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Science Mike | Intimate Mysticality

Mike McHargue, aka Science Mike, shares his own faith journey and talks about trends of faith transitions in the United States.


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Mike McHargue, aka Science Mike, shares his own faith journey and talks about trends of faith transitions in the United States.

Description

Mike McHargue, aka Science Mike, is the cofounder of The Liturgists podcast and host of the podcast Ask Science Mike. In this episode he shares the story of his own faith journey, which involves leaving the church and eventually finding his way back after a mystical experience. Since then, he has made an effort through his podcast and writing to help others going through faith transitions. 

In this episode, Jim and Mike discuss the trends of faith transitions in the United States and how science can be both fallible and trustworthy at the same time. Near the end of the episode Mike shares a powerful personal story of how he has found a personal God in a world of scientific explanations.

  • Originally aired on November 21, 2019
  • With 
    Jim Stump

Before You Read

Dear reader,

We’ll get right to it: Young people today are departing the faith in historic numbers as the church is either unwilling or unable to address their questions on science and faith. BioLogos is hosting those tough conversations. Not with anger, but with grace. Not with a simplistic position to earn credibility on the left or the right, but a message that is informed, faithful, and hopeful.

Although voices on both sides are loud and extreme, we are breaking through. But as a nonprofit, we rely on the generosity of donors like you to continue this challenging work. Your tax deductible gift today will help us continue to counter the polarizing narratives of today with a message that is informed, hopeful, and faithful.

Transcript

McHargue:

When I sit down and I set my Bible on my desk and it’s quiet and I hear another voice echo across a gap of thousands of years, I’m amazed at how similar their questions and their struggles are to mine today. And it makes me feel part of something bigger and greater and grander than my own life. And that’s this multigenerational, multicultural attempt to love, serve, and follow the same God.

Mike McHargue, aka Science Mike, Cofounder of The Liturgists and host of Ask Science Mike.

Stump:

Welcome to Language of God. I’m Jim Stump, your host. When we first started thinking about creating a podcast here at BioLogos we looked around at some of the other podcasts out there that were talking about faith and science. And there weren’t many, but you couldn’t miss The Liturgists—a podcast founded by Michael Gungor and Science Mike McHargue. Literally millions of people listen to them probe topics related to faith, and as Science Mike’s nickname implies, they take science seriously. 

Their podcast has drawn and formed a community of people, some of whom have grown weary of traditional forms of Christianity. For this reason some critics of The Liturgists think they are enabling a mass exodus of young people from the church. A more charitable reading might be that they are keeping a lot of people engaged in spiritual conversations who would otherwise check out entirely. Mike himself is committed to Christianity, and talks in our conversation about his very traditional practices of church attendance and Bible reading. But we are aware that he operates outside the confines of conservative Christianity in America. Some of his sharpest critiques are for the church when he sees it denying science or allowing political ideology to trump the message of Jesus.

At BioLogos, we’re committed to Christianity and to its expression within the church—any attempts at reform by us are from that standpoint. In this conversation, we find common ground with Mike, as well as gently pushing at areas we might disagree. We think these kinds of conversations, even if they are uncomfortable, help us to expand our ability to dig deeper into our faith and what it means. 

I’ve gotten to know Mike a bit over the last couple of years as we’ve found ourselves at the same events several times. I was anxious to probe a bit deeper into his understanding of faith and how it relates to cultural trends today. 

Science Mike has his own story about finding harmony between science and religion. It is a story with ups and downs, frustrations and inspirations and a mystical experience on a beach. Mike is not afraid of vulnerability and he tells us his story without holding back. In the midst of that we find ourselves talking about the nature of science, the trends of young people in the church, and his own spiritual disciplines which have formed over a lifetime of wrestling and practice.

Mike recently announced that he is stepping away from The Liturgists, at least for a time, due to some health concerns, though he’ll be continuing to produce his other podcast, Ask Science Mike. We recorded this interview before that announcement, but he brings up his health concerns here in an emotionally powerful segment toward the end of this episode. 

I think there’s something to surprise just about everyone in this conversation. Let’s get to it.

Interview Part 1

Stump:

So many in our audience will be familiar with you and your story, but for those who aren’t, can you give just at least a quick version of the arc of your life and how you got to this point where you are right now?

McHargue:

Yeah, the very quick version is that for most of my life I was an evangelical Christian roughly trying to assimilate decent science into a pretty biblical literal worldview. That came unglued for me in my thirties. And the questions I started to have about cosmology and evolution specifically ultimately led me to toss the entire Bible out and God and any Christology along with that. And so in my mid thirties, I was an atheist for a couple of years, a special atheist, I didn’t tell anybody that, not for some time. 

Stump:

A closet atheist.

McHargue:

I was a closet atheist. Which meant I basically tried to bake humanism into Bible stories and teach Sunday school. And then that wasn’t tenable so I started telling people I didn’t believe in God anymore. And then right around the time I was ready to tell the world that I didn’t believe in God and that was just fine, I had a mystical experience in 2012. If anyone doesn’t, hasn’t heard of mystical experiences, and I effectively felt like I was in God’s presence in a really powerful, not subtle way. I saw light, I heard voices. I felt God’s love for me. Super intense. And I know for modern people, Christians and skeptics alike, that’s a hard story.

