Faith Is More Than A Feeling

Skeptics used to argue that anyone with half a brain should realize there is no God. Now scientists are telling us that one half of the brain, or a portion thereof, is "wired" for religious experiences. But whether this evolving "neurotheology" is theology at all is doubtful. It tells us new things about the circuits of the brain, perhaps, but nothing new about God.

The chief mistake these neurotheologians make is to identify religion with specific experiences and feelings. Losing one's self in prayer may feel good or uplifting, but these emotions have nothing to do with how well we communicate with God. In fact, many people pray best when feeling shame or sorrow, and the sense that God is absent is no less valid than the experience of divine presence. The sheer struggle to pray may be more authentic than the occasional feeling that God is close by, hearing every word. Very few believers have experienced what Christian theology calls mystical union with God. Nor, for that matter, have many Buddhists experienced the "emptiness" that the Buddha identified as the realization of "no-self."

Neurotheologians also confuse spirituality with religion. But doing the will of God--or following the dharma--involves much more than prayer and meditation. To see Christ in the person of an AIDS victim or to really love one's enemy does not necessitate a special alteration in the circuits of the brain. Nor does the efficacy of a eucharistic celebration depend on the collective brain waves of the congregation. In short, religion comprehends a whole range of acts and insights that acknowledge a transcendent order without requiring a transcendent experience.

On the other hand, most of us have at one time or another experienced the dissolution of the boundaries of the self--and a corresponding sense of being at one with the cosmos. But such peak moments need not be religious. William Wordsworth found release from self in nature, where his spirit "Rolled round in earth's diurnal course/With rocks and stones and trees." A very different poet, Walt Whitman, escaped his individual self by merging imaginatively with the whole of democratic America--and everybody in it. What else is a rock concert but an assault on all the senses so that individual identities can dissolve into a collective high? Even ordinary lovers can momentarily feel at one with the universe through the mutual meltdown of ecstatic sex: "Did the earth move for you, too?"

According to the neurotheologians, evolution has programmed the brain to find pleasure in escaping the confines of the self. Some religious practices bear this out. As every meditator quickly learns, reciting a mantra for 20 minutes a day does relax the body and refresh an overstimulated mind. The Bible, too, recommends contemplative prayer for the busily self-involved: "Be still and know that I am Lord." But in the yogic traditions of India, where overcoming the boundaries of the self is central to spirituality, severe ascetic practices like fasting for weeks and mortifying the flesh are far from pleasurable. Here, it seems, religious discipline involves a re-wiring of the brain so that pain and pleasure can be transcended.

In every spiritual tradition, getting free of the self is primarily an ethical imperative. To "love your neighbor as yourself," as Jesus commanded, requires an extraordinary effort of self-transcendence. Indeed, most nonneurological theologians would argue that it can't become a habit of the heart without the assistance of divine grace. Great Christian mystics like Teresa of Avila regarded their raptures as special gifts of God. But they also understood that such experiences could become occasions for pride and spiritual self-indulgence. That's why the mystics taught that love of neighbor must always take precedence over even the most intimate communion with God in prayer. To this day, in fact, Catholic candidates for sainthood are measured by their charity, not their mystical experiences. Similarly, Buddhist bodhisattvas are distinguished by their compassion, not their spiritual athleticism.

Science, of course, does not deal with the immaterial (though aspects of modern physics come pretty close). The most that neurobiologists can do is correlate certain experiences with certain brain activity. To suggest that the brain is the only source of our experiences would be reductionist, ignoring the influence of other important factors, such as the will, the external environment, not to mention the operation of divine grace. Even so, it is hard to imagine a believer in the midst of mystical transport telling herself that it is just her neural circuits acting up. Like Saint Augustine, who lived 15 centuries before we discovered that the brain makes waves, the religious mind intuits that "Thou has made us for Thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee."

Faith Is More Than A Feeling | News