One of you sent me a news story recently, and I’m sorry that I don’t recall who, about how powerful the Texas Board of Education is and how anti-science they lean. The irony of that part of the story is, for the last several years the chairperson of the 15-person Board was a dentist. Most of us have high hopes that our dentists have an appreciation for science. The fact is that there are significant numbers of scientists who embrace fundamentalist Christianity at church even though they work in a science lab throughout the workweek; science takes a back seat to their religious commitments.
Science can even be portrayed as an enemy of religion. Most of these same people use wired and cellular telephones, drive cars, fly in airplanes, take prescription medications, and vote in electronically operated voting booths. Christian fundamentalists are so determined to make everything in the Bible literally true, that they toss science in a pinch and, in the process, create a false dichotomy and tension between two legitimate ways of seeking truth.
Evolution is a scientific theory of how the world began, and many of its proposals can be established. The initial spark or impetus cannot be proven, but the changing of life forms and the Earth’s structure over time is impossible to deny. The fundamentalists are now spreading around the word that there are essential scientific facts widely known by “the establishment,” which would undo many of the tenets of evolution if the rank and file could only get their hands on them.
Creationism is a faith perspective held by those who believe the ancient Hebrew myths describing how the world came into being are literally true as to historical and scientific perspectives even though the stories assume a cosmic structure that never has existed. Those who hold to this view reject the possibility that we have figurative or symbolic literature in our hands; literalizing it doesn’t honor it as the fundamentalists hold, but rather literalizing the ancient stories that open the book of Genesis ruins their intent and effectiveness.
The antievolution people on the Texas School Board want textbooks written that call anyone who believes in evolution “an atheist” and parents who teach their children evolution “monsters.” Clergypeople who advocate evolution are to be designated “morons.” This is both sickening and scary.
The problem other than the willingness to brain wash kids who are required by law to attend schools overseen by the Texas Board of Education is the role of the textbook publishers. Because there are so many schools in Texas, and the state, thus, buys millions of high-priced and overpriced textbooks, the publishers can play a key role here. The publishers of science texts as with most other publishers are most often in the business to make money, not to make difference. If the Texas School Board influences these publishers to take a pro-fundamentalistic perspective in what they publish, not only will the students in Texas be affected by the half-truths they are willing to tell, but also students in many other states because the texts sold in Texas will be sold widely elsewhere as well. The publishers aren’t going to tailor a text to the demands of Delaware.
Science and religion are not enemies. In the western world, most of the early scientists were theologically informed and grappling with the best theological thought of the times in which they lived even as they rethought cosmic structures and invented telescopes. Most of them did not renounce religion in order to go as far as their scientific investigations would take them. The enemies of the early scientists could do no worse in their societal contexts than to accuse them of blasphemy and to make them enemies of the church. That very tactic is still in use today.
The fact, however, is that religion properly conceived and lived out doesn’t intend to nor is its place to limit the constructive efforts of science. Similarly, it is not up to science to tell religious folk what they may believe about God--what their options or limitations are in the realm of faith. The most well-trained scientist can be a person of faith and can be entirely faith-orientated without buying into biblical literalism. And, the solidly established and devoted person of faith can be the most avid enthusiast for scientific progress. This gets us to where we want to be today as we try to lay out some principles of spirituality for the scientifically grounded seeker.
I doubt that those who are scientifically grounded and who affirm an honest literary-analytical approach to interpreting scripture rather than a willy nilly literalistic approach are very moved at first blush when they read or hear of traditional spiritual practices--especially if they are presented as requirements for those who are truly faithful, those who are really committed to God.
One of the serious problems with how the Christian faith is presented to vast numbers of people by the majority of those who claim the right to tell others what they need to know and do about their faith is that, honestly, the list of evident and hidden expectations is kind of deceptive and yet binding for those who expect to be at the top of the heap. Initial entry into Christianity is a relatively simple process involving largely intellectual assent--saying, “Yes,” to a handful of doctrinally based questions typically devised by the leader who has appointed herself or himself gatekeeper to the realm of God. There’s not much use, though, in getting in if you don’t take up the Tier Two expectations--tithing (not to just any Christian movement but, ironically, to the organization headed by the gatekeeper); a prayer life focused on material gain; an active antagonism toward those who conceive of faith differently than those in the community being built and guarded by your gatekeeper--in particular, a rejection of any recognition that the worldviews of ALL of those who wrote what became scripture are completely unrelated to a scientific or a post-scientific perspective. Non-literalists tend to be rather instantly turned off by such claims, and as a result they may turn their backs on any kind of organized religion altogether.
