Religion, Science, and Asian Thought

Contributed by: Rev. Frank Pennington, follow Rev. Pennington at his weekly blog Frank on Faith

On April 25 and 26, I participated in a conference at West Chester University. The theme of the conference was Religion, Science, and Asian Thought. Co-sponsored by the Institute for Religion and Science at Chestnut Hill College with which I am involved, the conference was a thoughtful opportunity to examine the chasm between the way the Eastern world views the scientific process and how we in the West have been colored by traditional Western empirical thought. Scholars from City of Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery, CA, Lon Quan Monastery, Beijing, China, West Chester University, The University of Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania State University, Villanova University, and Chestnut Hill College offered their perceptions on how we need an understanding of the scientific method and process that breaks free from what has been a false dichotomy between Eastern and Western thought.

When I was in Divinity school working toward my Masters I spent lots of time exploring a relatively new understanding of theology called Process Theology. The premise of this frontier way of thinking was grounded in the concept of theology as dynamic, and pointed toward the future rather than remaining static and rooted in the historic past. In other words, the task of theology is not so much to look back but to envision God as active in a creative present tense, beckoning us toward the future.

One of the Conference speakers, Kathy Duffy, Ph.D., has written extensively about the work of the French Jesuit paleontologist, Teilhard De Chardin. Teilhard who worked in China in the 1920’s and 1930’s was reproached by his church, the Roman Catholic Church, for championing evolution. The Roman Catholic Church at the time was concerned that evolutionary thought was contrary to the theological doctrine of creation; their understanding of creation was based on a literal translation of the book of Genesis.

What interests me is that we seem to be living in a time when, for some, it is very important to be “right” about religious issues. On the one side we have the atheist “fundamentalists” who are certain that there is no God, a belief often based on assumptions which are far from theologically sophisticated. On the other side are the religious “fundamentalists” who believe that theological truth stopped being shaped a little over two-thousand years ago; “if it was good enough for Jesus, then it is good enough for me. “ With both camps it would seem that personal life experience is not factored into shaping theological perception. For example, why do some fundamentalist Christians support the death penalty when Jesus spoke so much about a love ethic?

Much of Buddhist thought is grounded in the concept of “The Beginners Mind.” The idea is that God’s truth is always fresh and dynamic. We who view ourselves as “spiritual,” and I will add that I believe we are all “hard-wired” to be spiritual in one way or another, might constantly see ourselves as beginners. God, or the Creator, doesn’t need our defense but our openness and awe in God’s presence. God is present not only in our “churches,” or wherever we gather, but pregnant in the ongoing moments of time. This is not to suggest that, as social beings, we shouldn’t gather for worship, but that worship serves as a reminder and a prod to explore and to celebrate what is here about us always. At this point, I think Eastern thought has a better handle on this concept than the empiricism of the West which has been steeped in dualisms.

Science isn’t religion and religion isn’t science but they can be mutually informing because they are both progressive. Recently, I finished a book entitled The New American Spirituality: A seekers Guide. In the book I found the following quotation: “When Bishop Tutu introduced Nelson Mandela at his inauguration as the new President of South Africa, he described him as being a man who had Obuntubotho. Obuntubotho, he said, is the essence of being human. You know when it is there and when it is absent. It speaks about humanness, gentleness, putting yourself out on behalf of others, being vulnerable. It embraces compassion and toughness. It recognizes that my humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.’”

The word “religion” is rooted in words which mean, “that which binds us together.” I embrace the concept of “The Beginners Mind” as opposed to a mind that believes our task is to guard the past at all cost. Teilhard De Chardin understood that Jesus was an historical figure but that his spirit or charisma engaged us in the dynamic present and future. I have heard that a ready definition of a spiritual pilgrimage is the “inner opening up of a humble readiness to receive.” The first thing we need to do is to examine why it is that we have become so defensive about what we believe and so antagonistic about what we don’t. The difficulty with “fundamentalism” of any ilk is that our certainty becomes its own form of idolatry. I am a big fan of Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh who offers this thought to ponder:

Waking up this morning, I smile.
Twenty-four new hours are before me.
I vow to live fully in each moment
And to look at all things with the eyes of compassion.

In our world we worship at the feet of many false gods but perhaps the worst of all is the false god of rigid certainty, because the twenty-four hours which lay before us are always new and fresh. By the way, two of the four Buddhist monks I had the opportunity of getting to know at the conference happened to be worshipping at the Pendle Hill Quaker Meeting I attended this Sunday morning. We talked. Who would have guessed we would be together again? What are the possibilities? . . . Every day, something fresh, something new!