When does questioning spark joy, and when does it lead to frustration? What was it like as a lover of science living in the South? How do we become bilingual in speaking about both religion and science? The Sinai and Synapses Fellows raise these questions in the second of our two-part podcast created during the February 2017 Sinai and Synapses Discussion Forum focusing on “How Science Influences Religious Language.”
View the transcript below:
Hello and welcome to the first part of a two part series of podcasts recorded at the February 2017 meeting of the Sinai and Synapses Fellowship. The fellowship, incubated at CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, is a small interfaith group of clergy and scientists who are committed to elevating the discourse surrounding religion and science.
My name is Kat Robison and I’m a doctoral student at the University of Alabama studying space policy and a member of this fellowship, where we seek to personalize the relationship around religion and science. The fellows are a model for a productive conversation surrounding these areas. They’re dedicated to exploring their own stories, their own commitments, their own doubts, and also dedicated to learning about and from other people’s journeys.
For the first part of this conversation, I’m joined by three colleagues in the fellowship Reverend Mark Goodman, Dean of St Johns Episcopal Cathedral, Albuquerque New Mexico, Jonathan Morgan, a doctoral fellow studying the psychology of religion at Boston University, and Rabbi Arielle Hanien, senior research scholar for the Pardes Center on Judaism and Conflict Resolution Chair of the Clergy Education Committee of the International Trauma Healing Institute and co-founder and director of the Neshama Center. We welcome you into this conversation.
Kat Robison: Hi, I’m Kat Robison and I am here with my colleagues Mark Goodman, Jonathan Morgan and Arielle Hanien. We are at our meeting for Sinai and Synapses Fellowship. We’re in New York City, so you might hear an interesting soundscape to the background. And today we’re in the midst of a conversation about how our language is affected by science and religion, and we want to come with you and share some of that conversation.
Mark, earlier today you were talking about natural philosophy, and how you feel that this philosophy from Aristotle influenced the way that you viewed your own work as a pastor.
Mark Goodman: Yeah, you know I think in many ways the dichotomy between religious language and scientific language is really a false dichotomy, that in my mind at least arises in large part through the scholastic movement of the Middle Ages and through the Enlightenment, but if we go back to Aristotle, if we go back to the roots of scientific investigation, and look at what their efforts were in natural philosophy, it really is a natural blending of those two. What they were doing is trying to investigate how the world worked, both mechanically (we say now from a scientific perspective), but also from a perspective that you might call supernatural or spiritual. And so the language that they used blended naturally both I think if we try to reclaim that heritage of natural philosophy and that language of natural philosophy, then in a lot of ways we erase the tension, we reduce the tension between those two strains.
Kat Robison: Right, because we often see religion and science and their language as perhaps in conflict, when in reality that conflict is either quite minimal or doesn’t exist.
Jonathan Morgan: And I appreciate that historical context to this dichotomy that we often experience in our lives. So, growing up in the south it did feel as if you have to sort of choose your alliance. Are you going to be more scientific or will you be more religious? And there was not a lot of middle ground there.
And so for me growing up, I chose the scientific side of that and that shaped my friendships, that shaped a lot of my life path: of where I went to school, and what sort of jobs I went after, but I also, as life went on, the limits of that, that it’s felt as if that cut me off from a whole set of language that talked about meaning and purpose, depth to what I was going through and really had to turn back from that scientific language and start reading theology and other religious discourse to have the symbols, to have the stories and the metaphors, to understand what’s going on when you fall in love, when loved ones die, or just when you’re incredibly moved by beauty. The scientific language that I was given just was not able to account for those experiences that I was going through.
Arielle Hanien: I think my experience growing up Jewish and as as a child in a scientific and literary family was actually very different, because for me there was never a division between those worlds or those languages. Studying the very ancient texts of the Torah, of the Bible, the very first story is essentially a big bang, and then a quick tracing through evolutionary steps from mineral, vegetable, animal, to human form, and then getting into greater complexity of interpersonal human dynamics and emotions, and larger societal questions about ethics and spirituality.
