Friday, November 11, 2022

Why I Wrote Science Religions: A New Look

 The first thing to tell you is why I wrote this book

You see, I’ve been unsatisfied with what I’ve found in “science and religion” books. They strike me as incomplete because they are essentially “monotheism and science” or “Christianity and science.” At some level, this is understandable and perhaps pardonable, given that the science commonly practiced derives from the European Scientific Revolution— which I’ll call in these pages “modern science”—and that this European context was predominantly Christian. Nevertheless, as I’ve taught hundreds of students and lectured to as many over the past two decades, I keep getting asked for a truly multi-religious approach to science. Why? There are, as I read in the National Congregations Study: “about as many synagogues, mosques and Buddhist or Hindu temples in the U.S. (9% of all congregations) as there are Catholic parishes (6% of all congregations)."

We need to take in this religious diversity and its impact. Toni Morrison once wrote, 

“If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”

 And so, I’m writing this book because it doesn’t exist yet, at least for use in my undergraduate courses at Chico State.

But it’s not just for my students, and this leads to a relevant question, Is this topic important to you too? Not surprisingly, my answer is Yes, but it might not be evident why—almost all other vital cultural topics find their way through science and religions. When we look, for example, at the COVID-19 pandemic, discussions about race, or the contentiousness of evolution and climate change in the United States, we need to understand the cultural history of science and religion—and how the two are still intertwined.

This brings me to three phases of books written on science and religion.3

The first phase focused on science and religion largely through western monotheism—and frankly, as I’ve mentioned, primarily through Christianity and science. Ian Barbour’s iconic game-changing 1966 book Issues in Science and Religion4 set this agenda.

Then, a second phase appeared, as in Alister McGrath’s 2010 Science and Religion: A New Introduction (in its second edition, to be precise), which I’ve used as textbook. This and other texts take up science and its relationship with western monotheism and then add a chapter or two on “other religions.” Tipping their hats toward religious diversity, they still center on Christianity.

In my teaching, this seems inadequate, and my concerns are echoed in this summary from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,

“For the past fifty years, science and religion has been de facto Western science and Christianity—to what extent can Christian beliefs be brought in line with the results of Western science? The field of science and religion has only recently turned to an examination of non-Christian traditions, such as Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam, providing a richer picture of interaction.”

I’d like to think this book is part of a third phase, exemplified by Science and Religion Around the World, edited by John Hedley Brooke and Ronald L. Numbers, a truly decentered and pluralistic approach to religions and science. Like the authors in this collection, I am not assuming monotheism, morality, and metaphysics (though, as an American scholar, that bias is always close at hand). The book I’ve written is also a bit different in that it’s for those who aren’t specialists in the field of religion and science.

And this brings me back to my students and what they need and are asking for, as well as those readers who aren’t college students in my Science and Religion course. I think you’ll understand American life and better through studying science and religions (in the plural). The payoff here is that we gain insight into so many other topics.

Thursday, August 18, 2022

Reflections on Studying Science and Religions in a Pluralistic World

This is a mini excerpt from my upcoming book, Science and Religions in America: A New Look. Feel free to pre-order!

If there's a way I lean, it's toward a collaboration between science and religion.

Nevertheless, out of a commitment to honestly, I've also learned that there are some major differences between the two. I’ve mentioned in various places "New Atheists" scientists like Jerry Coyne and Richard Dawkins. They see a very deep chasm between religion and science, and they assert that they, as scientists, rely on experimentation and rationality, an approach that just doesn't connect with many people who fit into a religious mindset. At the same time, many influential religious voices in our country are not particularly supportive of modern science, like thought leaders of the conservative Christian movement, such as Jerry Falwell, Jr. or Franklin Graham, who yet command the attention of millions while standing against much of the consensus of science.      

There is no one relationship of science and religions that could categorize and summarize all people. 


In the search for collaboration, it would also be convenient to find a universal common thread of wisdom that all the greatest minds in science and religion seek. For my part, I'd like to fully concur with the philosopher and scholar of mystical thinking Ken Wilbur, who commented when on the founders of quantum mechanics, “they investigated the physical realm so intensely looking for answers, and when they didn’t find these answers, they became metaphysical.” Even more, he added, “These physicists became deep mystics not because of physics but because of the limitations of physics” (quoted in Steve Paulsen, Atoms and Eden: Conversations on Religion and Science.)


