What do seeing oneself as a part of nature and seeing oneself as part of a massive demonstration have in common? And just as language helps us find connection, what does it mean to experience awe and how can it help us find common ground?
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.”
Hello and welcome to the second part of a two part series of podcasts recorded at the February 27th team 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 models for a productive conversation surrounding these areas. They’re dedicated to exploring their own stories, their own commitments, their own doubts, and are also dedicated to learning about and from other people’s journeys.
For the conclusion of this conversation, I am joined by three colleagues from the fellowship, Rabbi David Levy, Rabbi of Temple Shalom in Succasunna, New Jersey, Sara Gottlieb, a graduate student in psychology at the University of California Berkeley, and Megan Cuzzolino, a doctoral student studying Human Development at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. We welcome you into this conversation.
Kat Robison: Hi, I’m Kat Robison, and I’m here with more colleagues from the Sinai and Synapses fellowship. We are in the midst of one of our meetings, where we’ve been talking about how religious and scientific ideals impact our language. I’m here today with David Levy, Sarah Gottlieb, and Megan Cuzzolino, and we want to continue the conversation from our last podcast with some of our other colleagues, but we were talking about awe and wonder and David, you had a wonderful story that you were sharing with us earlier about this.
David Levy: So a few years ago, when I was faculty at a summer camp, I was working with a bunch of teens, talking about the nexus between ecology and religion, and we went outside and did a walking meditation that ended up at a very large old oak tree. And I asked the young people to vision that their feet were as rooted in the ground as the roots of the tree, and to place their hands on the trunk, and feel the strength of the trunk, and raise their eyes up to the leaves and see the tree stretching up into the heavens. And afterwards one of the young people said, as we were talking about what did you feel and how did you connect, one of the young people said “as I was looking up I saw the beams of sunlight coming between the leaves and enveloping the tree and enveloping me and enveloping the earth, and I felt God’s presence.” And that was a moment of, kind of true awe, for not just that young person but all of us who were listening to.
Sara Gottlieb: So what’s one thing that really struck me about what you said is this idea of being surrounded in nature and by something that may be greater than yourself, large, and that could be there metaphorically or physically, so in this case be surrounded by tall trees, looking up, being surrounded by the wonder of nature, and that a canonical awe experience as it’s defined scientifically, so theory has it that you experience awe when you’re surrounded by something that’s physically or metaphorically great, so like nature, but something that also is just kind of mind blowing, and you have to revise what you know about the world, it’s called accommodation. So, in this case it’s hard to just really comprehend, maybe, like the limits of the universe when you look into space or something, and you have to revise what you know about the world in order to make sense of this new stimulus. And for the student, which is really beautiful, he felt God in that presence. He felt part of something larger than himself, perhaps call that God’s presence, but one thing that I think is really important about awe is that it doesn’t necessarily always need to be filled by religion in that case. So for a lot of people I think they feel that science makes them feel that they’re in the presence of something greater, where they feel the presence of some scientific or natural power as the world’s.
Kat Robison: Megan, I know this is something you are interested in as well?
Megan Cuzzolino: Yes, so as somebody who is a former science teacher and studies education, something that I’m really thinking about is how you take those experiences and leverage them for further understanding or transfer. So it strikes me, David, as you’re telling your story, that this is a group of students, and they were there together, and presumably would have a chance to reflect on that experience, and that you as a facilitator could be there to notice that experience and take advantage of it as a learning opportunity for the students. And when you think about teachers in a lot of traditional learning contexts, that opportunity is so easily missed because you’re trying to get through the day, get through the curriculum, you have all of these goals, and you can’t just stand there with your hands on a tree and have that awe experience and then use it – “what do we learn from this and what are we going to take with us from this?”
So I’m wondering what you did with that in that moment, and how you use that – the luxury of time, and the flexibility that you had in that experience, to make something of it.