And all of this was material for a way of looking at the world with a deep appreciation and sense of awe and wonder and responsibility, and the conversation happened, you know, in dinner conversations that could easily veer to the latest scientific discovery or socio-political reality, and also in deeply religious settings where this or that section of the Torah is what the entire, you know, Jewish community is exploring anew this week around the world.
So that – and also that questions were deeply valued. So, questioning even the way that something was being taught or understood was seen as a way of accessing a new angle or bringing in more voices and more insight, rather than threatening to topple an understanding that was there by social contract or imposition. And so that really coheres with a scientific way of looking at the world, not fearing questions.
Kat Robison: I’ve always been personally moved by the fact that both science and religion is informed by a sense of awe in many ways. A scientist and a priest could look up and both find the same sense of majesty and wonder, even if they share no religion.
And I think that’s been a theme today where we’re talking about – there are there overlaps that maybe we didn’t even realize before we focused on this question. I don’t know if any of you have some ideas of how you’ve been influenced today through the conversation when we bring together people who are scientists and who are clergy, rabbis, and we have people from all over the country in this fellowship and it’s a great opportunity as sort of – to struggle with these questions in a productive way.
Mark Goodman: You know it’s interesting, that when I was growing up and listening to both Jonathan and Arielle, my experience was something of a hybrid of those. So when I was growing up, my father was in academics, my mother was a teacher, so the language of science wasn’t natural in our home, and Kat, you talk about, you know, awe informing that, well I remember vividly when I was 10 years old, 11 years old, and I got a telescope as a Christmas present. And the first thing I did was go out in our driveway and set it up and look for Saturn. And I found it, and I spent the next hour gazing, just in awe, at this image until I was called in to dinner, and I remember walking into dinner, just tears streaming down my face, that I was so sad that I had to leave that and come home. So there was the sense of science and the spiritual not being in opposition at all, but, having grown up in the South as well, that was something that was learned. That was something that was imposed by an outside structure outside the home, which I discovered only later, and then had to learn how to bridge that gap.
Jonathan Morgan: Yeah, it makes me think that part of the integrity of science is being very aware of what we do not know, and looking for evidence to test that, and being aware of that – what is unexpected within our experience, and I think moments of awe are a very deep sort of information that we absorb and respond to.
And I can remember first learning about photosynthesis and sitting in the mountains of North Carolina, looking at all the trees in the middle of the summer, thinking about the little cells and their leaves turning sunlight into energy and just – it felt like the whole thing was sparkling – and Star Wars comes to mind – I was like, “it’s the forces moving through the forest,” like this is incredible. But the power of that, and the scientific explanation of that, lended self to the beauty in the felt experience, but also pointed beyond it to something just totally unexpected and marvelous that was happening there. And I think over time I found a lot of beauty within religious traditions, and think about them as communities that over millennia have explored “What we do with that information, what do we do with those experiences? What does that teach us about what the universe is up to?” And I think it takes a lot of time to dig into those sorts of questions, but at the same time they – just like any good scientific question – are just sort of right at the edge of what we do or do not know.
Kat Robison: I think that’s a really excellent point, Jonathan, sort of this – there’s a shared joy in seeking, and Arielle, you pointed this out earlier as well, and you as well Mark, that there’s a special experience that happens when you seek questions that you don’t know the answer to, and it can be very frustrating – there’s a special sort of frustration when your hypothesis just completely tanks. And there’s an equally devastating sense of frustration when your religion can’t answer your “why?” questions. But the ability to question is something that for me personally, as an inquisitive person, is joyful and I think that’s something that’s quite special, that’s a shared aspect between the two.
