2/03/2010

Fingerprints of spiritual experience

Once when I was teenager, I recall thinking about religion, and realizing I was definitely agnostic if not atheist. After all, I was good at science, and especially interested in physics and astronomy. (In fact, I went on to major in physics in college.) The old images in paintings of an old man in the sky didn’t make sense to me as a true image of whatever the divine might be.

At the same time, I had the insight that religious experience is real — after all, it has been happening to humans consistently for thousands of years. So I decided that I believed in religious experience, even if I didn’t believe in religion per se.

Fast forward many years, and now I consider myself a Christian and a Quaker, though not particularly orthodox (nor Orthodox, in the Quaker sense) in my beliefs. Nonetheless, I have a deep and abiding faith and trust that there is a deeper layer of meaning and value to the universe, to all of creation. The types, figures, and forms of the Christian narrative hold great meaning for me, and when I spend time with them, they help me find a real spiritual depth within myself, and to observe and appreciate a similar depth outside of me as well.

As a side effect of my practice of both science and religion, I have a fondness for books on the science of spirituality. The advent of brain scanners has enabled researchers to study what is happening in the brains of people who meditate, who practice charismatic prayer, or the like. Of course, the question remains unresolved whether the experiences are happening solely due to brain activity, or if the brain activity is somehow "plugged in" to a spiritual dimension that remains, for now, unmeasurable by science. I find this fascinating.

I just finished a truly fine example of the genre: Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality by Barbara Bradley Hagerty. Bradley Hagerty is a reporter on faith issues with NPR. Raised a Christian Scientist, she now practices with a mainline Protestant denomination. She intertwines her personal story and viewpoint with reports about different scientists — both believers and skeptics — who are studying brain function as it relates to spiritual experience.

The final chapter of the book summarizes some of her personal findings after the reporting she undertook for the book. Frankly, she sounds like a liberal Quaker ! Below are some excerpts from pages 181-183, which spoke to my condition:
As I delved into science, I realized I need not discard my faith. Rather, I must distinguish [faith] from spiritual experience…. Unlike spiritual experience, religious belief can never be tested by a brain scanner or even by historical record. No one can prove that Jesus is the Son of God. What religious belief does is attempt to explain in a compelling narrative the unseen reality that lies at the heart of spiritual experience…. [emphasis added]

Genesis is not, and never was intended to be, a peer-reviewed scientific journal. Scripture is metaphorical, explaining the world in a way that humans could understand at the time it was written….

Embracing a particular faith is a little like hopping in a car. You can drive wherever you like [Rome, Mecca, Jerusalem…] What makes it run is under the hood. Spiritual experience is the engine that transports you from one place to another—and I believe the ability to perceive and engage God is written in each person’s genetic code and brain wiring. Religion is the overlay that allows people to navigate the world, and I came to believe that no one religion has an exclusive franchise on God, or truth….

It seems to me that Jesus’ words [“I am the way, the truth, and the life”] suggest what we do, and not what we proclaim. When Jesus says that the way to eternal life is to follow Him, that means trying to live as He did…. Can I prove that Jesus is the Son of God? Of course not. Does my instinct tell me that he is the Son of God, and that I should try to emulate Him? It does, and that instinct makes me better.
I would definitely recommend Fingerprints of God to anyone who is interested in the intersection of science and spirituality.

3 comments:

Raye said...

Thanks for this, Chris. I appreciate the author and you pointing out that there is a difference between proof and compelling narrative.

patrickruth57 said...

Chris I remember the reports on NPR about this material leading up to publication. Quite fascinating, made even more so by a portion of your own experience/journey that you have graciously shared. Thanks/Blessings Patrick

Norea from NTF said...

"It seems to me that Jesus’ words [“I am the way, the truth, and the life”] suggest what we do, and not what we proclaim."

Another one of the Jesus sayings that I've always been partial to is this passage from the Acts of John II:

"And having thus spoken, he showed me a cross of light fixed [set up], and about the cross a great multitude, not having one form: and in it [the cross] was one form and one likeness [so the MS.; I would read: and therein was one form and one likeness: and in the cross another multitude, not having one form].

And the Lord himself I beheld above the cross, not having any shape, but only a voice: and a voice not such as was familiar to us, but one sweet and kind and truly of God, saying unto me: John, it is needful that one should hear these things from me, for I have need of one that will hear.

This cross of light is sometimes called the (or a) word by me for your sakes, sometimes mind, sometimes Jesus, sometimes Christ, sometimes door, sometimes a way, sometimes bread, sometimes seed, sometimes resurrection, sometimes Son, sometimes Father, sometimes Spirit, sometimes life, sometimes truth, sometimes faith, sometimes grace.

And by these names it is called as toward men: but that which it is in truth, as conceived of in itself and as spoken of unto you [MS. us], it is the marking-off of all things, and the firm uplifting of things fixed out of things unstable, and the harmony of wisdom, and indeed wisdom in harmony [this last clause in the MS. is joined to the next: 'and being wisdom in harmony']."