I would just say that that is not something unknown to science at all, that mystical experiences had been widely studied by not only anthropologists, but at this point by neuroscientists. People really do experience things like what I experienced. And I needed to know that because after I saw a bright light that made me feel loved, my assumption was of course, that it was brain cancer. So I didn’t have an immediate reconversion to the faith. I went to see my neurologist in response to my mystical experience because I assumed there was something wrong with my brain. And I think I’m the first person to ever grieve a brain scan that didn’t show tumors because it meant I had to re-examine a lot of things. And that ultimately led me to Christian Mysticism to coming back to the Christian faith, though not as an evangelical anymore. And to use mysticism to allow me to fully and authentically engage with Christian theology without having to abandon a scientific view of physical reality. And that’s been the—some would call it an uneasy marriage, but I would call like, a delightful combination of my last few years. And the arc of my work has been as a science believing Christian mystic. Was that brief enough?

Stump:

Yup. That’s great. We might revisit some elements of that, but I think that’s good. And to say that people can find your account of all of this in your book, Finding God in the Waves, right? 

McHargue:

That’s available everywhere books are sold. 

Stump:

Everywhere good books are sold. So I first met you at this little workshop in Washington DC we were both invited to. And I remember we had to go around and do introductions and you said something like, the internet has dubbed me Science Mike, but I want to make sure you all know that I don’t have a PhD. I don’t have a master’s degree. I don’t even have a bachelor’s degree. And I remember feeling very impressed then both by that self-effacing attitude, but then also by the breadth of your knowledge in lots of different sciences. So I’m interested in how you became Science Mike, and I don’t mean how you got the nickname, unless that’s some really interesting story, but rather how did you become the guy for whom that nickname is appropriate?

McHargue:

It started as a kid. I was a nerd. I didn’t have any friends. I was undiagnosed at the time, but I’ve learned as an adult that I have autism spectrum disorder. And the first time I met a computer, it was the first thing in my life that had ever made sense to me. And so I started to study how computers thought, which began with learning about compilers and machine code and the sort of mathematical abstractions that make up the mind of a computer. But if you dig deep enough into the abstractions that run behind a computer, you realize that’s all happening on physical matter. So I started to learn about how memory works and how microprocessors work and how semiconductors work. And if you dig deep enough into CPU theory, you get to physics. So it meant by the time I was in middle school, I was studying not just electronics but physics in order to understand computers better. Well believe it or not, if you learn physics, physics describes more than how computers work. So that set me up for this really deep love for the physical sciences, which led me to wonder, okay, I’ve taken apart how computers think. So I started to take apart how I think. So I started to study psychology and cognitive psychology. This is all around seventh grade. And then that led me to start studying the brain. And then that led me to start studying, you know, microbiology and biochemistry. And just keep digging down to see how far…

Stump:

When you say studying, when you were in seventh grade. We didn’t have Wikipedia yet.

McHargue:

I was a library kid. I would actually go to libraries and stay for hours and just pull books off the shelf, finding them using the card catalog. And when I would read a book and it referenced other books, I would write those down. And I read those books too. I just spent, I don’t know, 15 to 20 hours a week in middle school in the library. And read and read and read every book they had on topics I was interested in. And I became Science Mike by reading. And so I just catalog everything I read and remember most of it. So then if someone asks me a question, I go, “Oh yeah,” and I can just kind of go off on that. Which is how that name Science Mike happened. I was at a party in Denver and people were drinking some really good beers and someone made the mistake of asking me a science question. At which point I did it. You know, like I do, and it became kind of a party game where people were trying to stump me. And one of my friends said, look, there’s Science Mike wowing the crowd. And a couple people heard it and the next thing I knew I was Science Mike.

Stump:

Okay. So that’s some of the deep history. So let’s talk a little bit about your work now. How is it that you describe what it is that you do or maybe when your kid’s friends ask them, what does your dad do? How would they answer that question?

McHargue:

I’m an Internet D-list celebrity. I’m not a D-list celebrity, right? Like on the real celebrity, not on the internet I don’t even make the F-list. But on the Internet solid D-list. I think if you get into the church world, I make it all the way to the C-list. What I do with my platform is help people survive the anxiety and stress that comes with faith transitions. So we’re in this era right now where statistically almost half the country is going to go through at least one major faith transition in their lifetime. And that number is growing. And our culture, neither on the secular side, nor in religious communities, is equipped to deal with people’s beliefs changing, even though it’s very common. So the onus, the impetus of my work is to help people—and I mean any person—feel less excluded, less isolated and less ostracized as they go through a faith transition.

Stump:

What are the parameters by which we understand faith transition? How much difference from what say, I grew up in, do I need to move to in order for that to qualify?