Arielle Hanien: It’s interesting that you bring that up, that kind of sense of disorientation or insecurity that questions can bring up, or that an awareness of all we do not know can give rise to, because for me it illuminates another aspect of science and religious traditions, which is that they provide a kind of holding space or a container for us. This is a vast net out of which you cannot fall. Of belonging in a human community that has nurtured you with this tradition, or that is only a part of the human community, that also features other spiritual traditions, of being part of an ordered cosmos, of being part of a scientific community, where even if one theory or hypothesis has failed, as happens occasionally, you know, in the history of scientific revolutions, will hold you in the scientific method, or a belief that there is such a thing as truth, even if it appears elusive from different perspectives.
So you know, in some ways that safety net holds a lot of accrued wisdom from generations of scientists, or natural philosophers, or spiritual ancestors, and teachers who have come before us, that provides a sense of safety that I think allows us to be curious, and fall and scrape our knees, and come back to a sense of being held. And it allows us to pendulate, I think naturally, between the curiosity and the wonder and the feeling of smallness inside a vast beautiful universe, and a feeling of deep appreciation, and intimate connection, and gratitude and responsibility, which is a feeling of greater power inside this universe to do what we can with the knowledge that we have.
Mark Goodman: You know, I think paradoxically our presenter today talked about the idea of the infinitude of God, and how in some traditions, that becomes an obstacle to talking about God, because if God is infinite, then how can we know anything about God? But I think, paradoxically, Arielle – you’re talking about that net out of which we can’t fall, I see the idea of the infinitude of God as being that net. Because St. Augustine says, this isn’t going to be an exact quote, but St. Augustine says, “if you understand it, it isn’t God.”
And so there’s this idea that that opens the door to endless investigation, endless questions, and in the seeking and endless points and moments of awe, as you continue to discover more and more about the world more, and more about the cosmos, more and more about God.
Jonathan Morgan: And I think Kat’s point, of the joy that comes within that pursuit, I think, is really important, that in some ways it’s not about ultimately arriving at a place where we do understand that our hypotheses will always be overthrown within science, how much more so when it comes to what the divine is. But to be in pursuit, and the joy that comes out of that within a community, within, amongst friends, to be exploring those questions and engaged in trying to answer them the best they can, but always moving one step beyond.
Kat Robison: One of my favorite quotes from Rilke, a poet, he says that you have to – there’s moments in your life, and this is not an exact quote, where you can’t get the answers you seek, so you have to become content to love the questions themselves. And I think that one important – is personally for me an important contribution in that as a social scientist and as a person of faith – is that there are questions I can’t answer. And I know that I can’t answer them, either because I don’t have the data, or I don’t have the understanding yet of the divine. And yet that I can ask those questions, there’s a love for that, and an appreciation for that I think Jonathan especially, with your experience of how you experience science and natural world, I feel that as well. And there’s processes that you do understand, and then there’s things that happen you know, New Horizons flies by Pluto and completely changes what we think about geology on icy worlds, right? (Have to get the Space in).
But the thing I loved the best about that is, all these scientists, is like – “wow, we don’t know why that’s happening, let’s find out why.” It’s a joy.
Arielle Hanien: There’s an Aristotelian in Jewish tradition also, Maimonides. He’s one of the most brilliant minds, you know, his thoughts we still have and refer to often. He was a physician, he was a metaphysician and philosopher, and was acknowledged for his brilliance in his own day, but he saw his quest for knowledge as a way of expressing his love for God, who is ultimately unknowable, and he encouraged the seeking of more and more knowledge of the world that God had created as a way of expressing that love. And so what you’re saying, Kat, makes me appreciate in a new way that for all of the knowledge and the wisdom that he attained and mastered and applied to healing those who needed healing, enriching a tradition further that could be passed on, what he enjoyed, or what allowed him to be engaged, was this ongoing process of seeking, right? Not feeling that he had arrived at.
Which is, I think, something that’s true in both science and religion, and for him and also for us, allows us to appreciate traditions beyond our own as well, that are other ways of seeking that can help refract our own views and offer new insights, and can attune us to to the power that that gives us to help protect, and repair, and share within this creation that we’re appreciating from more and more angles, as we come to know them.