David Levy: Sure, so the beauty of a moment like this is that after they’ve had that time of meditation and discernment, that we can sit together and say, “So what does this mean for us?” and where, for one young person, it meant he felt like part of something greater, that he identified as being part of God’s creation. For some of the other young people they then connected it further, saying, “because I’m part of something greater, I have a responsibility to take care of that thing that is greater than me.” And we actually took it back to some of the text we had been studying in which, in the Bible, it tells us that we were commanded as human beings to care for and tend to the earth. And they took this sense of how awesome it was to be in touch with the tree and in touch with nature, and to realize that there’s a fragility to it, even as there’s a greatness to it. And that their part of this ecosystem was to be a protector, a tiller, a tender. So yes, these informal moments, when you grab them, can have incredible power that – whose ripples go far outside simply the moment of looking at a tree, into the moment of “where is our place in the universe? Where is our place on the earth? And how can we use our abilities to make a difference in that place?”
Kat Robison: This is – I’m listening to you, and so much when I think of awe and wonder, I think of natural phenomena, but I’m sitting here, and out the window, we’re in New York City, and I’m hearing all these car horns, and I’m just thinking, I love being in the city because I feel so connected to everyone around me, and it’s so easy to walk and get anything. And then Megan, you’re talking about these teachable moments, and you’re talking about how we process this, Sara, and I thinking, like, even just in this moment right here, I’m sitting in a room with people I admire and respect, and I’m hearing humanity outside the window, and in this moment I’m feeling that sense of, “wow, I’m here,” and how do I describe that, and how does how does science inform that, how does religion inform that.
David Levy: There’s a beautiful sense, within everything we’ve been talking about, of the deep interconnections that we all have as members of humanity. And I think especially in this time, where there’s so much division in our society, to be able to look at things greater than ourselves and name them through science, and name them through education, and name them through religion, and see that in that naming, we’re all tied together in a common humanity, that has a power, I think, gives us a powerful antidote to some of the divisiveness and divisions that we feel in this day.
Sara Gottlieb: Yeah, I really agree with that. I think the feeling of shared humanity is incredibly powerful, one of the most powerful things that we can feel as humans, and I also think in a lot of cases gives rise to feelings of awe, so, for example the most incredible awe experience I remember having in many recent years, which happened to be two weeks ago, was at the Women’s March. And the sense of shared experience and camaraderie with everybody – I don’t know those of you who were there, if you two were there – but the openness that everybody had with the people surrounding them and the stories that were shared was really inspiring to me.
Megan Cuzzolino: Something that’s making me think of, I was at the women’s march in Boston and felt a similar experience to what you’re describing. And as you were talking, Sara, about the definition of awe in the psychology literature, and the idea of vastness, that it can be vastness in a lot of different forms, the women’s march, I think ,is a nice example of a couple different forms. So there’s vastness just in number, just the sheer number of people, that I was standing on one side of Boston Common and couldn’t even see where the crowd ended because it extended so far into the city, but also vastness – I felt connection in terms of time, thinking about prior marches or rallies and these historical moments. There’s a lot of talk right now about know if you were sitting – all those times you sat in your history class in elementary school or high school and said “well, if I had been there here’s what I would have done,” now is our chance, we’re in it now and feeling that connection to history of prior moments like that and thinking ahead to the future and how will people write about this time and being part of it, so there’s this vastness of time.
And then I also think vastness of complexity or diversity, thinking about who was there in that space and I was sharing it, not just with this really diverse group who were there for lots of different reasons, with lots of different backgrounds, and just seeing it in no other case. You know, you’re walking through the streets of New York City, as we all did today to get here, and you’re surrounded by that diverse humanity, but to all be purposefully in the same place in that vastness of diversity that was all there for something shared, I think was a really powerful experience.
David Levy: You know, what really touched me was the generational nature of the marches everywhere. I happened to actually be down in Sarasota, Florida at the time, figuring, “Well, there’s no march going on here,” and then there were hundreds of people going across the bridge towards Longboat Key. I mean, this was everywhere in the country, where people could gather to march, it was happening, which I think was unlike any march before. But the thing that truly hit me is as I saw the pictures from everywhere, the vast generational nature, from very youngest to most elder, that were gathered together, and I had an interesting conversation with my daughter, who’s a college senior right now, about this, and I said, “I remember pushing you in a stroller at the Women’s March for Reproductive Choice in Washington ages ago” and I was having that moment of thinking, all of those people, all of us who are pushing our kids in strollers at that march, our children were now the bulk of those who were marching. And on the one hand we’re sad that we have to continue marching, and on the other hand, what awe do you have that every generation stands up for itself because they learned it from the previous generation. And that is as awe-inspiring as any anything I can think of.
