Friday, April 09, 2021

The Beauty of the Banana Slug

Writer and Catholic priest Henri Nouwen has observed: 

“All that is, is sacred because all that is speaks of God’s redeeming love. Seas and winds, mountains and trees, sun, moon, and stars, and all the animals and people have become sacred windows offering us glimpses of God.” 


Sometime during these early years—I think it was sixth grade—I went on Outdoor Education. Growing up in the Bay Area, that meant we headed to the beautiful Santa Cruz Mountains and studied how creation worked. We’d stay at a camp for several days, many of which we hiked through the moist Redwood forests. 

And do you know the animal I loved best? Banana slugs—those bright yellow—and thus the name “banana”—slimy slugs. They seemed to show up everywhere. (In fact, the banana slug is the mascot of University of California Santa Cruz.) 


Those banana slugs fascinated me. Perfectly adapted for their  environment, they were beautiful in their own way. 


I think a good deal of you are like me. If I asked you, "Where is one of the places where find God’s presence?" I’d bet most of you would say, Nature. That’s where you meet God our Creator. 


As one of the top scientists in our country—and also a follower of Jesus—Francis Collins commented, 

“I find that studying the natural world is an opportunity to observe the majesty, the elegance, the intricacy of God's creation”

Nature—that is, God’s creation—draws us by its beauty and thus to the God who is the Source of all beauty. 


I discovered it early in the beauty of the banana slug.

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Brad, the Leaves, and the Squirrel

[You'll find this story at about 20 minutes in this video.]

I grew up in what is now the Silicon Valley, and I went to Fremont School for kindergarten in Menlo Park, which was about a mile from my childhood home.
In those days, I used to walk home with my best friend Brad. It must have been early in the school year. And the fall had started and the leaves were coming down. After Brad and I turned the first corner—just a block from Fremont School—we came upon what seemed to me to be huge trees dropping beautiful brown, yellow, and orange leaves.

But it wasn’t only their colors; it was their flight pattern as they fell that was marvelous and mysterious. They would swivel and dodge as they descended. Brad and I discovered they were impossible to catch.

But we tried. We tried again. We tried but couldn't catch a single leaf.
We were mesmerized.

And while we were trying to catch these incredible, miraculous falling leaves, we saw a squirrel.

And being five at the time, it was fine to talk with this animal. So, Brad and I started chatting with him, 
“Hi, squirrel. What are you doing squirrel? It’s good to see you Mr. Squirrel”
Between the leaves, Mr. Squirrel, the fall, the friendship, time began to pass in the way the writer Anne Lamott describes childhood—in “big, round hours”

So, I was surprised—but now I realized I shouldn’t have been—when my dad arrived probably an hour later, worried about where his son was.
“Greg, what have you been doing? You should be home by now”
You might think I wasn’t worried—but no, I was still entranced by all the wonders of this autumn moment.

I told him, 
“Dad, Brad and I were just here talking to Mr. Squirrel—see him up there—and trying to catch the leaves. See, Dad, as they fall (and I demonstrated) you can’t catch them. Look.”
And here’s the proof that my father was truly the laid-back Greek: he just let us try to catch leaves—and ever after that day, he always talked about how wonderful it was that I took some time in the midst of a day to catch beautiful autumn leaves and talk to squirrels.

In fact, when I described this scene to my dad a few years ago, before he died, he responded with one word: 
“Marvelous.”
Since then, I've spent a good deal of my energies on relating my faith with science. And I've discovered this is central: to read the two books--the book of nature and the book of Scripture--to see the beauty in life and the beauty of God and simply say, Marvelous.

Friday, March 19, 2021

Racism and Secularity: Two Notes on COVID-19

The first “postsecular pandemic”?

The London School of Economics (or LSE) hosted an online event in June 2020 called “Religious Communities under COVID-19: the first pandemic of the postsecular age?” Post-secular is ambiguous: It can mean either (1) after secularism has established itself as the norm or (2) after secularism's hegemony has ended. (This ambiguity plays into Luke Bretherton’s distinction of “secularism” and “secularity,” which more or less map on the first and second definition, respectively.)

Is secularism representative of this global pandemic in the twenty-first century, particularly in light of the rise in the United States of the “nones” who represent 25% of the population. Put another way, have we entered a new, fully secular way of engaging with the pandemic? There are vast differences between 2020-21 and the 1919 influenza pandemic or the 1832 cholera epidemic. I have not witnessed governmental calls for repentance, for example.

It would seem that a secular, or non-religious, or naturalistic approach is what is demanded. “Let the data speak” echoes what I hear from our California Governor, Gavin Newsome. 

