Saturday, December 19, 2020

Live it Like You Mean it

Two days of crisis

I've lived through 9-11 and 11-8, two great and tragic national, and even international, days of crisis. (Some of this will be in my sermon this Sunday at Brambleton Presbyterian Church.)

Most of us know 9-11, the date of the World Trade Center and Pentagon terrorist attacks. But how about November 8, 2018? It was the day I can't forget—when the firestorm ripped through Paradise, CA, moving at three football fields a minute at one point, and burning its way to within about a mile and half of my house in Chico. The Camp Fire represents the most expensive natural disaster in the world that year, with a price tag of $15 billion, and the deadliest in California history.

I mention to underline one point: preparedness can’t happen while you’re in a crisis. We can't learn to care for those suddenly without homes, to pray when our backs are against the wall, and to live compassionately with those in terrible suffering while it's happening. Those are virtues we have to practice before the crises.

Habits: "We are what we repeatedly do"

About a week ago, I was listening to the leading sociologist from Princeton University about his new book on "lived religion." This isn't represented by scholarly texts of religious doctrine or theories about how people should preach (i.e., homiletics), but how we actually pray, how often we participate in worship services, what kind of small group community we're a part of. As Wuthnow writes, "Practicing religion focuses on what people do and say rather than only on what they think and believe."

Living religion is related to famous philosopher Aristotle's virtue ethics. It what cognitive psychology tells us: practices become habits, and habits become character. It's really what I as a Christian have learned from the Jewish roots of my faith, which calls it halaka, or "walking" in the way of God. 

What we practice. What we do is what we become. In fact, our practice becomes a habit and might even change the world.

Coda: "Does this mean we earn our salvation”?

Some of you might be concerned that this implies we earn our salvation. 

Put simply: No. We are assured of our salvation, and this is Jesus's call to discipleship and simultaneously his offering of abundant life (John 10:10).

Listen again to how Paul sets this so brilliantly in Philippians 2:12-13: 

"Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose." 

Put a little more clearly perhaps, we work out what God has worked in

Or perhaps better, we walk out what God the Spirit has empowered us to do. 

Friday, December 11, 2020

Peace in the Puzzle

The theme for this post is peace, which is related to a couple of pieces (yes, pun intended) I'm working ona sermon for Brambleton Presbyterian Church and the Science for the Church newsletter.

Three insights I discovered along the way... 

A key word from the Beatitudes lost in translation

When I first learned Greek at Cal, one day we were reading Matthew 5:1-12. My professor instructed us that we could translate Jesus’s word in the Sermon on the Mount this way: “Blessed are the peaceful” instead of “peacemakers

He was a great professor, and he opened the New Testament to me in many ways, but here his own leanings toward the interiority of spiritual life—he also lived in an ashram—frankly biased his interpretation of this word. 

And so I arrive a truly profound Greek word study: the word for "peacemaker" eirenopoioi combines two words, “peace” and “make.”

This means that the Beatitudes are not simply the "Beautiful Attitudes." When Jesus, the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6) came to earth, he called us to make peace. And that's significant.

I do realize that what I've said here may lead some to ask, Does this mean we earn our salvation? No, it means we work out what God has worked in (Philippians 2:12-13). Actually better than "work out" in the Jewish context is "walk out" because the key image for devotion to God in Jewish thought is halakha, or "the way of walking."

Peace now and then
Just yesterday, I read that even as former South Carolina Governor David Beasley accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the United Nation's World Food Program, while Rush Limbaugh declared there can be no peace between liberals and conservatives and that “we’re trending toward secession."

