In this episode, Ilia Delio and Robert Nicastro interview with historian and religious scholar Diana Butler Bass. We resume Part Two with Ilia and Diana discussing the outlook of Silicon Valley, Teilhard’s scientific vision, and the enlightenment that comes from research and discovery.
ABOUT DIANA BUTLER BASS:
Diana Butler Bass, Ph.D., is an award-winning author, popular speaker, inspiring preacher, and one of America’s most trusted commentators on religion and contemporary spirituality. She holds a doctorate in religious studies from Duke University and is the author of eleven books. Her work has received two Wilbur Awards for best nonfiction book of the year, awards from Religion News Association for individual commentary and for Book of the Year, Nautilus Awards Silver and Gold medals, the Illumination Book Award Silver medal, Books for a Better Life Award, Book of the Year of the Academy of Parish Clergy, the Frank S. and Elizabeth D. Brewer Prize for Church History, Substack Fellowship for Independent Writers, and Publishers Weekly’s Best Religion Book of the Year.
“Science at its best is an open-minded method of inquiry, not a belief system.”
Diana Butler Bass
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Part Two: Diana Butler Bass
Robert: Welcome to Hunger for Wholeness, a podcast from the Center for Christogenesis. I'm your host, Robert Nicastro. You're listening to the second half of Ilia's conversation with historian and religious scholar, Diana Butler Bass. We jump back in with Ilia and Diana discussing the outlook of Silicon Valley, Teilhard's scientific vision, and the enlightenment that comes from research and discovery.
Diana: It was interesting that Elon Musk recently did sign a letter warning about some of the dangers of AI. A fellow that I actually know and am friends with was one of the main crafters of that letter. And his concern is essentially that we've created something that we can't control.
Ilia: It's like the Frankenstein thing.
Diana: Yeah, very much so. To hear my friend and other people that he's associated with in that world begin to sound that alarm, I think is an interesting moment. It raises the question of, "Well, what do you do?" Because now we've got the thing and we've got lots of interesting new technologies. The same place where I met many of these Silicon Valley people was also where I happened to be having dinner with a group of them. I was sitting next to a guy who invented the vaccine for skin cancer that is now just coming to the fore and people are just hearing about it. But literally, I'm sitting at dinner, we're having a conversation, and this older gentleman who is a research doctor—I said, "Well, what's your latest project?" He said, "Oh, we're about to cure cancer." I just said, "Oh, I write a Sub stack newsletter about religion." And it's like, "Oh my gosh. I'm sitting next to a guy who is curing cancer." So he started telling me what was involved in the path of research and the whole story of discovery and his journey and his passion to do all this, and where it has brought cancer cure. He literally said at dinner, "In terms of several cancers, we're now at an 80 to 90% cure rate."
Ilia: So that's interesting. The way you described that, that's a very Teilhard way of speaking about spirituality. But Teilhard, believe it or not...
Diana: I'm not surprised.
Ilia: Has adoration and research as the spirituality for today. In other words, we think God is something that's already formed and present and watching over us. And it's all lovely. But for Teilhard, it's the idea of the mind. It's discovering and these insights and the new wholes that are being made and it's a godliness. This is the power of a human person. We have this incredible capacity of the mind to actually understand, study these diseases, and then find cures for them. So it's not just understanding them, we can find a cure; like how to make this better. That's God-like power. And that's what we're saying. If we can understand that power and use it in the right way, God begins to emerge through our scientific endeavors, our technological endeavors, and we don't realize. But because we don't put two and two together here, we're like, "Oh yeah, I'm God without God." So it's like being godly without religion could be a dangerous thing. That's like a new pathogen of some sort. But being God with God is really a cool thing. Could really make the earth a better place.
