Hungry for meaning: Is there a conflict between science and spirituality?

Spirituality plays a different ballgame than science, so the language used in either of them doesn't often match up to the other side. This, says religious teacher Rob Bell, creates a lot of conflicts.

Rob Bell: Ah, yes. That word: “spiritual”. 

I think the reason why many people run away from it is because lots of what has been done in the name of spiritual or spirituality has been completely crazy. So the problem with that word is it’s easy for a lot of really bizarre unfounded—sometimes even destructive and toxic—ideas can hang out under this word spiritual because you’re talking essentially about that which isn’t accessed through the five senses. 

When somebody says, “Well, I just had a spiritual feeling.” Well, you can’t really put that on a spreadsheet. You can’t really take a picture of that. My understanding of spirituality is that this life that we’ve each been given, the very breath that we took and we’re about to take, is a gift. That life is a gift and how you respond to it, what you do with it matters. 

So you’ll find in a business people working very hard and making lots of money and yet at some point asking these questions like, what is the point of what we’re doing? Why are we here? Why are we giving this kind of energy to this? Which is fundamentally a spiritual question, because the answer to that question won’t show up in the second quarter financials, and yet why people get up in the morning and come work here is the driving question behind the question behind the question.

So I begin with life is a gift and what you do with it, how you respond to it matters. And when we talk about it mattering we are talking about something that’s true but can’t be accessed in the ways that we normally access things. 

And I think a lot of scientists have run from the word spiritual because a scientist deals with hard facts. 

And when you get into language of the heart, language of the soul, when you start talking about transcendence you are talking about more than literal truth. 

So like if somebody asks me why I fell in love with my wife and I said, “Well because she’s five seven, she’s from Arizona and she drives a Honda,” that’s kind of a weird answer. But if you say to me “Why’d you fall in love with your wife?” and I said, “I fell in love with Kristen because when we got together it was like I found my other half.” Something within you is like okay, now that’s an answer that I get. I understand that answer. 

And yet it’s not like I was limping. It’s not like suddenly I actually literally found my other half. I shifted to a different kind of language to describe a different kind of reality. And so oftentimes in my experience the scientist is fine with spirituality when we understand the terms that we’re working with.

This idea somehow that faith and science are at opposition I’ve always found to be complete insanity. Both are searching for the truth. Both have a sense of wonder and an expectation and exploration. They’re each simply naming different aspects of the human experience. One thrives in naming exteriors – height, weight, gravitational pull, electromagnetic force. The other is about naming interiors – compassion, kindness, suffering, loss, heartache. They’re both simply different ways of exploring different dimensions of the human experience. 

Well if you think about the past like let’s say 300-400 years of human history, especially the history of the Western world we’ve had this explosion. Some call it the age of certainty, the explosion of scientific rationalism. I mean we have 10,000 songs in our pockets. We have airports and hospitals. We don’t have polio anymore. I mean we have had this explosion of rational, stand-at-a-distance and study and analyze it with a clipboard and a lab coat—I guess now it would be an iPad—But we’ve had this explosion of knowledge about how the world actually works. 

And so for many people this rational, linear, scientific thinking has done so much that it sort of stepped on and crowded out other ways of knowing things. 

Because I was doing this event recently and a woman came up afterwards and she had a child in one of those little packs that you carry a child around. And it was a Saturday, and she said, “Yesterday I found out that my child’s been diagnosed with MS.” And then she turns and walks away.

There isn’t a formula or a theorem to name what she’s going through. What she needs is a poem. She needs a prayer, a liturgy, a song. She needs a ritual. You light a candle. You sit in silence with somebody. When it comes to grief, pain, loss, heartbreak, euphoria, joy, ecstasy, the lab and the microscope and the data aren’t as helpful. 

So I think what’s happening in the modern age is people are realizing we’ve built this extraordinary gleaming modern world and yet we’re more hungry and thirsty for meaning than ever. 

So I think that’s what’s happening is we have more than any human beings ever had in the history of the world and yet the same questions are still gnawing at the soul. What’s it mean? What are we doing here? Where is joy found?

Everything is driven by the desire to know the truth. There’s an exploration. There’s a wide eyed sense of wonder. If you talk to the best scientists they have this sort of gleam in their eye like, “this is what we’re learning and we don’t know what’s actually around the corner.” And if you talk to the best theologians and poets and scholars they ideally have the same gleam in their eye, which is, “Look what we’re learning, look what we’re exploring.” And so to me they’re not enemies. They’re long lost dance partners. 

And I actually think what’s happening right now is if you and I are in opposition, if we have some sort of fight and we turn and walk away from each other, if we walk away from each other long enough we’ll probably go around the globe and we’ll meet up on the other side. And so I think for many people, especially religious people who were raised with this sort of faith and religion going in opposite directions, I think what’s happening is they’re coming back around and we’re realizing these are all ways of exploring different dimensions of the human experience.

Spirituality plays a different ballgame than science, so the language used in either of them doesn't often match up to the other side. New York Times bestselling author and spiritual teacher Rob Bell posits that the two need each other to help describe this modern world. Whereas science deals with explaining cold hard facts, spirituality deals in vagueries that can often help the more human and emotional sides of us a lot more. For instance, grieving families of a plane crash don't want to be told the plane crashed because the force of acceleration became less than the force of gravity — they want to be told that their loved ones are in a better place. Both science and spirituality are searching for the truth, says Rob Bell, and therein lies their similarities. Rob's latest book is What Is the Bible?: How an Ancient Library of Poems, Letters, and Stories Can Transform the Way You Think and Feel About Everything.