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: 
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.