Diana: Maybe this is the same conversation. We've just been having it all the way through. This is an incredible thread because in a sense, the artificial faith—whatever religion is emerging around technology and artificial intelligence and all those things, in effect is an arena much like that of the global south. You can have people who decide to embrace this kind of transhumanism, artificial intelligence, all these things. It is about purity and power. It's about saving my gene pool, getting my people to be the richest people, making sure that when the earth blows up, I'm not here. So it's about purity and power. Your friends are the ones who are going to be the safe ones so you rescue them, you put a boundary around them. We are the ones who are in control.
Or you could be like the doctor sitting next to me at that dinner and what that was—And I love that you just took that right to Teilhard because I certainly wasn't thinking of it. But as soon as you said it, I knew exactly what you meant. Is that you can actually have the same sort of body of information. Instead of being about purity and power, it becomes about the immediacy and the joy of discovery. It becomes about transforming this cultural world in which we live. It becomes about finding who we are in a new world and being able to share and create community and invite others into the discovery. That's two very different ways of approaching this same moment.
Ilia: One is the consolidation of power around this idea of purify knowledge and the grasping of everything. The other is a spiritual journey, sort of like the monastic journey. But now in the world of research and technology, it's sort of like the idea of, "What was the old spiritual journey but purgation; you get rid of the stuff that is in the way?" Illumination. That you begin to see in a deeper way, which is what science is always doing. It's always trying to understand things in a deeper way. Then you come to the point of union or this unit of knowledge where you begin to see what makes sense. Like, why things fit together, why this protein and this channel might actually work together in some way. And that discovery then becomes a cure. What does it mean to arrive at God? That's the whole thing. What is a life giving path of transformation that can change the world? The other is destructive of a consolidation of power that fragments the world, that widens the gaps.
Diana: I've never heard anyone explain science that way. I'm sure it's just because we haven't sat around and talked long enough. But also, that's the way of the historian.
Ilia: That's so interesting. Well, I was a scientist in my first life of my many lives; my third life probably. Maybe my third bicycle accident I became a scientist. I loved science for that reason. For me, it was about discovery and there's nothing more thrilling, quite honestly, than being in a laboratory with instruments and tools to measure and to analyze. You don't know where you're going. You have some idea, it's called a hypothesis, but you don't know what the outcome is going to be until you actually run the experiment. It's an unbelievable actually type of endeavor. I truly feel with scientists when they're so engaged in their research. It's passionate. Science is a passionate endeavor. You can't be like just a robot, dispassionate and, "Here's your pipette and so many millimeters of stuff."
There's a deep involvement of the whole person. I once worked next to a guy who worked for 35 years on one aspect of a protein that was part of a channel. And you go, "Oh my God! 35 years on that little enzyme or whatever it was?" That's what they are and it's like they're driven by it, in the same way we're driven by God or a sense of knowing. You apply to think history; same idea. We're passionate about knowing, and that's spirituality.
Diana: It's really fascinating because when you do find that text or you're in the library and all of a sudden something clicks, what the historian is constantly doing is rereading the past in order to clear the decks in order to say, "Hey, our ancestors did this right, but wow, we got ourselves in a mess here." So historians are constantly going back over that ground and asking themselves the question, "What could have been done different or better, even though this is actually what happened?" So when you find that kind of clearing of the decks, it does lead to the next place and you ask yourself, "Well, what's a better story? What is the story that will take us ahead?" And so it's the rewriting of the tale that becomes that moment of just exquisite passion because you're taking stuff that has always existed and always been around, but nobody paid attention to it. You're drawing eyes to a different part of the story. My dream is always that the different part you're drawing people's attention to is giving them a sense of wonder and justice and freeing and liberation so that people can participate more deeply in the work and presence of God in the world.
