Friday, May 08, 2015

Bidwell Pres in SinC

More info on SinC's website and Facebook page
One of my first moves when I began as associate pastor at Bidwell Presbyterian Church was to engage the congregation’s faith with science. I had written Creation and Last Things for the Presbyterian Church (USA), which, in book form, summarized a class I’d taught at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian for most of the six years I served there. So I called the Chico Enterprise-Record (the daily paper that serves our town of 100,000) to see if they were interested in a story. It seemed like a long-shot, but to my surprise, they promoted the class with front page picture—something that certainly didn’t happen when I called The New York Times! And though Bidwell is a growing congregation now with 1600 members (and about 1000 in our worship services), I still didn’t anticipate 120 people waiting expectantly for something to happen that very first night of class. 
      Thus the dialogue began. Subsequently, I regularly taught on science and faith in our Wednesday night adult ed classes. Every month, I hosted the Chico Triad on Philosophy, Theology, and Science at my house with participants in those fields drawn from the two local colleges, California State University and Butte College, as well as independent scholars. And “the Triad”—along with Bidwell Pres’s adult discipleship leadership team—put together a yearly science and religion conference with 60-125 in attendance featuring local faculty in biology, physics, psychology, philosophy, and religious studies, as well as guest speakers like Ted Peters, Robert John Russell, and Karl Giberson.
      All this presents context for our specific project for Scientists in Congregations (or SinC): MBSR (or Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) and the Christian faith. In case readers aren’t familiar with MBSR—and it was certainly new to our congregation—I’ll leave it to the description from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), “the meditator is taught to bring attention to the sensation of the flow of the breath in and out of the body. The meditator learns to focus attention on what is being experienced, without reacting to or judging it.” The NIH notes that researchers are studying the efficacy of mindfulness meditation for anxiety, depression, pain control, stress reduction, increasing attention, asthma, and immune function. 
      The project that was guided by two essential questions: First of all, is scientific? Better put, can we scientifically support the purported benefits of MBSR? Secondly, is it Christian? Can MBSR be integrated into Christian faith and practice? Our team felt the stakes in the dialogue were substantial. If MBSR were based upon bad science, we would be advocating a practice that may have some subjective or anecdotal support for its health benefits, but isn’t confirmed by credible, repeatable scientific studies. We were convinced that both credible science and substantive theology and/or Christian practice must come to dialogue. Too often shallow findings from “science” are slapped onto theology, which little rigor or examination. Similarly, if theological considerations are ignored, and, in our case, if any religious tradition can be uncritically inserted into congregational life, what makes their church life distinctively Christian? 
      With those issues in mind, I as a pastor, and Steve Koch, a psychologist from Chico State, jointly provided a project that addressed certain key goals. We utilized the issue of MBSR as a catalyst to a collaborative dialogue between science and faith in a local congregation, first of all, by developing and delivering a series of five adult education classes both five face-to-face and through distance learning. The latter allowed us to multiply the learning from the class both geographically (in principle, participants could attend our class via the internet anywhere in the world) and through time (the clas is banked so students could watch at a later date). Our parish associate and teaching pastor, Allen McCallum, also wrote up a provocative paper, “Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and the Christian Faith,” which we distributed. Finally, we brought the findings to the Chico Triad and our yearly science and religion conference to expose the conclusions and practices to a wider public with the hope that all this would spin off into future engagement with MBRS specifically or meditation more generally. More on that in later paragraphs…
      Incidentally, one other by-product of the MBSR and Christian faith project was to engage psychology, an often forgotten partner in the dialogue of science and faith. Over the past fifty years (during the current age of the science-religion dialogue), books regularly ponder how faith and reason go together, what the physics on Big Bang has to say to the doctrine of creation, and how can to reconcile evolutionary biology with the “image of God.” All good topics, but I’ve read far fewer books on psychology and faith. (And, in fact, no other SinC projects focused on behavioral sciences.) So we decided to take it on.
      What did we conclude about strategies for a more substantive and generative engagement between religion and science in congregational life?
      Let’s start with our pitfalls, ones I imagine other pastors and congregations need to anticipate. Put simply, pastors need to avoid speaking in generalities about the process of engagement. Congregations need to be given more tools to understand how science operates, and where its limitations and strengths lie. The process could be compared to providing concordances, Greek and Hebrew dictionaries, and commentaries to facilitate Bible study.
