Now is the Time to Change
The rapid changes of our modern world, kindled by the meteoric rise of computer technology, has created a needed space for spirituality. The fast-paced, breathless amount of information coming across our screens and into our lives has created anxiety and fatigue, among other things. It is not surprising that spiritual seekers have returned to the mystics, from John of the Cross to Rumi and Siddhartha. The path of solitude, silence and quiet prayer, is alluring in view of a busy culture, running on algorithms. Social media sites are flooded with meditation groups, prayer groups and a host of other human communities that speak of faith in a higher power and promises of belonging and mutual support. The bouquet of spiritual paths and practices means that there are many roads to silence and peace. The proliferation of books and webinars on life paths suggest that spirituality has become essential to human survival in the 21st century. Even younger generations, who reject institutional religions, are attracted to spirituality, expressed by the maxim: “Spiritual but not religious.”
With an overflow of spirituality in our midst, one wonders how our world can be so fractured and conflicted. Is spirituality alone sufficient to redirect our out-of-control planet toward a sustainable future? I do not think so. Spirituality simply expresses inner content, what fills our minds and hearts, what comprises our core beliefs; more so, what sparks our desires. The real question is, what forms our beliefs? What fills our minds and hearts? Beliefs are what a person holds to be true, whether or not it is true, that is, whether or not there is coherence between knowledge based on research, data and critical thinking, and our personal experience. True knowledge is diaphanous, light-filled; it lifts us up and draws our minds and hearts into greater wholeness. Truth makes life overflow with more life, which is why knowledge is the well-spring of truth. To know is to form new horizons of insight, to create. Teilhard de Chardin said that “to think is to unify, to make wholes where there are scattered fragments, not merely to imitate (or repeat information) but to contribute a new unity to the world and thus to contribute new form of insight to the world it would otherwise be without.”
While spiritual paths abound today, what is lacking is deep thought and a reasonable pursuit of truth. Knowledge is not information alone but the work of the mind creatively forming new insights. In his book Where is Knowing Going?, the late John Haughey SJ distinguished between concepts and notions. When we rely on concepts, he wrote, we let ideas spawned by other minds do our thinking for us. Today, information-loaded concepts dominate the internet, to the extent that our devices have become intellectual crutches. On the hand, Haughey said, notions are ideas gradually forming in us in which we encounter reality with unrestricted wonder and attend to the real as an act of engagement. Notions undergird the life of the scholar whereby the mind engages reality in its manifold expressions of art, history, science, literature, economics and other disciplines, forming new unities and new insights. While spirituality may connect us to the world, scholarship in its many forms, shapes the world by creatively engaging ideas. The scholar is to be an artisan of the future.
As one who has spent the last three decades in academic life, it is hard to understand the rejection of modern science by many different people today, especially in higher education. Recently I was in conversation with a student who asked me, “What does science have to do with religion?” And “Why is Pope Francis talking about the environment and the economy when he should be talking about spirituality and God?” Although we are immersed in a scientific-technological culture, many religious people both within and outside higher education, express a distrust of science because “the facts change.” One person said to me, “I am not interested in science because I have my own set of beliefs”; another person said, “science is too complex for me to understand.” I have heard many theologians say, “I don’t have time to read up on the new science,” or “I don’t see the relevance of science to my work.” Recently, a theology graduate student argued in class that Aristotle’s notion of matter and form is perfectly reasonable for today’s world; there is no need to discuss quantum physics and evolution, because quantum physics is still speculative. Aristotle is correct: clear and to the point. Other theology students have rejected evolution because it contradicts core Christian teachings, such as original sin. However, they hold fast to the medieval metaphysics of St. Thomas Aquinas (which undergirds the official theology of the Catholic Church) because it logical, structured and somehow explains reality (with a few philosophical adjustments). There is an implicit sense among science-deniers that Thomas is much more reasonable than Einstein—and really—who cares about a Big Bang universe.
The problem of anti-science cuts across all world religions but especially the monotheistic faiths. Conservative Jews, Shiite Muslims and orthodox Christians all adhere to religious belief systems formed with the tools of Greek metaphysics (primarily Aristotle) and constructed against the backdrop of the ancient Ptolemaic cosmos. No matter how much data or reasonable explanations are provided to help understand the integral relationship between Science and Religion, ancient dogmatic beliefs trump scientific data. More so, people reject modern science in favor of their beliefs, even if the content of the beliefs are no longer true. Original sin, monogenism and evolution is a case in point. Recently, I was asked to review a book on religious life and the new cosmology and was surprised by a survey which indicated that younger members of some religious communities rejected modern science because it interferes with their religious beliefs and form of life. They would rather dress with ancient garb and follow fifth century ideas then reorient their lives to an evolving world. The truth is, we are no longer in Plato’s world or Aristotle’s world. We are in our own radically individualized worlds, and if we want to follow thirteenth century theology, we will do so and no one will make us do otherwise. Of course, those who oppose religion and science drive cars, ingest all sorts of drugs for medical conditions, accept prosthetic devices into their bodies and navigate the internet. However, when science is explained as a fundamental body of knowledge for the welfare of human and planetary life, it is simply marginalized or rejected. It is as if the human brain shuts down, claiming we do not need that knowledge to be saved. Our medieval religion is sufficient.