Ilia: I love that description of being a historian. I think the same could be said for a scientist or even a theologian. And all that you're describing here really speaks to me of what Teilhard was trying to articulate in terms of contemplation. Actually, all that you're talking about here is what contemplation is for Teilhard. It's that passion of knowing and discovering and forming these new unities of insights. So for him, contemplation is not just reflecting upon being itself. It is discovering a new truth. This mind that's constantly reaching out and searching and then seeing where the patterns are and then connecting them in new ways, it forms this light. There's a light-filled nest there. And you come to a new level of consciousness, awareness. Therefore, like you said, we can begin to understand things in a new way and then build the world that we're in now in a new way. And it's very exciting. It's much better than just going to sit on a pillow and just kind of think of being.
Diana: I'm contemplating my existence. I actually can't imagine anything more boring than that. I'd rather just exist.
Ilia: That's why I think the knowing process is so deeply part of—It's definitely part of spirituality, part of contemplation. So the way we've commodified knowledge and made it into information and it's like we just want to consume information, when knowing itself is such a deeply spiritual act. That's what makes scholarships so really beautiful.
Diana: The project I'm currently working on is a project about public spirituality. I've gotten fascinated by the whole problem we're having in the United States. It is not just in the United States, it's actually across Europe with the way that religion and society are changing. We're looking back on history and all of a sudden we see things we don't like. And so what is happening is we're taking down monuments and statues and changing up all of our public space. I was in Richmond, Virginia in the fall of 22, giving a series of lectures on history. The pastor of this very large, very liberal Baptist church, said to me, "Have you driven down Monument Avenue lately?" And Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia is the long Boulevard that was developed after reconstruction. So Richmond was capital of the Confederacy, and Monument Avenue is the physical embodiment of the memory of the Confederacy.
So it was this beautiful boulevard with all these gardens and trees and these huge circles every so many miles or whatever. And in each circle, there was a gigantic statue to a figure of the Confederacy, a hero of the Confederacy. The most prominent ones were to Jefferson Davis and to Robert E. Lee. So when the pastor asked me, "Have you spin down Monument Avenue lately," I knew exactly what he meant because they've been taking them all down. And so I said, "No, I haven't driven down there recently, but I'm going to before I leave during this trip." And he said, "It's amazing. Whenever I look down Monument Avenue now, all I see are empty alters everywhere." That little phrase, "empty alters everywhere," just captured my sort of literary and historical imagination. And in effect, you ask, "What's going on with Christianity globally?" In effect right now, we're in a period of what I would call iconoclasm, and that is we're taking down the altars to so much of the past.
And rightly so. So much of that has to be done. That work has to be done, that re interrogation of where we have been on this journey. And to just say, "No, this is not what we want to valorize any longer." But iconoclasm only lasts for so long in the history of Christianity. The next step is, "Well, what do you put up in its place?" So that's the piece that I've really been scouring spiritually, is that who are the valorized who have lived among us that can direct us in a different way? What are the stories we want to tell differently as we move forward into these spaces of technology and science and different kinds of organizations of capital and climate change? What are those stories that are going to shine in the coming iteration of our faith communities? So it has been a really interesting project because in effect, the purgation has already begun as a social and a spiritual project, but very few people are yet really embracing the calling of the recreation of the public space. That's what I'm trying to explore, sort of pushing people forward in the timeline a bit.
Ilia: That's really good, really important. I thought about this a little bit myself because while I agree, I don't want these symbols to... The fact is we have moved beyond all that history of 'ugh.' I had a class on racism last week in my privilege and it's heartbreaking, quite honestly. Yet here we are. We're able to see ourselves in a new light. We're able to speak of the human person within a new way. So I don't want symbols that represent division, separation, hatred, either. And we do need to fight. So what you're pointing to is we're good at deconstructing everything; we know how to. But we're not very good about reconstructing symbols. We're not very good on the creative side of things.
It's like, we know what we don't like, but we're not sure what really animates or gets us going in the morning or gets us up in the morning. Colonel Young spoke of a symbolic death; that we have a symbolic death in the West. And it's true. The symbols don't really work anymore. Even the ones we have, we're like, "We don't like what they symbolize so we'd like to take everything down." And now we have like flowers, we have like old flowers sometimes or just tree stumps. It's like we flatten out everything. We have nothing to animate the soul. We're soul people and what do we like best? To go beyond ourselves. The whole point about being human is that there's something there that's not here that we always want to go beyond. That's why technology is alluring. It's like the infinite cyberspace of the beyond. You can be whatever you want to be.
