Faith and Science

On the transcendent unity of world religions

Found an interesting op/ed from the Dalai Lama a few days ago. He made the point that the world religions share a common core of beliefs — that they are more similar, perhaps, than different. Here’s a few good bits:

Granted, every religion has a sense of exclusivity as part of its core identity. Even so, I believe there is genuine potential for mutual understanding. While preserving faith toward one’s own tradition, one can respect, admire and appreciate other traditions.

An early eye-opener for me was my meeting with the Trappist monk Thomas Merton in India shortly before his untimely death in 1968. Merton told me he could be perfectly faithful to Christianity, yet learn in depth from other religions like Buddhism. The same is true for me as an ardent Buddhist learning from the world’s other great religions.

A main point in my discussion with Merton was how central compassion was to the message of both Christianity and Buddhism. In my readings of the New Testament, I find myself inspired by Jesus’ acts of compassion. His miracle of the loaves and fishes, his healing and his teaching are all motivated by the desire to relieve suffering.

I’m a firm believer in the power of personal contact to bridge differences, so I’ve long been drawn to dialogues with people of other religious outlooks. The focus on compassion that Merton and I observed in our two religions strikes me as a strong unifying thread among all the major faiths. And these days we need to highlight what unifies us.

The Dalai Lama then goes on to outline other similarities in the world’s faith traditions. He concludes:

Finding common ground among faiths can help us bridge needless divides at a time when unified action is more crucial than ever. As a species, we must embrace the oneness of humanity as we face global issues like pandemics, economic crises and ecological disaster. At that scale, our response must be as one.

Harmony among the major faiths has become an essential ingredient of peaceful coexistence in our world. From this perspective, mutual understanding among these traditions is not merely the business of religious believers — it matters for the welfare of humanity as a whole.

Wonderful words — and a perspective that I share. I think that most of the world’s religions are saying the same thing — we just tend to use different metaphors to describe it.

My good friend, Shannon, saw a link to the column on my facebook page and she wrote a lengthy response. I asked her permission to reprint it here because she offers an interesting perspective:

An interesting read. My personal opinion (though not uninformed) is that the similarities among religions are widely overstated. For instance, consider mystical experiences. Most people are under the impression that a mystical experience consists of an amazing, indescribable feeling of oneness with the universe. However, a close look at various religious traditions suggests that this isn’t the case. Christian mystics tend to see visions of Mary or Jesus… Buddhist and Hindu mystics tend to experience the oneness with the Universe… Sufi mystics tend to see–well, very strange things–complex visions! In other words, mystics within a tradition tend to see the visions and have the experiences that their traditions “train” them to see.

There are folks like Huston Smith and the Dalai Lama who believe that there’s an essential core to every religion consisting of compassion and love, etc. I think that does a disservice to the orthopraxic side of religion (the practices). A wiccan Samhain service I attended bore little resemblance to a Christian All Saint’s Day service, even though the two purport to fill a similar purpose. To a certain extent, form *is* function, and the form one’s devotions take heavily influences their outcome. One reason we participate in religion is to be changed, and the practice side of religion tends to change us more than the belief side does.

I do appreciate the sentiment–finding common ground among multiple religions. I worry when the particularities seem to dissolve and people want to create some kind of generic Deistic “faith.” Genuine pluralism means being cognizant of (as well as respectful of) differences among faiths just as much as similarities.

I don’t think I differ that much with Shannon, but I wanted to extrapolate on my thinking. I can certainly understand the hesitance to adopt an uber-inclusive global “faith.” I’m not calling for that — rather, I just want to stress that a common core transcends the world’s religions, so maybe we shouldn’t be so concerned with who’s following the “right” path.

Here’s a good example: I take an approach to life that emphasizes “going with the flow” — that events throughout the day shouldn’t upset my equilibrium. When something doesn’t go my way, I take a deep breath and ask for acceptance of my current situation. (I’m not always successful!) This probably sounds similar to a Buddhist or Daoist philosophy — the Yin and Yang symbol, for instance, emphasizes the importance of fluidity and malleability. However, this perspective can also be seen in all of the other world’s religions — although the metaphor might appear rather different. For instance, a phrase that I’ve heard a lot since arriving in Abu Dhabi is “inshallah” — which means “God willing.” A colleague recently said he’d meet me at noon, “inshallah.” What he meant was that our plans to meet at noon were contingent on God’s will, or — to use less-loaded metaphor — something not going our way. My perception of this phrase is that Muslims are acknowledging that certain things are simply out of their control — and “inshallah” is a palpable reminder of this fact. In this way, this Muslim philosophy doesn’t differ that much from a Daoist or Buddhist — and similar messages can be found in the other Scriptures as well.

