Here’s what I’d like to hear when I tell friends and others that I bring science to church—“Wow! That’s amazing.”
And yet—to be honest—here is what I often hear—“What? Hmm… I’m not sure what that means.”
Why the disconnect? The language of science, to many, seems “objective,” “heady,” and therefore distant. People don’t see the practical ways that science can contribute to our spiritual growth. (This disconnect may also be rooted in terrible experiences with math or chemistry in junior high.)
Our language needs to be personal. Likewise, our spiritual life should make a tangible difference in our lives. As Deuteronomy puts it, God’s Word cannot be distant, but close, for it to have power: “The word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe” (30:14).
In her brand-new book, The Awakened Brain: The New Science of Spirituality and Our Quest for an Inspired Life, Columbia University professor of clinical psychology Lisa Miller describes why we need to move from external “religion” to a more personally appropriated “spirituality.” She offers this working definition of spirituality, which certainly incorporates Christian spiritual life: “It includes a deeply felt and perceived connection with a higher power or a sacred world—a sense of engagement and relationship, such as asking God or Source for guidance in times of struggle.”
Specifically, Dr. Miller found that spirituality often emerges from depression. “And for those who were highly spiritual and had gone through major depression in the past, the protective benefit of spirituality against a recurrence of depression was… a striking 90 percent.” More broadly, the kind of spirituality she’s researched leads us to experience a profound connection to the world around us and to a fully alive “awakened brain.”
When spirituality meets science, it can be powerful. Below I offer three specific and potent connections between science and spirituality that I’ve discovered: forgiveness, meditation, and generosity. I particularly highlight these because they’ve landed with the congregations I’ve served as pastor and because we’ve touched on these themes in past newsletters.
- Here’s Lisa Miller’s TED talk, “Depression and spiritual awakening—two sides of one door.”
- I tried my hand at connecting science and spirituality in my TEDx talk.
- Big Think summarized how meditation changes our brains for good.
- Feel free to adapt these PowerPoint slides, “Letting Go, Taking Time Out, Opening Our Hands,” for a spiritual growth class at your church.
- Here’s Ed Worthington and his REACH model for forgiveness.
Three Places Where Spirituality and Science Meet
The first connection between science and spirituality represents one of Jesus’s key priorities, and so I start there: forgiveness, which I associate with the phrase “letting go.”
Jesus figured that letting go of others’ sins and not seeking to exact revenge was critical. Indeed he said so in the Lord’s Prayer and then added, “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you” (Matthew 6:14).
Psychologist Everett Worthington, whom we’ve cited before, is worth highlighting again. He’s done some of the most extensive research on the topic, which is summarized in the REACH model (Recall the hurt. Empathize. Altruistic gift. Commit to forgive publicly. Hold onto forgiveness.) He introduces the science that supports the idea that forgiveness is entirely possible, and offers this summary of what it means: “The forgiving person becomes less motivated to retaliate against someone who offended him or her and less motivated to remain estranged from that person. Instead, he or she becomes more motivated by feelings of goodwill, despite the offender’s hurtful actions. In a close relationship, we hope, forgiveness will not only move us past negative emotions, but move us toward a net positive feeling. It doesn’t mean forgetting or pardoning an offense.”
The second intersection, which is also central to Lisa Miller’s research into an awakened mind, is meditation, or “taking time out.”
As Isaiah 26:3 describes so beautifully, “You will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast, because they trust in you.” Drew wrote in a previous newsletter, “rewire your brain.” Amen, Brother Rick-Miller! Yes, God can do some amazing work through meditation. In fact, the science of meditation is well-studied and can be summarized: Overall, meditation leads to reduced stress, better concentration, better attention, reduced memory loss, increased attention span… and the list goes on.
The third meeting place is generosity or “opening our hands.” I love the clarity of Proverbs 11:24-25: “One person gives freely, yet gains even more; another withholds unduly, but comes to poverty. A generous person will prosper; whoever refreshes others will be refreshed.”
There’s so much to unfold here that I’ll let the Chicago Tribune provide a summary: “The benefits of giving are significant, according to those studies: lower blood pressure, lower risk of dementia, less anxiety and depression, reduced cardiovascular risk, and overall greater happiness.” As Stanford Graduate School of Business professor Frank Flynn writes, this isn’t a prosperity gospel or just being “happy”—it’s really about finding a “meaningful life.”
How’s that for three practical connections? We hope you’ll find this brief introduction useful as a discussion starter. As noted above, you’re welcome to adapt my PowerPoint slides on the topic for a spiritual growth class at your church.
Let me close with a final thought. On behalf of the Science for the Church team, I want to thank you for subscribing to this newsletter. Donating to Science for the Church is one of the best ways to help keep fruitful conversation about spirituality and science integration alive. We’re grateful that yours is one of the congregations in our network that’s bringing science to church.