The Benefits of a Messy Christianity

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Every semester, in the Science and Religion course I teach at Chico State University, I give my students a reasonably straightforward assignment: “Write an essay on how Buddhism (or Hinduism) and Christianity relate to the sciences. Is one more compatible than the other?” Knowing the variety of thoughtful perspectives my students have engaged with throughout the semester, I expect a stunning variety of answers. But I am continually surprised to see that something like 90% of them respond with: “Buddhism is more compatible with science than Christianity.” Their reasons? “Buddhism is about spiritual life, not religion.” “Buddhism is mind science.” And of course, “Christianity teaches that the world was created in six days.”

This bothers me for at least three reasons: First, they are primarily referencing Buddhist modernism or “minimalist Buddhism,” which is in lock step with their proclivity to be Spiritual But Not Religious (SBNR). Second, this kind of spirituality hardly makes any claims on science, which produces an interaction with science that’s too tidy. Third, it’s way too neat to be an actual religious tradition.

“Messy” Christianity and Science

I’ll explain why minimalist Buddhism doesn’t represent the full array of the Buddhist tradition in a moment, but first an analogy. A few years back, Mike Yaconelli spoke to our church men’s group about his book, Messy Spirituality: God’s Annoying Love for Imperfect People. If you’ve lived as a Christian for any period of time, you know that all pat truisms eventually fall apart. Instead, faith is messy, and we’re imperfect. The book’s back cover blurb summarizes the benefits of admitting these facts: “Yaconelli dares to suggest that imperfection, unfinishedness, and messiness are, in fact, the earmarks of true Christianity; that real Christianity is messy, erratic, lopsided… and gloriously liberating.”

Connecting real, messy Christianity with science can also be gloriously liberating. (Science is messy too, but that’s a topic for another day.) This interaction can never be this neat. But to admit it is liberation. In a previous newsletter, Drew highlighted how Christianity is integral to the rise of the Scientific Revolution. He also noted that the relationship of Christianity with science is deeply complex (and shared an insightful paper by historian Peter Harrison). That’s what makes bringing science to our churches exciting and why, as Christian leaders, we serve them well by doing so.

  • David McMahan’s The Making of Buddhist Modernism presents impeccable scholarship on this fascinating topic.
  • In this article, religion scholar Stephen Prothero notes the limitations of minimalist Buddhism.
  • And here I comment on how Buddhist modernism is a form of apologetics.
  • Similarly, Ron Purser and Zen teacher David Loy have penned “Beyond McMindfulness.”
  • I unfold the related concept of iPod Spirituality vs. LP Religion here.

The Payoff

Now for an explanation of Buddhist modernism.

I happily affirm that Buddhist-inspired Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Christian faith are compatible, as we concluded in a three-year study at the last church I pastored. And yet, even some of my favorite modern Buddhist writers—such as Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama—often present this limited form of Buddhism, which is seen to be particularly compatible with science. This variety, which David McMahan says emerged in the 19th century in response to various cultural forces, frequently presents itself as “mind science,” especially based on mindfulness meditation.

I’m certainly not denigrating Buddhism, but highlighting the limits of the version that speaks to the growing SBNR population (one of the largest contingents of the U.S.) who frequently tell me, “I want spirituality, not religion.” The problem is that this kind of spirituality generally has little to say to science. It’s “separate but equal,” which really means segregated to one small part of us—our inner life. Minimalistic spirituality has minimal interaction with science.

Let me simply offer three vectors for how this guides our work in the church.

First, as Christian leaders, we must avoid the desire to create a minimalist Christianity. Instead we should present an expansive and even messy kind of faith, which means, for example, we can demonstrate why it’s exciting to see how God created the universe in 13.8 billion years and how this reality enhances the narrative of creation in Genesis. Work like this takes time, which is why we at Science for the Church strive to present a science-engaged Christianity week after week in this newsletter and in everything we do.

Second, since we confess that God created this beautiful, glorious world, we know our faith is not simply an internal spiritual experience, but that it also proclaims profound truth about the natural world, which science helps us to understand. Check out our resource collections on topics that range from Health and Well-Being, Race and Science, Psychology and Neuroscience, and Creation Care (to name just four).

Finally, as Nobel Laureate physicist Ernest Walton has said so well: this is ultimately an act of praise, “One way to learn the mind of the Creator is to study His creation. We must pay God the compliment of studying His work of art and this should apply to all realms of human thought.”

We can bring the questions and insights of science to church and admit that sometimes, yes, the interaction is messy. But the payoff is great. This kind of Christianity is not sequestered and limited, but expansive and beautiful because it speaks of the God who fills not just our inner lives, but also the entire universe.


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