“For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” — 1 Corinthians 13:12, NIV translation
OK, as a liberal Reform rabbi, I’m not usually in the habit of quoting the New Testament. But having just spent several days at the BioLogos conference hearing about Christian theology and science, that’s the verse that captured my experience.
BioLogos is an organization founded by Dr. Francis Collins, sequencer of the human genome, director of the National Institute of Health… and devout Christian. He had written the book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, and wanted to show Christians that science (especially the concept of evolution) didn’t need to be a threat to their faith — and that it could even enhance it.
Last week, they held a conference in Baltimore with almost 400 attendees, and I was there to present with Dr. Praveen Sethupathy and David Buller on “Science in the Interfaith World,” with a focus on the Sinai and Synapses Fellowship. While the conference’s focus and target audience were predominantly Christian, to their enormous credit, when I pitched the idea of this session, the leadership of BioLogos believed that conversations across religious lines would be both instructive and valuable. So with my kipah on, I was ready to be a bit of a stranger in a strange land.
As I listened to the keynotes, workshops and talks, I noticed that in many ways, Sinai and Synapses is the mirror image of BioLogos (though their footprint is much larger!). Indeed, from a theological and sociological perspective, our challenges and their challenges seem to be two sides of the same coin.
What’s the starting point?
BioLogos’ tagline is “God’s Word. God’s World.” Their approach starts with the Bible, and then grapples with how to understand the science in response to it. In contrast, Sinai and Synapses has as its tagline “Scientifically Grounded, Spiritually Uplifting,” because we start with the science and then explore the multiple different religious questions that arise.
But while BioLogos starts with the church, and Sinai and Synapses starts with the science, we actually end up in more or less the same place, dealing with the same kinds of questions: How can we understand the interaction between science and religion? How and why do other people approach them differently? What can a more productive conversation look like?
What struck me is while some of the “live issues” differ (the Jewish community, for example, isn’t so focused on ensuring we teach evolution), others were exactly the same: what should the ethical limits be for genetic engineering? How can we best protect the Earth? What would happen if we were to discover intelligent life on other planets?
Science can actually be the bridge to help us understand and appreciate religious differences. I listened to Dr. Bethany Sollederer talk about the evolutionary basis of pain — and how that helped contextualize the story of Jesus healing the leper in Matthew 8. As she remarked, pain is a marker that we should avoid dangerous behaviors (don’t touch that hot stove!), and so those who lose the ability to feel pain are at a great disadvantage. If leprosy in Matthew 8 is indeed Hansen’s disease, then Jesus’ healing actually restored their ability to feel pain, not take it away — and that was the true blessing.
Was this a story in my tradition? No. Do I now have that story in my toolbox if I speak with more devout Christians? Absolutely.
So it’s fine if we start in totally different places. It’s fine if we don’t always share the same texts, or even the same interpretations of those texts. The question is, can we end up in a place where we can learn from each other?
When Left Is Right and Right is Left
In the Jewish community, in more liberal circles, and in the scientific establishment, a great challenge is often getting people excited about (or at least less resistant to) religion. For BioLogos, a great challenge seems to be the opposite — how can we get people excited about (or at least less resistant to) science? Achieving these goals comes down to both the audience we reach and the audience that’s open to the message.
I feel very comfortable with atheists. I love reading authors like Michael Shermer and Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, and I find that most of my writing and teaching is geared towards an audience that would also appreciate their perspective. I may not agree with these thinkers on the value of religion, but it’s a community where I wouldn’t feel out of place.
Young earth creationists, on the other hand, are people I have really struggled to understand. And that’s why I went to the session “The Fool and the Heretic,” with Dr. Darrel Falk, a senior advisor to BioLogos, and Todd C. Wood, a young earth creationist, who co-wrote a book of the same title. It was moderated by Michael Gulker of The Colossian Forum, which aims to allow the church to truly engage in controversial issues.
Sitting there, I just kept thinking, “Wow — I see most of these attendees as so much farther to the right than I am. And yet there are people who may call BioLogos ‘heretical’ because they are too far left!” At the same time, I realized that if I had gone to the “Reason Rally” in Washington, DC (run by Richard Dawkins) and wore my kipah, they’d think I was much too far right.
Where you stand depends on where you sit. Is BioLogos on the left or on the right? It depends on who’s looking, who’s asking, and who’s listening.
The Adjacent Possible
When it comes to thorny, complicated, controversial subjects, I’ve come to believe that we should embrace the “adjacent possible.”
That’s a phrase comes from science writer Steven Johnson, who notes that “[t]he strange and beautiful truth about the adjacent possible is that its boundaries grow as you explore them. Each new combination opens up the possibility of other new combinations.”
Under most normal circumstances, I wouldn’t be in the same room as a young Earth creationist. But I was comfortable enough with BioLogos that it felt normal, natural and safe to explore challenging questions in their space. And while their views and mine aren’t the same, they are adjacent. Similarly, BioLogos brought in a speaker whose views weren’t the same, but were adjacent, bringing a young earth creationist into the conversation. And so even though we’d never agree on either science or religion, everything was adjacent enough that I could be in a room where I could hear a perspective I never would have heard otherwise.
And under most normal circumstances, I probably wouldn’t be in the same room as, say, Richard Dawkins. But I’ve been comfortable enough on panels with thinkers like Rebecca Newberger Goldstein and Michael Shermer that it felt normal, natural and safe to approach the challenging questions with them. And they’re comfortable enough with people like the “four horsemen of the atheist apocalypse” that, if I were to go to one of their conferences, I could at least hear where they are coming from.
Our world is filled with so many challenges — personally, societally and globally. We have become so siloed, so insulated and live in such echo chambers that it’s becoming harder and harder to hear disparate or dissenting voices with charity, empathy and curiosity. We all have our starting points, our tribes and our audiences, and they are valuable and important. But we also need to push ourselves a bit, and to move into the “adjacent possible.”
So let’s start with the safety of some shared core beliefs. For me, both BioLogos and Sinai and Synapses embrace science, embrace religion, and seek to have a better conversation about their interaction. That allowed me to move out of my comfort zone and hear ideas and perspectives I never would have heard otherwise. The truth is, we can start anywhere, as long as we end in a place of curiosity, humility and a shared sense of humanity.
If we do that, then we can see our own reflection more clearly, and even more important, truly see another person face-to-face.