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.

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.