Religion and Neurology

Source: Wikipedia
Source: Wikipedia

These notes come from my reading of William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience. It is the first “classic” read I have endeavored on in quite some time. I look forward to interacting with it and seeing what possibilities it opens. Perhaps it’ll be crap, but things tend to be classics for a reason. We’ll see.

The Nature of His Inquiry

William James indicates from the beginning of his lectures on The Varieties of Religious Experience that they will not proceed through the methods of theological, anthropological, or comparative religions inquiry, but through that of psychology, a description of religious propensities (2-3).

What are religious propensities? James asserts that inquiry is broken down into two necessary and indissoluble categories. The first he terms the “existential” by which he means a topic’s origins, history, and nature/composition. Today we might term this category “naturalistic” or “critical.” The second, what today we might call “existential,” he termed “spiritual” (his terms, hereafter, in italics). By this he means a topic’s meaning, significance, or importance (4-6). These two, he says, should not detract from one another (6). It seems that he will primarily focus on the first order of inquiry, since the second order tends to toward the theological and philosophical. I’m not sure; I’ve only read the first lecture/chapter

As James operates in classifying a religious topic with something else (for that is what one does in classification), some might be offended at his attempt to classify something held to be unique. But such is the nature of inquiry (9). James argues that once one understands the similarities between multiple religious phenomena, one is more able to appreciate the uniqueness of each item in that comparison (24). Many have had the experience of having the spiritual side of inquiry upended by the existential (10). This was done in his day by those he called medical materialists. These tried to reduce all religious phenomena to bodily functions, so that that’s all religion was: a sensory illusion (11-12).

Does an existential explanation of something preclude its spiritual import? For example, some try to explain religion away as a result of biological processes or personality malfunctions. James contends that not only can religion be explained by bodily processes but the whole of human existence: its beliefs in science, theism and atheism, literature—all of it (14). Most will not contend that the whole of human being is meaningless. Concerning religious founders being unhinged, many have called their entire systems into question accordingly. But that might be too quick. Some have offered real “light” to humanity. Consider a non-religiously affiliated, but unhinged person such as Van Gogh: do we judge his paintings by his mental state or by the work he put forth? No one ever offers this type of criticism toward those in the natural sciences, so why other fields (17; his reasoning, not mine)?

Religious Genius

James wishes to focus on the religious “geniuses,” the trend-setters—rather than “ordinary” believers—“for whom religion exists not as a dull habit, but as an acute fever rather” (6). These types tend to be unstable persons, prone to depression and other pathologies (6-7). He finds these the most fascinating to study (16-17; I agree- milk toast don’t make for no fast paced readin’). The spiritual criteria James offers for evaluating such gurus are:

  1. ”immediate luminousness”
  2. ”philosophical reasonableness,” and
  3. ”moral helpfulness” (18)

The more exaggerative and extreme representations of religious experience tend to “isolate special factors of the mental life” (22), or remove impediment of the “normal.” It gives context to the thing’s significance, to what normalcy even means.

Gut Reactions

My first reaction was to James’s argument about the two orders of inquiry. I’ll use my language instead of his. He argues that nothing that can be called inquiry is complete without escaping both critical and existential questions. In considering religious phenomena, I had always assumed that the critical enterprise necessarily undermined the existential importance of the subject: if one is always and ever questioning the origins, institutions, history, etc. of a subject, how can one base one’s life around it without an ever present anxiety because of constant change? Perhaps his standpoint allows for questions to be asked while, at the same time, allowing a sort of grounding to exist as one engages the critical quest. Let’s take Jesus for example. Let’s say our critical examination turned up that he never existed. What would that do to the existential questions? Would the literary figure’s teachings still hold significance? Would giving someone a second, third, and many chances be automatically null and void? Perhaps it would affect some of the metaphysical teachings of Jesus, but certainly not the moral, for the voice/values of the author would still come through.

Secondly, I wondered again about my use of Occam’s Razor. I think it is a useful tool. It simplifies things into workable explanations. But maybe I’ve invariable cut off a torso, or some important organ, in trying to save the body from cancer (untruth, incoherence, etc.). What if I have gone too far in using it? Have I gone far enough? I think only time will tell. When I considered James’s argument that all experiences could be reduced to bodily dispositions, it did give me pause. Is everything merely chemical reactions in my brain? I don’t know if I’m that nihilistic. Yet 🙂

Lastly, I had the most fun with his talk on religious geniuses and their general instability. It does tend to be true. John the Baptist wore a camel’s hair tunic and his diet consisted of bugs. Jesus was a single white Jewish male who roamed around in the desert not eating much, extolling the virtue of eunuchs. But does that weirdness, that instability make everything that came out of their mouths bunk? I knew a famous guy from the modern age who wrote a bit about gravity….and was an alchemist, but we don’t throw away the awesomeness he put forth concerning science.

Maybe I’m being too easy on the religious guys, but certainly, at least some of the things they said are worth considering. I’ll let the atheists who read my blog for the first time be the judge of that.

