Thursday, July 19, 2012

Cake, Pie, Science, and God

While on vacation, I had the chance to read several great books that explore the interaction between neuroscience and theology. (What else would you do on vacation?) One of the leading authorities in this field is a guy named Andrew Newberg, who has authored several popular works such as  Why God Won't Go Away and How God Changes Your Brain. Newberg has engaged in ground-breaking research into the neurology of spiritual experience, doing brains scans on nuns and monks from various religious traditions. 

Newberg notes that many religious people are made nervous by these studies, because they think that if you can explain what is going on in someone's brain when they are supposedly having an experience of God, then you have explained away the experience itself. In other words, some people draw the conclusion that if neuroscience can map religious experience in the brain, then that shows that God isn't real after all. It is just our brain constructing the experience. 

Newberg very helpfully points out that this is faulty reasoning. He argues that while these neuroscience experiments cannot prove the reality of a sacred and spiritual realm, it also cannot disprove it either. He says that when you look at a brain scan of a nun in deep meditative prayer who claims to be experiencing union with God, all you can see is what is going on in her brain. You can't see if what she is experiencing is really real or not. 

The fact, of course, is that all of our experience is mediated through our brains. Take perceptual experience, for example. I assume that scientists can explain the details of the neurology of perceptual experience. (I probably couldn't understand it though!) If I look at a tree, there is no doubt that the only way I can experience the tree is through a complex neurological process. But here is the thing: just because scientists can explain the neurological basis of my perceptual experience of the tree, that doesn't mean the tree doesn't exist! If there is a God, it seems to me that it would make sense for God to interact with us through our brains. So, while neuroscience can yield some fascinating insights into the neurological aspect of spiritual experience, it is simply false to say that such insights somehow invalidate the experience. That kind of reductionism isn't a conclusion of science, but is a philosophical assumption often brought to the science. 

The relationship between science and religion can be helpfully thought of on the analogy of either a pie or a cake. (I owe this illustration to John Haught's Making Sense of Evolution). Many people think of the relationship as a pie, where the bigger the piece that science gets, the smaller the piece that religion gets, and vice versa. On this model, the two are in explanatory competition. 

Another way to look at it, though, is to see science and religion as different layers of the same cake. On this model, they can offer complimentary explanations. So when it comes to spiritual experience, the science layer can describe the experience in terms of what is going on in the cerebral cortex, and the religion layer can describe the experience as coming into contact with a sacred reality. These are not in competition. We can have our cake and eat it too.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Christ the Healer

The Gospels are filled with stories of Jesus reaching out to others with a divine love that has the power to transform and heal. The healing ministry of Jesus was absolutely central to his mission and ministry. It is even attested to by ancient non-Christian historical sources, such as the Jewish historian Josephus and the Roman historian Tacitus. Although people debated the source of his healing power (God, the devil, or magic), no one in the ancient world tried to deny that Jesus had an extraordinary power to heal and make whole.

In this new sermon series that starts this Sunday, we will be examining and reflecting on a selection of the healing miracles found in the Gospels. What we find in these stories are not just accounts of how Christ healed broken bodies centuries ago. We are also offered glimpses into the ways in which Christ can still heal people today- body, mind, and spirit. The first story we are looking at this Sunday is in Mark 1:40-45 where Jesus heals a leper. Although it is a simple and short story, when you dig underneath the surface it quickly becomes a drama-filled and powerful tale of the triumph of God's compassionate embrace over the forces that make us feel shameful and "on the outside." If, like me, you have ever felt like there is something about you that keeps God from loving you completely, this is a story you need to get into and to let it get into you. 

I look forward to the Spirit of God breathing through this story and into our lives this Sunday!