Kat Robison: And it’s continuing, you know, we spoke earlier these protests at airports that are just spontaneous where people are coming out to say this is the shared vision we have of what our country should be, and with the women’s March it wasn’t just in America, it was all over the world, women were gathering, and with this travel ban, the Muslim ban. Looking I have friends contacting me from overseas, saying “thank you that your country shows us that you’re not represented by one person, that you can be greater than division and greater than divisiveness.” And I think the sense of awe and wonder helps us to overcome something that maybe become divisive. And that’s what I’m hearing from all of you.
Sara Gottlieb: Yeah, I think that those those feelings of shared humanity and awe and inspiration that you gather from the crowds, I think that those can really lead to firing up for social change. I think they’re incredible motivators. I don’t know about people in your networks, but I feel like everybody that I was at the march with just felt really, really ready to fight after that, and I guess it’s my hope that those feelings to stay involved and to, you know, focus on what we share, that those won’t dissipate immediately.
When I went to the protests at S.F.O., there was a brass band playing and everybody was dancing around, and it went all night, and the protest almost got violent at one point, with people trying to, I don’t know, provoke the police officers, and then the band came in and everybody started singing and dancing in a circle, and it just turned so peaceful again. It was incredible.
Kat Robison: So what ways has either your scientific training, or your love for science, or your religious background, shaped the ways in which you are approaching this conversation now that’s happening in our country?
David Levy: You know, I think both science and religion seek to find eternal truths. And I think when you’re living in a time when there are those who would seek to subvert truth for other reasons, or would seek to live in a world where alternative facts become alternative realities, that being deeply infused by both the scientific quest for truth and the religious quest for truth – which more often than not, in my mind, share the same pathways – really becomes the antidote to that, really becomes our hope for the future. Our hope for the future in education, our hope for the future in scientific endeavor, our hope for the future in the religious world, and our hope for the future in the world as a whole, all comes from our being able to share together in a search for a common truth that will raise us up in our common humanity.
Kat Robison: And that’s the truth that doesn’t rely on faith. Anyone can access that, you know, whether or not you have a religious faith, and especially the millennial generation, there’s a large rise of of religious nuns, people who may not identify with any organized religion, but they’re no less faithful than other religions, you know, through, well you know this through social science research –
David Levy: They’re deeply spiritual.
Kat Robison: Yes, very deeply spiritual. So for younger people, perhaps the question we also need to ask is “What lessons can our spirituality teach us about how we go forth in the world?”
Megan Cuzzolino: It’s making me – I’m seeing scientists engage politically in a way that I’ve never seen before. And I think the idea of science as political – not as partisan, which I think is the danger – but as political and as, you know, conducting science as a political act, and that revealing truth, and appreciating evidence and relying on evidence, and the open-mindedness that by necessity comes with that, that when you follow evidence you have to change your mind, I think these ideals that are being held up, where scientists are now leading the charge in a way that I think previously the profession, in an attempt to express a lack of bias, has really held back from the political sphere.
I’m blown away by the vocal nature of scientists that I know, and also as somebody in education, an education researcher, my colleagues are getting vocal in a way that I’ve never seen them before, about just the importance of learning and being able to suss out the truth and learning how to learn, and how important that is for students, that I think one thing that’s exciting about this time is that we may hear from new voices. And I think both science and religion are fields, or domains, where there’s real opportunities for new voices to be heard and to engage.
