Does science always have to be intellectual and faith spiritual, emotional, and intuitive? When navigating these divides in the practical world, through caring for others in pastoral, caregiver and chaplain roles, these binaries rapidly collapse, becoming no longer helpful. Answering difficult questions about the world and comforting people in a time of need requires the best wisdom from both religion and science. Sometimes this means approaching knowledge with a different disposition than you might expect.
As part of Sinai and Synapses’ series “More Light, Less Heat,” Sinai and Synapses Fellow Reverend Zack Jackson and Reverend Casey Bien-Aimé discuss how they have used this flexibility in their work.
Hi. My name is Zack Jackson. I am a UCC pastor in Reading, Pennsylvania and one of the Sinai and Synapses fellows. And this is going to be a short video, so I will spare you my entire life story, and just start by saying that I never expected to be here as a pastor. It’s not that I don’t respect clergy, it’s just that I never thought I’d be a very good one.
You see, growing up, I always saw pastors and religious leaders as people who had all the answers, and the rest of us as people who had all the questions. And the people with questions would go to the people with the answers, and they’d get the answers that they needed. But I never found any answers. I just had questions, and doubts upon doubts upon doubts upon doubts. I have the mind of a skeptic, the heart of a scientist. I have a hard time taking easy answers, and questions were not always encouraged in the religious upbringing that I was brought up in. I remember one time that my pastor said from pulpit that the only reason that a person would have to believe in evolution would be if they didn’t believe that God was able to create the world, and the universe, in six days. So that was what I had. You either have doubts or you have faith. It’s all or it’s nothing. And that’s it.
So when I felt called by God to go into ministry, I approached it the way you might expect a scientist to. I went to college and I majored in ancient languages so that I could get at the “source code” of my faith and, you know what I found – deep in the Greek, in the Hebrew, and all of the cultural contexts and the programming language of the Bible as it were? you know what I found deep down inside? Questions. So many questions. And the people who were teaching me, who were supposed to have the answers that I was then supposed to give to my people, well, they had even more questions. They had better informed questions, but more questions nonetheless. It was like every answer we got just sprouted two more questions. It was like the mythical Hydra. And every time you chopped off a head, two more would pop out.
So I fought this call to pastoral ministry, because people come to their pastors for answers, for comfort, not for more complicated questions, or an affirmation of their doubts.
Religious leaders aren’t supposed to have doubts, right? Well, can I tell you a little secret? You promise not to tell anyone? – this is just between you and I. I’ve been doing this whole pastor thing for the past five years. And I’ve come in contact with a lot of clergypeople. And they all have doubts too. They all have questions. They all have problems with their faith. Some of them have really big doubts, but most of them don’t feel comfortable sharing them or exploring them openly, for fear that they might appear weak in their faith. But friends, doubt is not the opposite of faith. It is the engine of faith. And if we in the religious community could learn how to doubt effectively, like those in the scientific community, then, I think, we would be so much better off.
I remember reading a blog post a couple years back from Stephen Wolfram, and this was right after scientists at CERN discovered what they were pretty sure was the Higgs Boson particle. And you might expect him to be excited and enthusiastic about this discovery, but really he was disappointed. See, the Higgs behaved exactly as the standard model predicted, which meant that there were no loose ends to tie, there were no leads to follow, there were no interesting questions to ask. It was an answer – a long sought-after answer – but it was also a dead end.
And at its best, science is a methodology that cherishes uncertainty, that celebrates good questions, that rejoices in doubt. Scientists hold on to their knowledge loosely, knowing that new data or a better hypothesis could upend the whole thing.
And I wonder, if we in the religious community could hold our beliefs in the same way – what if, instead of treating them like dead ends to absolute truth, we held them loosely, saw our beliefs as interesting questions that could lead us closer to an infinite God?
Psalm 19 says “Your word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my pathway.” And what if we could just let it be that: a light to illuminate the next couple of steps, to lead us deeper into the mystery, without ever having to expose the whole thing?
