Neurotheology (Second Sermon in Series: Spirituality Checkpoint)




I believe it must have been in seminary–not during one stunning epiphany there, but rather in scattered and cumulative learning experiences only a few of which were in a classroom.  For example, I recall during one of my many browsing visits to the seminary bookstore–no money to buy any books unless they were required texts.  Still I’d go in regularly to take a gander at the stock, especially the new releases.  It was as if I longed to absorb all the knowledge held in those volumes.  Maybe if I stayed in seminary long enough I would know it all or at least all the important stuff; certainly my parents thought I would surely stay in school forever.
One might fairly have asked if I were really so drawn to learning why I didn’t get on with the reading that had already been assigned instead of hanging with books I might get to or need to read out there in the future somewhere.  I decided not to answer that question, and I encourage you not to venture an answer either so far removed from what it was I was up to back then on that segment of my spiritual and educational journey.
On one of those early bookstore browsing sessions, I remember rounding an aisle’s end and seeing displayed before my very eyes a book I’d heard about many times, but hadn’t read.  It was the book written by Dr. Wayne Oates, When Religion Gets Sick.  One of the reasons I chose Southern Seminary was because Dr. Oates was a professor there, but as I was making my way from Tennessee to Kentucky, he–Wayne Oates–was leaving the seminary so that he could devote his later years of teaching to a very different segment of the advanced learning population in our country.  He’d been appointed Professor of Psychology and Counseling at the University of Louisville Medical School where he was a free floater but attached to the Department of Psychiatry.
Anyway, I wouldn’t get to study with Dr. Oates in all likelihood unless I decided to become a physician, which wouldn’t have been good for me and certainly not for my future patients.  So, my only option was to learn from him through his numerous books, and the one I was staring at on display that day had, out of all of his books, the most alluring, yet disturbing, title:  When Religion Gets Sick.
I leafed through the book and read the introduction along with part of the first chapter.  Not all expressions of religion are good for us, are good for anyone, because they are sick, and if we buy into them we might very well become infected with the bugs that caused the religion as a whole to be ill.  Similarly, as I said last week, a healthy personality contributes to healthy religion just as an unhealthy personality contributes to unhealthy religion, which is to say that I may be a part of an expression of religion that is as ill as it is because I passed along and continue to pass along my spiritual ill health.  I’m contagious–not in the way I’d be if the flu got hold of me, but contagious in the sense that misery loves company and will therefore make as many people as it encounters as miserable as possible.  So, I, as a robustly healthy individual, might have become involved with a religion that either enhanced my spiritual health, or, equally as likely, I, as healthy as I was, might have become involved with a sick religion that robbed my spiritual health from me–maybe permanently.  Think Moonies.  Think religiously based Un-gay Movements.  Think Pharisees.
Another of these related epiphanies took place not in the several minutes I read enough of a book that I should have been required to buy it, but over a much longer time period, a whole semester, during which I took my final master’s level preaching course, “The Psychology of Preaching.”  We studied in depth, and from several perspectives, the differences between persuasion, which is legitimate and healthy and ethical, and manipulation, which is abusive and unhealthy and unethical.
My research project for that term took Psychologist Abraham Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Human Need” and Pastoral Theologian James Fowler’s “Stages of Faith,” which was a study of levels of spiritual immaturity and maturity reflecting Maslow’s insights along with Piaget’s and Kohlberg’s findings about psychological development.  If a lower level need isn’t appropriately satisfied, I can be an old man yet still stuck for life at a developmental stage that most children pass through before they hit their teens.  A person rarely chooses to be stuck at a lower level of development, or at least other people and various life circumstances play a part in hindering that person from maturing spiritually.
Maslow said very few people get to the highest level of his hierarchy, a level he named “self actualization.”  Nearly all who do, just so you know, are senior adults.  Fowler followed suit in saying that very few people reached the highest level of spiritual growth, which he called “Universalizing Faith.”  My project, and I’m sure many of you or all of you will be calling Stefan tomorrow to find out how you can get your own copy of my paper that dealt from a preaching point of view with how the next realm of existence–call it heaven, call it God’s realm–would be understood by someone at each of Fowler’s six stages of faith development.
I loved that project, loved it!  Of course, no one told me I’d one day serve as pastor of a church some or many of whose members believe those who are fully mature spiritually know better than to believe in a realm beyond this one.  I love those of you who disagree with me on this point, but I simply cannot accept the notion that life in this world is all there is.  If I should have the sad honor of officiating at your funeral twenty-five or thirty years down the road, I will be thinking about your having made what TRU-DEE, someone who has truly reached both self-actualization and universalizing faith, calls your “transition” to that next realm.
Wherever you may be on Fowler’s stages of spiritual maturing has something to do with your brain function–again not in terms of how your brain allows you to think abstractly, IF it does; but in terms of physiology.  I am who I am at any point along life’s journey partly because of decisions I make or that are made for me and partly because I am operating within a framework established by my brain over which I have little or no control; thus, who I end up becoming spiritually and otherwise is possible or necessitated because of brain function.  I may wish desperately to believe what my brain will not permit.  This adds poignance to the plight of the agnostic who longs to be confident that God is, but her or his brain physiology is just not wired for that option.

