Thursday, September 24, 2020

Buddhism: Cosmology, Emptiness, and the Big Bang

When I mention to various Christians that I teach about other religions, they often say, "Tell me about it!" And so here's goes--here's something brief about Buddhist views of the cosmos and modern science.
Nothing
Buddhist scholars tell me it's all about nothing. And this reminded me of how 
Seinfeld became a TV hit in the early 2000s for a being a show “about nothing.” Maybe the show was on to something with its emphasis on nothing.

But first let's get the words right. The key words is shunyata, or emptiness. More specially, the Sanskrit Śūnyatā can be translated as "devoidness," "emptiness," "hollow, hollowness," "voidness." It is the form of noun form from the adjective śūnya, meaning "zero," "nothing," "empty" or "void." It comes from the root śvi, meaning "hollow,” plus tā, which means "-ness." (Monier-Williams, 2nd ed., 1899, A Sanskrit-English Dictionary)

This teaching of emptiness is found especially in Madhyamaka (the “middle way”). Moreover, it has resonance with quantum physics. As William Ames has commented, 
“We recall that in quantum theory many of the properties of, for instance, an electron are not intrinsic to the electron itself. They depend not only on the electron but also on the type of experiment that is being performed.” William Ames
This is commonly described through the famous two-slit experiment. Ames continues with another observation, 
“In Madhyamaka, too, attributes are relational and no intrinsic. A dharma by itself has no nature, any more than an electron can in itself be said to be either a wave or a particle.” William Ames
Not just nothing, but zero
The Buddhist focus on nothing and emptiness has at least one other significant contribution. And here again I turn to Dr. Veidlinger, my colleague at Chico State University, 
“The zero was developed in India, in connection with philosophical speculation about emptiness, and it is the Indian number system that was adapted by the West that lead to the notation used in the modern scientific world.” Daniel Veidlinger
The Big Bang and Buddhism
So far, so good. But, Big Bang cosmology might be a problem, at least according the Tibetan Buddhist leader, the Dalai Lama.
“From the Buddhist perspective, the idea that there is a single definite beginning is highly problematic. If there were such an absolute beginning, logically speaking, this leaves only two options. One is theism, which proposes that the universe is created by an intelligence that is totally transcendent, and therefore outside the laws of cause and effect. The second option is that the universe came into being from no cause at all. Buddhism rejects both these options. If the universe is created by a prior intelligence, the questions of the ontological status of such an intelligence and what kind of reality it is remain.” (Dalai Lama, The Universe in a Single Atom)
Ok, now a question
What do we do with in a world where Big Bang cosmology has become a standard? Let me know what you think?

Friday, September 18, 2020

Dual Directions Today: California Fires and Climate Change, Meditation and Science

I’m using today’s blog to produce a literal “essay”—from the French, essayer, “to try”—and so I'm trying out dual topics that have my attention, but neither of which is fully baked. 

They are (1) the connection between the fires I’m experiencing in Northern California and global climate change, and (2) scientific studies that validate the value of Buddhist meditation and what that means for Christian meditation and Christian views of science more generally.

Are we in a “climate apocalypse”?
The consensus of the scientific community—as well as those like me who are convinced by the science—global climate change is real. It is not, “fake news.” (In fact, it’s hard for me to understand why people want to deny this consensus.) 

It’s not a stretch in fact to make the connection then between the fires in California and this emerging global reality. Of course, this is also quite personal—I think the hardest moment for me was last weekend when the AQI—the Air Quality Index—went above 600 in Chico (0-50 is healthy), which is quite literally off the charts and when we had every window shut and the seams taped, and we were smelling smoke inside.
At the same time, I know that’s not all. Consider these two items: we have not managed our forests properly in the past 100 years—and, by the way, we could have learned from Native Americans and their version of “good fires" or prescribed burns—and we have built on lands at the WUI, the Wildlife Urban Interface to our peril.

Spiritually, we have not also given the land a break, a Sabbath or Jubilee, as I learned powerfully in a jazz vespers service last Sunday entitled “Melting.” It’s not only climate change specifically and globally, but more regional practices that are now demonstrating their deleterious effects. We need Sabbath practices that restrain us for our own good, and also for all creation. Sabbath brings renewal and sustainability to us and to nature. Not observing Sabbath has meant that the land will be desolated. The earth, as the Scripture tells us, rises up and responds to our destructive and harmful practices.