And yet, I sense a growing dissatisfaction with the secular what Charles Taylor calls the “imminent frame” in Secular Age. As two countervailing examples, there are books on theodicy with booming sales from N.T. Wright Wright, God and the Pandemic: A Christian Reflection on the Coronavirus and Its Aftermath (Zondervan, 2021) and Lennox, Where is God in a Coronavirus World? (The Good Book, 2020), pondering God’s work in this challenging time. (For my part, I don’t find the questions of God's justice in light of the prevalence of evil and pain more poignant now than on almost any day on this planet, but their reflections intrigue me nonetheless.) In addition, searches on prayer via Google have spiked in the past year (as James Walter’s commented at the June 2020 LSE event).

Perhaps formally, we are less religious than in past pandemics, but it’s hard to argue that religious sensibilities are entirely absent. At times like this, human beings feel a sense of something bigger than us.


Enduring disparities of race and economics

One of the lessons from my research in writing Negotiating Science and Religion in America is the endemic and enduring racism in America and the central role science and religion have played. The current pandemic has intensified the disparities of race and economics.

Quoting from Vox, “Black Americans have fared worst of all, with about 1 in 1000 Black Americans dying from Covid-19 since February.”  

“For their share of the US population, Black people are dying in the pandemic at twice the rate of white Americans, of whom about 1 in every 2,150 people has died.” 

And why? The disparities of economics and the many issues are related to poverty among Blacks and LatinX and native Americans play a central role. In addition, as many have noted, the ongoing suspicion of science—e.g., the 1932-72 Tuskegee Syphilis experiments—raise challenges to fighting inequalities in this COVID-19 time. To be sure, Black churches, as one example, represent centers of community empowerment. Still, because religious communities are often racially segregated in the United States, inequalities of care are mapped onto communities of worship.

We could frame these two more generally as (1) the question of religion’s significance today in the face of death and suffering, and (2) as the enduring role that religion has played in the United States to reinforce oppression.

And however we frame these two, COVID-19 has intensified how we negotiate the relationship of science and religion in America.

Monday, March 08, 2021

Buddhism's Strategy of Scientific Apologetics

Before I head to the topic at hand, this week one of the living legends in science and religion, physicist-priest John Polkinghorne died. Thank you for your work. Rest in Paradise. 

I've been reading David McHahan’s The Making of Buddhist Modernismand I think I've already mentioned Evan Thompson’s Why I am Not a Buddhist, which builds on McHahan’s work and others. Together these books analyze the creation of a “Buddhist modernism,” which Thompson also describes as “minimalist Buddhism.” Ronald Purser argues that this, combined with mindfulness meditation and market capitalism becomes "McMindfulness." 

At any rate, this Buddhism is often referred to, not as a religion, but a "science of the mind."

This intrigues me because Buddhist modernism is presented as entirely compatible with science, and in the circles I'm in, the intimate compatibility of Buddhism and contemporary science is taken for granted. For a religious tradition that is approximately 2500 years old, it represents a reasonably recent apologetic strategy that was formed in part to respond to scientific rationalism and late 19th century Protestant Christian tactics, who often complained about Buddhism's superstition, nihilism, and idolatry, arguing instead that Christianity produced superior societies with robust science and technology.

Bestselling works by international Buddhist leaders like the Dalai Lama,The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality, and Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life--books I like and freely recommend--are vulnerable to the charge of constricting the full scope of Buddhism for the sake of presenting a relatively seamless integration with modern science. And yet, I have to admit these do not exhaust all contemporary accounts on how to relate Buddhism to modern science. 


In addition to various popular approaches, there are more nuanced scholarly offerings, such as Donald Lopez, Buddhism and Science: A Guide for the Perplexed, Francisco Cho and Richard K. Squier, Religion and Science in the Mirror of Buddhism, and B. Alan Wallace’s edited volume, Buddhism and Science, to name just three. Put simply, these texts engage with the wide varieties of Buddhism (even "Buddhisms") throughout the globe and not solely with Buddhist modernism.


As an observer and participant in the scholarship of science and religion, I find minimalist Buddhism to be a fascinating parallel with various forms of Christian apologetics that use science. I'm not against apologetics because, if we are convinced by the true of any idea, we'll want to persuade others. To return to John Polkinghorne, he exemplified this approach at times, and when he did, it was compelling.


What does interest me is not so much that the creation of a minimalist Buddhism has occurred, but why it has and particularly whether this strategy really helps us understand the various ways that science and religions interact. In fact, minimalist Buddhism ultimately limits our understanding of its full relationship with modern science... a topic I'll have to more to say about as I continue to learn.

Saturday, February 27, 2021

Is it Good for Us to Go to Church?

What will church be like “post-COVID”? (And really, what does “post-COVID” mean?) Moreover, when the effects of the pandemic subside, will it matter if we don't go back to church?


As far as I can tell, it seems like the most important parts of religious life are what COVID is restricting (like being together in the same room), which makes these questions particularly relevant.


(By the way, I chose this pic because "fifty" is misspelled, which brought a smile to my face and reminded me of how many times the slides for worship singing had errors.)