Mark Goodman: To share, I think, is to me one of the most exciting parts about our conversation today, because I think one of the one of the important goals of Sinai and Synapses is to share our conversations, so that we can encourage this bilingualism, if you will, with others beyond our sphere. And I think, to me, that’s exciting because one of the most tragic things I think in the Western tradition, in the Western Christian tradition, is the point at which that seeking was cut off. That the questions were deemed to be answered in a way that was very doctrinal and final. And only now, I think, really, in the latter half of the 20th century and now the 21st century, I think we’re really coming to a point where we understand that there is a language that supersedes that – that finality, and encourages that Western understanding of sort of a closed canon, if you will, to be broken open again, and to let that wonder and awe of the conversation come through.
Jonathan Morgan: That makes me think that in some ways, awe acts as a lure, pulling people in from both the religious traditions and scientific traditions – that when you encounter awe, you’re just drawn into whatever the phenomenon is, you can’t resist but to keep engaging it, and I think I really appreciate these conversations within this Fellowship, that I get insight into all the different ways that people do engage with those sorts of experiences that feel holy. And the different resources that they draw from, both from scientific views of Pluto or the deep space – the Hubble Deep Field. Or from ancient thinkers and texts and all of those, kind of pulling us more and more along into that mystery.
Kat Robison: So as we seek to – unfortunately for today – to wrap up this conversation, I would like to ask all of you, is there any anything from today that you’ll be taking away that you would like to share with our wider community? As Mark so aptly pointed out, one of the goals of Sinai and Synapses, this fellowship, is that we take our conversation to the wider world, is that we influence the conversation around religion and science.
Mark Goodman: Well, I think the thing that I’ll take away from their conversation today is a deeper appreciation or renewed appreciation for the breadth. of the shared language over academic disciplines and across religious disciplines. That the language is not one that is contained, the language is one that is shared, and is a rich language ,and is one that can unite all of those different disciplines we use.
Jonathan Morgan: I think I’m drawn to share and bring forward just how necessarily all of our language is both religious and scientific. I think each of us are being pushed by those cultural forces all the time, and we draw from them in our conversations, and so when I write a scientific article, that’s very much scientific language, but then when I’m hanging out with friends and processing life and drawing from all sorts of sources, and I think even without knowing it, we’re probably all doing that. It’s interesting to pay attention to when and where that’s happening.
Arielle Hanien: In our conversation earlier today, I shared a story of my young children that came up for me, where they just naturally ask the questions that arise for them – in this case it was about cause and effect, and everything seeming to have a cause, but what about the first thing? What could have God–? and I realize that’s natural philosophy, which for me is a reminder that there is a natural philosopher in all of us, and as we age, or as human species, as we’ve progressed historically, the types of responses to those questions have become segregated in fields that we name “the scientific answer,” or “the God answer,” or “religious answer,” but actually the questions emanate from a common source in our human nature, and so what I’m taking from today is really the beautiful gift that it is to be able to, with colleagues from different religious traditions and scientific fields, kind of re-trace those roots all the way back down historically to where they’re intertwined and they share this sense of curiosity and wonder and interest in learning from the sharing of views. I think that could be very healing for us as individuals, and as those seeking to bring our wonder and our studies to bringing healing into the world.
Kat Robison: That’s beautiful, Arielle. Thank you again, Mark and Jonathan and Arielle, for speaking with me about this idea of shared language, and we invite all of you listening to this podcast to engage in these conversations with your own community, whether it’s with scientists or, your religion, or people you may need on the bus, these are interesting questions that we can all engage in, and we thank you for your time.
Thank you for listening. This podcast was made possible by the Sinai and Synapse Fellowship and our founding director, Rabbi Geoff Mitelman. Our audio engineer is Kassy Tamanini and I’m your host, Kat Robison. Again, we thank you for joining in on our conversation and we hope that you continue this discussion in your own communities.