Anxiety and Death, Part 3
And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest? Luke 12:25-26
Twenty-five times in the four Gospels, Jesus tells us not to worry or be afraid. Last week I discussed some of the societal causes of our anxiety. This week I will consider one that is less obvious, more nuanced, and fundamental to our communal discomfort. It has to do with the relationship between science and spirituality (most often expressed as religion) and our relatively recent tendency to accept one and be suspicious of the other.
Until a couple of centuries ago, science lacked the sophistication and reliability it generally enjoys today. The instruments and technologies available were poor by comparison, and many of the theories scientists postulated as truth were proven inaccurate with the next leap of technology. Religion was considered reliable and stable, if mysterious. It did not rely on physical evidence but on sacred writings, church traditions, and individual experiences for its conclusions about truth. In today’s political climate (and being shamelessly stereotypical) liberals, who primarily align with the Democratic party, embrace science as the path that will best lead us forward. Conservatives, who primarily align with the Republican party, hold to tradition, particularly religious, and believe the unchanging message of God through the Bible (as they understand it) is the best guide for future action. Science relies on observable phenomenon. Spirituality ponders the unobservable. Science focuses on details and component parts; spirituality looks for the big picture and a unifying vision. Science and spirituality are often treated as if they were mutually exclusive, so that one cannot exist in the same world view as the other. This conclusion, however, is a gross misunderstanding of both disciplines. Each, without the other, is blind to significant swaths of reality. It is through drawing from both, creating a transcendent perspective, that we find reliability, stability, and a worldview that feels safe. Short of that, we are left with uncertainty, conflict, and anxiety.
When religion was a dominant force in society, people took comfort in their faith that God would make everything work together for good in the end (Romans 8:28). It was a belief assured by the Bible and borne out by experience. As science improved its reliability and utility many people left the ethereal ambiguity of spirituality in favor of the factual certainty of science. This change in perspective offers no assurance that there is any power in the universe that loves and cares for us or makes all things work together for good. Our lives are random events originating from unlikely blobs of protoplasm that are annihilated at death.
Scientists know a great deal about particular aspects of life – say an individual trait of a specific virus – but most do not pretend to be able to expand that knowledge to ascertain the meaning of life. Spirituality focuses on a greater, unobservable whole and does not pretend to understand the details of individual manifestations of that whole. The worlds of science and spirituality are complementary, observing the same phenomena from different perspectives. A conclusion from one without the other reveals only part of the truth.
The anxiety of the current age is the anxiety of isolation. We do not know where, if anywhere, we fit. Most of us do not understand politics, science, or spirituality well, although we cling to one as if to a life preserver in a raging sea. Few of us completely support either political party, but with only two options, where do we turn for political grounding? Vietnamese Buddhist teacher and author, Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “Once the wave realizes she is the ocean, her fear dissipates.” And this is our dilemma: that we are in the chaotic ocean of life, but we also are that ocean. We project the isolating polarities of our social climate as something external to ourselves, but we forget we are those isolating polarities. Certainly, we are not the social climate in its entirety, but we are made of the same stuff. We belong here. We can heal and be healed by it.
There may seem to be no mutually agreeable, middle ground in today’s environment. We are polarized, entrenched, humorless, and reluctant to compromise. As a society, our confidence in science has grown, and with good reason, but concurrent with that has been a decrease in the perceived relevance of spirituality. No wonder we are so anxious! Until we allow science to be science and spirituality to be spirituality and embrace both as worthy, informative, and important we will continue to drift in our fearful isolation.
This is the 45th in the series of Life Notes titled, If I Should Die Before I Wake. I invite your thoughts, insights, and feedback via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or through my website, www.ContemplatingGrace.com. At the website, you can also sign up to have these reflections delivered to your Inbox every Thursday morning, if you are not receiving them in another manner.
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