That’s the sort of faith that I can get behind. The kind of faith that could get me excited about getting up in the morning and following my calling. The kind of faith that I hope to be able to emulate to fellow seekers in my role as a pastor, and the kind of faith that my good friend Casey is living out in her call as a chaplain, as a hospital chaplain to those who are sick and suffering, and who have the most pressing questions. And you can watch her video in the description down there. There’ll be a link. So let’s keep seeking, friends. Let’s keep asking good questions. And let’s hold onto our beliefs loosely as we dig deeper into this infinite mystery that we call God.
My name is Casey Bien-Aimé, and I’m a hospital chaplain. When somebody sees the chaplain coming, they often think “bad news.” I get called “the angel of death,” “the Grim Reaper,” or worse yet, I don’t get called at all, because people have some preconceived notion of what my role is and how religious I’ll be. My role, when done right, is not just embracing religion, but instead mixing together religion, research, science and spirituality.
If you’ve read The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, you may recall Covey’s quadrants – four boxes that describe the types of issues we deal with day-to-day. As a chaplain, I live in Quadrant 1. Everything is urgent, and important. The trauma is coming, a patient is covering, someone just dying and there’s a family member literally on the floor crying. I’m always running from page to page, and I’m often doing the things that people expect from a chaplain. Prayer, ritual and grief counseling. In the most chaotic moments, I’m doing the most routine practices, but to be a better chaplain I need to embrace Quadrant Two. I’m still going to respond to all those urgent pages and do all the things that people expect, but to move from spiritual care to spiritual health, I need to move to the important but non-urgent.
This is where science meets spirituality. Here I want to do research. I dream of big research projects that help experiment with what brings resilience to those most in danger of burning out. Music, art, meditation – we have so many rich experiences in our places of worship, but in the fast-paced world of the hospital, our staff don’t have time for four worship songs, a 20 minute sermon, and an hour of fellowship. We need to do research to find the most effective ways to heal the soul when all we see are wounds.
When I think of my heroes, I think of Christina Puchalski and the work she’s done. Countless studies on interventions for medical personnel, like creating reflective rounds for 30-year medical students wrestling with compassion fatigue, or of Jonathan Bartels, who did a study on the pause, a moment of reflection and silence after a patient’s death. His study has been replicated around the country and has realized a practice to help staff feel grounded and able to move on to the next patient after they experience trauma.
These giants in the world of spirituality and health might make it seem like research is too big for just me or for my department or my congregation. But each of us can marry spirituality and science in our lives. When we treat these two ideas as friends and not sworn enemies, we can live a spiritually healthy life.
Recently I sat down with an anxious man in the ICU. He was facing a major surgery in a few weeks, and he was stuck in the hospital until then. He was being offered the chaplain, and he immediately turned me away. He said to me, “I was raised Catholic and that stuff doesn’t work for me”. But after a week of anxiety, he thought, “what the heck, I’ll try it. I’ll try anything.”
And so I came in with my tool box: I came in with tools, with coloring books, silent meditation, guided meditation. I came in with essential oils, music, YouTube clips, centering prayer, and techniques based in spirituality. He had a new journal, some sacred text poetry, and all sorts of readings.
We did an experiment with a sample size of one. We held each practice gently. When something worked, we kept it, and looked for more things like it. When it didn’t and we put it away and asked why it fell flat. These are basic concepts in the scientific method, but it allowed us to journey together towards better spiritual health. He incorporated some of these practices in his day to day, he threw some of them out, and he got coloring books from his friends.
Sometimes we can get stuck in the idea that science is intense and intellectual and religion is rigid, but when we bring the two together, when we let them move together and create space we’re going to see if to try and fail, to reach failure, is actually giving us hope for something new. The experiment is the journey, the journey is the healing, and in that healing, there is hope. Science and spirituality, religion and research, when we use these well and we use them together, we can give ourselves space to find greater wholeness and give others permission to do the same.