Exploring the final scientific frontier – the religious mind

Exploring the final scientific frontier – the religious mind

Credit: cc by Silver Blue via Flickr

It just stands to reason that what we almost know the least about scientifically to some degree is the closest to us — our own minds. It is something neuroscience has been trying to uncover in recent decades and in particular there is still plenty of curiosity as to whether we are hardwired for religion or if religion has changed “our wiring” for the better.

While these questions remain intriguing, the answers are still elusive. This month we are looking at the mind/body connection through the lens of mental illness. There are many struggling with mental illness today both in the pews and in our communities. In many instances individuals have discovered the support that only a church family can give. Studying trends more broadly, there are scientists who are taking a greater interest in the connections between faith and brain activity, in addition to the recent University of Utah. In some ways, these studies’ findings may be interesting from the standpoint of showing the physicality of meditation or prayer, but in other ways they seem to lessen the uniqueness of the experience by comparing it to brain reward centers that light up during sex or gambling.

Could simply lighting up the right reward center in the brain, help those struggling with mental illness? Could it also trigger a spiritual experience?  Brain chemistry is indeed addressed in treating some aspects of mental illnesses such as bipolar depression and schizophrenia.

It is also worth asking what the scientists hope to accomplish with their research on religious experience. Do they hope to find proof that God’s love is located in a specific part of one’s brain or are they seeking to “cheapen” the experience by comparing it to other rewarding activities?

It seems that on the one hand scientists are trying to put more measurable characteristics to the religious experiences that are separate from ‘self-reported’ spiritual experiences, which could be helpful. Then on the other hand, it may be that some want to explain religion away as a simple function of brain chemistry.

Either way one looks at it, the argument is a powerful that our beliefs can shape how we view ourselves and those around us. If one is a Christian, there seems to be more hopeful outlook when it comes to being part of a community and in relationships as revealed in the findings of the Chicago Social Brain Network. Proving that hypothesis is nearly impossible though as it is difficult to measure, and correlation does not necessarily equal causation. In the recent large Nurses Study conducted in relationship to suicide, for instance, the findings that those that attended church were less likely to commit suicide is noteworthy but  don’t seem all that compelling. It doesn’t address the taboo across religions of taking one’s life, for example. Nor does it demonstrate that a church community helped in addressing individual problems more than one’s friends if a person doesn’t attend church services.

While all these bits of research seem to have lofty aims, the actual findings generally raise more questions than they answer. It may just be that some of the feelings experienced by individuals praying or worshiping are not measurable or even comparable to one another. Is a Buddhist more spiritual than a Baptist? What does the fMRI say?

Still, if one is battling problems related to brain chemistry, having a friend and one’s own faith as companions seems to be crucial in bringing hope to the hopeless. That kind of hope undoubtedly is one of the most noteworthy aims of religious life. Let’s pray that we can offer that hope to one another when and where it is needed most. While those outcomes may be unverifiable on a scientific basis, it still is a reasonable aim of congregational life.

Learning Lutheran theology through the religion and science dialogue

Learning Lutheran theology through the religion and science dialogue

The Badab-e Surt formations that has been created over thousands of years as flowing water from two mineral hot springs cooled and deposited carbonate minerals. Credit: cc by Nick Thompson via Flickr

Call me an accidental Lutheran.

It just so happened that the closest church to my first apartment in Chicago was an ELCA congregation roughly one block away. It wasn’t until a few years after joining, however, that I began to learn about Lutheranism and how it differed from the mainline Protestant church I grew up in. I also began to understand a bit about Lutheran theology and this was strictly a consequence of my interest in the religion and science dialogue.

It is very easy to sit in a pew on any given Sunday morning and learn of God’s grace and love, but then know very little of the contributions Martin Luther made to theology. Concepts such as Luther’s theology of the cross just don’t readily come up in many sermons!  Perhaps confirmands learn more about these concepts along with the history of the Lutheran church, but for me and perhaps for a few other “accidental Lutherans” it has been a struggle to pinpoint the allure of the denomination or explain the theological differences.

For me religion and science opened the doors to learning about why the ELCA church body believes as it does and how, while our ideas about God may change, God does not. God is unwavering in overflowing love for humanity with all of its flaws.

This month, as the Lutheran World Federation, of which the ELCA is a part, marked the beginning of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, I decided to look back on what others have written and thought about Lutheran theology and Luther’s own interaction with science in past editions of Covalence.  The result is this month’s feature and it demonstrates a snapshot of how Lutherans and science have had a good relationship over the centuries. It is fair to say that much in that story has been a positive endeavor, unlike writing and thought in other branches of Christianity that view concepts such as evolution as a threat to the Biblical narrative of creation.