Adam Frank has written a book, recently released, called The Constant Fire: Beyond the Science Versus Religion Debate. And it is about time to get there, isn’t it? Here is one of Frank’s pivotal quotes:
The constant fire is the aspiration to know what is essential, what is real, what is true. It emerges from the elemental experience of the world as sacred. Mythic narratives are one expression of that aspiration. Scientific narratives are another.
Fundamentalists are strongly disagreeing with him on his approach, but a key part of how Frank, Professor of Astrophysics at the University of Rochester, looks at this complex concept is by appealing to William James, the psychologist, and to Rudolf Otto, the theologian.
From James, Adam Frank, wants to emphasize that the core of religion is not dogma at all; rather it is religious experience, and William James’s most famous work was his Varieties of Religious Experience so there is no narrowly conceived notion of what religious experience may entail. Even so, there are people that you know and plenty of people I know for whom experience is considered secondary or even unimportant when placed next to doctrine. For many of the anti-science fundamentalists, there is no question that believing what they hold to be the “right” facts supersedes religious experience hands down.
Rudolf Otto coined the term “numinous” to describe the utter holy, which many take to be God. Not all do, though. I think Otto’s “numinous” very close to Karen Armstrong’s “great mystery” for those of you who read her. Frank’s contention is that plenty of scientists find their way to the numinous doing their scientific work. They may use entirely secular language to describe what they have experienced and not even think in terms of anything in the realm of religion, but they may still have encountered precisely what religious folk claim to have come upon when they say, “God.”
I’ve known a few saints in my day, and among them are Dr. E. Glenn Hinson. A great person of prayer, he is also a brilliant academician and a prolific writer. Last year he was honored for fifty years of teaching, and he’s still at it.
He earned two doctoral degrees--a Th.D. in New Testament studies from Southern Seminary and a D.Phil. from Oxford in early Church History. A popular professor wherever he has taught, he has spent the bulk of his energies since I have known him--which has been about thirty years--teaching and promoting spirituality. I have loved every book of his that I’ve ever read including his tome on the history of the early church, but two of those many books changed my life: A Serious Call to a Contemplative Lifestyle and A Reaffirmation of Prayer.
His courses were tough to get into. I finally lucked into one the summer before Lindon and I got married--she also being one of his students and fans. He wrote a prayer for our wedding that was extraordinarily meaningful to us and our guests. The course in which I studied formally with Glenn was titled “Prayer in Christian Tradition.” One of the best courses in my long academic career.
A truly gentle soul, he was one of the prime targets the fundamentalists wanted to tear down when they took over our seminary and our denomination. They called him a heretic, which--of course--means he would be joyfully welcomed here, and in response he preached one of the most powerful seminary chapel sermons I ever heard called “Am I a Heretic?”
The war the fundamentalists declared on Hinson was an interesting one to observe. They had power, money, and anger as their ammo, and he had all the brains minus any evident animosity. They won the seminary, and he won as a scholar and as the one who took Jesus seriously.
Glenn’s perspectives on spirituality are an interesting mix of Baptist, Quaker, and Roman Catholic ideas and practices. Names he has most frequently referred to as influential in his development are Trappist monk Thomas Merton and Quaker philosopher Douglas Steere.
Rabbi Jeremy Kagan, in his book, The Jewish Self: Recovering Spirituality in the Modern World, makes the startling claim that “human awareness of the spiritual center of existence...has been fading continuously for more than three thousand years.” A critical part of this process of loss, he insists, was the loss of the great Hebrew prophets two and a half thousand years ago. “At that point,” he explains, “we lost sight of the transcendent Source at the foundation of our individual being and of our world, and we came to understand ourselves and our world as essentially physical.” Kagan doesn’t comment on this, but another contributing factor to a spiritual loss has been antipathy toward silence.