McHargue:

You need to no longer identify as the tradition you’re in. So that could be something really minor. Mainliners—mainline Christians—specialize in minor faith transitions. They go from Methodist to Episcopal, right? Or Episcopal to Presbyterian because there’s not the same gating on those communities. There’s not the same like existential terror and social shunning if your beliefs start to change. But if you go into communities that have, you know, more of a fundamentalist bent—the evangelical communities, Mormonism, Islam—when people in those communities go through a faith transition, they make a giant leap. Right? Evangelicals don’t become mainliners as often as they become, “I’m not religious at all” or “I’m an atheist.” The same thing happens by the way with atheists. When atheist, because they have their own form of epistemological fundamentalism, statistically, when atheists go through faith transitions, and about half of them do, they have almost the same defection rate as evangelicals. They tend to go really far into something like a charismatic movement or Orthodox Christianity. And that is incredibly stressful for social primates like us because our point of belonging in American society and European society is so often based around what we believe.

And so people find themselves having some kind of a personally valuable experience. Something that really changed the way they saw the world. And when they go back to their community with it, people go, “whoa, whoa, whoa. Who are you?” And then people start to feel passively or actively rejected by their community. And this is not like a first world problem. We understand from really good sociological data that people in that situation and at a highly elevated risk of death by suicide, like this is serious work. So that’s what I’m drawn to. I don’t care where people started. I don’t care where people are going. What I care about is while they are in that middle space that they feel seen and known and loved. And because I identify as a Christian, I care about helping churches everywhere do a better job of loving and supporting people in faith transition.

Stump:

So you’re, what, five years into The Liturgists?

McHargue:

Liturgists would have started in 2014, in January, and the podcast I think dropped in June.

Stump:

And a pretty explosive growth. There’s often a pattern among organizations like that, that start out as kind of this grass roots and, “hey, let’s do this in our basement.” And then it becomes big and there becomes the…it almost has an anti-institutional flare to it. The demands of it result in, “we need to take some steps toward institutionalization in order to survive.” How, where are you on that arc and how has that gone?

McHargue:

We are a small institution that rebels against itself constantly. We still have that anti-institutional bent in our DNA and at the size of our work now, that probably does more harm than good to our ability to get the work done. But it’s tough for us to let go of like what got us here. It’s also, we did go through a period of explosive growth, but it’s much more stable the last 14 months. That’s not to say we’re not growing, but we’re growing at, you know, 5% a year, 10% a year, not 700. At some point the growth in absolute percentage terms has to slow down in terms of the number of people added over a period of time. And listeners, that’s still pretty consistent. We pick up a lot of new people because so many people enter faith transition and there’s so few resources out there. There’s lots of resources for people in faith transition that try to prescribe to you where you should end up. There are very few resources that say wherever you end up, we support you. 

Stump:

How confident are you in your ability to predict the future of what this looks like?

McHargue:

Gosh, I take it day by day. There’s so many people hurting today. Our work is totally focused on, what do people need today? What are we hearing from them today? And responding to the audience. Our audiences run our media. We don’t. And that means we miss a lot of things that more forward looking organizations do. But we’re fine with that. We’re not here to grow a company. None of us care about that.

Stump:

You don’t have a strategic plan that’s been laid out for the next five years? 

McHargue:

No, well other than just like go where the pain is and meet it. That’s our strategic plan. Meet people, affirm their dignity, acknowledge their pain. That’s the entire Liturgists roadmap.

Stump:

What about say you get to the twilight years and look back on The Liturgists. What do you hope then that you’ll be able to look back and say, this is what the longer arc of The Liturgists has accomplished? This is what the work that I invested myself in over those years meant, and has done?

McHargue:

That is a really good question, that is incredibly thoughtful and easier to answer for me. If I were to look back and say, what would I be happy with? The suicide rate among people in faith transition noticeably dropped. The stress and conflict among Christian organizations and churches and people with different degrees of marginalized identity was meaningfully reduced. The metrics I would look at were psychological metrics of wellbeing and if those numbers improve among the audiences we serve, then I will have seen that as a life well lived. But even if they don’t, I’ve already gotten the cards and the letters from the public that I would want to go into a casket with me. At least twice a week I get a handwritten letter from someone who says that they were planning their suicide and then they met The Liturgists podcast or Ask Science Mike and they stopped feeling so lonely and they stopped planning to end their own life. And that’s all I care about. Just an easy laser focus is that people should not feel so alone.

Stump:

That’s good work.

[musical interlude]

Interview Part 2

Stump:

So let me preface this next question by saying that on more than one occasion, I have defended you against conservative critics by saying you’re keeping a lot of people engaged in spiritual conversations who would otherwise just check out of those, right? The church does not function that way for them. And there are of course, well documented abuses that organized religion is responsible for—no arguments there. But the question then is what do we lose when we take spirituality out of institutions like that?

McHargue:

We lose a lot. And my voice saying that will surprise people. I am wildly pro-church. The reason I rail on the church about its abuses is because I love the church so much. You know, I’ve read some data, where sociologists identified the two things that pushed back against the epidemic of loneliness, depression and anxiety in our society. Only two things meaningfully influenced that. Number one was regularly attending sporting events and God who wants to go to a sporting event. And two was church attendance. Like there is something grounding and gratifying for the human animal about participating in the church. And when we participate in the church without the traditional coercion and brainwashing and in-group benefit, it is easier to motivate a church into action that impacts social change than just some collection of individuals. The church has really excellent ways of, when they choose to, impacting local communities. Churches are good at fundraising, churches are good at organizing and churches are good at creating communal social experiences regularly. You know, The Liturgists we try to, but we come to a given city about once every 18 to 24 months. And then what we hear from the people in that community in the aftermath is like a remnant gets together at a restaurant pretty regularly. But most people just feel lonely again. We lose a lot in this mass exodus. The problem is I don’t question the validity of the exodus based on the grievances people have with some of the actions of churches. 