So coming back to my experience: It was many years in the making, but ultimately through various lectures, discussions and conferences I’ve been able to pick up on a few theological concepts. I’ve also come across stories that depict Lutherans as a people open to scientific discovery, new technologies and supportive of science as a vocation.

I’m thankful I’ve had an opportunity to learn more about Lutheran theology generally along the way in private discussions and through public lectures.

Perhaps where this has been the most evident is with the Zygon Center for Religion and Science housed at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. It was there at the invitation of one of our vicars that I attended the Epic of Creation lecture series and was immediately captivated by the content. Since then I have embarked on a remarkable journey over the past decade, one that has deepened my faith and fed my intellectual curiosity.

As it is with any community experience it is the people that initially draw you in and the discussion that keeps you engaged. It could not have be more the case in the religion and science arena for me. Science is awe-inspiring enough on its own, but when interwoven with one’s faith and a community of fellow learners it is a glimpse into humanity’s past, present and future that fuels a lifetime of inquiry.

Scientific spirituality should be contagious

Scientific spirituality should be contagious

Credit: cc by VanessaC (EY) via Flickr

While there are many memories I could share about growing up on a farm and in a rural area, there are a few that I think shaped me, perhaps, more than I realized.

As many of you may know from your own experiences growing up in a small community, more often than not the person in town with the highest level of education (i.e. beyond the four years of college of a local educator) is the pastor or priest. Not only a moral authority, a pastor may be the person who interprets current events and is a key leader in the community.

Recently a memory came back to me of perhaps my 7- or 8-year-old-self. It was a recollection of me pretending to be a pastor. Mind you I had never seen a woman pastor at that point, but I had a nice size aluminum refrigerator from my play kitchen that doubled as a lectern when I turned it around along with an old Methodist hymnal that my mom bought at a church rummage sale. I remember giving plenty a sermon from my refrigerator/lectern.

But why I enjoyed playing pastor was more than just thinking I was the center of attention at that lectern, I think it was this idea of being right. Having all the answers, if you will, no matter the situation. I know many of you may be pastors, so just soak up this idea of always being RIGHT in your congregant’s eyes! Not an easy place to be, certainly.

Another early memory popped into my head recently too. I was a bit older and it was of a time of sheer joy and care free movement. I recall running and then dancing down our long driveway. Feeling the wind blow through my hair and then realizing I was my hands, arms, legs, feet, atoms, dirt, star stuff (thanks Carl Sagan), and an absolute mystery. I was in awe of myself as a part of creation yet still on the sidelines as a witness to it – a place I now realize that only God could carve out.

But I was a mystery on that day, and that curiosity was much more intriguing than having a full set of pat answers. It wasn’t until later on that I heard rumblings of a battle playing out between some people of faith and the theory of evolution and then faith and science broadly. Still that moment of ‘the dance’ was when I think I knew that I wanted to find out where my faith fit with the world. I was in the world but yet outside of the boundaries of the rest of nature. How could that be?

In my post college years, there was a need, however, to drop the “knowledge driven” or “know-it-all” mindset that can become routine for people of faith and learn to do that dance again as an adult. After all a world of sound bites with quick and easy answers loses its luster after a few years.

Here’s where science could spark something new. Discoveries about the universe and even quantum physics could hold unique truths about the world around us. That mysterious, glorious dance in awe of what is right in front of us and the presence of a creator within us (the creation) and outside of us at the same time. This is the spirituality that I see at work when it comes to having an abundant, forward-moving religion-and-science dialogue.

This scientific spirituality, as I’m calling it here, is also present in the “Affirmation of Creation” overture drafted by an organization within the Presbyterian Church (USA) that, like the Lutheran Alliance for Faith, Science, and Technology, seeks to lead the church in engaging with science in productive ways. A divine dance with all of creation, if you will.

We must look closely at the “why” questions those two groups and others in the Episcopalian and United Church of Christ religion and science organizations ask all the time. These groups get together once a year in fact at a series of meetings called the Ecumenical Roundtable on Faith, Science and the Church (ERT). Here these leaders share ideas and take the time to learn more on faith-and-science topics of the day that they then can take back to their respective congregations and denominations.

ERT meetings have pondered “Why is genetic enhancement through techniques like CRISPR worth the attention of the church.” In other years they have considered whether the practice of genetic modification is ethical in the eyes of the people of faith. Likewise, a previous meeting at the Roundtable took a close look at the use of social media and its effect on congregations. Together they engage in a dance of spirituality that is enlivened through scientific curiosity. This dance is what I call “scientific spirituality.”

These are important discussions that need scientists and everyday persons alike to participate alongside pastors. It is not about having all the answers as my childlike faith may have once deemed important, but the willingness to ask the right questions at the right time — and more importantly — together.

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