Yikes! It's hard not to despairand then I remembered Jesus's time was no less contested, which I discovered this article on the New Testament Greek word for "peace."
The New Testament was written in a time during which the Romans overran countless peoples and frequently resorted to mass torture and genocide in dealing with resistance, and the quest for peace was not a romantic one but came with widely felt urgency. Jesus' famous statement "knock, and the door will open" (Matthew 7:7, Revelation 3:8) is not about heavenly doors because in the Biblical model heaven has no doors, but rather about the great War Doors of the temple of Janus Quirinus in Rome. In times of peace these doors were closed amidst great imperial fanfare, and the greatest door-closing festivals were held during the reigns of Nero and Vespasian, just prior and right after the Great Jewish Revolt and subsequent destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. [By the way, the name of the city means "in awe of peace, teaching peace"]

Peace and reconciliation through "fractal communities"
Just a few days ago, I had a breath-taking conversation about race and science and faith with Elaine Howard Ecklund and Cleve Tinsley IV. Among many insights, Cleve said that relationships help us move past the endemic racism in our country. He referred to Adrienne Marie Brown’s concept of “fractal community,” which, of course, borrows an image from mathematics and is a kind of science and faith connection, which I love. At any rate, Cleve reminded us: this is the way of Jesus. Where these relationships are, that’s where we see the reign of God. And as he summarized, “I think we really do change the world then.”

And maybe we can. Maybe we make peace.

Friday, December 04, 2020

On Time

I think a lot about time. You might say, I spend a lot of time thinking about time. 

And here are two core convictions: Time is a gift. And we spend time on what we love. I'll add to those, since it's the season of Advent, that when God comes to us in Christ in the Incarnation and inhabits time, God sanctifies time. This post then is what sanctified time looks like.

Speaking of the Incarnation, perhaps the most profound and counter-intuitive statement Jesus spoke was this: “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matthew 6:19). 

Without reflection, we might think he said the reverse: where our heart is, there our treasure will be. In this version of Jesus, we adjust our inner attitude, and then we do the right actions. 

But the order is different, and that fact is critical: “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”Our hearts follow our treasures. I.e., what we spend our time is what we love, and the more time we spend the more our love grows. Invest your time in a church or nonprofit and see how you begin to care more about it. 

But why then do I often spend my time so poorly? Why do I not inhabit the present moment?


The problem is that we seem to live in every other time but the present. We throw away our time like it's dispensable. We don't treasure it. 

Blaise Pascal, the brilliant seventeenth-century scientist and theologian, offered a profound meditation on this topic: 

Let each of us examine his thoughts; he will find them wholly concerned with the past or the future. We almost never think of the present, and if we do think of it, it is only to see what light it throws on our plans for the future. The present is never our end. The past and the present are our means, the future alone our end. Thus we never actually live, but hope to live, and since we are always planning how to be happy, it is inevitable that we should never be so. (italics added)

Or as the brilliant writer, Anne Lamott puts it, God wants to give us the child’s experience of “big, round hours." 

This thought, like so many, takes me to St. Clive, aka C. S. Lewis, who puts the problem of human existence—or better the ongoing temptation of time—into the mouth of a devil, Screwtape in his fictional correspondence,The Screwtape Letters. 

Screwtape writes to his junior devil, Wormwood, that “we want a man hag-ridden by the Future” because in essence the future does not yet exist and it takes his eyes off the present moment. 

"We want a whole race perpetually in pursuit of the rainbow's end, never honest, nor kind, nor happy now, but always using as mere fuel wherewith to heap the altar of the future every real gift which is offered them in the Present."

And now back to Pascal; this also comes from Pensées

"So imprudent are we that we wander in the times which are not ours, and do not think of the only one which belongs to us; and so idle are we that we dream of those times which are no more, and thoughtlessly overlook that which alone exists.” 

Friday, November 20, 2020

The Buddha: Enlightened or Awakened?

I'm reading a fabulous book by Evan Thompson on Buddhism, and particularly its relationship with science, Why I am Not a Buddhist.
Here's one tidbit.

Thompson is a 
philosopher who's spent considerable time in Buddhist communities, including conversations with the Dalai Lama. Even if not himself a Buddhist (as the title clearly states), he considers himself "a good friend to Buddhism." 

On to an historical note... Max Müller, in the 19th century, shifted the  translation of "the Buddha," from "Awakened One" (which is closest to the Sanskrit verbal root, budh, meaning "to awaken") to "Enlightened One." That shift is significant. Thompson states that it provided a way to make the Buddha's life fit with ideas of enlightenment swirling around in Europe at the time.