Scripture: It's a bit ambiguous in my reading as to whether Scripture tells us "to go the church" in the way we generally do in 21st century America. This is a huge topic, perhaps to be addressed at another time. 


Nevertheless, I'll affirm that the New Testament does, of course, underscore that the first followers of Jesus met together in worship (Acts 2) and that "And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing..." (Hebrews 10:24-25).


Science: In this post, I'm particularly interested in what science says--Is it good for us to go to church, or put another way, to be religiously active? 


Bottom line: Scientific research supports the conclusion that religious life, or being “religiously active,” is good for human health. 


By “good,” I mean that, for individuals, religious life correlates statistically with the following: 

  1. Good for physical health 
  2. Good for mental resilience and happiness 
  3. Good for prosocial behavior 

How about for the society as a whole?
  • Being religiously active can be good via altruism, but it bad by restricting the use of medicine (blood transfusions and Jehovah’s Witnesses) or lead to overpopulation (restrictions on birth control) 
But here's one big catch: Religion can increase prejudice. A few years ago, I heard a talk by Robert Putnam who drew a distinction between "bonding" (in-group), and "bridging" (inter-group), social capital. Attending church per se does not increase “bridging social capital.” Religious life tends to be good at the first but not the second, and that leads to the correlation between religiosity and prejudice (see Robert Jones on the research conducted by PRRI). 

And here's a second catch: Our religiosity (to use the academic term) needs to be “intrinsic” and not “extrinsic”--as I've blogged before--that, it has to be authentic and essentially, not something we do for someone else.


In sum: As far as I can tell, yes, generally there are some positive indications from scientific research about going to church, but how we approach religious life correlates with whether it diverges ultimately into negative or positive outcomes.  


Friday, February 12, 2021

Something from Luther that's Blowing My Mind

Recently, I wrote on science as a Christian vocation, and in light of that piece, and particularly the one that followed, this excerpt from Martin Luther is, yes, blowing my mind ("Open Letter to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation Concerning the Reform of the Christian Estate") 

Written in 1520, it's still relevant five centuries later...

From all this it follows that there is really no difference between laymen and priests, princes and bishops, "spirituals" and "temporals," as they call them, except that of office and work, but not of "estate"; for they are all of the same estate -- true priests, bishops and popes -- though they are not all engaged in the same work, just as all priests and monks have not the same work. 
This is the teaching of St. Paul in Romans 12:4 and I Corinthians 12:12, and of St. Peter in I Peter 2:9, as I have said above, viz., that we are all one body of Christ, the Head, all members one of another. Christ has not two different bodies, one "temporal," the other "spiritual." He is one Head, and He has One body. 
Therefore, just as Those who are now called "spiritual" -- priests, bishops or popes -- are neither different from other Christians nor superior to them, except that they are charged with the administration of the Word of God and the sacraments, which is their work and office, so it is with the temporal authorities -- they bear sword and rod with which to punish the evil and to protect die good. 
A cobbler, a smith, a farmer, each has the work and office of his trade, and yet they are all alike consecrated priests and bishops, and every one by means of his own work or office must benefit and serve every other, that in this way many kinds of work may be done for the bodily and spiritual welfare of the community, even as all the members of the body serve one another.

Friday, February 05, 2021

Why We Need to Bring Science to Church

Since the nonprofit organization I co-direct has a mission of “cultivating a stronger church through meaningful dialogue with mainstream science,” I thought I’d give the key reasons why the task of Science for the Church is strategic and valuable. 

Here are my top five.

  1. Why: Because the Church needs a viable Gospel.

    • In their research, the Barna Group found one of the top six reasons emerging adults are leaving the church: They see it as “anti-science.” Too often this perception is accurate, and we need to stop this. Barna also found that 49% of church-going teens believe the "church seems to reject what science tells us about the world."

  2. Why: Because, without this dialogue, the church loses the glorious insights of science. With it, the Christian community flourishes.

  3. Why: Because this is our heritage as Christians.

    • The Scientific Revolution arose in the Christian west. This, of course, isn’t to say that all of science arose from Christianity (that would discount Muslim science, for example). Still, I will say (along with many others) that the Christian doctrine of God’s creating a cosmos, and not a chaos, means that we can study it and understand it. This is our Christian heritage, and we must not forsake it. It’s also a key part of our American history. I think of the Puritan pastors, like Jonathan Edwards, who, as the most educated people of the day, regularly combined reflection on theology with “natural philosophy” (the name for science in those days).

  4. Why: Because the United States needs Christians engaged in the sciences.

  5. Why: Because, as people disaffiliate from churches, we need to Christians to be in the world of science and technology.

    • God gathers the church in worship, to be sure, but God also sends out the church scattered. This is naturally an evangelistic task, but also, as Makoto Fujimura calls it, the task of “culture care.”

Those are my top five. How would you prioritize them? Do you have any to add?