Meditation helps me—the science tells me so

It’s no secret to those who study science and religion that Buddhism is hot right now, which is particularly surprising since Buddhists represent around 1% of the U.S. population.

Why? One principle candidate is the relationship of Buddhist meditation—especially mindfulness—and its validation by neuroscience. Consider, for example, what Richard Davidson and his team at University of Wisconsin, Madison found (and now I quote Philip Clayton)
“Those with training and practice in meditation showed greater activity in areas of the brain dedicated to paying attention and making decisions.” Philip Clayton

Let’s take the scientific support for Buddhist meditation, in the aggregate, as decisive and thus as a given. What does that mean for me as a Christian? 


I’ll note two implications (with the hopes of developing these anon): 

  • Mindfulness is an excellent practice for Christians as we seek to “calm and quiet” ourselves (Psalm 131:2). It's also a great prelude to prayer and to acts compassionate.
  • Buddhist meditation has close affinities with the ancient and contemporary Christian practice of contemplative prayer, close enough that neurological studies find similar results between these and Buddhist meditation. And here I’m leaning on the research of Andrew Newberg, who wrote about a study of meditation practices such as focusing on Scripture, “we found increased activity in the frontal lobes (one of the areas in the brain involved with compassion and positive emotions) and there were changes in the thalamus, the part of our brain that helps us interconnect.”

In sum, these scientific studies are certainly strong support for the Buddhist meditation and its contributions to spiritual-psychological well-being. But this is not for Buddhists alone. We in the church can be humble enough to learn from these practices, adapt them, seek parallels in our own spiritual tradition, and thus find all kinds of reasons to take time away, “to let go and let God.” May it be so.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

What Can We Learn From Buddhists On How to Engage Science?

I've heard this a number of times over the years in a variety of contexts: “Science tests until it finds truth, while religions never change their ideas because they rely on faith, and faith is based on very old texts that can't be updated.”

This common slogan challenges any believer, but it also has some obvious errors. Not all religious traditions emphasize faith, and so an anti-religious cavil against “faith” can represent a category error. Buddhism, for example, focuses on enlightenment, since indeed the word Buddha has as its root “enlighten” or “awaken.” I suspect it's for this reason, and probably many others, that the relationship of Buddhism and science will continue to draw interest, e.g., the Dalai Lama’s The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and SpiritualityBuddhism and Science: Breaking New Ground, edited by B. Alan Wallace, and more recently, Robert Wright’s, Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment.

This leads to the question of faith in sacred texts and how these texts relate science and scientific inquiry. As I noted above, many argue that religions necessarily possess an anti-rational or fideistic element in that their texts always look back. Science, in contrast, continually looks forward. 

In this respect, Buddhism offers an openness to change its teachings based on new information that sounds scientific to many ears.
"Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another's seeming ability. Rather, when you yourselves know that these things are good; these things are not blamable; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness, then and only then enter into and abide in them." Buddha from the Kalama Sutra (ca. 250 BC)
And more recently, the Dalai Lama,
"Suppose that something is definitely proven through scientific investigation, that a certain hypothesis is verified or a certain fact emerges as a result of scientific investigation. And suppose, furthermore, that that fact is incompatible with Buddhist theory. There is no doubt that we must accept the result of the scientific research." Dalai Lama
As a Christian living in this scientific and technological world, I think all religions and their followers could learn from these Buddhist convictions. In addition, I believe we could also listen to Galileo, who 
(following Augustine) presented an analogous guideline over 400 years ago when speaking about his new, Copernican theory in light of his detractors' comments.
 
"I hope to show that I proceed with much greater piety than they do.... For Copernicus never discusses matters of religion or faith, nor does he use argument that depend in any way upon the authority of sacred writings which he might have interpreted erroneously. He stands always upon physical conclusions pertaining to the celestial motions and deals with them by astronomical and geometrical demonstrations, founded primarily upon sense experiences and very exact observations. He did not ignore the Bible, but he knew very well that if his doctrine were proved, then it could not contradict the Scriptures when they were rightly understood." Galileo, Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina (1615, my italics)
Galileo essentially says that, yes, we follow our ancient texts, and if our best science finds something about the physical world, our biblical interpretation and application should cohere with these findings. This makes a great deal of sense when you consider that Galileo was arguing for a sun-centered universe.