I am drawn to with what astrophysicist Marcelo Gleiser wrote, 

Scientists should engage with the mystery of existence, inspired by a deep sense of awe and filled with humility. If science is seen this way, many more will be ready to embrace it as one of the highest expressions of the human spirit.

But frankly, I do struggle with how widespread this sentiment is. And I'll leave it there for this post... 

What do you think? (Hint: there's also more in the final chapter of the book.)

Thursday, March 31, 2022

A Great Conversation on Science and the Church

Every time I talk with Brent Roam, lead pastor of One Family Church in Saint Louis, I come away inspired. This was absolutely the case when I met with him recently (via Zoom), and we discussed how he integrates science into his church's ministries. 

There's a video of the full interview--with an abbreviated version here. This is just a taste of our conversation, on the topic of "mutual curiosity."

(Me) When churches are working out how to connect science and faith, relationships with scientists are key. In the process, it also validates their call to science.

(Brent) I’m definitely always curious about what scientists are thinking and what they’re doing. I want to learn from them and grow by listening. As a result, scientists seem to be interested in what I’m doing as a pastor, like teaching theological ideas—that’s just my normal thing. But it’s interesting because there’s a mutual curiosity there. When we’re genuinely interested and not intimidated, we reap the rewards, not only in the relationships, but also in the sermons and the quality of what we can present to our congregations.

I love that phrase: "mutual curiosity." I find far too many people in our polarized world that find comfort and identity in their "tribe." They stay there and listen to those who create easy and safe boundaries. But how much more we can learn in life when we're curious. How much more when we engage with others in mutual curiosity. 

Friday, November 12, 2021

The Hope of Improvisation

This brief post was actually a section that didn't make it to my recent piece on the Science for the Church's blog, "Grateful for Gratitude." 

So, I thought I'd put it here.

I’m a jazz musician, and I’ve brought improvisation not just to music, but to all of my life. In the process, I’ve realized that 
improv is an act of hope. And this hope emerges from confidence in two key things: the other musicians and your own skills (as I wrote in chapter 6 of Say Yes to No). 

The bottom line: in improv, we don't know what's going to happen yet--it's not scripted--and yet we have hope it's going to be good.

This leads then to the question. How can we be open to improvising our life, that is walking by faith? I find it's fairly simple: first, being grateful for what God has already done. 

Gratitude therefore is the basis of improvisation. It allows us to move forward with the ability to create a life without scripting everything before it happens. Gratitude indeed leads to improvisational hope.

(Because trying to script the future doesn’t really work, does it?)

Friday, October 08, 2021

When Spirituality Meets Science

What happens when spirituality meets science? 

In her brand-new book, The Awakened Brain: The New Science of Spirituality and Our Quest for an Inspired Life, Columbia University professor of clinical psychology Lisa Miller describes why we need to move from an external form of “religion” to a more personally appropriated “spirituality.” 

She offers this working definition of spirituality, which certainly incorporates Christian spiritual life: 

“It includes a deeply felt and perceived connection with a higher power or a sacred world—a sense of engagement and relationship, such as asking God or Source for guidance in times of struggle.”

As one specific example, Dr. Miller found that spirituality often emerges from depression. 

“And for those who were highly spiritual and had gone through major depression in the past, the protective benefit of spirituality against a recurrence of depression was… a striking 90 percent.” 

More broadly, the kind of spirituality she’s researched leads us to experience a profound connection to the world around us and to a fully alive “awakened brain.”

That sounds pretty good to me. And, if you want to read more, this piece is excerpted from a longer piece on the Science for the Church website. Let me know what you think! 

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

C.S. Lewis's Final Days and the Reality of Hope

Note: As I prepare for a course I'm teaching this fall at Bidwell Presbyterian Church in Chico, I've been thinking about C.S. Lewis. This post is adapted from my book, C.S. Lewis and the Crisis of a Christian.

In the classical and medieval tradition—which C.S. Lewis as a medievalist at Oxford University treasured—a good life was defined by knowing one’s death and thus dying well. Memento mori, which means “remember death” in Latin, were artistic depictions of mortality. They are meant to remind us that it's better not to die in one’s sleep or die quickly—as many today long for—but to know we’re dying and therefore to die prepared and peacefully. 

