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.