Put another way, there is one God who wrote the Two Books, one of Scripture and one of nature. Reason doesn't have to lie down to sleep when faith enters the room.

What do you think? Is there a similarity? And do you agree?

Friday, September 04, 2020

Francis Collins, Science and Religion: Need I Say More?

"I have found there is a wonderful harmony in the complementary truths of science and faith…. The God of the Bible is also the God of the genome. God can be found in the cathedral or in the laboratory. By investigating God’s majestic and awesome creation, science can actually be a means of worship.” Francis Collins

Francis Collins embodies humanity and humility. From what I've experienced and heard (I've met him twice in person and know several of his friends), he's as compelling publicly as he is privately. At an American Scientific Affiliation conference, I video'd him leading a sing-along of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah."

Collins wasn't groomed from birth for his current position as a preeminent voice in religion and science. Brought up by free-thinking artistic parents, Collins discounted Christianity until, on the advice of a Methodist minister, he encountered Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. Not too long after, he became a Christian while in medical school at 27. 

The Human Genome Project represents perhaps the most significant scientific project of the 21st century. In April 2003, it unveiled the full sequencing our human DNA. Collins headed that. 

He penned the 2009 bestselling The Language of God, which demonstrated the importance of our genetic code in how God "speaks" through the book of nature. Almost immediately, he was flooded with questions. He decided to convene a small team of specialists, to work out answers, which they posted on a website. This formed the basis for starting the BioLogos Foundation.

President Obama appointed Collins as Director of the National Institutes of Health just a few months later. (As a result, he had to leave official work for BioLogos.) It's a post he's continued with President Trump. Serving under such different administrations is obviously quite a feat! But it says something about the man, his competence and his character. Indeed his is a voice that’s guided us well during the worst global pandemic in a century.

Besides all that (and more), this year he was awarded the prestigious Templeton Prize in Progress in Religion, which this leads to an invitation. If you’d like to hear him receive the Templeton Prize and offer an address through a virtual ceremony on September 24th at 7pm Eastern, use this link to register. (And please share it.)

As I did last week, I'll let quotations again speak most loudly. (And this is one, I must admit, I often use in science and faith talks when I’m searching for something wise to say).  
"Studying the natural world is an opportunity to observe the majesty, the elegance, the intricacy of God's creation."

Note: A longer version of these reflections will appear on the Science for the Church website on September 8, 2020. 

Thursday, August 27, 2020

A Very Brief Collection of Provocative Quotations on Science and Faith

Sometimes, it's good just to listen, to listen, that is, to voices of wisdom. In this case, as I've been doing research for an upcoming Science for the Church newsletter, I've discovered some insights from three voices that are certainly worthy of our contemplation.

First is from the leading New Testament scholar N.T. Wright, who has emphasized how our metaphysics or our worldview (take your pick of the terms) constrains how we think about God and science:

“My point is this: if you’re trying to have a discussion about God’s involvement in the world—creation, science, whatever—while living and breathing a system in which God has been disinvolved with the world by definition… that is going to make it very difficult.” N.T. Wright in Surprised by Scripture

The second comes from late Rachel Held Evans, who died far too young at age 37 in 2019, and who still resonates as a voice for younger Christians and especially progressives (though, to me, she sounds indelibly orthodox). (In this, you can hear the emergence of a thoughtful follower of Jesus from the straight-jacket of fundamentalism, can't you?)

“Contrary to what many of us are told, Israel’s origin stories weren’t designed to answer scientific, twenty-first-century questions about the beginning of the universe or the biological evolution of human beings, but rather were meant to answer then-pressing, ancient questions about the nature of God and God’s relationship to creation.” Rachel Held Evans

Finally, I turn to the great Francis Collins, director of the Human Genome Project, current head of the National Institutes of Health, recipient of this year's Templeton Prize

“I have found there is a wonderful harmony in the complementary truths of science and faith…. The God of the Bible is also the God of the genome. God can be found in the cathedral or in the laboratory. By investigating God’s majestic and awesome creation, science can actually be a means of worship.” Francis Collins

Now, I ask you, isn't each of those quotations a thing of beauty?

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Two Ideas Spurred on by Jonathan Haidt

I just listened to an enthralling interview with the social psychologist and NYU professor Jonathan Haidt. (It's pronounced “height,” by the way.) In it, Haidt makes a clear case for why our human disgust reaction is natural and why it’s part of our human ethical life, but also the cause of much of our cultural polarization.