Sara Gottlieb: I think it’s a really important time in our country to focus on a real deep understanding of the scientific method, and what science is, and I think that this is something about which people have a lot of misconceptions, and can sometimes lead to a public distrust of science, but I think at the core of it, what scientists are doing, and what is so important for scientists to stress these days, is that to conduct science is not to reveal an ultimate truth that rules out any other truth, or alternate truth, or some sort of contradicting fact. Science intrinsically requires a great deal of humility and ability to revise previous conclusions in the face of new evidence, to admit that we were wrong, that what we knew years ago with technology that we didn’t have, but that we have today, was perhaps wrong, and that we have to revise what we know. And that science is that out revealing the true states of the world despite what we want those true states to be, and that a censorship of facts, or what we reveal to be the most likely facts, is really antithetical to the core of the scientific enterprise.
David Levy: What I’m loving is that I’m hearing, in recent times, a – and I’m loving this as a religious leader – hearing among those in the world of science and those in the world of education a recapturing of the idea that values and, in a sense, morals of a certain have an impact on doing the work that you are doing in a way that was, I think, ignored in times past, that there is this sense of, we have a lesson to teach from our various streams of values that can make this world better for all of us. Values of humility, values of being able to live between failure and success and having that be a wonderful thing, values of caring for each other and caring for our diversity, and, you know, at times people really thought those things came just from religion or came from a combination of religion and education, and what’s really beautiful as working scientists come out now and say no, science teaches this too, and in a sense that’s what I was talking about earlier about truth. That’s the real truth that seems to come out of this, is from all of these streams together, we create something better than any of us create separately.
Kat Robison: So as we seek to wrap up this conversation, and wrap up our fellowship meaning for today – Sinai and Synapses is a fellowship where we bring together fellows from diverse walks of life. We have clergy, we have educators, we have scientists. Where do you want to see us go from here, or what are you taking home today from this conversation that we can leave with our listeners to help them spread their own conversations?
Megan Cuzzolino: I think, going back to the conversation we started with, about awe and leveraging those moments – noticing them, taking advantage of them, and recalling them. I think that we are in a place where it can be very easy to feel despair right now, but there’s still opportunities to see light coming through the leaves and notice that, and feel inspired by it, and do something about it, whether that’s just, take a moment of self care because you’ve seen something beautiful, or whether it reminds you that you are part of an ecological system and you need to care for it. So I think both as an individual and as someone who works with teachers, I hope to encourage that noticing and leveraging of awe as a teaching tool, that even when we feel like it’s not possible, that we’ve come together just in recent weeks, in moments that have arisen from despair, and we’ve created awe-inspiring moments from those like the Women’s March. And there are still opportunities to use those experiences to trigger feelings of awe that we can do something with, and using awe as a call to action, is something that I hope to carry forward in my own work.
Sara Gottlieb: Something that I’d really like to take out of this, as perhaps some public outreach on helping people, children and adults, better understand what science is and the lessons that science can teach us, that science is not necessarily antithetical to religion, it’s not necessarily a partisan issue, that there are many virtues that can come from practicing science, like any empirical method that relies on hypothesis, testing and evaluations and gathering data, is something that people use in their everyday lives. It’s something that children use, a method that children use in just learning about the world, acting upon the world to learn about it as they grow and learn the meanings of things. It’s just very integral to what we do every day as people, and I hope that a broader definition of what science is will make it seem – I think, less of an enemy to some people.
David Levy: So, we gathered together to talk about language. But what I’m taking away from this is something that kind of transcends language, which is how much, even in all our diversity, even in all our differences, how much more similar and how much more deeply connected we are at our core of who we are, you know, at our core of being. And I walk away from this hoping that we can take this nexus of scientific understanding, religious understanding, educational understanding, and build that connectedness even further, and build that sense of oneness even further, because that just really feels more like what we need at this time than anything else – is a sense of shared oneness among all of us that can transcend any of the division, any of the divisiveness, and build us into something much better than we came in with.
Kat Robison: I think that’s a beautiful sentiment, David, with which to leave this conversation, and we have that all of our listeners are able to connect with what we spoke about here, and to take some lessons home and take them to your community. So once again thank you very much to David, Sarah, and Megan for joining me in this conversation. And thank you for all listening.
This podcast was made possible by the Sinai and Synapses 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 and your own communities.