill Nye and Ken Ham on TV or Richard Dawkins on YouTube), but individually, they are quite interested in coming to a d├ętente and not fighting a war of attrition.
      The second view, independence, is a quite reasonable response to a pluralistic and contentious world in which emerging adults are fatigued by rancor. My study indicates that students take this approach when they’re not really sure what they believe. And that’s a fairly large category.
      Finally, young adults endorse and integration of science and religion. Some recommend exploration or a creative choosing of components from each. The Buddhist-Christian-Wiccan. The hardcore biochemistry student who can’t deny that he prayed and the request was granted, but he’s not sure if it’s not simply coincidence. And continues to pray. That sort of thing.
      But many want to integrate science with reasonably standard beliefs, and some follow thought leaders like the 20th century Oxford intellectual C.S. Lewis, who knew that belief in God allowed for—even necessitated—an ability to work around laws that God himself created. In this sense, miracles like virginal conceptions and fulfilled prophecies do not, in fact, break the laws of nature. The more certain we know these law, Lewis argued, “the more clearly we know that if new factors have been introduced the results will vary accordingly.” What we don’t know if a supernatural power might not be this new factor. Nonetheless, Lewis also warned a group of Anglican priests, that Christianity must be careful about using science glibly, “Science twisted in the interests of apologetics would be a sin and a folly.” In any event, an increasing number of young adults remain such a God, or any supernatural power, exists. And that brings me to a prediction.

      If I were to predict a future based on these studies and others, I would say that the boundary between science and religion is by no means fixed and that this conversation will go on for some time. It seems then, for the short term, most Americans will go to Christmas services. The future of Christmas may depend on if they will be able to take their science with them.