Simply put, contemporary culture is inflaming our natural tendency to be disgusted by those we disagree with. And Haidt is particularly troubled by how that plays out in academic life, which is why he began the Heterodox Academy: "T
o improve the quality of research and education in universities by increasing open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive disagreement."

Since I’m writing this during the week of the Democratic National Convention, do I need to add that I’m watching the back-and-forth of our putative political “dialogue,” which is really polarized disgust that's familiar, far too familiar?



At any rate, as I listened and watched Haidt (in conversation with Jordan Peterson), I was fascinating and intellectually provoked. This led me, as a scholar of religion, to two brief reflections.

On the one hand, we are fundamentally religious, and ethical disgust is characteristic of religion.

Yes, polarization and ethical disgust are emblematic of religion. When Haidt (and to a lesser degree, Peterson) talked, they highlighted our religiosity (even though Haidt says of himself that he is not religious). This is the basis for much of our separation into what’s 
“clean” and “unclean,” Holy and the Unholy, “human” and “inhuman.” For example, “Harvey Weinstein is an animal” means he’s disgusting and not part of human society. Or when President Trump told congressional members Alexandria Ocasio-Cortex, Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib, and Ilhan Omar to "go back" home, he was inflaming Republican disgust that they're not part of "us" and "our country."

Remarkably, the Apostle Paul definitively undermines these dichotomies in his letters. He particularly takes aim at the Jewish division of circumcised and uncircumcised. “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love,” (Galatians 5:6).


On the other, we as Americans are decreasingly less able to direct our desire for transcendence.

Formerly, religions had various methods to return people to the fold, and some were obviously quite elaborate—15th and 16th century indulgences represent famous examples of acts of penance. But my concern lies elsewhere: with the rise of the religious disaffiliation, we pursue fewer explicitly religious means to offer us ways back into the fold. (Currently, between 20 and 25% mark "none" when asked "what is your religion?" About 50 years ago, that number was around 5%.)

As I mentioned, robust and enduring religious traditions have means to find forgiveness and restoration. 
(This is one reason they've been around for awhile.) Here I’ll focus on Christianity. It’s certainly not the “cheap grace” that Dietrich Bonhoeffer once complained about, but a patient path of repentance that restores us back to ourselves, to God, and to community. 

In losing our religious affiliation, the United States has let these well-tried practices gradually slip from our grasp. And this, I believe, leads to the market rise of ethical disgust and social polarization. Which ought to trouble us.

Thursday, August 06, 2020

A Few More Notes on Science and Religion/Head and Heart

Some take recourse in this common cliché: science and religion depict the contrast of “head” and “heart,” respectively. That idea is somewhat distorting since, at least minimally, we know that emotions and rationality are intertwined and take place in various functions of our wonderfully complex and often chaotic brains. 

For the past decade or two, affective neuroscientists like Antonio Damasio and Luiz Pessoa have noted the close connection between emotion and decision-making. They encapsulated the trend lines of recent research on emotion and cognitive science when they wrote, 
“There are no truly separate systems for emotion and cognition because complex cognitive-emotional behavior emerges from the rich, dynamic interactions between brain networks.” Damasio & Pessoa
And yet the head/heart dichotomy begins to bring us to the right position in understanding our heritage in the United States. Historically, we want either to be warmed in our feelings about the world around us—to see meaning and order and beauty—or to have our thinking kindled—to analyze the particulars of how things fit all reach; something which is the ultimate ideal, and the hopeless quest.
In addition, I learned from Robert McCauley in Why Religion is Natural and Science is Not that religion, with its stories and community and rituals--but not theology, with its complicated rationalized discourse--has a higher cognitive "naturalness" than science and its patient and careful process (which is closer to theology).

This means that when science has truly affected our culture, it’s not the experiments but the larger story of ourselves and our world—what we might call its religious aspects. Albert Einstein’s special relativity theory is amazing science, but when we hear that time dilates, that’s an astounding story. Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection is ground-breaking science, but what influences culture is that we are more similar to chimpanzees, and less special, than we thought. I note then not only science for science’s sake, but science for culture’s sake. 

And when science has affected culture is indeed, that is when science has interacted most notably with religious life in America.