- Scientific Religion?
- Was Christ fully human in utero?
- “Public Reason” is, ironically, sectarian.
- Impotent President, Impotent Citizens.
- Death seizes the doctor.
“Forgiveness means giving up all hope of a better past.”
I’m going to make a prejudicial comment: There’s more wisdom in that pithy summary (from the improbable theologian Lilly Tomlin) than in all the data shared at the “Spiritual Progress and Human Flourishing” conference held recently at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, noted by the John Templeton Foundation Tuesday:
New Signs of Spiritual Progress
We are witnessing a quiet revolution in research on human flourishing, the study of how people develop character and grow personally. Developments in the field were assessed at the “Spiritual Progress and Human Flourishing” conference held recently at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. As part of the events marking the centenary of the birth of Sir John, and sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation (JTF), the conference brought together leading researchers in fields as diverse as forgiveness and cosmology, gratitude and unlimited love.
Research on forgiveness and gratitude, for example, is currently burgeoning. By some measures, it has increased over tenfold in the last 15 years. Forgiveness and gratitude are now also frequently talked about in the media and public sphere as key spiritual virtues for human flourishing.
“The JTF funding initiative for research on forgiveness changed the scientific landscape by equipping scientists to study and document the psychological, physical, and relational dimensions of forgiveness,” reported Charlotte vanOyen Witvliet, professor of psychology at Hope College, Michigan. An unprecedented dialogue between theologians, philosophers, psychologists, clergy, and counselors has begun, and perceptions of forgiveness are changing. Forgiveness is being taken as a sign of strength, not weakness, and it is no longer seen primarily as a virtue for religious people.
Progress in the science of gratitude has accelerated in the past decade, too.Robert Emmons, professor of psychology at University of California, Davis, confirmed that the evidence is building to show that a practice of gratitude—a universal religious emotion—has psychological benefits, sustains physical well–being, and feeds human relationships. There is particularly exciting work to be done on gratitude and social morality, as it fosters civic involvement and philanthropy. “The research has rescued the timeless virtue of gratitude from obsolescence and has verified ancient scriptural teachings on this fundamental source of human strength,” Emmons added, noting that Sir John wrote, “Thanksgiving opens the door to spiritual growth.”
Work on happiness and spirituality is important, too, continued David Myers, professor of psychology, also at Hope College. A Gallup survey of adult Americans showed that over 60% of individuals with a high spiritual commitment described themselves as very happy, compared with only about a quarter of those with low spiritual commitment.
This result chimes with the research of Matthew Lee, associate professor of sociology, University of Akron, Ohio. His field of study is the experience of unlimited love, which is defined as love of an enduring, unconditional, and exceptionless quality. Research carried out by the Flame of Love Project, funded by JTF and involving 1,200 randomly selected Americans, shows that 83% “feel God’s love increasing their compassion for others.” But does religious commitment cause happiness, or are religious people happier anyway? And what is the nature of the links between church-going and prosocial behavior? There is more work to be done to understand the details.
The research, though, is gradually being undertaken. “Spirituality and health has grown into a new field of study,” said Harold G. Koenig, director of the Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health at Duke University. George E. Vaillant, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, agreed, pointing out that psychiatric textbooks have thousands of lines on fear and depression, but little or nothing on the spiritual values of joy or love. The research also raises very practical questions, such as how religious involvement impacts the effectiveness of medical treatment and whether addressing people’s spiritual needs reduces healthcare costs.
A different perspective on contemporary spiritual progress comes from the physical sciences. “Cosmology has led us to a new humility and a new spiritual experience,” reported Nidhal Guessoum, professor of physics at the American University of Sharjah, UAE. “The vastness of the universe, its diversity and richness, its elegance and precision provokes awe from scientists and laymen alike.”
Guessoum calls it “cosmic spirituality,” and it leads immediately to the Big Questions, such as the significance of consciousness amidst the hugeness of space and the links between cosmic structure and the existence of life. Searching for answers draws on the insights of the great religious traditions, as well as the discoveries of science. Indeed, cosmic spirituality can bridge the divide between believers and non-theists because it nurtures respect for the universe we share.
“Sir John always hoped that eventually, with the help of science, spiritual perspectives might again become engaging to open-minded people who have otherwise given up on perennial wisdom for lack of empirical support,” said Stephen G. Post, moderator of the conference and president of the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love. “He would be asking whether any of the basic research on spirituality and health, forgiveness, gratitude, or unlimited love points to techniques that transform life as effectively as the 12 steps. We see seeds of progress, but have a long way to go.”