So I have a two-prong approach for me. One, validate and create space for people who are like, “I can’t do the church anymore.” Facilitate spiritual experiences for them if they desire them and remain a faithful every Sunday church attending Christian and talk to Christians as a Christian about what we can do better to be Christ, to be the body of Christ for the world today.

I cannot accommodate in my mind the body of Christ and an epidemic of suicidality among gay teenagers. Those things don’t, I don’t care what your theology is on marriage, suicide among teenagers…somewhere that lost sheep parable is not connecting. Right? And I think if conservatives have critiques about me in many cases, they’re super valid. You know, if you’re a conservative Christian and you read through my theology, of course it’s horrifying. Like, yeah, I don’t fault them for saying my theology is dangerous. I hold my theology really loosely. I’m very practice focused. What is the outcome of our beliefs in the world? And what I would say to my conservative brothers and sisters and kin in the body of Christ is what is the impact on human life of your work and how does that look compared to what you see laid out in the gospels?

The Jesus that you and I both love, constantly scandalized the righteous for how frequently and heavily he leaned into communities that everybody said were untouchable. And loved people. And when people say, “well, you know, but Jesus said really challenging things.” He did. To religious people. If you read the words of Christ to people who are, who are not religious elites and not in religious community, his presentation is completely different. You see a different level of expectation in the Gospels when Jesus speaks to the religious and to the people who are just seeking. And I think that’s in the text for a reason.

Stump:

Is there some tension then between that, that you just said, in answer to that question about organized religion or institutions and the sociological data that bear out the advantage of that for human flourishing and the kind of official line you said earlier on the, from The Liturgists of, we don’t care where you end up. Is that just because that’s not the particular mission of The Liturgists but this is really important and somebody else needs to pick that up? Or is there some other sense? I guess what I’m digging at here—and don’t take this critically—I’m trying to understand is whether there’s a sizable portion of your audience that feels like they’ve been given permission then to check out of organized religion and whether there’s some way on the back end of being able to address those very felt needs for community and for organized spaces in that way.

McHargue:

I think that’s a fair critique. If I was like a…if I went back and looked at evangelical me, the evangelical me would be very concerned with the permission I’m giving people to be where they are. So I’d say like from an evangelical framing “where you end up is okay,” that’s…yeah, that’s not great. I just have a different set of priorities. What we’re doing in The Liturgists, by the way, is not… I’m not prescribing that churches should say, we don’t care where you end up theologically. I will say the reason I’m in a church is because a Methodist church told me they didn’t care where I ended up theologically. And that kind of Wesleyan notion of working out faith in community is what has led me to a more orthodox set of Christian theologies. I understand neurologically we tend to believe what people around us believe. And so ironically, inviting people into “we don’t care what you believe,” community actually influences what they believe potentially more than telling them what they should believe. But that’s really sneaky and manipulative, so that’s not what I’m talking about. I think churches can believe what churches believe. I just think you need to be clear and upfront about it.

I think the frustration I hear among millenials and post-millennials is not the resurrection or the trinity at all. It’s, “well, when I was in Sunday school, you said that we were supposed to care for the poor. And when I was in youth group, we went on mission trips to other countries.” And today what these same children, now adults, see, is this weird conglomeration of the church and the most nationalistic, xenophobic wings of conservative politics and they go, “that does not add up. I’m out.” And frankly, and very, very relevant to the mission of BioLogos, the other big warning sign is rejection of evolution and big bang cosmology which are accepted as fact among those generations.

Stump:

And now climate change. 

McHargue:

And now climate change. Thank you. Yes. So those rejections of, kind of, that scientific trinity by the churches they grew up in, is too much to stomach. And if it was one or the other, it would probably half the defection rate. But when it’s both, they’re going, “what? What am I doing? I’m not, I want to encounter something beautiful and real.” They are not interested in politically-oriented spiritual organizations. They want to explore something real and something profound and apply that in their communities in a way that promotes change and healing and reconciliation and they’re not finding it anywhere. And so they’re leaving.

So for the church, if I had homework for the church, it’s one, you got to get over this, like biblical literalism versus science thing. You’re going to lose. There’s no scenario where this plays out in these generations returning to the church. And number two, do as an institution what you taught young Christians in Sunday school to do, which is be generous in the community, be welcoming and inviting to marginalized people.

The church, conservative churches…I get disenfranchised with the Evangelical Church, not because of its theology, but because I feel like the Evangelical Church I grew up in would have been at the forefront of confronting suicide rates. When I was a kid, Baptists were wildly apolitical. When I was a kid, the focus of the Evangelical Church I went to was being Jesus in the world. And I was really on board with that. And then when I was in high school, the wind started to shift. And I didn’t know it at the time, but that was laying the groundwork for me to ultimately leave the Evangelical Church.