Thoughts? I’m excited for them.
——————–
Source: William James. The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. Ed. by Martin E. Marty. New York: Penguin Books, 1982 (original 1902).

Why Do You Attend Church Services?


This poll is simple. I want to see what reasons people have for attending church services. There are no right or wrong answers. You can select as many answers as you wish. Eventually (after taking some research and stats courses) I’d like to do a massive survey on why people attend church in America. It could be eventually become a longitudinal study. Who knows?

A Wrinkle in Time, and Non-Intervention

I just finished reading A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, the first in a series of five books. It finally grabbed my attention when they arrived on the planet Camazotz (about half way through the book, particularly chs 7- The Man with Red Eyes and 8- The Transparent Column). On this planet, everyone has given up their individuality, difference, or freedom, for all conflict and calamity is said to arise from these elements. When the children play, they all bounce balls and skip rope in cadence. Mothers open their doors and call their children in at the same time. Paper boys deliver papers while others are inside their houses. Any deviance from this is grounds for pain. Oh yah, this planet is devoid of pain, suffering, war, etc. because they have all sacrificed their individuality, difference, and freedom.

What would I trade to mitigate or eliminate evil? Would I give up my individuality, difference, and freedom? Color me selfish, but probably not. I REALLY like those things. Of course, on Camazotz, the people live in fear, because expressed individuality (e.g., bouncing a ball out of sync with others) means being turned over to the authorities for “processing.” All the people are asked to do is submit to “IT,” that ominous entity which hovers in the background (IT is power “incarnated” in a disembodied brain). Conform, and all your problems will evaporate. Don’t ask questions, because that edges one closer to individuality, difference, and freedom. I forgot to mention, that there are earthling children who visit this planet in order to find the father of two of them, but also fight evil which is pictured as a darkness that can be felt. It exists throughout the universe, enveloping some planets, and having a real fight put to it on others. Also, these children have been left on their own by the trinity of ethereal beings, Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which.

This got me thinking back to my post on the problem of evil. Let’s say I was god, and didn’t have to trade anything to eliminate unnecessary pain, suffering, and evil. Why would I relent? Might I have a purpose in allowing it to exist? Perhaps it gives people room to grow. Without room for theft, there is no opportunity to demonstrate honesty. Without the chance for revenge and murder, there is no opportunity for mercy and forgiveness. Without despair being a possibility, there is no understanding of unrelenting joy. But I have left people to develop their moral goodness on their own. Their good response in the opportunity of potential evil is their own, not mine. What do they need me for, then? Isn’t this free will defense, this soul-building theodicy, actually atheistic at its core? Or are there things behind the scenes of which humans are oblivious? The trinity leaves the children in fear for their mission and safety. This almost seems to be open theism before it existed 30 years later (i.e., of course, if these ghosts are taken to be the Judeo-Christian god)!

SPOILER ALERT: everything works out. Well, one of the children gets possessed by IT, the other two children and the father are transported to another planet, the trinity of ethereal beings decides to help send Meg back to Camazotz, unassisted but for a riddle to help her, and then she’s back to saving herself. Are we left on earth to save ourselves, work out our own moral goodness, and die well without god’s help? At least the children and father had direct relationship with the trinity of ethereal beings for a little. What does actual humanity have? I look forward to all comments, if you gots them.

Transcendence, Worship, Openness, and Empathy

I have this severe desire to encounter god unmediatedly. Not attributable to mental state. Not attributable to something I do, say, believe, or think. Not attributable to social construct, be it ritual, theology, ceremony. Not attributable to my sleep patterns and resultant moods. Subject to transcendent subject encounter. Is that just not how it works and I need to come to terms with that? If god is transcendent, I believe he’s doing a good job at that. I long for the deity’s immanence. Would I be unable to handle it, and that’s why it doesn’t happen? Is theology actually non-essentialist, and therefore, convoluted word play? If that is so, is my quest futile to begin with. I will admit this: I am clueless.

This morning we had a worship set in chapel that was refreshing. I sang the songs. Some familiar. Some not. It was refreshing. It was not what I would call an encounter on my part. I was very aware of my surroundings. But I won’t speak of my inner experience so much as what I witnessed on their faces. Maybe reverie isn’t the right word. Bliss might be closer to it. Just people lost in pleasure in their experience of god. It was quite soothing to me. People in surrender to what was happening to them. I miss that state. Is there any going back? Maybe I can go through the motions until the worship experience becomes “real” again. I mused on what they were thinking about. Undoubtedly, some were probably focusing on god’s love for them and others. Others were probably thinking about his mercy bestowed on their circumstance, and thankfulness for it. Some may have been merely caught up in the music, which I don’t tend to believe to be evil. A mighty few may have been checked out, thinking on their tasks for the day.