The problem for us (especially those who don't speak Sanskrit) is that when we think about "enlightenment," Immanuel Kant and the Age of Enlightenment come to mind. It was Kant who declared that we must throw off our "self-imposed tutelage," and thus (to put it in contemporary slang) "find our true self."

But the Buddha found that there was no self, and that realization is the basis of achieving nirvana... that was his awakening. The problem then, especially when we contemplate forms of science, is how Buddhist meditation and its awakening connects with neuroscience. 

Enough to ponder for this post...

Friday, November 13, 2020

"After Trump" by Don Heinz

I just read the book, After Trump: Achieving a New Social Gospel, penned by my colleague and friend, Don Heinz. 

Here are few comments adapted from my endorsement on Amazon.
Packed with insight and perfectly timed, Heinz imagines a world “after Trump” in which Christians formulate—and more importantly, embody—a new social gospel for the 21st century. This book will certainly appeal to those who yearn for a movement “that would redeem American Christianity in the time after Trump.”

How can this happen? Heinz argues that, by taking seriously God’s liberating love—the love that freed the Israelite captives and took them out of Egypt, the love that is incarnate in Jesus and his ministry of transformation, a new movement can find its inspiration.

As a student of American religion—particularly where it’s headed with the increase of the not-religiously-affiliating, or the "Nones"—I appreciate how Heinz roots these reflections in American soil. A few favorite examples: his insights about Robert Bellah’s “civil religion” and Jonathan Winthrop’s “city set on a hill,” as well Charles Taylor’s Secular Age (and why we can’t take recourse in a simple slogan of “science vs. religion”).

All in all, Heinz does not argue for a new “Christian” political party, but a new movement of the social gospel, learning from, but not restricted to, Walter Rauschenbusch et al.’s famous early 20th century formulation.
In sum, as Heinz puts it, this book is “an invitation and a manifesto.”

Will this movement happen? 

It’s now time to see, but one can pray for a more just, socially engaged, and faithful nation. And I suppose Heinz might add that it depends on those of us who call ourselves followers of Christ to decide what we will do. After Trump. 

Friday, November 06, 2020

My Conversation with John Lennox about St. Clive

Today, I interviewed Doctor John Lennox, Oxford University mathematician and Christian apologist. He’s authored several books, such as Can Science Explain Everything? and most recently, 2084 Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Humanity. The upcoming film Against the Tide features Doctor Lennox’s thought.

This is one part of our conversation I really enjoyed, which I start in medias res...


... a professor of Latin and Greek introduced me to the classical world, and so the humanities are as important to me as the natural sciences. Being a linguist fits with mathematics because it's a specialized language, and therefore the idea of clear explanation is very important. 

C. S. Lewis once said, as you probably know, if a person cannot explain what they believe with words that people can understand either they don't believe it, or they don't understand it.

I'm constantly looking for ways or stories that aren't arbitrary, but enable us to get a grasp difficult concepts. Lewis was a genius.


Lewis is the greatest at this that I know of.

He had so many great images, and I was think you might be referring to the essay that lecture he gave to Anglican youth pastors, where he said there should be an exam for every ordination where you must translate things right into the common language. 

And oh boy, we could really get lost in Lewis. I loved in the Oxford Socratic Club, his response to Doctor Pittenger, where he says, I have always wanted to speak for the people, right? And that means that I'm going to have to round off some edges, which is hard for academics. 

I've given different presentations where I've talked to academics and said we need to learn from Lewis. Because we need to communicate, if we have great ideas, especially as people of Christian faith. But we have to realize there's going to be a loss because it's not going to sound as precise. Academics also like to hide sometimes behind their language. 


I fear they do. They do indeed.


You have a boldness about you, which I think is really compelling.


A thought can be both clear and deep, and sometimes people have the impression that unless they use virtually unintelligible high flow language.

They're not really coming across as intellectuals, and a lot of it is human pride. Of course, yes, Lewis wanted to speak clearly and to articulate profound ideas at levels that people could grasp. Part of them and that really is a goal.

