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Commentary: Surviving the Latest Great Awakening

By Lee Cullum, KERA 90.1 commentator

Commentary: Surviving the Latest Great Awakening

Dallas, TX –

Are we ever going to survive the current Great Awakening in our country? What should be a moment of spiritual quickening for many is turning into an age of anxious contention for all.

President Bush has just stepped into a swamp with his comments that intelligent design should be taught in the schools alongside Charles Darwin, as competing ideas about the beginning of life on earth. His science adviser, John Marburger, tried to calm the situation, explaining that "intelligent design is not a scientific concept," and Bush meant only that it should be taught as part of the "social context."

The Dalai Lama has stirred up a cyclone of his own, merely by agreeing to speak at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in November. He'll be talking about the effect of meditation on the brain, and that's not as far fetched as his critics contend. Indeed, according to an Internet report, Richard Davidson, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin, has published research suggesting that "networks of brain cells" are "better coordinated in people" who are "trained in meditation." As for the slippery slope of science toward religion, a psychologist at Princeton pointed out that the Dalai Lama "doesn't pretend to be a scientist, and no one will mistake him for one."

Many neuroscientists, however, are not so sanguine, and some of the most agitated are American professors of Chinese origin. Are they banging the drum for leaders in Beijing who kicked the Dalai Lama out of Tibet in 1959? Some may be, but not all the opposition can be ascribed to politics. Joshua Berman of Columbia University warned that inviting a religious leader to a scientific conference might send the wrong message to the public.

As if the public weren't bombarded with messages enough. Now the teaching of the Bible in public schools has become another minefield in Odessa, Texas, where respectable citizens are fighting their own battle of Jericho, hoping that the wall separating church from state might come tumbling down. The problem is that the school board in Odessa chose a program from North Carolina that is riddled with exaggerations according to Mark Chancey, a Biblical scholar at SMU.

That's unfortunate, because the Bible Literacy Project, started by Richard Scurry - who grew up in Dallas and now lives in New York - is a thoughtful, sophisticated approach endorsed by 18 groups ranging from the American Jewish Committee to the Council on Islamic Education to the National Association of Evangelicals to People for the American Way. It could play a valuable role teaching the Bible as literature and a key source of Western civilization, but that chance may get lost in the angry denunciation of other, less well structured programs.

Our latest Great Awakening is becoming a troubled dream of fear and foreboding. There is no reason why intelligent design cannot be considered in a course on comparative religion, that the Dalai Lama, as a public intellectual, cannot present his views to scientists, that public school students cannot study a carefully considered course on the Bible, perhaps alongside the Koran, plus the Torah and Talmud.

The person who should be thinking the hardest about these questions is Supreme Court nominee John Roberts. They may become more disruptive even than abortion.


Lee Cullum is a contributor to the Dallas Morning News and to KERA. If you have opinions or rebuttals about this commentary, call (214) 740-9338 or email us.