I recently read an online discussion of the intersection of science and religion. The discussion very quickly turned to talk of miracles and proposed that religion and science would be reconciled when science either acknowledges miracles or somehow verifies the connection between miracles and some divine agent.
In which case, science and religion will never be reconciled. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
One of the things that I’ve realized through Zen is that our conceptual division of “natural” and “supernatural” is based largely on a failure to appreciate the truth of the “natural.” We take the natural world for granted and call it mundane, and we look for shiny, sparkly whoo-dee-doo out-of-this-mundane-world stuff to confirm our hope that the ordinary, common world isn’t all there is.
But some parts of science are telling us the world we see around us isn’t all there is, and indeed, the world we see around us isn’t even around us. It’s a fabrication of our brains and nervous systems. What’s really “around us,” or the stuff from which this temporary confluence of mind-and-matter fabricates the world, is to us a mystery. And the temporary confluence of mind-and-matter we call “I” also is a mystery. We assume we know what it is, but we don’t.
Science, particularly in such areas as theoretical physics and neuroscience, is gradually putting together a picture of reality that tells us everything we think we know about it is wrong. The Buddha said the same thing.
Thich Nhat Hanh said, “The true miracle is not walking on water or walking in air, but simply walking on this earth.” People interpret that to mean something like “don’t forget to stop and smell the roses,” but that’s not what I see. When you begin to appreciate the truth of reality and the truth of our existence, you see he means that literally.
This so-called “mundane” world is a bleeping five-alarm wonder. Looking for miracles “out there” is like sitting at a table at Maxim’s with a plate of gourmet food in front of us, wishing we had something to eat. And appreciating the wondrous nature of our existence does not require the mundane world to behave in ways that are scientifically inexplicable.
Soyen Shaku Roshi, who as far as I know what the first Zen teacher to set foot in North America, carried on a productive correspondence with some Christian critics of Buddhism. This is from a latter he wrote to Dr. John Barrows in 1896:
I have not as yet been able to see that mankind can be benefited by believing that Jesus Christ performed miracles. I do not deny the miracles nor do I believe them; I only claim that they are irrelevant. The beauty and the truth of many of Christ’s sayings fascinate me, but truth does not become clearer by being pronounced by a man who works miracles.
This is a very Zen perspective. As a Zen student I don’t interpret was the Roshi said to mean that what Jesus said was just philosophy, or just intellectual or conceptual. He’s saying that the truth of reality — the amazing, brain-bending truth — is not proved or disproved or otherwise revealed by what we call miracles. Miracles are, literally, irrelevant, whether they happen or not.
It’s certainly true that early Buddhists enshrined the Buddha’s memory in stories of his supernatural exploits, but that was a common thing to do in the ancient world. No powerful person did anything important without tales of the event being embroidered with miraculous signs and wonders. As I wrote in Rethinking Religion, in ancient times “truth” was about meaning, not facts. Accounts of important people and events often were dressed up with fantastical details that expressed how people felt about, or understood the significance of, this important thing. Equating truth with what is factual is something that happened gradually, beginning about the 15th century or so in western culture.
And now much of religion is stuck in conceptual cul-de-sac that mixes up mythos and logos and demands literal signs and wonders that science can measure. This is ass-backward, people. I sincerely believe that even the monotheistic religions don’t need miracles to be valid.
This is not to say that Buddhism and science don’t butt heads over some things, especially in the area of materialism. But I don’t necessarily think science and religion have to see things the same way, especially since the two disciplines are operating within different parameters. There are places Buddhism goes that science does not, and vice versa. In all these years as a Zen student, however, I’ve never been asked to believe anything I knew contradicted science, and I honestly don’t see why that would ever happen. It just isn’t necessary.