And he's a model for for me in that way.

Saturday, October 31, 2020

Science and Two Ethical Systems: Buddhist and Christian

Buddhist ethics and science
In his brilliant book, 
Morals Not KnowledgeJohn Evans has argued that 
“Religion and science are the two great ways of understanding the world, but by understanding I mean the relationships between humans in the world and the relationship between humans and nature. These are stuff of morality….” John Evans
Even more, Evans asserts when conflict between the two occur, the lion’s share happens at the level of “morals, not knowledge” (and thus the title of the book).

This conflict obviously rears its head for many with "God or evolution." Since that's often true in our country, where Christianity is the dominant religion, what about Buddhists? The simple answer: they don’t carry this burden, partly because they don't believe in a Creator God. 81% of American Buddhists accept evolution. Pew Research states quite simply, 
“Many Buddhists see no inherent conflict between their religious teachings and evolutionary theory. Indeed, according to some Buddhist thinkers, certain aspects of Darwin’s theory are consistent with some of the religion’s core teachings, such as the notion that all life is impermanent.” Pew Report
I mention this because if one begins with the connection of all sentient life, like Buddhism does, then it’s not hard to links to evolutionary thought. In fact, the Buddhist scholar Inoue Enryo argued that Buddhism can embrace evolutionary thought because it holds to “no sharp distinction between humans and animals as Christians claim….” 

Moreover, it’s therefore no grand step to the Buddhist commitment to ahimsa, or non-violence, for all sentient beings. This, of course, can come into conflict with scientific research, especially animal testing. In their research collected in the book, Science and Secularity, Elaine Howard Ecklund and her colleagues quoted a Taiwanese biologist commenting, “Buddhism is about not killing.” 

Christian ethics and s
Recently, when I was talking with a pastor who heads a Hispanic Christian ministry, he told me this, “Many Latinos drive trucks. And, in the next ten years, those jobs will be lost to Artificial Intelligence. I want to encourage my flock to be creating AI.” The effects of technology and science often displace jobs, and so we arrive at justice, one of the ethical foundations of Christianity (which it, of course, adapts from its Jewish roots).

Many believers see Christianity, like many other religions do, as a way of life, not ultimately intellectual content. Again to draw from Evans, “Evolution versus creation,” for example, isn’t ultimately about doctrine, in this view, but about the implications for ethics. Does the theory of natural selection lead us to see all people as simply the products of blind, undirected processes? Not really, as I've posted before, but that's where the conflict starts.

Among other insights from her social scientific research, Ecklund has similarly highlighted that Christians are particularly drawn to sciences that involve healing—i.e., ethical action in the world that reduces suffering. In her book Why Science and Faith Need Each Other, Ecklund observes that Christians and non-Christians both express “a great deal of confidence in medicine.” This correlates with a focus on Jesus, who is reported in the Gospels to be a healer. As Ecklund observes,
"Jesus’s ministry on earth involved touching those whom others would not touch, healing those whom others thought were beyond healing. Christians holding this theological view can see medical technologies as created by God for us to use to relieve our suffering and the suffering of others." Elaine Howard Ecklund
Philip Clayton has highlighted stem cell research, warfare technology, CRISPR gene editing, and he reserves his attention for global climate and sets Christianity within the “three Abrahamic faiths [which] go back… to the Book of Genesis, which calls believers to cultivate care for the earth.” Nature for them is “a creation of God and therefore a thing of great value.” This indeed leads to ethical action not simply for other humans, but for the Earth.

Saturday, October 24, 2020

C.S. Lewis: From Creation to Creator

I also call this "a theology of nature with a touch of Lewis." (It is also an excerpt from this post.)

Several options exist that link nature—and thus science, which studies nature—with how we understanding God. The physicist and theologian Ian Barbour is often associated with the concept of "a theology of nature." It's more or less what I’m outlining here. 