There are many other similarities, of course, too many to list here. I will point out that the second part of the current Muslim month of Ramadan focuses on forgiveness — forgiveness of others and ourselves for past mistakes. (“Sin” carries such emotional baggage for me that I choose not to use it.) The focus on forgiveness aligns with the predominant Christian message that we “forgive those who have trespassed against us” as well as the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. These core beliefs keep showing up again and again — surely we should pay attention to them.

I don’t think there’s a “right” religion — as Gandhi said, “All religions have truth and all religions have error.” But, I think they all can offer a path toward harmony and good living. (Unfortunately, many can all lead toward intolerance as well.) I appreciate the Dalai Lama’s words because I think it’s important to see that religions hold the same wholesome core of peace, compassion and acceptance. It’s when we start delving deeper into them — explaining why one path is better than the other — that we appear to get into trouble.

I’m not really interested in the devotion part of religion — because it’s the practice part that makes the difference. A religious devotee shouldn’t be judged on how or how often he attends services, but rather how often he’s practicing compassion, forgiveness, and acceptance. And any of the world’s major religions can lead a devotee to these practices.

By | August 24th, 2010|Uncategorized|1 Comment

More on myth, vampires and spirituality

Speaking of why vampire stories resonate with our culture, here’s a great column from Ted Friedman, a professor at Georgia State, that explores a similar theme. Here’s a good bit toward the end:

As Andrew Von Hendy explains in The Modern Construction of Myth, the spiritual dimension is at the heart of the origin of the concept. The term emerged in the Romantic era, in response to the Enlightenment’s fraying of religious certainty. It from the beginning had a dual resonance: it reflected a yearning for transcendent meaning, but already a nostalgia for a time when such meaning could be taken for granted. All myth, in this sense, is “modern myth,” since the very invention of the concept of myth was a reaction to what Max Weber described as modernity’s dis-enchantment of the world.

It is this numinous aspect of myth which has made it both compelling and discomfiting for critical theory. For intellectual traditions rooted in Freud’s and Marx’s hermeneutics of suspicion, there’s no independent human capacity for spirituality. The yearning for transcendental meaning is only a symptom of the fear of death or an outlet for class antagonism. But perhaps our postmodern skepticism could extend to questioning the limits of scientific materialism. The survival of the concept of myth may represent not the tenacity of an illusion, but the return of the repressed in a world outwardly more disenchanted than ever. As Jung argues, myths tend to compensate for those aspects of personality most neglected in a society.

Take Star Wars. The franchise has inspired innumerable academic studies of fan culture, celebrating the creativity and autonomy of its audiences. But scholars’ emphasis on fan creativity, I’d suggest, evades a more fundamental question: why Star Wars? Why is it this world, in particular, which has inspired such energy and loyalty? The answer, I’d suggest, is in The Force: the mystical system of energy that powers the Jedi Knights and governs Lucas’s universe. The Force is not exactly a religious concept: while a handful of fans mark “Jedi” down as their religion on census forms, most recognize that it’s a fictional conceit. But it’s nonetheless central to a story that resonates – a myth that captures the imagination and often won’t let go. It’s perhaps not surprising that the most devoted Star Wars fans – myself included – tend to be “geeks” who work and play in the most highly technologized sectors of the global economy. In that most postmodern of contexts, the myth of The Force has taken the place, at least in fantasy, of more familiar forms of faith.

Excellent points.

As a said in my comment, a society that rejects religion/spirituality/God innately requires something greater than themselves to believe in. Take your pick: Science, The Force, or Vampires.

By | August 8th, 2009|Uncategorized|0 Comments

Why vampires will never die

Here’s a great column oddly co-authored by Gillermo del Toro, the director of several stunning films including “Pan’s Labryinth.”

The authors observe that vampire tales seem to never dull in their popularity (e.g., the current obsession with “Twilight.”) Why? Here’s the last four graphs, but you should read the whole thing:

Part of the reason for the great success of his “Dracula” is generally acknowledged to be its appearance at a time of great technological revolution. The narrative is full of new gadgets (telegraphs, typing machines), various forms of communication (diaries, ship logs), and cutting-edge science (blood transfusions) — a mash-up of ancient myth in conflict with the world of the present.

Today as well, we stand at the rich uncertain dawn of a new level of scientific innovation. The wireless technology we carry in our pockets today was the stuff of the science fiction in our youth. Our technological arrogance mirrors more and more the Wellsian dystopia of dissatisfaction, while allowing us to feel safe and connected at all times. We can call, see or hear almost anything and anyone no matter where we are. For most people then, the only remote place remains within. “Know thyself” we do not.

