716: Interview with Ken Wilson on Importance of Prayer and Learning to Appreciate ‘Mystically Wired’ Brains

In Part 1 of our look at “Mystically Wired: Exploring New Realms in Prayer,” we reported that this book is trying to bridge the chasm between science and religion—from the perspective of evangelical Christians. (Part 1 also includes a short excerpt from Ken Wilson’s book.)

TODAY, in Part 2, you’ll meet Ken Wilson and learn that not all evangelical Christians are thrilled with Ken’s efforts. We think this is an important book, packed with great insights for deepening your prayer life.

Interview with Ken Wilson
on “Mystically Wired:
Exploring New Realms in Prayer”

DAVID: This new book is a great introduction to prayer for people who take their faith seriously—and who take science seriously, as well. For intelligent Christians, there are a lot of great ideas here. But, I know you’ve also received a few negative reviews online. Why?

KEN: Some people in the conservative evangelical crowd can be skeptical. I’ve seen a couple of these negative comments online that say my theology supposedly is bad, because I don’t believe in the supernatural anymore.

DAVID: Of course, that’s not true. How can you read this book and not realize that it’s filled with a traditional Christian faith?

KEN: Conservative evangelicalism is in a strange place these days, especially in the blogosphere. A few people are quick to criticize anything they suspect might lead someone astray.

DAVID: I have an evangelical friend who jokes: What’s the first rule when evangelical churches face tough times? Shoot the wounded. But, setting that kind of humor aside, Ken, why do you think someone would suspect this is a dangerous book?

KEN: Some people are skeptical of the word “Mystical” in the title. It’s a problem apparently. One friend of mine actually said, “You should put a piece of tape over that word before giving it to people.”

Then, he went on to tell me, “That word was off putting to me, but I did read the book. My prayer life really sucks, so I decided to actually try some of the stuff you recommend here. And, it works! I’m going to read it again and I may even give it to a friend.”

DAVID: Why are people afraid of that word?

KEN: If you Google the word “mystical,” you’ll wind up in websites that are essentially the children of the New Age. That’s confusing for evangelicals. They’re afraid of where that word might lead people.

DAVID: I’m sorry to hear that. Late last year, we featured one of the great teachers of contemplative prayer, Father Thomas Keating, in our online magazine. Keating is a mystic, yet he’s also a traditional Christian and he’s helped so many people deepen their prayer lives.

KEN: I’ve had a chance to go spend time with Keating.

First Steps Across the Bridge between Religion and Science

DAVID: Keating is remarkable. And, the reason I mention Keating here is that, like you, Keating sees no problem with integrating scientific insight with spiritual wisdom. And, just like you, even the great Father Thomas Keating has attracted a few online hecklers over the years.

I’m proud that we’re able to welcome you back, today, Ken. You’re an important part of the national effort to bridge the chasm between faith and science. What got you so involved in this kind of work?

KEN: My first point of entry to this work is through environmental scientists. I think environmental scientists in particular have a more spiritual or mystical vein because they’re people who—if you listen carefully to their stories about how they got into this field of research—you’ll find that they have what we’d call “testimonies” they’ll share with you. They tell you about how they came to more deeply appreciate the natural world and how it changed their lives.

DAVID: I can see that. Yeah, they do have testimonies. I’ve heard many of them over the years. And, the section of your new book with the most specific references to scientists is the section on the natural world.

KEN: Right. That’s where I’ve made most of my own connections with scientists. There’s more we share than people might realize. Think about the idea of evolution. If you really understand what’s going on with studies of common ancestry, then you’ll understand this feeling of profound connection to everything in the natural world in a way that is fundamentally spiritual. Spirituality is all about connections.

DAVID: You mention people like the famous E.O. Wilson in your book, among other scientists. Tell us more about these scientists who impress you. For example, Wilson is a secularist.

KEN: Right. There are a number of scientists who, if you look at their personal stories, then I think you really begin to see them as broken-hearted Christians. They feel drawn to the natural world and they see connections with God in nature, but for too long the church wanted to slam the door on that avenue to faith. What winds up happening is that many scientists have this Wizard of Oz moment. They are skeptical of what the church is telling them, beause they’re seeing truth and spiritual connections elsewhere. Eventually, they pull back the Wizard’s curtain to see why the church is acting this way. All too often, they find there is nothing substantial behind that curtain. So, they walk away broken hearted and many don’t look back.

Think about E.O. Wilson. He was raised Southern Baptist and had a powerful experience when he was baptized, but he walked away. A lot of secular scientists I’ve met are on a spiritual quest but their way of connecting with the real wonders of the world is through these secular disciplines. Our religious quest is to know the unknown. That’s the scientific quest as well: trying to know the unknown. There are amazing parallels if we’re open to thinking in new ways.

DAVID: Asking the questions about religion in new ways seems to be an important key to bridging the gap. That’s what Elaine Howard Ecklund found in her book, “Science vs. Religion.” In your book, you’re also trying to find a new vocabulary—new terms to describe prayer, for example.