      What themes garnered the most interest? Our audiences want to be assured that they can have a spiritual faith and explore science without being forced to choose one or the other. They also want to learn specific practices that help them move closer to God, while providing relief from their struggles with anxiety, depression, and other health issues. In other words—and this is hardly a surprise—we wanted to be more theoretical, and the congregation wanted practice. We did try to join theory with practice in our class. Steve and I tried academic journal articles in the adult class, and they were too dense—filled with jargon and statistics. Put simply, we shot too high. We wanted to show the quantitative analysis and substantive data that backed up our conclusions; in contrast, the class kept asking, “How do we do MBSR?” They wanted to get still and find God in the stillness. Put another way, it might be more accurate for congregations to talk more about faith and science rather than theology or religion and science because congregants always seem most interesting in “How does this affect my faith and my well-being?”
      I think the concern that drove this project—and that has motivated me to engage my theology with science—is this: how do we articulate Christian faith in a science- and technology-soaked world? I remember a quip from Friederich Schleiermacher, who had become deeply concerned that Christianity in the late 18th and early 19th century was increasingly distanced from good intellectual engagement. He asked, “Shall the tangle of history so unravel that Christianity becomes identified with barbarism and science with unbelief?” Similarly, I have become convinced that we can’t let our theology be wedded to sub-par science, nor can we allow legitimate science to be connected solely to atheistic materialism. 
      In that light—and because Bidwell Pres blends mainline theology with West Coast evangelicalism—our congregation holds a high view of the Bible. So we needed a solidly effective biblical hermeneutic. And here I learned a great deal from a Christian thinker not often mentioned in this context, C. S. Lewis. Christians that love science also value the Bible, and Lewis was a world-class Oxford and Cambridge literary scholar who read scripture in a neither truly liberal nor conservative mode, which allowed for a discerning engagement with a variety of other disciplines. (Full disclosure: I was also engaged in research on Lewis for a book during two years of SinC and wanted to try out some of his ideas here. So I presented these and other conclusions at a conference of all the SinC grantees in 2011 and an adult ed class on C. S. Lewis and Science in 2012.)
      Lewis viewed the Bible as carrying the word of God, that its authority derives from the one Word of God, Jesus Christ, and that much of its content comes through “myths,” which for him are not untrue stories, but those that carried profound meaning. Lewis concluded that science had a rightful place in intellectual work and in the development of the West, but had no right to determine all truth and knowledge. In that light, Lewis believed the Bible as a book could be read on its own terms and offer legitimate wisdom. The Bible doesn’t need science to substantiate its claims. Paradoxically, this may be the best way for congregations that take science seriously as they read their Bibles. Science can have a freedom not bound by its corroboration with a specific biblical text.  We could read the Bible, and we could practice MBSR, and not find ourselves filled with anxiety that we’re doing both as long as both carry truth. Lewis further liberates us to read the Bible as a powerful book—one that leads Christians to the center of their faith, Jesus Christ—and to let the liberated study of science also take place.
      Our project experienced something that was replicated throughout the other thirty-six congregations—we discovered that the Bible and science can and must speak to one another, but we are free to make connections where they exist without forcing a connection with the hermeneutical duck tape of proof-texting. Faithful Christians can engage science in a free interchange without forced agreement or impenetrable conflict. In fact, I had underestimated the degree to which my congregation simply felt stressed out and wanted to find “the peace,” described by Paul in Philippians 4:7, “that passes understanding.” They weren’t particularly worried if MBSR was the vehicle to arrive at that destination, as long as they met Christ there too. For example, one of our class members had studied MBSR to help with an anxiety disorder. That experience, however, was at hospital, and he was all to glad to practice within a Christian framework. The bottom line was that MBSR calmed their souls. And that was enough. It was sufficient for me too. 
      In conclusion, I’d note that many of the effects of our project have been subtle. One is that subsequent small groups have begun to spring up around the topic of mindfulness and its practice in Christian meditation. Another is a current Wednesday night adult ed class also around this topic (built, by the way, more on practice than theory). And, as I mentioned above, by equipping one of our classroom with distance learning capabilities, we hope that technology could spread the news about what it means for Christians to engage with science. Probably most important is that Bidwell Presbyterian demonstrated that there is nothing to fear—and everything to learn—from science. A soon to be published  book by Calvin College sociologist Jonathan Hill, Emerging Adulthood and Faith, analyzes the way we engage challenging topics by blending affect (learned primarily through our social groups) with rational reflection into “motivated reasoning.” The most important influencers therefore in how congregations engage science will be friends, family, and pastors (not—as he is somewhat crestfallen to note—professors). I wish I had read that before, and not after, we finished SinC! Nevertheless, it remains very good news for me and for those congregations that engage faith with science.
      I think the effects of MBSR might have taken root in our congregation in much more mundane ways. I saw a church member with eyes closed during a recent sermon. I knew she wasn’t sleeping—she was simply engaged in mindfulness meditation.

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