Science as “The World As It Is,” Religion as “The World It Could Be”

Science as “The World As It Is,” Religion as “The World It Could Be”

There’s a difference between the world as it is and the world as it could be. In many ways, science is the best way we can appreciate “what is,” and religion can help move us towards “what could be.”

Blue Ocean Faith, an association of churches across the country that aims to be “spiritually vibrant, diverse and inclusive,” embraces both sides of that coin. And two of its pastors (one of whom is also a professor of psychiatry) have found that science has truly enhanced their faith. Indeed, the more they understand the world as it is, the more spiritually connected they feel to God and to the world that could be.

As part of Sinai and Synapses’ series “More Light, Less Heat,” Dr. Thomas Wassink and Pastor Ken Wilson talk about how a better understanding of science has made them feel like they are better Christians — and better pastors.

Dr. Thomas Wassink is a Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine, and a faculty member in the University’s Interdisciplinary Graduate Program in Genetics. His medical work comprises a number of activities: 1) providing psychiatric care to veteran’s through an affiliated local VA hospital; 2) pursuing a program of research investigating the genetic basis of mental disorders, particularly schizophrenia and autism; and 3) providing instruction for medical student and residents, with a particular focus on the intersection of religion and mental health. Tom is also a staff pastor of Sanctuary Community Church of Iowa City (Iowa City, IA), a church his wife and he founded in 1999.

In this video, he talks about both faith and science help him sense both the material and the spiritual worlds.

Pastor Ken Wilson is the author of several books, including Mystically Wired: Exploring New Realms in Prayer (Thomas Nelson 2010); and most recently A Letter To My Congregation: An Evangelical Pastor’s Path to Embracing Those Who are Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Into the Company of Jesus (ReadTheSpirit, 2014). Ken was the founding pastor of Vineyard Church of Ann Arbor, served for seven years on the national board of Vineyard USA, and now serves on the Senior Leadership Team of Blue Ocean Faith Church Network.

In this video, he shares how a sabbatical reading about science books helped him connect to God in new ways.


Dr. Thomas Wassink

I was praying yesterday, and I heard God say to me, “stay in the game.” A simple statement, but apt. I was feeling down on myself and discouraged, ready to withdraw from work and effort, at least for the day. But my spirits lifted, and the day went well.

Now I’m a psychiatrist, so I hear the voice of Sigmund Freud telling me that I was just engaging in wish fulfillment, projecting my unconscious desires onto a great big God couch in the sky.

And I’m a brain scientist, so I hear Prozac telling me that all of it—feeling down, whatever magic happens when we meditate, and then feeling better—is just dopamine and serotonin and my morning coffee firing across my synaptic clefts in some indecipherable pattern.

And I’m a geneticist, so I hear Charles Darwin telling me that it’s all just the outcome of primordial slime taking a few (million) years to get itself organized.

But I’m also a person of faith who has been engaging for over 30 years in spiritual practices meant to connect me to something beyond. I read my holy text, close my eyes and pray, sing an ancient song when no one’s listening, and strain spiritually while doing so to perceive God. And sometimes—not always, but often enough—I think I do. I believe I make contact with a being beyond myself and my cosmos comprised of some indescribable stuff who is nonetheless personal and interested.

I may be wrong, and even if I’m right I’m sure my day-to-day perceptions are often off. But they often enough seem on and true and helpful and other than what I would imagine myself making up, and so at this point, I believe. In spite of Sigmund and Prozac and Charles, I believe that there’s something more out there or in here than the material universe, and that I have become a trustworthy perceiver of that something more.

Adding to my comfort with believing, I’m also pretty sure that science has oversold its ability to reliably produce good information about matters spiritual or, for that matter, material. I’m getting ready to submit a research paper to a scientific journal in which I assert that a genetic variant in a calcium channel gene negatively affects cognitive abilities in persons with schizophrenia. What’s remarkable is that I believe my assertions are, in this case, true. Looking back on the research papers I’ve published over the past 20+ years, all of them vetted by peer review, I’m pretty sure that almost all the claims I made in them have turned out to be wrong, false, incorrect, shown by other people’s subsequent data to be not true.

Gladly, I’m not alone in this — a huge portion of scientific papers published in the most prestigious scientific journals in the world (whose metaphorical doorsteps I’ve never even deigned to darken) are either completely non-replicable— so unique in terms of sample and methods that no one will ever be able to either confirm or disprove them—or have been subsequently shown to have been just plain wrong. Compound this with the anti-science voices, often coming at us from religion, who derided Copernicus and then Galileo and I’ve experienced as the bible-thumping young earth intelligent design creationists who eye me suspiciously at pastor’s meetings because I revel in how much evolution informs my human genetic research, and it’s amazing that anything scientific advances at all!

But it does. Just like religion, the scientific enterprise, built on the back of mostly wrong inferences, somehow produces enough right ones to move us forward. I look at my collection of biological data, gathered through physical sensing, describing brains and genes and thoughts, and I perceive a pattern. I do my best to distinguish those patterns that represent my scientific wish fulfillment from those that represent what’s actually the case. And at this point in my development I feel I’ve become a pretty trustworthy interpreter of the physically sensed data that describes our complex material world.