Daniel Halverson describes it as follows: 

“Where natural theology tries to understand God in scientific context, theology of nature tries to understand nature in theological context.” Daniel Halverson

A Christian theology of nature asks this first: "What we can infer about nature from the God we know in Jesus Christ?" Second, it integrates these inferences with scientific discoveries.

And this brings me to C. S. Lewis, who presented a similar view to a theology of nature. It is part of his famous array of apologetics, and one that resonates with all kinds of people: 

“If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.” C.S. Lewis

Lewis concluded that the only satisfaction for our desire for something more than the natural world has to offer is God.

Many call this Lewis’s "Argument from Desire" (which I've discussed in this blog post and here).

Let me pause to consider Ecclesiastes 3:11: God “has also set eternity in the human heart….” This means our hearts search for the Eternal God. Nature—even our human nature—is a sign, but it is not the end, of our journey. God alone is. The Cognitive Science of Religion (CSR) supports Lewis. In analyzing the structure of the human mind, CSR finds a natural openness to God. 

In 1941 Lewis preached his brilliant sermon “The Weight of Glory.” It is, in my view, one of the greatest ever preached. He presents a form of the argument from desire by calling out in his listeners their desire for beauty. They cannot satisfy this desire cannot in the things of the world, “but through them, and what came through them was longing.” 

Ultimately, Lewis linked this longing with God, the Source of beauty. 

“We are summoned to pass in and through Nature, beyond her, into that splendor which she fitfully reflects.” C.S. Lewis

Thursday, October 15, 2020

The Science of the Devil's Advocate

Last week I wrote about the Devil's Advocate in our Science for the Church newsletter. Because I love the Devil's Advocate. Let me be clear: I don't love the Devil; I love the Devil's Advocate.

But first, I'm going to start with groupthink.

Many of us would like to believe about ourselves that we are "independent thinkers." Psychological science responds, "Not so fast." To use Jonathan Haidt’s word, we are innately "groupish.

“We take on group identities and work shoulder to shoulder with strangers toward common goals so enthusiastically that it seems as if our minds were designed for teamwork.” Jonathan Haidt

We love being in groups or teams, and we tend to think like—not in contrast to—others in our group. 

Obviously, there are upsides, but the downside is that teamwork often leads to groupthink. And that brings me to the next topic: one of the glories of science is to combat this natural human tendency by setting up rigorous methods to root it out. 

Put simply, scientists know we need colleagues from within the fold to question our assertions.

And, believe it or not, that brings me the office of the Devil's Advocate and why I see connections with the methods of science. Both address the problem of groupthink. Incidentally, the reason I just used the term "office" is that the Devil's Advocate is an official position in the Roman Catholic Church. It was created in 1587 by Pope Sixtus V as one of critical offices of the Sacred Congregation of Rites, who oversee the processes of beatification and canonization. 

Anyone you or I put toward a sainthood will have to make it through the Devil's Advocates' counter-arguments (whose official title, by the way, is Promoter of the Faith). The duty of the Devil's Advocate it is to prepare in writing all possible arguments against the raising of anyone to “the honors of the altar.”

In a world marred by polarization, in which we just talk with those in our group and avoid--whether intentionally or not--we need true conversation where "iron sharpens iron" (Proverbs 27:17). The concept of the Devil's Advocate, even after more than 400 years, is still fresh and remarkably compelling.

Friday, October 09, 2020

Starting a Chapter on Christianity and Science with a Little Help from C.S. Lewis

I've been working on a new book about religions (in the plural) and science. As I move into the chapter on Christianity and science, I’m pondering this line from Stephen Prothero: 

“There is a persistent, unexplored bias in the study of religion toward the extraordinary and away from the ordinary. In the United States this bias manifests in a strong attraction (even among scholars who are atheists) toward hardcore religious practitioners….” Prothero, God is Not One
Nowhere is this more applicable than with Christianity and its relationship with, where too often the loudest and most strident voice is heard. The fundamentalists rage against “godless” evolution and the climate change “hoax,” while millions of believers have no significant problems with either. Though this approach makes good copy for the media, I won’t work for this book. 

Why don't we like talking about reasonable religious believers?