Stump:

So I think I know how you’ll answer this, but I’d sorta like to hear you say it and record it anyway. What do you say to people, or maybe just think about people, for whom traditional conservative Christianity provides a meaningful spiritual experience and even the foundation for their own flourishing.

McHargue:

Wonderful. Wonderful. I am who I am today because of conservative evangelical theology. I learned to be a husband and a father and an active member of my community from the Evangelical Church. I am not on a quest to confront or erase conservative theology. Not at all. I have seen marriages on the brink of collapse restored by conservative theology. I have seen drug addictions do a 180 because of an encounter with Jesus based in conservative theology. I have seen real fruit in the world from conservative evangelical theology and for anyone whom those ideas make God more real and cause compassion to bloom in their hearts and love for all of God’s children to guide their actions. I’m not just okay with your theology. I am its biggest fan.

Stump:

Thanks for saying that. In one of our previous episodes we got to talk to Krista Tippett and you might know, she always starts her interviews by asking people about the spiritual that they grew up in but then doesn’t want to ever ask about their current spiritual practice. And I actually asked her about that and she said it’s because it’s so personal and intimate, it feels almost inappropriate to ask people about their current spiritual practice and state. And I wonder what you think about that. And that’s kind of my way of trying to get you to answer the question without having to ask it directly.

McHargue:

I make a practice of sharing personal and private things for a living. So I have a much higher threshold for discomfort in sharing. I will say that my faith today feels more personal and intimate than it ever did before. These days I attend a very small Episcopal church on Sunday mornings, though I still count myself as a Methodist in exile. I read my Bible every day, but no longer as a matter of rote memorization, but as a style of meditation, the Lectio Divina. To that end, I use, primarily, a Bible called Biblioteca, which is a very readable well designed Bible without chapter or verse markers. I start at the beginning and work my way to the end and then go back to the beginning. 

In a parallel track, I do some more academic style Bible study that I use academic bibles for to get a better historical critical context for whatever texts that I’m reading. And I meditate in the morning and in the evening and that practice can vary based on what season of my life I’m in. And probably three or four times a month, I can’t help myself and I revert back to the kind of personal intercessory prayer I grew up with in the Evangelical Church. Yeah, that’s it.

Stump:

Your Bible reading might interest some people who know parts of your story too because it was reading through the Bible that caused this crisis of faith earlier in life, right? 

McHargue:

It was.

Stump:

How is the reading of scripture different now than it was then?

McHargue:

I was on a quest before and my understanding of the Bible was that it was a memo God dictated to a bunch of receptionists we call Moses and Paul. And now when I read the Bible, it is still about God. It’s still inspired by God. But the thing that fascinates me is watching the authors of the text wrestle with their own understanding of God in the same way that I do. And in that way it no longer causes me to stumble and be confused. Now the Bible is like the greatest source of solidarity and peace. Oh, this is so weird for me to say. But yeah, the Bible is like the way, the primary way I find myself in God’s presence again. And community with other Christians actually is second again, which is very strange for me to say because for many years it was the opposite. But when I sit down and I set my Bible on my desk and it’s quiet and I hear another voice echo across a gap of thousands of years, I’m amazed at how similar their questions and their struggles are to mine today. And it makes me feel part of something bigger and greater and grander than my own life. And that’s this multigenerational, multicultural attempt to love, serve, and follow the same God.

Stump:

The particular mystical experience you had also played this huge role. I would guess that you have lots of people in your community saying, “How do I get one of those?”

McHargue:

Yeah. So there’s some things in the sciences that can help increase your propensity to have a mystical experience. And I talk about those in Finding God in the Waves, but briefly, you know, regular meditation participation in religious experiences, especially those that have an ecstatic bent or a contemplative bent. I’ve also learned more recently that the severe amount of trauma I experienced as a child dramatically increases one’s likelihood to have a mystical experience. And so for some people that wonder, why haven’t I had an experience like that when others do, please understand that many, many, many people who find themselves experiencing God’s presence directly do so because they have been so hurt that it scarred their brain and they have dissociative tendencies. And that might sound really discouraging. But to me, there is something beautiful about a God who, one, hangs on a cross and says, “it’s finished, father forgive them.” But that the same God statistically shows up most often in the people who’ve been hurt the most. Well, that’s the kind of God that I not only am fascinated with and love, but that I’m interested in being more like.

Stump:

Should your mystical experience and your account of it count as evidence for other people, for the existence of God?

McHargue:

No Way. No. If people find their faith validated by it, I love it. Should it be validating? Yes. Evidence. I’m afraid that if people put too much stock in my testimony as evidence that God exists, they’re only going to be disappointed the next time they talk with a well educated atheist. There are plausible neurological explanations for what happened to me on the beach that night and it leaves us in the same situation we’re always in examining the reasons we believe in God. There are two ways to explain it and each person must choose for themselves as a matter of faith. I hate saying that. Which story makes the most sense to them? I choose to believe every day that the encounters that people have with God, including in the scriptures, are a sign that there really is something powerful and magical and mystical at the base of reality that we call God. But I also understand that many people look at the same set of facts and come up with an inanimate universe. And it’s not for me to say, one way or another, how any person puts together the puzzle of their own life.

