Dalai Lama, London, 1996. Photograph by Steve Pyke. Used with permission of the photographer
Back in early September, His Holiness the Dalai Lama shared the following via Facebook:
All the world’s religions, with their emphasis on love, compassion, patience, tolerance and forgiveness, can and do promote inner values. But the reality of the world today is that grounding ethics in religion is no longer adequate. This is why I am increasingly convinced that the time has come to find a way of thinking about spirituality and ethics beyond religion altogether.
This is the thesis of HHDL’s book, Beyond Religion, published a year ago. Yet this Facebook status — months later — set off a small storm of blog posts, tweets, and opinions that is still rumbling about the religion sector of the blogosphere. And my own informal survey indicates no one has really paid close attention to the profound irony of a global religious leader calling for the relativizing of religion.
It is an incongruity: The Dalai Lama, a product of religion if ever there was one, saying that we must get beyond religion. He acknowledges as much in the Introduction to BR:
This [call to go beyond religion] may seem strange coming from someone who from a very early age has lived as a monk in robes. Yet I see no contradiction here. My faith enjoins me to strive for the welfare and benefit of all sentient beings, and reaching out beyond my own tradition, to those of other religions and to those of none, is entirely in keeping with this.
This is admirable in its simplicity and lack of offensiveness. I suspect many people from varied faith traditions would agree with it (although they may not use the phrase, “sentient beings”). Reaching out to others is good and well. But how many of these would go so far as to advocate for religion-free ethics? And why is HHDL doing this?
I think it’s because religion sometimes produces individuals who outgrow religion.
Let me clarify: I do not mean that the Dalai Lama has no use for religion. Or that he thinks religion is silly. But many people use religious organizations and ideas primarily as a means of belonging. Often one’s religious identity is little more than self-protection in a strange and sometimes scary world. The social and intellectual defenses provided by religion can be formidable and highly effective.
But for some people religion has the opposite result. In these individuals a religion may have the counterintuitive effect of deconstructing itself. That is, it deconstructs the social and intellectual barriers that define the religion in the first place, barriers that may turn out in the end to be the most serious threats to humanity’s common well-being.
This seems to be the case with HHDL. He has been grounded in a particular tradition, trained in its philosophy, and disciplined in its practice. But he no longer needs its community or its philosophy to distinguish himself from the rest of humanity. In him his religion has accomplished its finest goal: a human being who sees himself first and most clearly as a human being among other human (not to mention sentient) beings. Robes, Buddhism, and Tibet may define him for us, but they do not define him for himself.
But, and here’s the thing: He’s a Tibetan Buddhist, the real deal. He meditates every morning. He wears his robes. He still describes himself as “a simple Buddhist monk.” And while he may not always use the language and images of Buddhism in his broader addresses, he does when he addresses his monks and nuns. To them he speaks fluent Buddhish.
This must be one of the most obvious cases of what James Fowler called the “ironic imagination — the capacity to see and be in one’s or one’s group’s most powerful meanings, while simultaneously recognizing that they are relative, partial and inevitably distorting apprehensions of transcendent reality.” The ironic practice of religion: I suspect it happens for lots of people, not just HHDL and not just Buddhists.
It must be rather freeing to practice one’s religion while seeing it for what it is: A vessel for the universal and not the universal. It seems that such freedom would allow religion to be taken seriously but not too seriously. Such freedom might produce humility. Perhaps it is this freedom that gives HHDL his energy, his focus, and his incredible lightness of being.
Pia Stern, The Beginning (The End), 2005
On the 18th of this month I will begin teaching at Agnes Scott College. I will have one introductory physics course-lab combination (electricity & magnetism) and one upper-level optics course. I’ve never taught optics before, so I get to learn some new stuff — exciting! I will also be exploring the possibility of teaching a science & religion course there during the summer. I’m looking forward to teaching again!
Because of this upcoming demand on my time, the frequency of posts here at psnt.net will be essentially zero over the coming months. I will continue to write at Religion Dispatches and the Huffington Post and will send out emails and tweets every time a new piece goes up. So if you’ve “liked” psnt.net on Facebook or if you’re on the mailing list or if you follow on Twitter, you’ll be informed (and if you haven’t and aren’t and don’t, and want to stay informed, please like or join or follow). I’ll keep the domain and email address. But I just can’t blog at three different websites. AND teach classes. AND meet the needs of my family. AND stay balanced.
This hurts because I love this little site. I will miss the community that has grown up around it. To Jack and Tom and Curtis and Barbara and Mike and Ruth and Todd and Brent and Steve and Andrew and Jessica and Phil and absolutely everyone else who contributed to the conversation: Thanks for your time and for sharing your thoughts. To those faithful who remained silent: Thanks for reading. To those who ventured over here from FreeThoughtBlogs just long enough to flame me: Thanks for your clichés and the white-hot intensity with which they were delivered.
I will miss the visual side of psnt.net, which IMO would not translate well to other sites. I could put up one of Pia‘s gorgeous images on HP, but it would be ruined by the hysterical WATCH banners and animated U-Verse ads. It may work on RD, however, which is as visually calm as magazine sites get (“just easy on the eye,” restless photographer and favorite deep guy Michael Bailey says). I’ll think about that.
Be that as it may, things are slowing down around here. This is not to say that there will be nothing new on psnt.net any more, ever, world without end, amen. But I have a busy time ahead. Some things must be (at least temporarily) shelved.
So, knowing how way leads on to way, but also that we so often arrive where we started, I sign off,
Michelangelo‘s Creation of Adam with a significant 21st-century alteration. Can you find it? Source: www.fotodiario2.it
That’s the question I’m asking after reading physicist Marcelo Gleiser’s post published last week at 13.7. Pointing to the problems with creationism and the fact that that belief in evolution decreases as church attendance increases, he asks, “Why do so many have trouble believing in evolution?”
