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The Science of Repentance
A meditation for Lent or any season of penitence

Lent. It's a long season stretching forty days, all the way from Ash Wednesday to Easter. Now you'll have to confess this season does not exactly electrify modern day Christians. In this fast moving world, we lack the patience for a holiday of such length. We're more enamored by the one day extravaganza, like Christmas, Easter, or Superbowl Sunday. Sometimes we might actually stretch it out to a three day holiday weekend, but an observance lasting forty days and forty nights, like Lent, is almost beyond imagining. No, Siree, a generation of Americans born and bred on the sixty second TV commercial or, heaven forbid, "surfing" from one site to another on the Internet, clearly lacks the attention span to celebrate this venerable season.

And for another thing, we in the church have not been very imaginative in our teaching about Lent. We've created the impression that Lent is a season for self-denial, like giving up on cigarettes or sweets. Perhaps we remember from our childhood that this is a time for giving up bubble gum or candy, a time of abstention from meat or the movies. This conventional approach to Lent is one-sided and misleading. It creates the impression that there is something wrong with pleasure.

"Repent from your sins and turn to God." That is the message the preachers often deliver. "Repent and be saved!"

But what is the true meaning of repentance?

The conventional understanding involves drawing up a list of ones foibles and sins...then, trying to cross those sins off the list one by one. Yes, I'll surely try to give up smoking; I'll try to lose weight; I'll try to be more concerned about the hungry and the homeless; I'll go to church every Sunday; I'll even try harder to be merciful to my least favorite people. The problem is, we usually find, after a long effort at moral reform, that the sins come back all the more healthy than ever: lots of chocolate cake and ice cream, deep resentment about the flaws of certain people, terrific self-indulgence. That's the problem with the moralistic approach to repentance. If we approach this season with the idea of routing out all that is evil in our lives, pumping ourselves up to a pitch of virtue and good will, we're likely to find that the bubble of our virtue bursts soon after the season of our reform has past, and the vices come back on with a vengeance.

Many people ride their lives on a kind of moral pendulum, swinging from periods of compulsive reform, to periods of self-indulgence, from the latest crash diet to binges of overeating, from lethargy to hyperactivity, from intense periods of involvement with other people, to periods of retreat and isolation. And so the sacrifices and good deeds of one season are canceled out by the misdeeds of another and we find ourselves repenting from our virtues as often as we repent from our sins. May I propose that instead of approaching Lent from a moralistic perspective, we reflect upon the science of repentance.

The Science of Repentance

This is the season for exploring the mysteries.. This is the time for looking beneath the surface, for looking within ourselves, examining our own motives and desires, asking ourselves where we are headed. What in the world makes us tick? Where does our real commitment lie?

In asking these questions, we've got to be at least as energetic, as curious, as imaginative, as disciplined as the scientists.

Just think of what science has accomplished.... I'm not just talking about products like radio, television, the microwave and the computer. These are impressive enough. Even more impressive is science's assault upon the mysteries. Only a few years ago it was universally accepted that a material object, like the computer you are using right now, was made out of something solid, like metal or plastic. Such things as this were dead and inert matter. But when the atomic scientists began exploring the mystery of the atoms that make up something like your computer, when they began probing beneath the surface, asking what really makes these atoms work, a whole new understanding began to emerge. The atoms that you are watching on the monitor right now are not dead, motionless things, they are infinitely mysterious, pulsating patterns of energy and mass, particles too wonderful and mysterious to conceive. But the scientists, not entirely understanding what they were doing, had opened Pandora's box; they had unlocked the hidden powers of the atom. So we had Hiroshima and Nagasaki; we have our atomic weapons and our nuclear medicines and we have energy to light our homes and run our factories.

I would suggest that while exploring the mystery of the atom was the frontier of the twentieth century, exploring the mystery of the soul is the frontier of the twenty-first century. Think what we could accomplish if we actually knew what makes for good or evil. What is it that leads to peace of mind or peace among nations? If we really knew how to bring both justice and freedom to the peoples of the world, especially those living on our own city streets; if we really knew how to use our own energies to their fullest; if we could see God's light shining more clearly in our own lives, and feel God's presence in our own hearts; if you could be sure that God's domain included the room where you are sitting before the computer monitor at this very moment, think how wonderful that would be!