[musical interlude]

BioLogos:

Hi Language of God listeners. Here at BioLogos we think that asking questions is a worthwhile part of any faith journey. We hope this podcast helps you to think through long held questions and consider new ones but you probably have other questions we haven’t covered yet. That’s why we want to take this quick break to tell you about the common questions page on our website. You’ll find questions like “How could humans have evolved and still be in the image of god,” “how should we interpret the Genesis flood account?” and “What created God?” Each with thoughtful and in depth answers written in collaboration by scientists, biblical scholars and other experts. Just go to biologos.org and click the common questions tab at the top of the page. Back to the show!

Interview Part 3

Stump:

So much of what we believe, we do so on the authority of other people. You and I have never done the experiments that show that the earth is four and a half billion years old, or that evolution happened or that humans are significantly responsible for climate change. Yet we both believe those things with a high degree of certainty, right? Other people have had those experiences and they tell us about them and we believe them. How is that different? I think it is importantly different. But how’s that different from my saying you’ve had this experience on the beach, you’ve told us about it. Shouldn’t we believe you?

McHargue:

Yeah. Steps to reproduce and publishing is the fundamental difference. Scientists don’t just say, here’s the thing we found. They say, here’s how we found it, here’s how you can replicate. And believe it or not, because I’m me, I have reproduced some of Newton’s or Einstein’s methodologies for how they validated things and say, did this match? Like, I’ve made a vacuum chamber and dropped an apple into it. 

Stump:

So I was wrong when I said, neither you or I have actually done the experiment. 

McHargue:

I’ve looked at gravitational lensing and using a CCD camera attached to a large telescope. I’ve measured the red shift of objects in the sky. I am not trusting, even of science, and I went through my own everything I could to check up on the work. But that’s the difference. Scientists publish how they got it. And if they don’t, it’s not science. That’s the difference in the epistemology is evidence and observation and reproducibility.

Stump:

So I just came from a conference on psychological sciences where we were told about the crisis of replicability. 

McHargue:

It’s a huge crisis. 

Stump:

And we were told that it appears that less than half of the published results can be confirmed by having those studies be replicated. And maybe in the psychological sciences, they’re particularly vulnerable to that. Since we’re talking about people and the particular circumstances that we’re in have significant effects on how we might respond to various things. But could we say that this is not an experiment, but an experience again that might, we might not expect that it could be directly reproduced by people given different circumstances, different temperaments, different histories and histories of their own neurology, their own brains. But I’m still trying to grope toward a little bit of the testimony and evidence of these kind of experiences in what they might count for as we’re trying to put together a bigger picture and understanding of reality. And particularly of, you know, the existence of something beyond what our scientific instruments can detect.

McHargue:

I have a tee shirt that says “science isn’t science until the science says the science isn’t science.” Which that’s a lot to dig through. But the fact that scientists are uncovering vast methodological flaws in published science is a feature and not a bug of science. It’s why someone who has a truly scientific worldview, holds knowledge loosely. To accept science is to accept that anything you believe could be up-ended as nonsense tomorrow by more evidence, which is frankly existentially terrifying for our species. Right? 

So when we talk about our faith, our faith isn’t designed to be appended tomorrow. It’s designed to be more trustworthy and more grounding. And I appreciate that. Where I always seem on my heels compared to my kin in the Christian family is I’ve had a mystical experience, but I know Muslims have too. And I’ve known Buddhists have too. So if I lean into testimony as my primary arbiter or even an arbiter of truth, what I find is that testimonies produce conflicting outcomes. And when people of faith have tried to reconcile that and kind of a modernist framing before you get something like the Bahai faith that looks at all different testimonies and tries to create an explanatory model that accommodates all these diverging testimonies. And I just think that gets like weird and messy.

One of the most amazing things as I started to return to Christianity was to read the early Patriarchs of Greek Orthodox Christianity. And their basic premise was that God is meant to be experienced and meant to be in the presence of but not mastered through human understanding. And as I read that in a collection of books called the Philokalia I said, okay, for me, mysticism is the only way I’m going to be able to sustain this over time. To willfully subordinate myself as limited when compared to God. And I’m just going to trust that whatever God is and whatever the faith is. God knows that. So I don’t have to. What I have to do is look at this great tradition of people who’ve come before me and learn what it means to be a good servant of God in the world. And so my theological assumptions and the testimonies of others are useful to me to the degree it tells me how to be a creator of God’s peace in the world. And I understand that many people are much more interested in taking this modernist framing of epistemological certainty and attaching it to the divine. And I wish them great luck and success. I know that for me, if I grab that thread and start pulling, I fall all the way back down to atheism and humanism. And I don’t want to do that. I like being a Christian.

Stump:

I want to push a little further into understandings of God that you just brought up there. But before that, the point you made in us trying to compare these epistemologies of science and faith, one of the most difficult things that we at BioLogos have had to try to communicate to people is the fallibility of science and yet the trustworthiness of science. 

McHargue:

Yes. Right, right. 

Stump:

And I think that, you know, grates against many peoples’ modernist epistemologies in many senses there. But do you have any good tricks for getting people to see both of those. That yes, science is fallible and that yes, we are on our heels looking for new experiences and discoveries, but at some level we can trust. I mean, we’re not still on our heels about whether the earth is round or moving around the sun. We’re not still on our heels, most of us, for how old the earth is for evolution for… I mean, sometimes these become settled.