But historically, culturally we're like flatland. So now we're like zoomed out, we're checked out, our minds are baked out with Google; we're Googleites, flatland pancake, Googleites, and there's no imagination. There is no creativity. There's no new symbols, there's nothing to pull us up and move us forward into something new; a new unity, a new wholeness. One thing about Christianity, something new is happening. Even made that old, like an old God with old ideas and old—Everything is old, old, old.
Robert: When the old symbols come down, what goes up in their place? Next, Diana shares more of her experience scouring the historical landscape for a renewed spirit to approach the American paradox of liberty. And finally, Ilia asks Diana, where is religion going? And which of her books our listeners should read first?
Diana: The idea of a flatland of symbolic universe. We need to understand that we're embodied creatures and we live in a creaturely world, and we have to walk around in storied landscapes. So if we don't have those storied landscapes, or they're storied landscapes that point us in the wrong directions, that's problematic. As I was saying, one of the really fun things has been going through and spiritually scouring the world within my attention span here as a historian and trying to figure out, "Well, what do you put there?" I've begun to see just some amazing things that people are actually being creative about, like the African American History Museum here in Washington DC where I live and where you live too. You might have seen this. There's a section of that museum, and you go in and there's this giant statue of Thomas Jefferson.
The first time I saw it I went, "What the heck is he doing here? Isn't that part of the problem? He is a slave holder. Why is Thomas Jefferson standing in this space?" Yet they haven't gotten rid of Jefferson and they haven't gotten rid of the most important part of Jefferson because behind him on the wall, the Declaration of Independence is written. So there's the familiar landscape of Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence, but between the pair of them, there's this kind of jagged wall made out of bricks. And on each of the bricks, there's the name of someone whom Jefferson held in slavery.
Ilia: Wow. That's powerful.
Diana: You look at it and you go, "I get it." So it's not a ripping out of Jefferson or just saying the words on the wall are hypocrisy. But that there is something that stood between Jefferson and the full realization of that vision of equality and liberty, and that was enslavement and the people he owned. So the whole part of that museum is called the Paradox of Liberty.
Diana: And so there you get the idea of a storied public space with two familiar figures; the words and the author of the words. Yet the reintroduction of just one simple piece of art that represents the voices of the unheard vis-à-vis; both the author and the words on the wall, creates an entirely new possibility for observers and for those who want to write a different story, the next story, hopefully of a truly spiritual republic, as it were.
Ilia: A truly democratic. There's so much I can talk to you about on this point of racism and the liberation of personhood. Actually, I'd coined a term recently that this is not just clipping. Instead of racial justice, I want to call it facial justice. I know it's my Franciscan roots. But the human face—Emmanuel Levinas spoke of the face as the trace of transcendence. It's a really beautiful idea that the human face is the face of God in this flesh. And to eradicate the face of another is to eradicate God. I've often wondered, "Is racism a counterpoint to an agnostic, an atheistic culture, a culture that basically while we're kind of religious from Monday through Saturday, we're basically agnostic or atheist." God doesn't really factor into our daily Nasdaq quotes and monetize society. So there's something there. To destroy the face is to destroy the root of divine love.
Ilia: Where do you see us going? I mean, you've named a lot of the complexities of religion and culture, especially in the US, but now globally, you're seeing some of the tensions. What do you see for the future of religion? Or do we have a future? Brian McLaren, Why Stay Christian?