Despite our obsessive harnessing of information, we are still ultimately vulnerable to our fates and our nightmares. We enthrone the deadly virus in the very same way that “Dracula” allowed the British public to believe in monsters: through science. Science becomes the modern man’s superstition. It allows him to experience fear and awe again, and to believe in the things he cannot see.

And through awe, we once again regain spiritual humility. The current vampire pandemic serves to remind us that we have no true jurisdiction over our bodies, our climate or our very souls. Monsters will always provide the possibility of mystery in our mundane “reality show” lives, hinting at a larger spiritual world; for if there are demons in our midst, there surely must be angels lurking nearby as well. In the vampire we find Eros and Thanatos fused together in archetypal embrace, spiraling through the ages, undying.

Makes sense to me.

By | August 6th, 2009|Uncategorized|0 Comments

The End of Philosophy

Good column from David Brooks on morality and evolution:

The question then becomes: What shapes moral emotions in the first place? The answer has long been evolution, but in recent years there’s an increasing appreciation that evolution isn’t just about competition. It’s also about cooperation within groups. Like bees, humans have long lived or died based on their ability to divide labor, help each other and stand together in the face of common threats. Many of our moral emotions and intuitions reflect that history. We don’t just care about our individual rights, or even the rights of other individuals. We also care about loyalty, respect, traditions, religions. We are all the descendents of successful cooperators.

The first nice thing about this evolutionary approach to morality is that it emphasizes the social nature of moral intuition. People are not discrete units coolly formulating moral arguments. They link themselves together into communities and networks of mutual influence.

The second nice thing is that it entails a warmer view of human nature. Evolution is always about competition, but for humans, as Darwin speculated, competition among groups has turned us into pretty cooperative, empathetic and altruistic creatures — at least within our families, groups and sometimes nations.

The third nice thing is that it explains the haphazard way most of us lead our lives without destroying dignity and choice. Moral intuitions have primacy, Haidt argues, but they are not dictators. There are times, often the most important moments in our lives, when in fact we do use reason to override moral intuitions, and often those reasons — along with new intuitions — come from our friends.

The rise and now dominance of this emotional approach to morality is an epochal change. It challenges all sorts of traditions. It challenges the bookish way philosophy is conceived by most people. It challenges the Talmudic tradition, with its hyper-rational scrutiny of texts. It challenges the new atheists, who see themselves involved in a war of reason against faith and who have an unwarranted faith in the power of pure reason and in the purity of their own reasoning.


By | April 8th, 2009|Uncategorized|0 Comments

The Religion of Science

This author, a British professor of sociology, put his finger on an interesting trend:

Today, it frequently seems as if scientific authority is replacing religious and moral authority, and in the process being transformed into a dogma. At first sight, it appears that science has the last word on all the important questions of our time. Science is no longer confined to the laboratory. Parents are advised to adopt this or that child-rearing technique on the grounds that ‘the research’ has shown what is best for kids. Scientific studies are frequently used to instruct people on how to conduct their relationships and family life, and on what food they should eat, how much alcohol they should drink, how frequently they can expose their skin to the sun, and even how they should have sex. Virtually every aspect of human life is discussed in scientific terms, and justified with reference to a piece of research or by appealing to the judgment of experts…

Such science has more in common with the art of divination than the process of experimentation. That is why science is said to have a fixed and unyielding, and thus unquestionable, quality. Frequently, Gore and others will prefix the term science with the definite article, ‘the’. So Sir David Read, vice-president of the Royal Society, recently said: ‘The science very clearly points towards the need for us all – nations, businesses and individuals – to do as much as possible, as soon as possible, to avoid the worst consequences of climate change.’ Unlike ‘science’, this new term – ‘The Science’ – is a deeply moralised and politicised category. Today, those who claim to wield the authority of The Science are really demanding unquestioning submission.

The slippage between a scientific fact and moral exhortation is accomplished with remarkable ease in a world where people lack the confidence to speak in the language of right and wrong. But turning science into an arbiter of policy and behaviour only serves to confuse matters. Science can provide facts about the way the world works, but it cannot say very much about what it all means and what we should do about it. Yes, the search for truth requires scientific experimentation and the discovery of new facts; but it also demands answers about the meaning of those facts, and those answers can only be clarified through moral, philosophical investigation and debate.

Yes. Great point, but you should read the whole article.

It’s as though human beings are hard-wired to look for “Truth.” If we’re rejecting Truth from holy books, then we’ve got to find it someplace else. For some, science fills an innate void.

By | March 10th, 2009|Uncategorized|0 Comments