Here’s the kind of problem we face: An evangelical might say, “God spoke to me.” But a scientist would say, “Now, looking at this objectively there is no evidence of a sound wave moving into your inner ear, so I have to conclude there is no voice speaking here.” In your approach, Ken, you’re saying, “Wait a minute. We need new ways to describe what we’re experiencing in prayer so we don’t turn people away with hollow phrases.”

KEN: Absolutely. One of the big problems for evangelicals is that we don’t have a good literary sensibility. We tend not to understand metaphor in any sophisticated way. Over and over again, the Bible is nothing but metaphor.

Bible Study: Exploring Metaphor and Finding New Language

DAVID: If “mystically” makes people nervous, then “metaphor” probably sends some readers over the edge.

KEN: We need to be able to talk about these things in a more sophisticated way. We’re stuck in a rigid, wooden approach to language that doesn’t bear the weight of reality. We talk about having a personal relationship with Jesus but every metaphor hides as much as it reveals. In many ways what we experience with Jesus is not a personal relationship in the way we experience that everywhere else in life. Our relationship with Jesus actually is something different than that, so we’re not helping people by insisting they repeat the phrase “personal relationship.” What we’re talking about here really is a metaphor, so can’t we find new and better and more effective ways to describe that relationship?

Scientists will look at language like that and, when they critique it, a phrase like “personal relationship” doesn’t hold up. The problem is not with Jesus. The problem is with the language so many of us insist on using to describe these experiences. All too often, we’re relying on crappy words.

But the moment I start talking about the word “metaphor,” I’m immediately going to raise hackles among some evangelicals. Some people begin to suspect I’m talking about the Bible as literature—or that I’m dismissing the importance and depth and power of the Bible or our faith.

DAVID: I think your new book represents an important gateway. It’s a faithful book, yet it opens up new possibilities for people interested in deepening their experiences with prayer. Along the way, you’re urging people to develop a whole new language for what they’re discovering.

KEN: We can keep writing books for ourselves as Christians that provide nice, simple storylines and keep using our same old inspirational language over and over again. But, we’re not really working very hard at translating our faith for people outside our evangelical world.

DAVID: I appreciated finding C.S. Lewis included in your book. He’s a terrific example of an evangelical who pioneered in this field.

KEN: Right. Lewis loved to explore new metaphors involving place or going somewhere. Lewis did that with his wardrobe, giving us the idea of going through a portal and winding up in a new place. I appreciate what he did. We need more of that.

DAVID: Why is prayer taking us to new places?

KEN: We’ve lost our awareness that heaven is a real place. We’ve lost our awareness that prayer helps us to go somewhere. From my perspective as a Jesus follower, I believe that in prayer we are communicating in, to and with Jesus who is in heaven—but we’ve stripped away a lot of the potential of prayer as we’ve stripped away our awareness of place.

DAVID: This is a good example of the kind of connection you make in your book. In searching for new metaphors for heaven and prayer, you write about the Internet. Explain that.

KEN: Now in the 21st century we have some ready-made metaphors we can use to talk about these concepts. Some of them come out of physics. The Internet is another good example. If people are skeptical of heaven as a parallel reality, well think about the billions of people around the world who now depend on the parallel reality of the Internet everyday.

DAVID: You write in the book that 30 years ago no one could have envisioned this reality we know as the Web. Today, though, billions depend on the Web on a daily basis. It’s a reality most of us couldn’t have conceived just a few decades ago.

KEN: That’s right. The Internet is an everyday experience we all have of a realm—a place we go that’s virtual. That word “virtual” means it’s a real place but it’s somehow different than the everyday world around us. The Internet—or Web or Net or whatever word we use to describe it—is a real place where we have experiences connecting all around the world.

DAVID: You’re arguing that heaven is real, too. We just need to talk about it in new ways, use new metaphors to describe it, so that people can take it seriously once again.

KEN: Yes, but it’s more than that. This all is part of our rediscovery that prayer is not just an activity we do. It’s somewhere we go. Connecting with heavenly realms is actually going someplace.

You know, if we think about it, this world is a flippin’ mystical place! Jesus paid attention to place, the Bible tells us. Surprisingly, we know less about what Jesus said when he prayed than we know about where Jesus prayed. He prayed in the desert. He prayed in a garden. We know he liked to go out and pray in wild places.

Isn’t that telling us something about how Jesus regarded the importance of place? How could we lose so much of this larger awareness of prayer? I just want to help people begin to rediscover what’s right there in our tradition waiting for us to rediscover it.

You can order a copy of “Mystically Wired: Exploring New Realms In Prayer,” by Ken Wilson, from Amazon.

ENJOY OUR ENTIRE GREAT SUMMER READING AND VIEWING SERIES: (Our series so far: “Crown of Aleppo,” “Science Vs. Religion,” “Belief,” “Apparition,” “Burma VJ,” “Facets World Cup,” “Mary Mae and the Gospel Truth” “The Lonely Polygamist,” “Rise and Shine,” “Saints,” “Beaches of Agnes” and “Mystically Wired.”)

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