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Hank’s 2021 Books on the Spiritual Side of Science

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When I explore the secrets revealed by science, I feel in the presence of something sacred. As I looked back on my 2021 books written by scientists, they all had a spiritual spin to them. I started my review of books last week. Here are my books on the Spiritual Side of Science, reads for the year:

Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine (2018) By Alan Lightman

“As a physicist, Alan Lightman has always held a purely scientific view of the world.… But one summer evening, while looking at the stars from a small boat at sea, Lightman was overcome by the overwhelming sensation that he was merging with something larger than himself — a grand and eternal unity, a hint of something absolute and immaterial.”

 

 

 

Almost Human: The Astonishing Tale of Homo Naledi and the Discovery That Changed Our Human Story (2017) By Lee Berger and John Hawks

My interest in human evolution stems from one of my core spiritual beliefs — that the self is an illusion. My work with the dying, my reading death and dying literature, my contemplation of the mystics, and my pondering of my own Christian beliefs led me down this path. I am curious about how we evolved from being animal-like with no sense of self to being self-aware. Genesis pinpoints the moment when Adam and Eve’s eyes opened, and they saw they were naked — they became self-aware. This book is just another piece of this puzzle looking into our human ancestors. “This is Lee Berger’s own take on finding Homo Naledi, an all-new species on the human family tree and one of the greatest discoveries of the 21st century.”

The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature (2016) By J. Drew Lanham (audio read by the author)

Lanham is a “birder” with a PhD from Clemson University, where he teaches. He touches on two themes close to my heart — love of the outdoors and growing up Southern. Lanham’s viewpoint is that of a Black man who descended from generations of family in South Carolina, whose professional field is almost entirely comprised of White scholars and birders. “By turns angry, funny, elegiac, and heartbreaking, The Home Place is a remarkable meditation on nature and belonging, at once a deeply moving memoir and riveting exploration of the contradictions of Black identity in the rural South — and in America today.”

 

Useful Delusions: The Power and Paradox of the Self-Deceiving Brain (2021) By Shankar Vedantam and Bill Mesler

I have long been fascinated by the placebo effect and reviewed this book in a previous blog about my experience with it. Our delusions are not only helpful in medicine but marriage, too. Here is a quote from the book: “The researchers found that the couples who had the most inflated views of their partners — the ones who saw their relationships with the greatest degree of self-deception — were the happiest. This is hardly a new idea: Benjamin Franklin once offered the advice, ‘Keep your eyes wide open before marriage — and half-shut afterward.’” Vedantam hosts a great podcast, “Hidden Brain.”

Illness as Metaphor (1978) and AIDS and Its Metaphors (1989) By Susan Sontag in one audio program

In the 1978 monograph, “Sontag shows how the metaphors and myths surrounding certain illnesses, especially cancer, add greatly to the suffering of patients and often inhibit them from seeking proper treatment. By demystifying the fantasies surrounding cancer, Sontag shows cancer for what it is — just a disease. Cancer, she argues, is not a curse, not a punishment, certainly not an embarrassment, and it is highly curable, if good treatment is followed.” She then expands on this regarding AIDS. The backstory of these two pieces is that she twice “beat” cancer with treatment. She died of the disease in 2004. Her son, David Rieff, wrote of the tragic (in my view) ending of her life in Swimming in a Sea of Death: A Son’s Memoir.

Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows How Being near, in, on, or under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do (2014) By Wallace J. Nichols

It is no secret that I get spiritual refreshment from paddling my kayak. I did a video while on a kayak trip in the Mississippi Delta where I mentioned this book. The subtitle says it all. We humans benefit spiritually by being near water.

 

 

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Chaplain Hank Dunn is the author of Hard Choices for Loving People: CPR, Feeding Tubes, Palliative Care, Comfort Measures and the Patient with a Serious Illness and Light in the Shadows. Together they have sold over 4 million copies. You can purchase his books at hankdunn.com or on Amazon.

 

The “Thin Places” Between the Physical and the Spiritual

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Do you ever notice how often people post photos of sunrises or sunsets on social media? “Inspiring,” they say. Or the religious types write, “Good morning from God.”

In my personal photo collection, I have scads of dawns and dusks. Sunrise in the swamp. Sunset from a mountaintop.

Then there was the sunrise etched in my memory when I found myself without a camera. I spent the night alone on a platform in the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina. It was chilly, so I braced myself against the cold covered up in my sleeping bag. At first light, I sensed something special was about to happen.

Indeed, it did. I sat up with a start and looked east. Moments before the sun inched above the distant ridge of mountains, a deep purple line separated the night sky from the ridgeline. It couldn’t have lasted more than a few minutes. I had never seen such a beautiful mountain dawn before. I haven’t since.

The “Thin Place” between physical and spiritual worlds

Iona Abbey, Scotland

That mountain was a “thin place.” The term is used to describe places of sacred power, where the separation between physical and spiritual worlds seems “thin.” There are sermons about thin places, like in the story of the Transfiguration.

In that story, Jesus shines with bright light on a mountaintop before his disciples. The mountain becomes a symbol of the meeting point between humans and God – between the physical and spiritual – with Jesus representing the connection between both worlds. Long before cameras or social media, Peter wanted to capture the moment and build three shrines to contain this heavenly appearance. Jesus would have none of it.

Thin places are most often associated with spiritual retreats, like the Scottish island of Iona, which I visited while on a Celtic Christianity pilgrimage. Being in places like this invites thoughts of things spiritual.

Hank’s “thin place” – campsite on The Big Schloss

There’s also a thin place, for me, on The Big Schloss, a rock outcrop on the Virginia-West Virginia border. I have probably spent thirty nights sleeping near the peak of this mountain, watching the sun rise and set. My children slept up there with me. We saw Halley’s comet there.

Even atheist author Sam Harris speaks of his own thin place experience. In his book, he describes how he was touched by a walk in Jesus’ footsteps. This happened on “an afternoon on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee, atop the mount where Jesus is believed to have preached his most famous sermon,” Harris writes. “As I gazed at the surrounding hills, a feeling of peace came over me. It soon grew to a blissful stillness that silenced my thoughts. In an instant, the sense of being a separate self — an ‘I’ or a ‘me’ — vanished.” (Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, p. 81)

“Thin Moments”

Photo by RODRIGO GONZALEZ on Unsplash

There are also “thin moments,” or moments in time that are transformed into a spiritual experience. In an earlier blog, I wrote about my sense of connection with others at the post office the first time I wore a mask inside. I quoted the monk (and sometimes hermit), Thomas Merton, and his sense of connection to all the busy shoppers at an intersection in Louisville.

Photo by Filip Mroz on Unsplash

More thin moments: Gazing into the face of an infant who is smiling for the first time. Walking outside at night and hearing an owl or a whip-poor-will. Listening to music that moves you. Then of course, there is always watching those sunsets and sunrises.

Thin moments could happen more often if we just paused long enough or weren’t so distracted or busy taking pictures to post. We don’t have to be at the top of a mountain or by the seashore. The promise from scripture is, “I am with you always.”

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Chaplain Hank Dunn is the author of Hard Choices for Loving People: CPR, Feeding Tubes, Palliative Care, Comfort Measures and the Patient with a Serious Illness and Light in the Shadows. Together they have sold over 4 million copies. You can purchase his books at hankdunn.com or on Amazon.

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