But that question can be turned around: Why do so many have trouble believing in God? It’s a fair question, you know, and the answer is not obvious.
But one thing is: God, it seems, is slipping through our fingers. You can’t spend a day in the religion sector of the blogosphere without hearing about newly-minted atheists, deeply ambivalent leavers of church, apatheists who can’t bring themselves to care, and even de-baptisms. The ranks of unbelievers seem to increase every month.
QUIZ: Why do so many people have trouble believing in God?
1. Because science has proven that God is ontologically equivalent to the tooth fairy. Duh.
2. There is no trouble. The blogosphere is not the real world.
3. Because the self-appointed representatives of God who say hateful things or drive Bentleys are more conspicuous than religious people who don’t, and sensible people don’t want to be associated with those clowns in any way whatsoever.
4. Because it’s simpler to say that, good or bad, God is just a Feuerbachian projection of human nature. Christians like MLK and Dorothy Day notwithstanding, God is a head game that needs to be shut down, and the sooner the better.
5. Because your average person would rather be god herself. And, as Walker Percy observed, if there is anything more offensive than the suggestion of the existence of God, it is the existence of two gods.
6. Because Hobbes’ vision of humanity’s natural condition is right: life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. Any God worth the name wouldn’t let things be this way.
7. Because even asking the God question adds to suffering. Everyone should follow Buddha’s lead and get on with problems — like suffering itself — that can actually be solved.
8. Because we are coming of age as a species. We’re not Bronze-Age goat herders anymore, sure, but old habits die hard. The letting-go of religion is as necessary as the letting-go of mama’s skirt, and more painful. So you can expect people to let go of God, and for some to make a lot of noise as they do.
9. Because the end of the world is near, and that’s when unbelief spikes.
10. Because Barth was right: God in Christ is the great question mark that is set against us. The sparks fly upward at the mere mention of God. This is a rule.
11. Because it’s a lot easier to worry about my mortgage and Georgia Tech’s miserable season than to get mired in all that God nonsense. Besides, science has pretty much disproved God, right? I mean, hasn’t it?
I’ve a new piece up today at the Huffington Post. It is the reworking of an essay I wrote a few years ago about Johannes Kepler and Intelligent Design. Here’s a teaser:
Kepler reminds us that religious people do not need to shrink from science and its naturalistic methods, because they more than others have a rich tradition in which to locate these things, a context that allows them to take science seriously but not too seriously, and a strong bulwark against the lull of materialism.
For a person of faith, ID is not just an unnecessary choice; it is a harmful one. It reduces God to a kind of holy tinkerer. It locates the divine in places of ignorance and obscurity. And this gives it a defensive and fearful spirit that is out of place in Christian faith and theology.
Here’s the article.
So many good things have been written this year about the sometimes-contentious, sometimes-mind-expanding, sometimes-hopeful relationship between science & religion. But there’s humor too, and the best funny thing I saw all year may be this strip. I found it at James McGrath’s Patheos blog, Exploring Our Matrix, but it has been featured by PZ Myers and has its origin (so far as I can tell) at reddit.
I couldn’t let the year end without sharing it with all Beloved Readers.
Happy New Year!
YOUNG-EARTH CREATIONISM: IT’S A DUCK
The billboard came before the song. This NYC photograph is from December 1969; “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” was released two years later. Image source: The Rock File
I’ve a new article up at Religion Dispatches. Here’s the lede:
This year has marked, I believe, the beginning of the end of the war between science and religion. Creationism cannot last. The New Atheists are now old. And between these camps the middle ground continues to expand.
Indeed, many folks have been hard at it, doing a new kind of peace work. Some have done it intentionally, some have not. Outliers, both atheist and religious hardliners, continue to wage battle but they look increasingly irrelevant.
Here are ten who, in small ways and large, have helped to spread seeds of peace on the blasted-out battleground of science and religion.
And here’s the article.
The Rev. Dr. Sir John Polkinghorne has some good things to say about science & religion. He also has more titles than you. Image source: University of St. Andrews
Last week Biologos released a short video called John Polkinghorne in a Nutshell. In it, our protagonist says something with utter clarity that I’ve been trying to say for years. It has to do with the relationship between two aspects of science: its limits and its success. Many see its successes; few see its limits; and fewer still see the connection between the two. What did Polkinghorne say? Here’s the golden sentence:
Science has achieved its great success by the limit of its ambition.
That’s it. It’s so simple. The success of science is because of its finite scope, not in spite of it. It’s not a unusual idea, really. There is rarely success without boundaries. By eliminating entire classes of questions, science can address its own with integrity. By disallowing certain kinds of evidence, science can focus on what matters to it. By insisting on reproducible, falsifiable, and continuous results, science can happily ignore everything that does not fit these categories.
For example, questions of meaning are right out; science eliminates all notions of purpose before it even gets going. So there should be little wonder that the world uncovered by science appears, of itself, pointless. By turning a deaf ear to the combined witness of hundreds of generations of religious believers, science can avoid the difficulties of theology. By saying “no” to all discontinuities, science can ignore claims of divine action in the world.
My point is not that the meaning of the world is self-evident, or that all religious believers are right, or that obvious miracles happen every day. I’m just saying that, even if it was and even if they were and even if they did, science qua science wouldn’t know it. It couldn’t know it. It just doesn’t go there. Scientists would know it because they’re people, not because science would tell them so.
Perhaps it takes someone like Polkinghorne, who has seen science from the outside as well as from the inside, to make this so clear. I for one am grateful. The Rev. Dr. Sir really is a refreshing contrast to those who consistently overinterpret and oversell science. May we all aspire to his breadth of vision.
Not to mention his clarity of expression.