Diana: I think that religion always has a future. This is an impulse that is as old as humankind itself. For some crazy reason you look at a star and you go, "Thank you." I think something like that was probably the very first ever impulse of religion. And then whoever said those things to the stars wanted to somehow re-duplicate that experience among the rest of their tribe or for their children. So that begins to turn into liturgies and prayers and telling of the story communally that gets passed down. So in that sense, I am pretty sanguine about the future of religion. And I think that even what we're seeing in talking about transhumanism and Elon Musk and AI and all these things, is that's also another evidence that there is some future for this kind of impulse.
The question of course is, "What direction does that impulse take?" In fact, I think all the time about the words in Deuteronomy. "I lay before you two paths. There's a way of life and a way of death. And you all Israelite, you get to choose." I don't think it's much different now. I think that there's a way of life and a way of death and that's open in front of us and we better choose well. Everything that I am about, that I write about, that I trust in, that I urge people towards, that I proclaim; all of that is to try to press people toward a way of life because I think that's earth's only option. And if we choose a way of death, we have disastrous consequences awaiting us. Time is short.
Ilia: I often wonder if death is actually one of the most critical factors that's governing our subconscious in this privatization individualization, "Take all, let me gather as much as I can." There's something about that deep fear, existential fear of death. I was reading this article recently on the future of forever. It's on digital immortality, download our brains. The author, Martine Rothblatt, says at one point, "If we could live forever, we might take better care of the earth because it'll be our home for a long, long, long, long time." That's really interesting, isn't it? But the fact is, we're going to die. So we want to kind of gather as much as we can for ourselves. Maybe try to prolong death by getting enough wealth so we can get the best of medical care, that we can buy the biggest houses and maybe get in a SpaceX, go to the moon if the earth blows itself up because we really don't want to die. So death being kind of the critical factor that's maybe inadvertently shaping a lot of our decisions. But I thought that was really interesting. If we were to live forever, would we devastate the earth? Because if we were to live forever, we wouldn't need to be at home in this planet Earth.
Diana: Well, I love great questions, and that's a great question to think about. One would think that we would take better care of it. I love the tradition in lots of native American communities where you think seven generations in the future, which I think is essentially a version of that. That in effect, you don't die because of all of the generations that come after you.
Ilia: That's so interesting. Yet they have such a great organic here and deep connectedness to the earth. I do think we should focus a little bit more on death. There's a psychological factor here. We are killing the earth, but for the reason that we really fear; fear to die. What book would you recommend to our listeners? Which of your books should we read?
Diana: My very favorite book that I've ever written is a book called Grounded which was written in 2015. It is a story about finding God and neighbor in nature. When I wrote Grounded, I got a call from a friend of mine who teaches out at Claremont, a person that I went to college with, Phil Clayton.
Ilia: Oh, sure.
Diana: I know you know. So Phil and I have known each other for decades. He literally read Grounded, he called me up on the phone, he laughed. He said, "Diana, I always knew you're a process theologian and a panentheist to-boot, and you're finally coming out of the closet." And I said, yes.
Ilia: I'm definitely going to look that up, Grounded.
Diana: So that's a wonderful book. And then the one that's over my shoulder there on the video, Freeing Jesus is my most recent book. It's what I call memoir theology. So it's taking the text of my own life and thinking about who Jesus is out of that experiential text. It offers a model for how people can understand themselves to be theologians and to know that in our lives we're actually creating theology all the time.
Ilia: I love that idea. And we call that “vernacular theology.”
Diana: I love it. I didn't know that. I call it “memoir theology.” “Vernacular theology” works too.
Ilia: We have different charge for the same thing. No, I'm only kidding. That's great. And you're a terrific writer, really. So we're really grateful for your contributions to scholarship and your contributions really to keeping Christianity as a vital source of life and spirit. So thank you.
Robert: This concludes our discussion with Diana Butler Bass. Be sure to listen to our next conversation with biologist Rupert Sheldrake. A special thanks to our partners at the Fetzer Institute. On behalf of our team at the Center for Christogenesis, I'm Robert Nicastro. Thanks for listening.