I can be a spiritually healthy person, or not, with little experience understanding things spiritual.  In effect, I’m a blank slate, and if unhealthy religion loves me, it writes on me what very well may make me spiritually sick for the rest of my life.
Not everyone, though, is so passive in the process.  There are those widely experienced in maintaining healthy or unhealthy religion who actively preserve the type of religion in which they are involved and, what’s more, are gifted at keeping it as it is and at drawing others into their take on religion.  The point here is that once I’m beyond the blank slate level, I can grow to exert influence on the health or the illness of the religious movement in which I am involved.  There may be many people who haven’t realized that they can have that kind of power, but they can.
Two things at this juncture.  One we’ll mention and leave.  The other we’ll keep walking with today.  Here they are.  One, religion isn’t God, and God isn’t religion even the healthiest of religions.  Don’t forget this; it’s vitally important, but for now we must leave it with only that much said.  Two, and we will be holding onto this reality for the rest of the Gathering, my inclination to lean toward healthy spirituality or unhealthy spirituality may well be influenced by something within me over which I have little or no control:  my brain.  My brain may, and likely does, set the perimeters of what is possible for me regarding religious expression.  The study of these possibilities and other related questions is the realm of a relatively new field of study:  neurotheology.  I don’t know if the late Dr. Oates ever heard that word, “neurotheology,” though he did have some insights that were built into this field’s foundation whether those who put them there knew of Wayne Oates and his work or not.
Aldous Huxley used the term “neurotheology” for the first time in print in his novel titled Island. The first book published dealing exclusively with neurotheology hit the shelves in 1994: Neurotheology: Virtual Religion in the 21st Century.
I am, you are chemically and biologically predisposed to be drawn to certain beliefs and practices that grow out of those beliefs because of brain function.  Not to say these can never be changed, but it is difficult to change what has already been built in.  Neither am I saying that societal and cultural conditioning miss making an impact on some of who we are and what we choose.
Someone may say that she or he is an atheist, and if someone professes atheism to me, I believe that person and respect that person’s right to hold that view.  As I said earlier, however, both atheists and theists ought to know that their views about deity may not have been arrived at as much through struggle with abstract thought processes as with what the structure and operation of their brains allow.  The same is true of other aspects of theological reflection and conviction–and all of life, for that matter.
Psychiatrist Dr. Daniel Amen says that the brain is a three-pound supercomputer.  It is the command and control center running your life.  It is involved in absolutely everything you do. Your brain determines how you think, how you feel, how you act, and how well you get along with other people…or not. Your brain determines the kind of person you are morally.  It determines how thoughtful you are; how polite or how rude you are.  It determines how well you think on your feet, and it is involved with how well you do at work and with your family.  Your brain also influences your emotional well being and your romantic life.  Remember that on Valentine’s Day.
Not until neurotheology came along, though, were neurologists, neurophysicists, and other professionals in that family bold enough to say more loudly than before that the brain has significant control over anyone’s possibilities and limitations in the realm of spirituality too.  Dr. Andrew Newberg up at U Penn has become one of the few researchers in the world, literally, to be considered a specialist in this discipline.  We need to get him here to speak to us, which means asking Lyn Newsom to take on the project; it is my observation that people are not able to say, “No,” to Lyn.  Maybe it’s how she asks.  Maybe it’s how glowingly she describes an audience of Silverside seekers to a potential speaker.  I don’t know her secret, but she’s brought to us some truly amazingly personalities.   Back to Dr. Newberg who may one day be speaking here because of Lyn Newsom.
He is a radiologist, and he specializes in observing the brain at work when people claim to be having a religious experience–all the way from what can be called meditation though the one doing the meditating calls it prayer to an experience of awe that the person awed describes as having come into the presence of the living God.  People who aren’t frightened that Newberg and clan will eventually prove scientifically that there is no God like to pick his brain, so to speak.  This is what he said in one interview:

“I can’t prove or disprove that when somebody claims to connect with God, he or she has actually connected. My publisher originally wanted me to call such an event a ‘real’ experience, which we have no way of proving. Eventually, we compromised with the term ‘neurologically real,’ to confirm the fact that we are seeing something that is real only perhaps from that neurological perspective.  Ultimately, from a scientific point of view, all that we experience, including religious experiences and near death experiences, which are profoundly religious for many people, are mediated by the brain.  Undoubtedly we will one day discover the molecular mediators of religious experiences and near death experiences and also the exact areas of the brain that mediate them, but this will only tell us what parts of the brain are involved in the experiences, not whether the experiences are real (and not just neurologically real).  Our brain and our senses limit our ability to determine what is truly real….We do not have the physical senses to determine whether there is an external reality beyond what we can perceive [within the brain].”

