I love it when God speaks to me through a serendipity. He often does it through repeated words or phrases that reappear in pairs or clusters - for a day, a week, a season. Some people might argue that my experiences are coincidences or that my mind is finding patterns because that's what it's hard wired to do. Oddly enough, that's exactly what makes yesterday's serendipitous moment profound to the point of transcendence...because it was all about the brain and spirituality, or as the book that started this whole thing calls it: "neurotheology."
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!
I wrote the following in my prayer journal this summer and I was reminded of it this past week when we attended homeschool day at the Cal Academy of Science, where we watched Journey to the Stars (links to the 27 minute video) in the planetarium. "Watched" is an understatement; experienced is more like it. My 5 yr-old captured it best "I feel like I went on a rocket ship through space!"
Father, are you still creating? You rested on the seventh day, not because you needed to, but because it was an example for us, whom you made in your image and likeness, and so we, too, are compelled to create. With you, Lord, a thousand years is like a day, so does a day, or a millenium or more go by without you creating? Is our universe one of many? Or is every "new" thing here a work of your creativity? From the sun setting to a birth of a child?
It seems like you finished creation, and I know you will one day restore it to its original glory...in fact, even more glorious...but what about now? You designed this world so perfectly that even in its fallen state, so many things are regenerated, and it seems to happen through the scientific processes you put in motion, so that it appears you are no longer creating in this universe, but I wonder if it just appears that way to us because we are constrained by our five senses - that we cannot perceive your transcendent "hand" maintaining and creating.
Or have you willfully confined your creativity in our rebellious world to the spiritual realm? And so there is decay outwardly, but inwardly, you create life. Your common grace sustains your creation and your redemptive grace makes souls into new beings, a work that is not finished until you restore all of your creation.
You don't operate in time as we do - you always were and always will be - so is everything really happening simultaneously in the spiritual realm? I am groaning with your creation, longing for everything to be made right and to see you make all things new. Amen.
You are the Lord, you alone. You have made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them; and you preserve all of them; and the host of heaven worships you." ~Nehemiah 9:6 (this whole chapter I read today blew me away).