Sir John Templeton’s Foundation can spend its money as it wishes, but something about this sort of talk makes my blood run cold. But my blood ran cold before I could say why. That’s why I call my remark “prejudicial.”
I think I’m just very suspicious of this kind of quasi-scientific talk because (a) they may come up with a pill to make you even happier than gratitude makes you, and (b) if forgiveness made me look like a weak doormat, I’d still be obliged to forgive those who trepass against me if I want God to forgive my trespasses. You can look that up.
My reaction may be fueled, too, by my “rebounding” from high respect for the Templeton Foundation to thinking that they’re pretty indiscriminate. Had I started with lower regard, I might feel as positive as I do about, for instance, On Being, which touches many of the same sorts of topics (albeit with less pretense of scientific rigor) but comes from Public Radio so my expectation of spiritual perceptiveness wasn’t high.
In other words, Templeton over-promised and under-delivered, while On Being under-promised and over-delivered — if only in the wetware between my ears.
The Christ in Whom all Christians claim to believe was fully human in His mother’s womb. So were the rest of us. It was our humanity he put on, and what’s true of us, other than sin, is true of him. He even remains a glorified human, having ascended bodily to the father.
I’m sorry that a some “conservative” Protestants – probably motivated by anti-Catholic cantankerousness – supported abortion in the years leading up to Roe v. Wade. They were wrong historically and Christologically. Their mass conversion to pro-life sentiments around the early 80s is fishy, but it’s the kind of pinball-careening inconstancy that happens when you’re unhinged from history and, consequently, read the Bible too tainted by the zeitgeist.
(H/T Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy, where the argument is unpacked)
For some reason (renaissance? last gasp before a new dark age?) a lot of thoughtful people are turning their attention to matters of church and state. Rod Dreher goes to the outer limits of fair use with snippets from a paywall-protected article by Philip Gorski in the Chronicles of Higher Education, including this exploration of the incoherence of the secularist version of the proper relationship:
[T]he best argument against liberal secularism may be liberalism itself. One of the cardinal values of modern liberalism—perhaps the cardinal value—has always been freedom of speech. And yet one of the most influential of modern liberals, John Rawls, actively promoted restrictions on religious speech. He contended that religious citizens may not invoke religious reasons in the public square, but must state their political arguments in a “neutral” language of “public reason” that is “accessible” to all citizens. Other leading liberals, like Ronald Dworkin and Robert Audi, have advanced similar arguments. But it is hard to see how such restrictions can be squared with the liberal principle of equal protection, since they impose an asymmetric burden on religious citizens by forcing them to speak a foreign language of “secularese.”
Nor is that the only argument against a Rawlsian approach. Critics have identified at least three others. First, “public reason” is not neutral; its tacit ideal is an autonomous and abstract individual, a “man without qualities” (as the novelist Robert Musil put it), lacking any binding ties. Surely that is a fantasy—human beings are inherently social creatures. Second, if popular accessibility is really our main concern, then why not require secular citizens to translate their arguments into biblical language? After all, the Old Testament is far better known to the average American than Kant’s Second Critique! Finally, Rawls’s restrictions create a Catch-22: Religious citizens who use secular arguments will be accused of concealing their true motives, while those who use religious arguments will be castigated for violating separationist principles. It is not surprising that a number of leading liberals, like Richard Rorty and Jürgen Habermas, ultimately retreated from the Rawlsian position.
(Emphasis added.) I agree with all of the critiques but one: while the Old Testament may be better known than Kant, it’s no longer well-known. Still, he’s got a point, or else politicians would not so routinely misquote, misapply and otherwise twist the scriptures in their rhetoric.
Further, by reflex I follow the Rawlsian position not for fear of arrest if I say what I’m really thinking, but from conviction – increasingly misplaced, it seems – that there is a common ground and common language out there that will be more effective than sectarian language, be that religious or secularist. And, yes, I’ve been castigated for insincerely smuggling religion into the discussion just the same.
“It’s fun to mock Romney and Obama for their many flaws. Nevertheless, the blame for their grandiosity and incoherence belongs mostly to us.” (Impotent President, Infantile Citizens)
“By medicine life may be prolonged, yet death will seize the doctor, too.” Shakespeare.
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