About three weeks ago we were on vacation and stopped into a thrift shop where I found a copy of Fingerprints of God: What Science Is Learning about the Brain and Spiritual Experience by Barbara Bradley Hagerty. I vaguely remembered having read about it and being intrigued, so I was pleased to score such a deal on a relatively new book. Initially, I was captivated, both by the subject matter and the author herself - a "mainstream Christian" (whatever that means) NPR religion reporter on a paradoxically personal and objective quest to explore the relationship between the brain and God.
About halfway into it, though, I struggled with going forward. Two things were happening: 1) my specific belief system was challenged (much like the author herself) by the fact that people of all religions have the same kind of brain activity when meditating or praying; 2) spirituality was defined as having mystical experiences, even though that is not the stuff of day-to-day faith, nor do most Christians (pentecostals aside) have other worldly conversions or supernatural seeming encounters. In fact, many never do.
Still, it was a fascinating topic and I wanted to finish the book, so I kept reading. Yesterday I read about brain scans that scientists studying neurotheology performed on "spiritual virtuosos":
Newberg found another peculiar similarity. With both the nuns and the [Buddhist] monks, the parietal lobes went dark during deep prayer and meditation.Newberg calls this "orientation area" because it orients you in time and space: those lobes tell you where your body ends and the rest of the world begins. That is why Sister Celeste (and countless other mystics) described a unity with God, or as she put it, 'God permeating my being' It was the neurological reason that Michael Baine felt a "deep and profound sense of connection to everything, recognizing that there was never a true separation at all." (p. 174)
Later that day, I received some books from my Amazon wish list that I had ordered using a gift card from my birthday. It was a little like Christmas, getting these packages several days in a row. That night, I took a stack of my new books up to bed, and decided to a read a chapter from each - sort of a literary nosh, if you will. In the introduction of one of them, SoulTypes: Matching Your Personality and Your Spiritual Path, I read this passage:
A group of scientists interested in exploring whether there are brain-based differences that determine our religion are using the type of prayer described there to define who is and isn't "spiritual." In all religions, these neuroscientists say, mystical, spiritual moments happen when parts of the brain (parietal-lobe circuits) go quiet, turning off your ability to distinguish between the body and its surroundings. Without sensory data, you feel a sense of being part of infinity or, for the religious, being "one with God." They use SPECT scans to determine whether the person is having such an experience. Building on this research, books such as The God Gene describe how we either are or aren't wired for faith. Kenneth L. Woodward, a religion journalist for Newsweek, points out the problem with this approach:
"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."
As I read that, I had an emotional experience - not of the presence of God, but of excitement over him having clearly communicated with me. He didn't do it through my feelings, an audible voice, or a supernatural sign - he did it through my life. He did it by leading me in one day to two books dealing with spirituality, which otherwise were totally unrelated, yet intersected at this one specific point, from whence they each went in very different directions. God used the second book to reassure me by validating/confirming the very thoughts that had come to my mind while reading the first book. It was especially powerful because it was merely a sidebar, so to speak, in the second book, and I therefore had no way of knowing that topic would be addressed, let alone that I would discover it just at that time!