In this light, God did seem to prepare Lewis for his eventual passing. When he almost died in the summer of 1963, he expressed some regret that he was brought back. As he wrote to a fairly regular correspondent, Mary Willis Sherburne, who apparently was dying too:

"Pain is terrible, but surely you need not have fear as well? Can you not see death as the friend and deliverer? It means stripping off that body which is tormenting you: like taking off a hair-shirt or getting out of a dungeon. What is there to be afraid of?" (C.S. Lewis)

Similarly, writing to his long-term friend Arthur Greeves on September 11, 1963, he found it 

"rather a pity I did revive in July. I mean, having been glided so painlessly up to the Gate it seems hard to have it shut in one’s face and know that the whole process must some day be gone thro’ again, and perhaps far less pleasantly! Poor Lazarus! But God knows best." (C.S. Lewis)

But this reprieve also allowed several final, precious weeks with his brother, Warren (or Warnie). When Warnie wrote a memoir about his brother’s life, his final lines express a pathos that still pierces my heart as I recall them. They remind me that death does point toward hope, but only if we also grasp the loss, the crisis of death. 

Warnie remarked on the return to the happiness of their boyhood in the imaginary games they played in the “little end room,” a place for Lewis’s fruitful imagination as well:

"The wheel had come full circle: once again we were together in the little end room at home, shutting out from our talk the ever-present knowledge that the holidays were ending, that a new term fraught with unknown possibilities awaited us both.... We were recapturing the old schoolboy technique of extracting the last drop of juice from our holidays." (Warren Lewis)

I type this as the summer is coming to a close and I am about to return to school, though as a teacher, not a student. 

At any rate, this brief respite from the specter of death was not to last. Just before his sixty-five birthday, the nibbed pen of C. S. Lewis would never dip into the inkwell and scratch out another of his insights. I find the words of his brother poignantly spare and profoundly moving as they relate Lewis’s last day on earth:

"Friday, 22 November 1963, began much as other days: there was breakfast, then letters and the crossword puzzle. . . . Our few words then [at four] were the last: at five-thirty I heard a crash and ran in, to find him lying unconscious at the foot of his bed. He ceased to breathe some three or four minutes later." (Warren Lewis)

Warren could only add, in his brief memoir, “nothing worse than this could ever happen to me in the future.” He too knew the sorrow of losing someone close. Indeed he could not bring himself to attend his beloved brother’s funeral. 

I don't want to end there, however, because for Lewis, death indeed was not the end. Indeed he believed about heaven and thus life after death. If he was right about what he wrote, his place is now secure. And it is also certainly better. 

As he wrote so movingly in some of the final words from The Chronicles of Narnia:

"All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before." (C.S. Lewis)

And so it is with our great hope as followers of Christ.

Friday, June 18, 2021

Why is Our Relationship with Nature So Broken?

I was walking across the street yesterday, but just before I did, instead of looking up, I checked my iPhone to see about the weather. Instead of looking up, and pondering the sky, instead of taking in what my body could clearly tell me about the temperature, the wind, the humidity, I let my smart phone make me dumber.

The statistics are staggering… about how many times we look at our phones. We check them between 56 and 96 times a day and on the average spend almost 4 hours looking at them, which is roughly 50 days/year.
It seems like science and modern technology is breaking our relationship with nature. But it’s not just our smart phones, and honestly it isn’t entirely new. 

Listen to the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. An unusually gifted storyteller, he illustrates the fight between the technology of affluent societies and our ability to “view the stars.” Most philosophers can’t produce really winning parables like this—one that still resonates almost two hundred years after he told it. But Kierkegaard can, and that’s why he’s worth quoting at length. 
When the prosperous man on a dark but starlit night drives comfortably in his carriage and has the lanterns lighted, aye, then he is safe, he fears no difficulty, he carries his light with him and it is not dark close around him; but precisely because he has the lanterns lighted, and has a strong light close to him, precisely for this reason he cannot see the stars, for his lights obscure the starts, which the poor peasant driving without the lights can see gloriously in the dark but starry night. So those deceived ones live in the temporal existence: either, occupied with the necessities of life, they are too busy to avail themselves of the view, or in the prosperity and good days they have—as it were lanterns lighted and close about them—everything is so satisfactory, so pleasant, so comfortable, but the view is lacking, the prospect, the view of the stars.