Some Ruminations

Some perhaps random ruminating on the relationship between religion and science, wisdom and knowledge.

From the 18th century onward, Western human beings increasingly have forgotten the value of wisdom.  And the result is that Western culture has been tempted either to jettison religious insight all together, or to twist it out of shape and make it into something it was never intended to be — to force it into a scientific paradigm where truth is tied to empirical verifiability.   Westerners have forgotten that religious traditions are really wisdom traditions that emerge not out of an objective plane of empirically verifiable data, but that emerge out of the human experience of living.

When we live reflectively, when we take time to contemplate our lives, we make discoveries that cannot be measured or detected by any scientific instrument.   We come to know our humanity from the inside; scientific method can only know our humanity from the outside.  In the history of science, there has been a tendency to discount human experience as unreliable because it is quite subjective.  And yet, life itself is experience.  The experience of being human is our life!

Religion, including Christianity, is not something given to us from outside ourselves — at least, not initially.  Religion arises from individual and collective human experience.  That experience gives us an intimation of something greater than ourselves, something that surpasses and transcends us.  It gives us an intimation of the sacred, and that intimation is known in human history by many names.  In our tradition, it is named God, and Christ, and Spirit.  Ultimately, the need to share the experience from which this intimation arises, to initiate others into that experience, gives rise to religious ritual, sacred texts, and institutions like the church.  But ritual, text, and institution are all really attempting to do the same thing:  to transmit the wisdom that flows from the original experience.  And that original experience itself flowed from the concrete lives of particular people or communities.

If we can recognize Christianity as a wisdom tradition, and if we can see the Bible as functioning within that tradition to transmit the wisdom that flows from a collection of religious experiences, then perhaps we can recognize that religion and science are really complementary traditions rather than competing traditions.

Science gives us knowledge that helps us understand our world, our universe, our bodies, and how these things work.  Religion gives us wisdom about how to live as human beings within this world, this universe, these bodies.  Religion gives us wisdom about how to live meaningfully and in right relationship.   And, religion helps us to discover within ourselves, and thus within the world around us, intimations of the sacred, our connection with God.

But this connection is not something that can probably ever be empirically proven, and thus become a truth that is scientifically available.  That connection is a truth that is only available to us through our own experience of being human and our reflection upon that experience.

So, if we think about a partnership between wisdom and knowledge in the arena of life sciences — the place where the conflict between religion and science is most asserted — then we can arrive at a new understanding:

Science is able to tell us how life works, and how life on our planet is interrelated.

Religion is able to tell us what life means, and how my particular life as a human being (or my particular community) is meaningfully connected to other human beings and human communities, and even how I am meaningfully connected to the larger creation.

If we can appreciate this, then we can appreciate a reading of the Genesis creation stories as not telling us HOW the world works or came into being, but as telling us WHY the world works and came into being, and perhaps more importantly, what that creation MEANS to us in the context of our experience of being human.



We live in overwhelming times.  The community in which I live and work is like many around the country, I suspect:  full of people who are struggling all the time to balance a menu of activities, all of which seem important.  Often when I talk to people, I hear from them about how overwhelming it all is.  And, for some reason, I’ve been hearing that a lot particularly this fall.

I would like to think that the church somehow stands out on this menu of activities as something other than just another activity to choose or not choose and somehow to balance with the rest.  But, that’s not really the case.  People like me, who “run” churches, are just as keen to offer a menu of options in the church’s name and attach some importance to people choosing them as are people who “run” other organizations and institutions.  In other words, the church can look pretty much like the rest of life, and people can become just as burned out on church as they can on other things.  And when you live in Northern California, it’s tempting just to walk away from things and go for a bike ride to the ocean.

It may initially seem unhelpful to say this, but when life seems overwhelming just because of the sheer complexity of it all, one of the most important things we can do is take advantage of what the church, at its heart, is really there to offer:  spiritual practice — in the form of worship, prayer practices, and community.

Now, I want to be very clear about something:  I’m not talking about church activities, though these certainly have an importance and a place.  But when we’re feeling overwhelmed, adding another church activity probably won’t help.   But maintaining a spiritual practice — Sunday worship, or a Centering Prayer ritual, or something similar — can provide us with a space to take a breath.  And not just any breath, but a breath from the soul.  And that breath can help ground us in God, and ground us in ourselves.  And that can provide us with the energy, and the perspective, to rebalance our lives and move us away from that overwhelmed place.

