Friday, May 21, 2021

Benefits of a Messy Faith

I return to last week's topic. What follows is an excerpt of what you can find in full here.

I happily affirm that Buddhist-inspired Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Christian faith are compatible, as we wrote in a summary of the three-year study at the last church I pastored. 

And yet, even some of my favorite modern Buddhist writers—such as Thich Knat Han and the Dalai Lama—often present a limited form of Buddhism, known as "Buddhist Modernism," presented as particularly, even uniquely, compatible with science. This variety, which David McMahan says emerged in the 19th century in response to various cultural forces, frequently presents itself as “mind science,” especially based on mindfulness meditation. 

I’m certainly not denigrating Buddhism, but highlighting the limits of the version that speaks to the growing SBNR population (one of the largest segments in of the U.S.) who frequently tell me, “I want spirituality, not religion.” The problem is that this kind of spirituality generally has little to say to science. It’s “separate but equal,” which really means segregated to one small part of us—our inner life. 

Minimalistic spirituality has minimal interaction with science.

Let me simply offer one vector for how this guides our work as Christians. 

Listen to what physicist and Nobel laureate Ernest Walton put so well: 

“One way to learn the mind of the Creator is to study His creation. We must pay God the compliment of studying His work of art and this should apply to all realms of human thought.”

We can bring the questions and insights of science to church and admit that sometimes, yes, the interaction is messy. 

But the payoff is great. This kind of Christianity is not sequestered and limited, but expansive and beautiful because it speaks of the God who fills not just our inner lives, but also the entire universe.

Friday, May 14, 2021

Making Buddhism a Bit too Simple

Each semester, I ask my Chico State University Science and Religion students to write an essay on which religion is the most compatible with science. 

The overwhelming favorite is Buddhism.

This fact actually leads to a question: What do my students mean by "Buddhism"? Honestly, what they describe does not represent the conensus of the Buddhist tradition; but instead a particular stream: Buddhist modernism or “minimalist Buddhism.” (Christianity, in case you were interested, is often portrayed as maximally incompatible because it tells us that the world was created in six days.) 

What also interests me is that my students are talking about a Buddhism which walks in lock step with their tendency to be Spiritual But Not Religious (SBNR).

As Buddhism scholar David McMahan points out, much of what we hear today in the U.S. as “Buddhism” was created largely by 19th century Transcendentalists (like Thoreau), and even more, by later thinkers who promoted the “warfare thesis” between Christianity and science. Even some of my favorite Buddhist writers today like Lama Surya Das, Thich Knat Han, and the Dalai Lama support this limited form of Buddhism, one that is seen to be compatible with science. Often it presents itself as “mind science,” based on meditation and especially mindfulness.

To be sure, often this Buddhist modernism presents mindfulness meditation as central and a practice for all. This is in striking contrast to Southeast Asian Theravada Buddhism, which was created for monks, largely in monastic seclusion. The monks, not the laypersons, are the ones who meditate in Theravada.

Worth asking is, How does it work to present a specific Buddhism as if it's the whole shebang? Particularly, why does it work in a way that wouldn't with Christianity? The fact is that most Americans at least know Christians who are anti-science. But most are unaware of this history or of the variety of lived Buddhisms. Thus, modernist's Buddhism's frictionless compatibility with science represents an easy sell for one key reason: most Americans don’t know Buddhists, who represent less than 1% of the U.S. population.

And so Buddhism, especially the kind loved by many of my students, becomes a poster child for interacting with science. That strikes me as simple, much too simple. And real, lived Buddhism is far more interesting.

Friday, April 23, 2021

Beauty is Why I Bring Science to Church

I've often mentioned my father, but it was my mother who gave me a particularly acute sense of beauty. 

Beauty means seeing things as they really are, being stunned by the structure, proportion, and being drawn to learn more. 

This is a profoundly important nexus for faith and science. 

And sometimes scientists and theologians sound strikingly similar. I'll being with the brilliant writer, C.S. Lewis--which is always a good place to start.

Consider next the words of Henri Poincaré, an early 20th century quantum theorists (whom I've quote before, but it's worth repeating): 

“[The scientist] studies [nature] because he takes pleasure in it; and he takes pleasure in it because it is beautiful. If nature were not beautiful, it would not be worth knowing and life would not be worth living….”

As Christian, we know this: 

We see the intricate patterns of the natural world and find beauty. We see in the natural world the beauty of God who is Beauty itself. 

The 18th century Puritan Jonathan Edwards is a model. In his late teens (1723), he sent a scientific reflection on the spider, in the form of a letter, most likely to the Honorable Paul Dudley, a member of the British Royal Society who contributed often to its Philosophical Transactions

“Of all insects, no one is more wonderful than the spider.” 

As I mentioned in the previous post, I found beauty in the banana slug; Edwards found beauty in “flying” spiders common to New England. His observations about nature lead him to nature’s God. 

“For as God is infinitely the greatest being, so he is allowed to be infinitely the most beautiful and excellent: and all the beauty to be found throughout the whole creation is but the reflection of the diffused beams of that Being who hath an infinite fullness of brightness and glory.”

Because both faith and science find a source of inspiration in beauty. Beauty is why I bring science to church. 

And that’s good for our souls.

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.