How has learning science affected your religious life?
I spent my first two undergraduate years at Young Harris College, a tiny institution in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Georgia. Those years affected me profoundly on a personal and emotional level, but also on an educational level.
Young Harris offered me clean air, quiet nights and an opportunity to exercise my mind freely, without the distractions and weird social pressures of high school. I loved it all — literature, history, calculus, even physical education. But two classes in particular opened my mind to worlds beyond my own: Religion 101 and Astronomy 101.
The first was a survey of the world’s great religions. I had spent my life in a Baptist church and graduated from a Catholic high school but, aside from attending a single bar mitzvah in 5th grade, knew nothing of the world beyond Christianity. The professor took us on a global religion tour, spending a couple weeks each on Hinduism, Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism, Judaism, Islam and Christianity.
Of the religions other than Christianity, Judaism was most familiar, of course. I felt at home with its scripture, its precepts of justice and righteousness, its creation story, its prophets and its God. It seemed strange that Jews still awaited the Messiah, but I was not unsettled or exercised by this difference. Everything about Judaism was recognizable and pretty unsurprising.
Islam was a few steps removed from the customary, and when we turned to it my fascination began to grow. Here was a global religion founded by a singular personality, a historical figure like Jesus himself, who counted Jesus as a prophet and who claimed that his own expression of monotheism — not that of the Jews, not that of the Christians — was the true one.
Adam showed up in the Quran, as did Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Ishmael, Mary, Jesus and many others, but their stories diverged from the familiar ones in ways that seemed really important.
Also the so-called Five Pillars of Islam, the fundamental obligations of all practicing Muslims, seemed refreshingly straightforward compared to the whole “invite Jesus into your heart” business I had grown up with in the Baptist church. The differences between Islam and Christianity seemed so great.
But these differences were as nothing compared to those between the Eastern and Western religions. A deep conceptual abyss lies between these worlds of religious thought.
Whereas Judaism, Christianity and Islam come down hard and clear with monotheism, their Eastern cousins posit hundreds of millions of gods or zero gods. To the Western mind, Eastern theology grows hazy or doesn’t seem to exist at all.
I was taught that Hinduism is largely unorganized, has no central personality or formal structure or absolutely canonical scriptures, makes room for whatever local gods happen to arise, and permits individuals as many lifetimes as they need to attain full spiritual awakening.
Buddhism is centered on a single personality but expresses itself across a wide spectrum of belief and disbelief (even outright atheism), action and inaction, words and silences. Taoism was poetry to the prose of the West.
As a 19-year-old who had had only the vaguest experiences with his nearest-neighbor religion, all of this was both exhilarating and destabilizing.
It exhilarated me because it was so new and mind-expanding, but it destabilized me because it gave the clear impression that, when it comes to religion, no one really knows anything. It seemed that everyone on the planet was just making it up as they went along. How could I trust the claims of any religion at all?
Astronomy 101, which I took the following year, offered some answers to this question. Actually, what Astronomy 101 offered was not answers so much as perspective.
Sitting in the college planetarium, I learned about Jupiter’s magnetic field, the Oort cloud, stellar spectroscopy, Hubble’s law and all the rest. But these bits of knowledge themselves, fascinating though they are, did not themselves offer perspective — at least not when taken one by one.
Perspective came when they were all put together into a single, unified large-scale vision of the cosmos. The details served to make the big picture real, believable, and terribly exciting to me.
It is easy, as human beings fixed to the surface of our little planet, to forget the cosmos. We live deep in the human mix and rarely take a breath, step away, look up and take the larger view.
Back in August 2017 a total solar eclipse passed across the face of North America and amazed people from Oregon to South Carolina. This event evoked wonder and brought an enlarged perspective for everyone who witnessed it.
As I viewed the eclipse with my family (at Young Harris of all places), I recalled this quote from Thoughts Selected from the Writings of Horace Mann: “Astronomy is one of the sublimest fields of human investigation. The mind that grasps its facts and principles receives something of the enlargement and grandeur belonging to the science itself. It is a quickener of devotion” (p. 41).
The astronomical perspective, if held earnestly in the mind over months and years, produces several effects. First, by demonstrating the limits of our influence and power, it produces humility.
Second, it encourages wonder and reveals the miraculous nature of all things. Third, it shows, without ambiguity, that human beings are much more alike than we are different.
Each of these lessons finds an application in our approach to the world’s religions. First, we find ourselves on this tiny planet lost among an infinity of galaxies and time unimaginable. This knowledge produces an ironic effect: we realize we are subject to forces far beyond our control and in reality we know very little.
Much of the knowledge we do have is provisional, or limited, or uncertain. Humility demands that we admit this includes religious knowledge.
Second, the cosmos teases us with its beauty and essential strangeness. If the universe is a bottomless well of mystery, so too is the God who continues to create it. Not one of us, Christian or otherwise, knows God fully.
Third, all human beings, without exception, seek transcendence, that is, connection with one another and with God. We notice our differences only because we are so fundamentally alike.
You wouldn’t spend time commenting on the surprising differences between a sparrow, a semi truck and a nice strong cup of coffee. It would never occur to you to do so. Our underlying sameness makes our differences obvious.
The same is true, I believe, of our religions. All of them, no matter how odd seeming, are good and outward signs of the core human drive for transcendence.
Christians have a responsibility to learn about as many religions as possible, and as deeply as possible — since we live in a religiously plural society and knowing our neighbors is an essential part of loving them. But we must also come to know our own faith better. After all, if you’re looking for water it’s better to dig a single deep well than 10 shallow ones.
Here’s the good news: learning about other religions makes knowing your own not only possible, but also inevitable. You never see your own view clearly until you take a good hard look at the world through another’s eyes. And when you return to your own, as you always do, you will know it as never before.
Astronomy 101 offered me a new, mind-blowing perspective from which I could get above the human fray and see humanity anew, in all our religious variation and unity; a perspective from which the provisional nature of knowledge is made clear; and a perspective in which the mystery of God is always magnified. NFJ
By Paul Wallace