The most popular and widely attended Christian services today are busy and boisterous. Few folks seem to remember, or care to remember, that when Elijah was complaining to God about the absence of drama in many of the divine visitations, God said, “If you want to ‘hear’ me, center on sheer silence” (1 Kings 19:12). That’s an uncomfortable, if not scary, thought to modern seekers who know how little quietness there is in our lives and how little seems to be available, even at our religious gatherings, when we do a quick mental glance through a typical day or week. Mother Teresa said,
We need to find God, and God cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. See how nature--trees, flowers, grass--grows in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence. We need silence to be able to touch souls.
An electrician was at my house yesterday trying to fix up some really old wiring in one of my outlets. His wife called him incessantly, demanding to know when he’d be home; every call, naturally, delayed his return home because it interrupted what he was needing to do just to leave things safe until he can return to me this afternoon, hopefully without his telephone or his wife. Once while she was railing at him, he hung up on her and looked at me and said, “I can’t tell you what I’d give for a few hours of silence. Do you have any specials on getting rid of wives, Reverend?”
“No,” I said. “We’re all sold out of those de-wifing ceremonies at Silverside!”
I imagine there’s a great deal of silence in Chile today. Another natural disaster of catastrophic proportions with over 200 pronounced dead and some 2 million others affected so far. This says nothing of those who are threatened by the resultant tsunamis. We simply can’t absorb the depth of the pain and loss. Hopefully, Pat Robertson will speak up soon and help us understand.
There comes a natural point in the initial response to a horrible tragedy when silence takes over. There are no more tears to be shed for now. A voice has grown exhausted from weeping and wailing. There’s no energy left for asking God or anyone else, “Why?” Silence takes over, and we are left to peer into the abyss--we, here; and the one or ones whom we have lost somewhere else. Oliver Wendall Holmes insightfully referred to silence as a poultice that comes to heal the blows of sound.
Silence also often sets in after elation. We can be so overcome with joyous emotion that no words or sounds can be uttered or made for a while.
The Apostle Paul wrote of prayerful sighs too deep for words, which has led me to propose in another context that, perhaps, the most profound prayers we ever pray are the wordless ones. After all, how could I possibly articulate the profound gratitude I feel for the privilege of being a dad? How could I tell anyone with accuracy how profoundly painful it felt to have to say my earthly goodbyes to my Dad in the critical care unit of St. Mary’s Hospital in Knoxville nearly a decade ago...or how much pain remains when I long to hear his voice but cannot? How can I express what great music does to me, for me in the depths of my soul?
My ears tell me that one of our favorite congregational hymns here is “God of the Sparrow.” In the words we sing, there is question upon question. “How does the creature say Awe? How does the creature say Praise? How does the creature cry Woe? How does the creature cry Save? How does the creature say Grace? How does the creature say Thanks?”
Benjamin Disraeli once said that silence is the mother of truth. And Gandhi realized that, “In the attitude of silence the soul finds the path in a clearer light, and what is elusive and deceptive resolves itself into crystal clearness.”
The teacher/preacher who wrote the book of Ecclesiastes said poetically and insightfully that there’s a time to speak as well as a time to keep silent. Not all conversation is for speaking just as not all prayer is for speaking. There are appropriate times for intentionally choosing to be silent.
Did you know that there’s a psychological disorder called “sedatephobia,” which is a fear of silence? I think that’s legit. I think there are those who truly fear the silence. These are people who could no more envision silence as an important part of spiritual practice than anything in the world largely because they’d be uncomfortable or terrified of the silence. These are the people who sleep with music playing, those who have to have their televisions on while they read, their iPods plugged into their ears as they get through the demands of any given day. Getting this treated is very important because we must at times wait in silence in the presence of God.
The Lord is in the holy temple.
The Lord is in the holy temple.
Let all the earth keep silence.
Let all the earth keep silence before God.
Keep silence. Keep silence. Before God.
Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from God in heaven. So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and God who sees in secret will reward you.
And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to God who is in secret; and God who sees in secret will reward you.
And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by God who is in secret; and God who sees in secret will reward you (Matt 6:1-6, 16-18 NRSV adapted).
Spirituality for the scientifically informed: cleansing, communion, and compassion.