Here’s the bottom line, really:  spiritual practice isn’t just another activity.   It belongs in the same category as breathing, eating, and sleeping.  It is what keeps our soul oxygenated, so that we are truly able to live.  It is so easy to become involved in church activity that we forget to make a distinction between, say, a committee meeting or social event and worship or spiritual practice.  And, it is often the church’s fault that this happens because, like other organizations, we want to appear to be active.  But, in the end, that is not what we are called to do.  Our calling is to open the Spirit’s window and let souls breathe.

Beyond Being a Good Person

The Dalai Lama has been talking a lot in recent years about the need to find a “secular ethics”, that is, an ethical code that is not dependent on any particular religious system, one that any  human being would be able to sign on to.  I think his conviction about the importance of such a code is based on his assessment of how much religion in our time seems so often to get in the way of genuine human community, particularly across cultures.  So, removing religion from the equation and focusing on those things that we can hold in common simply based on our shared humanity seems to be the Dalai Lama’s way of getting us over the divide of religion to a more fruitful place.

This has gotten me to thinking about how often we tend to think of religion as being primarily about ethical codes and moral values.  Certainly, religious traditions evolve these codes and values and seek to teach and encourage them.  As more than one atheist has pointed out, however, it is possible to be a “good person” without holding any particular religious belief.  And, history is certainly filled with religious people who were, in the end, not at all “good”.  This all seems to call into question whether being a good person really has anything to do with religion at all.

And that raises another question:  Is religion primarily about ethical codes and moral values?

Having lived and breathed the Christian tradition for what is now perilously close to 50 years, and having devoted a good part of the last 25 years or so delving deeply into that tradition, I have to say that I am rather deeply convinced that the answer to that question is, “No.”  I am not suggesting that religion is unconcerned with how people behave, nor that it is neutral on ethics and morals.  What I am suggesting is that the primary purpose of religion, at least as I  have come to understand it and experience it within the Christian tradition, is to lead people into an authentic inner experience of the sacred – what we in the Judeo-Christian tradition would call God.  And it is equally clear to me that for most of the last 500 years, the churches have pretty much utterly failed at doing so.

Part of the reason for that failure is that Christianity became synonymous with civil society in much of the world, blurring the lines between culture and religion, church and society.  Under such conditions, it is very easy for the church to become an institution with an interest in social control, an agent for establishing cultural boundaries and seeing that they are enforced.  And as the church took on this role in a serious way, it simply stopped teaching most Christians the tools and practices for opening up to and cultivating an authentic inner experience of God.  In our own time, when civil society is moving beyond an identification with Christianity, we are seeing how difficult it is for many Christians to move beyond the idea of the church as an instrument of social control, an enforcer of ethics and morals.

Another reason that the church has largely failed to offer people this inner experience is the relegation of that experience to a spiritual elite.  As parish churches ceased to teach people how to access and cultivate an inner experience of God, it was left to monks and nuns to be the keepers of those practices.   People came to identify the use of these practices with those who turned away from “normal” life in the world and dedicated themselves exclusively to the “pursuit of God.”   And with the passage of time, people just came to assume that the way of life adopted by monks and nuns was essential to having an authentic inner experience of God.  And since most people were not willing to adopt that way of life, they assumed that the inner experience was not for them.  They would need to be content with the outward forms of religious life  and following the church’s moral teaching.  Divorced from any connection to authentic inner experience (though, of course, there were people who found that experience, either by refusing to accept the common wisdom that it wasn’t for them or “by accident”, or perhaps grace), it is no wonder that church life for many began to become dry and arid.

As Richard Rohr phrases it, the church became a belief system and a belonging system that could give people guidance in living their lives and a sense of community.  But ultimately, the vitality of our tradition cannot be sustained when reduced to these two systems.  Ultimately, that vitality can only be found when people move through these systems into a search for that inner experience.

While there is much regret and hand-wringing among church people these days with respect to decline in membership and in interest, the shift which the church in the West is now experiencing contains within it an important opportunity.  As the church becomes less and less a function of culture and society; as the church loses its privileged position as a social institution and transitions into a movement within society, I think we have an opportunity to recover our role as an experiential community, able to show people paths that can lead them into an experience of God that is not a manufactured emotional high but an authentic inner discovery.  Indeed, I believe that is what people long for.  All of those folks who have started to check the “unaffiliated” and “spiritual but not religious” boxes in surveys, or at least a good number of them, are people who long to experience God but do not find that the churches have the ability to help them get there.

The fact is, however, that the church has a great toolbox of spiritual practices that can, indeed, help people get there.  We only need to be willing to pull them out, dust them off, and open them up.  Then we can give up our preoccupation with whether people are good, and get on with the much more important task of helping people to become authentically and fully human.  And that is the path that truly leads to an ethical and moral life that has staying power.