If this is true, and I know of no one who has disproven it, then the same limitations apply to other aspects of being religious or spiritual, and they are not the same.  To further stir things up, before the issue of brain potential or brain limitation is ever raised, there’s the blatant reality, all too easy to observe and document, that one person interprets an idea or describes an event observed in a completely different way than the next person who heard the same idea the first person heard it and saw exactly the same event when and where the other person saw it.  Yet, to hear them tell it each of them heard something different–maybe related, but hardly precisely the same.  This reality of multiple human perceptions of the same event or encounter, long before neurotheology was born, caused progressives not to expect that everyone in their religious group would or could have identical beliefs and/or identical experiences.
Example.  Two people get impossible to find front row parking places at BJ’s.  One praises God for opening that space for him.  The other pats herself on the back, figuratively speaking, for having an eagle eye and great parking lot driving skills and says to herself, “You go, girl!”, as she dashes in to take advantage of the weekly special:  buy 24 bars of Aging Actress with Great Skin facial soap and get 12 loaves of bread for $6.

So what’ll it be?  Some believe neurotheology proves God created the brain.  Others believe the brain created and continues to create God.  There is no sermon talk back today so I’ll have to wait to find out what some of you think on this cutting edge subject.
My seminary ethics professor and later my teaching colleague, Dr. Paul Simmons, has in his later teaching years, as Dr. Oates did, gone to teaching med students at the University of Louisville; he is attached to the Department of Community Medicine.  Neurotheology is a concern to him as an ethicist.
Is it a hoax?  Does anyone have the right to study another person in the midst of what that person calls religious experience?  Is someone who claims to have had a religious experience of some sort describing purely a mental state, or did that person come into the presence of transcendence that some call God?
Paul–Paul Simmons that is, not the Apostle Paul–reasons through this with his med students by beginning with the admission that someone’s brain is foundational to all that person is.   He says that the time has come when the world of traditional theological studies can no longer avoid the findings of neurotheology.  Neurotheology has forced intellectually honest folks to face the fact that at least some of what we say about religion, to the consternation of a true religious fundamentalist, is based on scientific discoveries.
Some critics, of which there are plenty, say it’s foolish or reductionistic if not sacrilegious to dare to apply science to spirituality.  I mean, really!  How can anyone even with Dr. Newberg’s vast knowledge and top of the line technology boil down what Simmons describes as “complex and wildly individual spiritual experience to mere brain circuitry”?  Good question, he says, to his mixed medical audiences.  Yes, it’s imprecise because we don’t know how fully to interpret the data collected, but it’s worthwhile because at the very least kernels of truth emerge.
None of the possible responses or conclusions can rule out any of the others.  The bottom line question remains, “Is an experience someone calls a religious experience really an experience of God, or is it, in fact, a series of amazing brain circuits at work doing what they’ve done for humans ever since there were humans?”  Those who have nothing much vested in letting go of the idea of God can quickly and comfortably say, “Finally, we know that what people have been calling God is brain chemicals at work without the encouragement of peyote.”  What will the piously inclined say, though?  Without a doubt, they’ll say, “Well, duh.  Of course, God manifests Godself in the human brain activity; that’s how God created human beings.”
Scientists use neuroimaging tools to pinpoint regions in the brain that are activated during experiences that subjects associate with “spiritual” feelings, images, activities, or ideas. David Wulf is a psychologist at Wheaton College–not Billy Graham’s conservative alma mater, but the one near Boston that is frequently on the list of the very best liberal arts colleges in the nation.  Professor Wulf is convinced that the growing number of modern brain imaging studies, quoting him directly now, “along with the consistency of spiritual experiences across cultures, history, and religions, suggest a common core that is likely a reflection of structures and processes in the human brain.”  This is an evolutionary perspective, don’t you think?
Some of how the brain has evolved has been a collective experience for the whole of the human species, but the individuality of individual humans cannot be stalled.  Thus, we raise the frightening question for some:  Can God be at least slightly different to every person who has an experience of God?  If the answer to that question is, “Yes,” which I think it is, then how in the world can sects, churches, or denominations expect everyone to believe and act alike just because they’ve bumped into God taking a run through their neurons?  And if they differ from the leader of their group whose neurons have stopped functioning, except for involuntary controls such as breathing, as a result of lack of use, they will be excommunicated and/or condemned to whatever that group conceives of as hell.  Talk about abuse.
Worth pondering.
Proverbs 23:7, the King James Version of the Bible:  “For as he thinketh…so he is.”  “As she thinketh…so she is.”
Philippians 4:8:  “…whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
A prayer/song from 1558:  “God, be in my head and in my understanding.”


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