I was reading a post from an awesome website called Bad Astronomy hosted by Phil Plaitt to which my attention had been directed by a fellow Sinai and Synapses fellow, Kat Robinson. Phil, who writes about all things cosmic, was describing yet one more way that we, on this dot of a planet in the midst of the vast universe, had built a detector for some wave or particle and were able to remove the noise from the ridiculously faint signal and were able then to actually make sense of it all.

And I thought—oh! That’s what my experience of spirituality is like! I have all these detectors—reading and meditating and praying and gathering on Sundays with my Very Large Array astronomical observatory faith community turning our detectors all in the same direction together—through which I pick up on and try to make sense of the spiritual signals that God is constantly streaming towards us through the heavens.

So that in the end, the spiritual perceiving and scientific sensing ventures seem to me to be much more alike than different. Neither can make claims to high degrees of accuracy, both require lots of humility, and both must exist within communities of perceivers and sensers and interpreters who, like me, “Stay in the game,” all working together to vet and sort and make sense of the data.

And so at this point, no matter how much the inferences derived from my physical sensing and spiritual perceiving exist in tension with each other, I will not let one silence the other. I trust that they both together will lead me and all of us forward into deeper understanding of our universe, ourselves, and of God.

Pastor Ken Wilson

I had a routine that more or less worked for about 30 years of praying, until it didn’t and I was feeling adrift.

I was battling a mild depression after my father died, and had just completed a successful but draining capital campaign to start a new church in a new location. And I just couldn’t keep up with the mental effort that my particular way of praying required.

So I took my first ever Sabbatical, I took about 10 weeks off to study whatever I wanted to study. And I decided to actually stop reading theology and the non-fiction stuff that I was reading, like business and organizational literature that would help become a more effective pastor of a growing church, and how to think Christianly about this topic or that topic, and to focus for those 10 weeks on reading science. I chose books that pretty much distilled topics like evolution or particle physics and neurobiology for interested lay people.

And what a relief it was, number one, just to get out of the reading rut that I had created for myself, and into a new space. But it also triggered some unexpected and much welcome changes in my praying life. Reading science, it turns out, helped me to relax in a particular way which helped me feel more connected to God.

Don’t get me wrong, the scientific genre (even the books that were aimed at the non-specialist) really kicked my butt in terms of concentration and the effort needed to understand what the others were talking about.  But the aim of the effort was different than my theological reading. The aim was not, “How should things be?” but the aim was, “How are things the way they are? What’s happening around us as we observe non-judgmentally, attentively and thoughtfully?”

So science opened my eyes — it sounds odd to say this — to the wonder of things. I encountered at least as much mystery and paradox and wonder in science as in theology. And I loved, and today still love, reading theology.

Like the notion that once two particles have interacted, once they’ve been paired, they seem to permanently exert an influence each other, such that when they are separated by even vast distances, (theoretically) on the other side of the universe from each other, what happens to one particle has an instantaneous and measurable effect on its previously paired partner. It took a scientist to name it “spooky action at a distance.” How connected must the world be at a deep and mysterious level for that to be so?

Over time, the posture of the scientific mind—a posture of attentive, non-judgmental and curious observation—that helped me to actually look for God’s presence shining in and through the natural world around me, including my own brain.

It sounds kind of cliché but I started paying more attention to the things I could see, touch, taste, smell, and hear. What were all the different shades of green on that stand of trees outside my window? How is the interplay of light and wind shaping my visual landscape today?

I took some time just to look attentively outside, without having any particular thoughts about God. I found myself, in those times of attentive and non-judgmental and curious observation, just relaxing into what I can only understand to be a transcendent reality beyond my ken and understanding.

I started practicing some of the prayer methods of contemplative Catholic nuns who were being studied and written about by cognitive scientists at the University of Pennsylvania, who hooked the meditating nuns up to some equipment that was measuring blood flow to different regions of the praying brai. The description of what went on in the brains of the meditating nuns while they were meditating helped me to realize that number one, they are having a measurably altered experience of the world around them. Something really is going in their brains. They’re not just making it up.

And then I thought, “Oh. I can try that too.  can pray the way they are praying. And it might be fun to see what might happen.” And when I did, I experienced some of the same effects that the nuns reported. Good effects. Feeling less of a separate sense of being a self and more of a sense of connection with things I previously thought of as “not me.”  Concentrating for a period of time on one thing with the frontal lobe, and returning to that focus when my mind wandered over and over. And that deafferenting or decreasing the stimulation to the parietal orientation and association part of my brain, which is responsible (when it’s activated) of giving us a very separate sense of the self as compared with the world around us. I had more of a unitive experience, and it was beautiful and it was wonderful, and I felt more connected to the divine.

So now when I’m feeling a little spiritually dry, a little bored, a little in the middle of going through the motions with God, I go to my science bookshelf and pick out something to read. And get my mind off myself and whatever my brain has been grinding away at, to spend some time with that scientific posture of curious attention of non-judgmental, curious attention to “what is.”  And I find that when I do, I often feel more connected, more grateful, more open to the wonder of the wonderful world quietly awaiting my attention.



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