For today, we will leave out the juicy tidbits about religious hypocrisy except to say that there’s a right way and a wrong way to undertake spiritual practices. They are for our private benefit initially, leading to positive benefits for others, but fanfare is out of the picture 100% of the time. When I say spiritual practices are initially for our benefit, I don’t mean that they make us better than those who neglect them or that God appreciates us more than God appreciates those who practice no spiritual exercises at all. Each one of these acts makes me more spiritually fit.
It’s interesting to me that science confirms the importance of each of the spiritual practices that Jesus isolated in the passage we’ve just read. We can look at these with a completely secular eye and find the importance to health and wholeness that each one contributes: cleansing, communion, and compassion.
Not everyone should fast, but there’s a broad range of people who can enjoy physical and emotional benefits that come from fasting. One of the most obvious is cleansing--ridding the body of toxins. Very few health sources would argue against periodically putting oneself through a detox process. Fasting is a healthy choice for some folks to choose toward this end.
Fasting is a rest from food or certain types of foods for specified periods of time. Our Muslim friends fast from sun up until sun down during their sacred, month-long season of Ramadan; unless there are health difficulties preventing it, they are to abstain from all foods and beverages except water while the sun is shining. I hadn’t paid much attention to this essential aspect of Ramadan until I had a Muslim student in class one year who wanted to learn more about Christianity so I invited him to lunch...during Ramadan! He was ultra polite as he drank his water, and I finally said, “You know, if we were just going to drink, we should have gone out for coffee.”
He said, “Oh no, Sir. No coffee either, but this is a great thing. It’s just that I can’t eat while the sun is up during our sacred season.” Still, I felt terribly awkward and uninformed. Why didn’t I just invite a rabbi out for bacon and eggs as a followup?
Why do Muslims fast? Well, Time magazine asked that same question last August. Not only are they honoring the initial revelations from God to Mohammad through Gabriel, but also devout Muslims are growing in their ability to be self-disciplined.
Jesus also preached about the importance of prayer as a spiritual discipline, but not as devising a daily to-do list for God. Prayer is good for your health, current studies seem to reveal, and as I say that I don’t want to promote that idea that prayer is a selfish and self-centered act. We appropriately pray for others as well as ourselves in a balanced prayer life.
Herbert Benson, Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and Director of the Mind and Body Medical Institute in Boston, has published results of his research arguing that regular prayer, along with general stress management, can reduce visits to doctors and other health professionals by 50 percent. Now, I’m not recommending that you skip medical visits any more than I’m telling you that you should definitely get into fasting. I’m just presenting some facts confirmed by scientific research.
Dr. Benson has for years been studying whether patients who pray and who have others praying for them do better than those who don't have that support. Benefits have been established even when the patient didn’t know that others were praying for her or him. These kinds of results have been confirmed in similar studies at Duke Medical Center.
Out of the realm of needing or wanting anything, though, prayer has long been regarded as helpful if not essential for the seeker and the person of faith. I have to tell you this, though. There was a study done at Fuller Theological Seminary a few years ago about clergy challenges. The results did not paint a pretty picture. One of the statistics that I report to my seminary students when I’m teaching a course I call “Preaching in Personal and Social Crisis” is that 86 percent of clergy believe in the importance of prayer at some level and practice it on behalf of their parishioners, but sadly at the end of the day the ministers have no energy left for prayer and so do not pray for themselves.
Remember that an essential part of the practice of prayer is communion with God. I do not know to speak about many of life’s complexities, and I don’t need to tell God what to do for the people in Chile. That doesn’t mean, though, that I skip out on prayer. I bring my need to God in silence. No words need to be spoken.
Religious activity should generally lead to taking action for the benefit of others. Compassion is an outgrowth of a healthy emotional and spiritual life. People who are fulfilled do not, cannot, keep the good they have to themselves. If prayer doesn’t eventually lead to compassionate acts for others, I think it’s safe to say what someone took to be prayer wasn’t. I stress again that it’s perfectly in order to pray for ourselves and our dear ones, but prayer that is real eventually finds itself offered on behalf of others--and very naturally so. A healthy person quickly realizes that words alone offered to those who struggle or hurt are terribly empty. Acts of compassion are both natural and essential for the healthy person.