I spent a few days at St. Benedict’s Monastery in Snowmass, Colorado with Thomas Keating (one of the founders of the Centering Prayer movement) and a small gathering of contemplatives, academics, and neuroscientists. Hosted by the Center for Engaged Compassion at Claremont School of Theology, the purpose of the event was to begin a conversation between Christian contemplatives and neuroscientists in hopes of designing future research projects. For the past twenty years there has been growing research and interest in what is sometimes referred to as “Contemplative Science” promoted by organizations like The Mind and Life Institute and Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism. Contemplative science has focused, almost exclusively on Buddhist forms of contemplative practice, ignoring the wealth of practices that exist in Western religious traditions. Dr. Michael Spezio and my friend Dr. Andrew Dreitcer (both former Presbyterian ministers) facilitated the event in the hopes of deepening the scientific understanding of the contribution Christian contemplative practice can make in the cultivation of compassionate action.
The event was a crash course in Christian anthropology and theology. We spent three days exploring the world views of Evagrius, Aquinas, Ignatius and then explored various contemplative practices including Ignatian contemplation, centering prayer, and the compassion practice (as developed by Frank Rogers). We looked at a variety of neuroscience techniques, methodologies, studies to discern the role of the brain in moral action. I’m neither a scientist nor academic so much of the conversation was at the limits of my comprehension, however it was interesting to discover thel hunger that exists within the scientific community to engage religious tradition and practice. I learned that although the Western scientific community has increasingly embraced the Dalai Lama and Buddhis practice, there is great resistance to explore the religious traditions of the West, Christianity namely. As one researcher told me, “God is a problem.” What I realized in my interactions with scientists both at the Snowmass conference and in other settings, is that a significant number of Western scientists have wounds from their own Christian upbringing that cause a kind of reactivity toward any conversation with Christian theologians. At Snowmass, I heard stories by a group of researches of childhoods scared by dogmatic pastors, shame-based churches, and Christian elders unwilling to engage real questions and doubts. As I listened to one researcher in particular describe the kind of God he was forced to worship as a boy, I realized that I too would have left the Christian faith if I was forced to accept a God who is all-controlling, distant, and shaming. When he finished his story of the God he no longer believes in, my only response was, “I don’t believe in that God either.”
In my experience, contemplation (and Christianity in general) isn’t about belief–a set of statements that we hold in our head, as much as it is a way of being in the world. Christianity is a spiritual path, a way of becoming increasingly transparent to love, a way of becoming more alive, more free, in greater friendship and solidarity with others. Contemplative practice (or prayer), supports this path by helping us consent to the compassionate activity of God. Contemplative prayer helps us to see ourselves and the world as it really is. It helps us to let go of our attachments, our filters, so that the Mystery that we call “God” can move and breathe within us. In my experience, as we consent to God’s activity we find natural, creative ways of living lives that are compassionate, joyful, and courageous (see Jesus). How will scientists measure this? I don’t know, although I was encouraged by the interest of the researches I met. There is a deep awareness within the scientific community that the world is in serious crisis (environmentally, politically, economically) and that the only hope of resolving these problems is by cultivating compassionate awareness and action within the human family. Certainly Christianity is a source of wisdom for this endeavor, and yet part of the work of bringing together scientists and Christian contemplatives is first renouncing the God who doesn’t exist. The manufactured God that has been used to frighten, control, and manipulate people. The God who has scared, wounded, even tortured so many.