Fundamentalist approaches to Christianity can certainly ungird a "believe-no-matter-what-you-discover" approach to faith. Exploring questions becomes the much-dreaded "doubt." Nonetheless, unbelievers often supply the worst distortions. They assert that Christian faith is opposed to scientific reasoning. Consider this from the arch-atheist, Richard Dawkins, 

"Faith means blind trust, in the absence of evidence even in the teeth of evidence." Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene

Here I bring in St. Clive, aka Clive Staples Lewis, to assist. (Nothing new for me about that!) Certainly, there are believers who have faith despite the evidence, but St. Clive, whose book, Mere Christianity, still sells millions and guides their understanding of the Christian faith, writes this,

Faith is “the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods.” C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

That seems to be reasonable approach to faith. Faith is faithfulness to our commitments.

A word then about what this means for Christian faith and science... A reasonable faith, like the one Lewis presents, is one good historical ground for the rise of modern science in 16th and 17th century Europe. Of course, scientific endeavors flourished in the 8th-14th centuries in Muslim countries (a topic for another post). Still, this approach to faith and reason, to state it ever so succinctly, is cause of why the Scientific Revolution occurred in Christian Europe. Faith in the God who creates gives us an ordered creation to study. As the Nobel Laureate UC Berkeley physicist Charles Townes once noted (and as I've quoted before), 

"For successful science of the type we know, we must have faith that the universe is governed by reliable laws and, further, that these laws can be discovered by human inquiry." Charles Townes

That's a start to my chapter. More to come I suspect...

Friday, October 02, 2020

A Few Summary Comments on Buddhism and Science

I’ve come to conclude that, unless religious traditions are able to integrate science and technology, they will gradually fade. This isn’t per se the well-worn “secularization thesis” of Max Weber (as in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism), but it is a recognition that religions retain their vitality as they engage contemporary culture. Minimally, that rubric guides my particular interest of analyzing how any particular religion and contemporary science relate to each other.

You see, I've been writing a chapter for a new book on Buddhism and science, and this is part three of a mini-series in the blog. In sum then, how does Buddhism do? Is it Philip Clayton observes, "the poster child for successfully integrating religion and science”? 

Not entirely. Surveys indicate that Buddhists tend not to integrate science with their religious life, but generally conclude that "religion and science as two separate and unrelated spheres,” according the Pew Research Center.

Naturally, in recognizing the stunning variety within Buddhism, I can’t provide a summary statement for all Buddhists. For one thing, it is rooted in East Asian culture and therefore less historically embedded in the "conflict" or "warfare" thesis. 

I can affirm that Buddhism, at least in many forms, is nontheistic, or at least has no teaching of a Creator God, a teaching has proven problematic for some scientific cosmologies. But as I mentioned, in a previous blog post, this is not uniformly positive, since the Dalai Lama has expressed resistance, as a Buddhist, to the conclusions of the Big Bang.

More striking is the Buddha’s openness to experimentation. Still, as we’ve seen (back to my previous post), this isn’t absolute. 
All in all, Buddhism does not represent the poster child, but I’d still affirm that it’s doing fairly well for a tradition that’s been around 2500 years. It will continue to make significant contributions to the way that we negotiate the relationship of science and religion. All religious thinkers, including we Christians, can learn from the Buddhist example and its contributions.

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Buddhism: Cosmology, Emptiness, and the Big Bang

When I mention to various Christians that I teach about other religions, they often say, "Tell me about it!" And so here's goes--here's something brief about Buddhist views of the cosmos and modern science.
Buddhist scholars tell me it's all about nothing. And this reminded me of how 
Seinfeld became a TV hit in the early 2000s for a being a show “about nothing.” Maybe the show was on to something with its emphasis on nothing.