McHargue:

Science’s fallibility is why you can trust it. That’s the point that confuses so many people. That is exactly why it becomes trustworthy, is because literally anyone, you don’t have to have a PhD. You don’t have to work for a university. If you do the work rigorously to come up with a hypothesis and run an experiment that demonstrates your hypothesis is true, you can change the scientific view of the world. Scientists constantly check up on each other. Every new idea is vigorously fought and that’s how it should work. So the fact that science admits its fallibility and defends big bang cosmology tells you something. It tells you that there is a vast body of reproducible work and clear observations that support that organizational theory. Although it will be refined as time moves on, it’s so well defined that scientists are comfortable basing further work on it without questioning all the assumptions underneath it. That’s what a theory in science is. And it’s really good at it. The predictions of big bang cosmology are how we have a GPS system, right? The fundamental understanding of Einsteinian relativity, helps us build iPhones. I mean it’s like the application in our day-to-day lives is so clear and so real. It’s why it’s so persuasive to younger generations. They see, when science talks about how things work and makes predictions, they can do crazy things with that insight. And if the models didn’t work, iPhones wouldn’t work and GPS satellites would crash and we would not be able to land people on the moon. It’s just… science shows its worth. We’ve got an SUV sized nuclear powered robot on Mars right now. That’s insane. And that’s because the models work and the predictions play out.

Stump:

So one of the push backs against that is that I guess that’s an idealized view of how science works. In reality, there’s more group think going on. There’s more, “I have to accept this paradigm if I’m going to get funding or if I’m going to get through my graduate program and have to adopt the views of my dissertation director.” The funding models themselves of who’s… So there are definitely societal elements in that that can…

McHargue:

Just like the church, the world of science is made up of people. Yeah, there’s…. I’m not describing science as some panacea. Yeah, there’s systemic problems in science and yet it overall works anyway.

Stump:

One of my hobby horses as a philosopher is to try to understand the role of language. And the deeper I’ve gone into this, the harder and more confusing it is to understand how we acquired language as a species, how language affects our thinking, how language is regulated and seems to be the source of a lot of confusions. I’ve heard you talk about the fact that the word God gets used very differently by lots of different people. And so when we’re sitting here talking about the existence of God, even what do we even mean by that?

McHargue:

What I try to do when I talk about God is be aware that all of us in the room probably think different things. So now what do we do? Right? Well, it means we probably shouldn’t make universal claims about God without admitting we’re talking about different things. Some of the ways I think about God, atheist are very comfortable with. They’re like, “why don’t you just say cosmos, dude?” Well, no, if I say cosmos, that activates a different set of neural pathways in my brain based on how human brains process language. And I really like the whole mystery spirituality thing. So I just use the God label. It just activates different parts of my brain.

Stump:

And there are other conceptions of God, that atheists reject, that I’m perfectly comfortable rejecting too.

McHargue:

Absolutely, yes. About that kind of god. Totally. Thank you. So I’m less interested in putting it forward, my idea of God is the one everyone should get behind. I mean, I’m more than happy to share my conceptions of God. But I’d rather just have everybody admit like, “Hey, you’ve got a thing in your brain with the word God that’s different than that brain and that brain and that brain and that brain.” So now what do we do? I think it means we have to be patient and loving and humble when we talk about matters of faith and anything that invokes the G word.

Stump:

So one of the big dividing lines between conceptions of God is whether God is ultimately personal or not. What do you think about that? I mean we have difficulties with what does personal mean though too, right? Again, the trouble with the language, but…

McHargue:

Yeah, so like if I go through physics to find God, if God is like some kind of creator sustainer for everything we can see and measure, then that means God has to be somewhere north of a relativistic understanding of the universe. And in a relativistic understanding of the universe, a time-based consciousness is nonsense. It’s just not a thing. Like the way we conceive of the universe is inseparable from 86 billion neurons sitting on a planet. Right?  A cosmic entity simply could not conceive of reality the way we do and exist. A cosmic entity would probably not differentiate between present, past and future. Right? That gets really hard to call personal. But somehow, when I pray and meditate, God shows up in a personal way. And those two things in my philosophical mind are at odds. But being a good mystic, I just sit and contemplate it. It’s so… I hate when rigorous thinkers talk to me, I just, I know they will leave disappointed because I’ll Forrest Gump every time. Maybe it’s both. Maybe both are happening at the same time.

Do you see what I mean? Like the problem is, if we really push to what my primary framing of the world is, it’s a brain centered understanding of the human experience. So what I understand is that if I apply an analytical, reductive, or philosophical lens to my pursuit of God, it moves into my left hemisphere of the brain and it moves towards the front of my brain and that’s the opposite corner of where spirituality lives. So I’ll play that game, but I won’t go hard because it neurologically rebiases my brain away from what I value most in my faith, which is the experience of God’s presence. So I intentionally make sure two thirds or more of the time I spend with this word God are spent in practice and experience and not in analysis.