If these things would come to pass, then the discoveries of the twenty first century would surpass all the discoveries of modern science put together. All the wonderful miracles of modern medicine, all the destructive fury of our nuclear missiles would fade to mere shadows!

And that is the challenge of this season. Lent can be a time for exploring the hidden depths, for looking beneath the surface, for asking what really makes things tick. If we are brave enough, this can be a time for pushing beyond the conventional wisdom, for reexamining traditional understandings.

I know this suggestion flies in the face of popular belief. Many people believe that in religion we already have the truth wrapped up in some tidy package of doctrine. Doesn't the Bible contain all we need to know? Doesn't the creed really say it all? I beg to differ. It seems to me that in religion as in science the more one learns, the more one is aware of the need to know. The closer one approaches God, the greater ones sense of the wonder, the mystery, excitement. And the deeper one's appreciation for the complexity of truth.

Remember that Jesus Christ himself needed a period of searching and sorting and exploration. At the very beginning of his ministry, before even trying to teach, he spent forty days and forty nights in the wilderness without food or shelter searching for the truth of God. What Jesus found was not so much the final answer, but the better question. He found the starting point for our own search, and the beginning of our own understanding.

Remember his words, recorded by Matthew: "Thou shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God." Recently scientists rediscovered this insight of Jesus. Until just twenty years ago, it was taken for granted that you could understand this world by reducing it to its smallest parts. Take your computer apart, see it as a combination of circuits and wires, reduce the computer chip to atoms, the atoms to particles. And when you figured out how those particles fit together, then you understood the computer. Well it just ain't so. You can't begin to understand what any physical object is, really, until you understand those larger forces that hold its atoms together. You can't understand a fiber of wood, without understanding the tree from which it came, and you can't see the tree without the forest, or the forest without the continent. You can't understand any one thing without understanding its relationship to every other thing. We live in a web called creation.

You cannot live by bread alone

That's about as close as you can get to what Jesus meant when he said: "You cannot live by bread alone." No single thing contains enough of the truth to save us. We shall not live by bread alone, nor by the Bible, nor by the miracles and sacraments of the church, nor by the wonders of science. Nor shall we be saved by the most serious attempt at moral reform. For even if we repent from every sin and force ourselves to perform every good work we can imagine, still we have not attained the whole truth. Since God is an all encompassing reality, our quest is never ending and our search is never complete.

Remember Christ's comment when the devil took him to the top of the highest mountain where they could see all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said, "All these will I give you if you fall down and worship me." But Jesus answered. "You shall worship the Lord, your God, and God alone shall you serve."

That is our starting point. And it is the basis for our understanding of repentance. "God alone shall you serve." We need not be held hostage to any lesser idea than that. No ideal of right or wrong, no religious doctrine, no political ideology or scientific theory adequately explains the mystery. The answer lies not in a preconceived notion of the truth or in a prepackaged idea of the good. We must set out to do in the spiritual life what the scientists do every day. We must continue exploring, searching, pushing up against the horizons of our awareness.

For more on the relation between science and faith, you might want to check out Charles Henderson's book, God and Science, now appearing on the Web. Don't worry, you can't see God either.

Decades ago, scientists, probing the secret of the smallest atoms, were able to discover a force and a power that changed the very course of history. As we explore the mysteries, we too may discover skills, attributes, and powers unsuspected or unimagined. But in order to begin our search, we must first repent. Repent thoroughly from stale doctrines and outmoded values. Repent from preconceived notions of goodness. We need to repent from vapid notions of goodness as well as from conventional sins. You see, repentance is not so much a matter of stripping ourselves of pleasure and delight as Christians have been told to do this season. Repentance is more a matter of putting ourselves in contact with the source of vitality and delight, even the very God in whom we live and move and have our being. Let us celebrate this season repenting of our spiritual lethargy. Let us resolve to apply our faculties, employ our senses, alert our imagination, and turn on the lights of our minds that we might see beneath the surface and see! And thanks be to God who is the light of the world!

Images and text Charles Henderson

Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and Executive Director of
He is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).  
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here.
God and Science (Hypertext Edition, 2005).
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion:
Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2007).

Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.  

For more information about Charles Henderson.
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