But first let's get the words right. The key words is shunyata, or emptiness. More specially, the Sanskrit Śūnyatā can be translated as "devoidness," "emptiness," "hollow, hollowness," "voidness." It is the form of noun form from the adjective śūnya, meaning "zero," "nothing," "empty" or "void." It comes from the root śvi, meaning "hollow,” plus tā, which means "-ness." (Monier-Williams, 2nd ed., 1899, A Sanskrit-English Dictionary)

This teaching of emptiness is found especially in Madhyamaka (the “middle way”). Moreover, it has resonance with quantum physics. As William Ames has commented, 
“We recall that in quantum theory many of the properties of, for instance, an electron are not intrinsic to the electron itself. They depend not only on the electron but also on the type of experiment that is being performed.” William Ames
This is commonly described through the famous two-slit experiment. Ames continues with another observation, 
“In Madhyamaka, too, attributes are relational and no intrinsic. A dharma by itself has no nature, any more than an electron can in itself be said to be either a wave or a particle.” William Ames
Not just nothing, but zero
The Buddhist focus on nothing and emptiness has at least one other significant contribution. And here again I turn to Dr. Veidlinger, my colleague at Chico State University, 
“The zero was developed in India, in connection with philosophical speculation about emptiness, and it is the Indian number system that was adapted by the West that lead to the notation used in the modern scientific world.” Daniel Veidlinger
The Big Bang and Buddhism
So far, so good. But, Big Bang cosmology might be a problem, at least according the Tibetan Buddhist leader, the Dalai Lama.
“From the Buddhist perspective, the idea that there is a single definite beginning is highly problematic. If there were such an absolute beginning, logically speaking, this leaves only two options. One is theism, which proposes that the universe is created by an intelligence that is totally transcendent, and therefore outside the laws of cause and effect. The second option is that the universe came into being from no cause at all. Buddhism rejects both these options. If the universe is created by a prior intelligence, the questions of the ontological status of such an intelligence and what kind of reality it is remain.” (Dalai Lama, The Universe in a Single Atom)
Ok, now a question
What do we do with in a world where Big Bang cosmology has become a standard? Let me know what you think?

Friday, September 18, 2020

Dual Directions Today: California Fires and Climate Change, Meditation and Science

I’m using today’s blog to produce a literal “essay”—from the French, essayer, “to try”—and so I'm trying out dual topics that have my attention, but neither of which is fully baked. 

They are (1) the connection between the fires I’m experiencing in Northern California and global climate change, and (2) scientific studies that validate the value of Buddhist meditation and what that means for Christian meditation and Christian views of science more generally.

Are we in a “climate apocalypse”?
The consensus of the scientific community—as well as those like me who are convinced by the science—global climate change is real. It is not, “fake news.” (In fact, it’s hard for me to understand why people want to deny this consensus.) 

It’s not a stretch in fact to make the connection then between the fires in California and this emerging global reality. Of course, this is also quite personal—I think the hardest moment for me was last weekend when the AQI—the Air Quality Index—went above 600 in Chico (0-50 is healthy), which is quite literally off the charts and when we had every window shut and the seams taped, and we were smelling smoke inside.
At the same time, I know that’s not all. Consider these two items: we have not managed our forests properly in the past 100 years—and, by the way, we could have learned from Native Americans and their version of “good fires" or prescribed burns—and we have built on lands at the WUI, the Wildlife Urban Interface to our peril.

Spiritually, we have not also given the land a break, a Sabbath or Jubilee, as I learned powerfully in a jazz vespers service last Sunday entitled “Melting.” It’s not only climate change specifically and globally, but more regional practices that are now demonstrating their deleterious effects. We need Sabbath practices that restrain us for our own good, and also for all creation. Sabbath brings renewal and sustainability to us and to nature. Not observing Sabbath has meant that the land will be desolated. The earth, as the Scripture tells us, rises up and responds to our destructive and harmful practices.

Meditation helps me—the science tells me so

It’s no secret to those who study science and religion that Buddhism is hot right now, which is particularly surprising since Buddhists represent around 1% of the U.S. population.

Why? One principle candidate is the relationship of Buddhist meditation—especially mindfulness—and its validation by neuroscience. Consider, for example, what Richard Davidson and his team at University of Wisconsin, Madison found (and now I quote Philip Clayton)
“Those with training and practice in meditation showed greater activity in areas of the brain dedicated to paying attention and making decisions.” Philip Clayton

Let’s take the scientific support for Buddhist meditation, in the aggregate, as decisive and thus as a given. What does that mean for me as a Christian? 