Stump:

I think there’s a pretty strong tradition for doing that sort of thing though too. I mean, you point back to a Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber in the “I and the thou” where even as other humans we do that same thing. I can put you under the microscope and look at all sorts of ways of the particles you’re made of, operate and behave. But for Buber and for the people in his tradition, it’s like I have to do a phase shift of some sort then to treat you as a person who has will and agency and intentions. And I wonder if we can do that same thing with God, particularly when we’re doing the scientific thing and trying to understand the effects of God; creation, divine action, those kinds of problems. But then we treat God as personal who has a will, who has agency, who has moral responsibility? I mean does that have any traction with your conceptions of God?

McHargue:

I’ve had a really bad year. It’s been a bad year. I’ve been in the hospital. My daughter had an eating disorder, has an eating disorder. Treating her eating disorder and my heart condition drove us to the brink of financial collapse. I’ve been in a constant state of stress and anxiety. I’ve been really compelling in the public eye because my willingness to be transparent and effectively have repeated mental breakdowns on stage and on podcasts, which is great radio, but it’s a tough way to be. And I had a conversation with a cardiologist and she said, “well you have a heart disease that people usually get in their seventies and eighties and it’s hard to treat in your eighties, but you’re in your forties. I don’t know how you got this other than you show the biomarkers of incredible stress. So you can do what I tell you and in three months your heart disease is going to be healed, or you can keep doing what you’re doing.” And she said, “I think you could be dead in six months. You’ll have a heart attack and you’ll die.” 

And so I had to make some immediate and radical changes. It was really hard to think like, how can I reduce my stress level when I’ve just racked up all these medical bills? We’re already in medical debt, but then the listeners of the podcast banded together and paid off all my family’s medical debts. That was just a couple of weeks ago and my cardiologist said, “you’re a workaholic and you do noble work, and that’s a dangerous combination.” She’s said, “I’ve checked in, I’ve seen what people say about you.” And she said, “for someone with your temperament, having strangers say, you saved my life, that’s a call you can’t resist.” And she said, “you work too hard.” 

And in her words, I heard a personal God that loves me, reminding me of how I became Science Mike in the first place, and that was being still and quiet in the pursuit of a God who loves me. And she said, “you need to rest. And if I tell you to rest, you won’t. I’m going to give you two jobs. You’re going to plant a vegetable garden and you’re going to start birdwatching.” And I’m autistic and so I have literally the perfect birdwatching, bird feeding set up for native and indigenous birds in this region. And I was out changing their feed as I do every day and cleaning the bird feeders and watering my garden. I have a beautiful garden. And a dove came and landed, Jim, as close as you are to me, where I was watering a plant. I didn’t want to spray the bird so I moved the sprayer away and the dove hopped down from the bush and hopped even closer to me and did that little dove coo and I realized the dove wanted the bath. So I changed the sprayer to a soft mister. And without any fear of me, this wild bird took a bath in a hand mister for, I don’t know, six or eight minutes and then hopped up and shook its feathers and kept me company for another 20 minutes while I watered the garden. And to an atheist, this is nonsense. But that little dove to me was a messenger from a God that I love, that’s personal and has agency and said, “It’s time for you, Science Mike, to have some peace.”

I understand that for many listeners of this podcast, I’m probably really frustrating to listen to, my reticence to ever make definitive claims about the divine. But what you have to understand about me is that I experience a personal and loving God all the time. And that experience is the driving force behind every single thing that I do. Not only on podcasts and on stage, but when I tuck my children in at night, when I pass a homeless person on the street, or when I see someone at an airport who looks like they’re having a bad day. In every one of those moments, I stop and I listen for what a personal, loving God has for me to do in that moment.

Stump:

Thanks for sharing that. [pause]

What are you excited about? What ideas? What topics?

McHargue:

Oh gosh, months late I just turned in my second book and it’s my opus. This is a book about how modern people ignore their feelings to their detriment and what a reconciliation with the emotional, experiential part of our lives can do to our daily living and how we live with others and how it impacts our faith. And I’m really excited about, in the near future, no longer having to hoard all of those ideas and be able to share them freely with people in the public. You can probably tell I’m in a real feelings awareness era of my life right now. And I think that’s a good arc, not just for me, but for a lot of people who grew up in the church. Our feelings are not bad. In fact, they can be the source of some of our greatest wisdom.

Stump:

Thanks for talking to us today.

McHargue:

It’s my honor.

BioLogos:

Language of God is produced by BioLogos. It has been funded in part by the John Templeton Foundation and more than 300 individuals who donated to our crowdfunding campaign. Language of God is produced and mixed by Colin Hoogerwerf. Our theme song is by Breakmaster Cylinder. We are produced out of the BioLogos offices in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

If you have questions or want to join in a conversation about this episodes find a link in the show notes for the BioLogos forum. Find more episodes of Language of God on your favorite podcast app or at our website, biologos.org, where you will also find tons of great articles and resources on faith and science. Finally, if you’re enjoying the show and want to help us out, leave a review on iTunes, we love hearing from and it helps other people find the show. Thanks.


Featured guest

Mike McHargue Headshot

Mike McHargue

Mike McHargue is a science expert and film & TV consultant for clients including Marvel Studios. His recent notable projects include WandaVision, Loki, and Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. He is also a best-selling author and podcaster loved by millions and a co-founder of Quantum Spin Studios.

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