What would it be like to trade minds for a day? What if I picked a handful of people from that chapel setting, have us all experience a similar worship set again, but this time we thought with each others’ cognitions? Would they worship the same? With some of the verses I pointed out here, notably Isa 45.7, Lam 3.37-38, Amo 3.6, would others still be able to worship? Might they have an experience, belief matrix, or understanding that would allow me to worship again as they? I can’t cavalierly dismiss those verses with a “You need to check the context,” when the

Source: Virgin Media
Source: Virgin Media
context sort of reinforces what the “proof texts” are saying. But maybe it is that simple. Maybe I’m a touch rash when it comes to expected Evangelical responses. It may turn out that some of those explanations are true. I just don’t think so at the moment from my experiences and study. Back to worship. Would we grow closer if doubts were raised in the open, truly heard, and issues wrestled with to give constructive responses, or would that process do what many fear, and the Church would crumble like a deck of cards? If the latter, how fragile an institution to belong to. To me that’s like the poor Chinese government thinking it will topple if its people remember Tiananmen Square.

Maybe that’s a pipe-dream. Many people aren’t willing to share their feelings or thoughts with their significant others, much less the public. Many have been hurt by virtue of their raw authenticity. They share, only to have their faces shoved down in it until they choke. Some fear that definitely real possibility. But I think there is much to be gleaned from open sharing. It reduces what I guess I would call “others-idolatry,” where others are put on pedestals as gods, to the humans that they are, beings in process and imperfection. It opens up at least the opportunity for help in moving beyond what has kept one burdened in the past. What if I had opened up today when we huddled for prayer, really letting loose? What if, instead of playing it safe, asking for prayer for sleep because of my newborn son, I let fly with the father from the old story, “I believe. Help me overcome my unbelief”? Would I receive sympathy in my questioning, or lame attempts

Source: counselor.org
Source: counselor.org
at answering during what is supposed to be a time of prayer? Are some things only safe to share with some but not others, so it’s best to pick which occasions to be open? Is that authentic? Would shotgun openness build moral courage, or merely be narcissistic, masturbatory self-aggrandizement? What if when we heard someone question an established practice, we let them voice it, probe them for more, and then left them with some sort of affirming bodily gesture? I think still others are afraid of openness because they feel they have to have an answer (of which they happen to be ignorant) to the question/issue, missing the point that sometimes sharing is just a feeler put out for connection, not answer-time. Maybe some are afraid of openness because they have never asked such questions, and now they have anxiety, because, man, those are some good questions. And maybe I’m in the vast minority, and some think faith has nothing to do with questions, but with the naked exertion of belief against all odds. I’ve heard these people exist, and they probably do in great numbers; I’ve just never encountered them.

In church language, I covet your thoughts. Drop a line. If you don’t feel like putting it all out there for others to see, email me at ilostmyprayerhanky at gmail dot com. I’d love to correspond with you.

What is this thing we call theology?

The question of god is one of the most important questions one can answer. But how do I communicate that importance to many who can go on living as though the question has absolutely no bearing on life whether one answers it or not? Does the fact that one can possibly lead a completely full life without any input from god or theology indicate the irrelevance and unimportance of those two to (especially theology) to the vast majority of humanity? Can one say that there is more to the importance and relevance of those two subjects than what interests certain personality types?

I’m fascinated by theology and philosophy. I love things that make absolutely no money, but are enjoyable in and of themselves as intellectual titillation. I find that these things that “don’t produce anything” in fact produce culture. When some speak of the flowerings of culture, they sometimes refer to the artifacts that have “productive value” like inventions, but they also mean those priceless art pieces such as Shakespeare’s plays and poetry, da Vinci’s paintings, Michelangelo’s murals, the political thought of Locke, Rousseau, Hobbes, and the theology, I contend, of Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, Luther, and others. These pieces speak to many of the heights of human reason, design and creativity, the possibilities of what can be, possible futures to experiment with, individuality risen above the norm to be fostered and kept by future generations.

Theology is but a mix of philosophy, literature, and poetry devoted to a god. But when I do theology in this day and age, and in my cultural understanding, what am I even doing? What is that to which I devote theology? What is it when I speak of god? I was taught to do theology similar to what Roger Olson wrote about in a three part series on what theology entails and who does it here, here, and here. Essentially, the posts speak to constructing theology almost primarily (in some cases solely?) from Scripture, in dialogue with historical theological tradition, reason, and experience. What happens when one starts with reason and experience rather than revelation and its subsidiary tradition?

Theology runs on assumptions. Most theology has run on the assumption that god exists and that the deity has revealed godself in the bible. If the assumption runs that we’re not sure he exists and we know nothing of a sure revelation, what kind of theology may be constructed? There is a death of god theology that sounds very intriguing to me by its very title (I actually have no knowledge of what it entails), but how does it serve as a theology, a discourse on god? Might theology have to take on a new definition than discourse on god? Maybe discourse on man and his plight? This prospect excites me for it might be new and bring up more for discussion in the history of theology. A modern humanity, groping about in the dark, and yet boldly going where no one has gone before.