I’ll note two implications (with the hopes of developing these anon): 

  • Mindfulness is an excellent practice for Christians as we seek to “calm and quiet” ourselves (Psalm 131:2). It's also a great prelude to prayer and to acts compassionate.
  • Buddhist meditation has close affinities with the ancient and contemporary Christian practice of contemplative prayer, close enough that neurological studies find similar results between these and Buddhist meditation. And here I’m leaning on the research of Andrew Newberg, who wrote about a study of meditation practices such as focusing on Scripture, “we found increased activity in the frontal lobes (one of the areas in the brain involved with compassion and positive emotions) and there were changes in the thalamus, the part of our brain that helps us interconnect.”

In sum, these scientific studies are certainly strong support for the Buddhist meditation and its contributions to spiritual-psychological well-being. But this is not for Buddhists alone. We in the church can be humble enough to learn from these practices, adapt them, seek parallels in our own spiritual tradition, and thus find all kinds of reasons to take time away, “to let go and let God.” May it be so.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

What Can We Learn From Buddhists On How to Engage Science?

I've heard this a number of times over the years in a variety of contexts: “Science tests until it finds truth, while religions never change their ideas because they rely on faith, and faith is based on very old texts that can't be updated.”

This common slogan challenges any believer, but it also has some obvious errors. Not all religious traditions emphasize faith, and so an anti-religious cavil against “faith” can represent a category error. Buddhism, for example, focuses on enlightenment, since indeed the word Buddha has as its root “enlighten” or “awaken.” I suspect it's for this reason, and probably many others, that the relationship of Buddhism and science will continue to draw interest, e.g., the Dalai Lama’s The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and SpiritualityBuddhism and Science: Breaking New Ground, edited by B. Alan Wallace, and more recently, Robert Wright’s, Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment.

This leads to the question of faith in sacred texts and how these texts relate science and scientific inquiry. As I noted above, many argue that religions necessarily possess an anti-rational or fideistic element in that their texts always look back. Science, in contrast, continually looks forward. 

In this respect, Buddhism offers an openness to change its teachings based on new information that sounds scientific to many ears.
"Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another's seeming ability. Rather, when you yourselves know that these things are good; these things are not blamable; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness, then and only then enter into and abide in them." Buddha from the Kalama Sutra (ca. 250 BC)
And more recently, the Dalai Lama,
"Suppose that something is definitely proven through scientific investigation, that a certain hypothesis is verified or a certain fact emerges as a result of scientific investigation. And suppose, furthermore, that that fact is incompatible with Buddhist theory. There is no doubt that we must accept the result of the scientific research." Dalai Lama
As a Christian living in this scientific and technological world, I think all religions and their followers could learn from these Buddhist convictions. In addition, I believe we could also listen to Galileo, who 
(following Augustine) presented an analogous guideline over 400 years ago when speaking about his new, Copernican theory in light of his detractors' comments.
"I hope to show that I proceed with much greater piety than they do.... For Copernicus never discusses matters of religion or faith, nor does he use argument that depend in any way upon the authority of sacred writings which he might have interpreted erroneously. He stands always upon physical conclusions pertaining to the celestial motions and deals with them by astronomical and geometrical demonstrations, founded primarily upon sense experiences and very exact observations. He did not ignore the Bible, but he knew very well that if his doctrine were proved, then it could not contradict the Scriptures when they were rightly understood." Galileo, Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina (1615, my italics)
Galileo essentially says that, yes, we follow our ancient texts, and if our best science finds something about the physical world, our biblical interpretation and application should cohere with these findings. This makes a great deal of sense when you consider that Galileo was arguing for a sun-centered universe.

Put another way, there is one God who wrote the Two Books, one of Scripture and one of nature. Reason doesn't have to lie down to sleep when faith enters the room.

What do you think? Is there a similarity? And do you agree?