We were not always this resistant. In the early Church, theological discussions abounded, not only among the theologians but among all types of interested persons. In the fourth century, for example, the hot topic was the Trinity and whether or the Son of God was equal to the Father. Was Jesus truly God or not? Was the Spirit a divine person like the Son? The luminary Cappadocian theologian, Gregory of Nyssa supposedly recounts how the discussion on the Trinity spilled over into the marketplace. It was a much smaller world then, and everyone from the shopkeeper to the blacksmith had an opinion. Gregory put it this way:
Everywhere, in the public squares, at crossroads, on the streets and lanes, people would stop you and discourse at random about the Trinity. If you asked something of a moneychanger, he would begin discussing the question of the Begotten and the Unbegotten. If you questioned a baker about the price of bread, he would answer that the Father is greater and the Son is subordinate to Him. If you went to take a bath, the Anomoean bath attendant would tell you that in his opinion the Son simply comes from nothing.
There is no doubt that when the world was smaller and more localized, ideas could circulate more freely—for better or worse. Today, our world is large and complex, and the manipulation of information across the web makes it difficult to engage in meaningful discussions. In his book, The Shallows, Nicholas Carr suggests that the internet is making us shallow and dumb. We are losing the capacity to think and to feel. The infinite amount of information has induced a type of cognitive coma because the human brain cannot process the overabundance of input. We are like mental couch-potatoes, exporting our minds onto the internet because our brain circuits are overloaded or jammed. Hence, we capture and hold tight to ideas and beliefs which keep us breathing and upright and perhaps inspire us to live for a better world beyond this one. Frozen brain circuits prevent new thinking because they block any new input. Fear, anxiety and distrust swiftly emerge in fight or flight mode when the brain is confronted with new ideas, evoking existential fear and, for some religious people, the possibility of sin. We saw something of this recently when the US Catholic Bishops were confronted by vaccine-deniers who claimed that the COVID vaccines contradict Church teaching because they are derived from aborted fetuses. Not only did some religious zealots oppose the Bishops but they outrightly swore them down: the vehemence of opposition knows no bounds.
The truth is the world is out of control and has been for some time. Things will not get better; they will get exponentially worse. AI technology will accelerate, and we will soon be in a world of even greater divisions, fostered by a widening gap between super-wealth and various levels of poverty because the middle-class is simply dissolving. Those who can afford advanced technologies will live longer, healthier, and perhaps happier (although “happy” is an ambiguous term), while those who cannot afford advanced technologies will struggle for survival and eventually perish. The fate of the earth is the great unknown. With continued rates of global warming, we will see massive land shifts, rises in sea levels, more species extinctions and, simply, a radically scarred earth.
It does not have to be this way. We have a choice now to turn the fate of the earth into a hopeful future. However, we will need to make significant choices and decisions. We simply cannot have it all, at our disposal and according to our whims. Our lifestyles need to change; our value systems need to change, and our belief systems need to change. The integration of Science and Religion is not an option; it is an imperative. All institutional religions and places of higher education have a responsibility to ensure a new integrative framework of Science and Religion. Perhaps we need a moratorium on ancient philosophies and historical thinkers. We are too stuck in the past and not enough concerned for the future. Despite the fact that I admire the initiatives of Pope Francis and his efforts to integrate and unify, the Catholic Church is a principal culprit of climate change. In fact, all world religions must get on board with evolution or face eventual extinction. This is not a topic for academics to debate or the topic of another conference; it is the fate of the earth.
Teilhard de Chardin saw our predicament almost a hundred years. In a 1931 essay on the “Spirit of the Earth,” he wrote that “the age of the nations is now past, and our task, if we are to survive and not perish, is to build the earth.” To “build the earth” is to recognize the divine depth of all reality, urging us to come together and emerge in a new whole of co-reflective consciousness, where love shapes all that we do, including the pursuit of knowledge and the advancement of science.
The key to a Teilhardian universe is the union of religion and evolution, as Teilhard wrote: “Religion and evolution . . .are destined to form one single continuous organism, in which their respective lives prolong, are dependent on and complete one another… it is for us to effect this synthesis.” I suggest that we make Teilhard’s insight the core of our spirituality and prayer and strive to find God in all things of the earth, having faith in the world and faith in one another, knowing that God is active and alive in everything, for God is the overflow of life, the future fullness of life, already present in this moment, inviting us into a new unitive reality of love: “Do not fear for I am with you” (Is 41:10).
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