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Faith Beyond the Neurons

Faith is a way of knowing, not a warm fuzzy.

The last time I saw Alice

She was leaving Santa Fe

With a bunch of round-eyed Buddhists

In a killer Chevrolet

There are some words that I don’t trust: for instance, stewardship and spirituality. Whenever I hear them my Spidey-sense starts to tingle and I hear the robot from Lost in Space saying “Danger Will Robinson!” (I’m pretty sure that he’s talking to me even if my name isn’t Will Robinson.)

It’s not that I don’t think that being a good steward and cultivating a spiritual life are important — it’s that experience has taught me that if, as Camus wrote, “the future authorizes every kind of humbug,” then appeals to “stewardship” are often little more than guilt-mongering and manipulation and talk of “spirituality” is just as likely self-justification and self-absorption.

That’s why I hope that David Brooks is wrong about the future of religion in American life.

In a recent (May 13, 2008) New York Times column, “The Neural Buddhists,” Brooks opined that the well-publicized battle between “assertive atheists” — e.g., Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens — and “defenders of the faith” will eventually become a “sideshow.”

What will turn this contentious debate into a “sideshow” is a “revolution in neuroscience [that] is having an effect on how people see the world.” This “revolution” seems poised to overturn — if it hasn’t already — the paradigm that regards the belief that the “spirit might exist apart from the body” as “just ridiculous.” In the old materialist account, “brain chemicals shape behavior. Assemblies of neurons create consciousness. Free will is an illusion. Human beings are ‘hard-wired’ to do this or that. Religion is an accident.”

According to the new “revolutionary” account, the brain isn’t the “cold machine” and “computer” of the materialistic account. “Instead, meaning, belief and consciousness seem to emerge mysteriously from idiosyncratic networks of neural firings. Those squishy things called emotions play a gigantic role in all forms of thinking. Love is vital to brain development.”

The revolutionaries are particularly intrigued by “universal moral intuitions” that cast doubt on the idea of the “selfish gene” made popular by Dawkins. These findings suggest that people have “seem to have deep instincts for fairness, empathy and attachment.”

Anything that contradicts or otherwise calls into question purely materialistic explanations of the defining aspects of human existence, including religion and morality is good news — up to a point.

Only up to a point because the traditional Christian explanation for these defining aspects — that we are created in the image of a personal God — isn’t the only alternative to the materialistic account. Saying, as the late philosopher Michael Stove did, that the purely Darwinian account is a “ridiculous slander on human beings” is not the same thing as saying that the Christian account is therefore true.

The “revolution in neuroscience” is also, perhaps especially, amenable to “people who feel the existence of the sacred, but who think that particular religions are just cultural artifacts built on top of universal human traits.” Thus, according to Brooks, the next challenge to biblical theism will come from “scientists whose beliefs overlap a bit with Buddhism.”

Brooks sees “science and mysticism … joining hands and reinforcing each other.” The results will likely be “new movements that emphasize self-transcendence but put little stock in divine law or revelation,” i.e., spirituality.

In this cultural milieu, “Orthodox believers are going to have to defend particular doctrines and particular biblical teachings. They’re going to have to defend the idea of a personal God, and explain why specific theologies are true guides for behavior day to day.”

I’m loathe to begrudge anyone their moments of experiencing the sacred, but Brooks’ column reminded me of a scene from his book “Bobos in Paradise” wherein a self-satisfied Bobo (“Bourgeois Bohemian”) looks out at the view from her Montana vacation home, sips her fair-trade coffeeNot that there’s anything wrong with fair-trade coffee. I drink it myself. and thinks “all is right with the world.”

There’s no denying the appeal of a kind of “self-transcendence” that leaves you feeling good about yourself and your life while minimizing any sense of obligation to God (personal or otherwise) and neighbor beyond a vague sense of benevolence.

In any case, my primary (and secondary and tertiary, for that matter) concern isn’t what passes for an experience of the sacred in the culture at large — it’s what passes for such an experience in the church.

Michael Brendan Dougherty of, among other things, The American Conservative, was right when he wrote that the biggest threat from “neural Buddhism” Brooks is to “people whose spirituality relies exclusively on their ecstatic feelings.” Dougherty sees “neural Buddhism” and the science underlying it as “an invitation for American religion to move away from its emotionalism (and obscurantism) and back to serious theological reflection,” adding that “I can’t wait.”

While I share Doughterty’s distrust of emotion-based religion, I’m pretty sure that he and I are in a minority, even among Christians. There’s no shortage of books documenting the fact that many, if not most, Christians are Christians primarily because of the way it makes them feel, not because they believe that Christianity’s core teachings — assuming they can even identify them — are true.

The great French director Francois Truffaut is supposed to have said that he distrusted sentimentality precisely because he was sentimental. In the same way, I am wary of basing my life on my emotions because I know how easy it is to be driven by them. And I know how transient those emotions can be.

After all, things don’t always go the way you like. In fact, there will be times when life just plain stinks. At the very least, there will be times when the warm feelings you associate with God, Jesus, etc. will be conspicuous by their absence. It’s at those times that I’ve come to understand what my old teacher, Father Francis Martin, meant when he said that “faith is a way of knowing, not a warm fuzzy.”

It could hardly be otherwise. One of the few guarantees we’re given by scripture is that life will be hard at times. There’s a lot in there about suffering, persecution, illness and sorrow — not too much about good times, at least of the sipping-coffee-and-enjoying-the-view-from-your-Montana-vacation-home variety. What will sustain you then?

Certainly not your feelings. As Jesus explained in the Parable of the Sower, those whose response to the Gospel is basically emotional will fall away when hard times inevitably come. What sustains us is the knowledge and conviction that some things are true regardless of how we feel or don’t feel.

Chief among these truths is, as Father Martin used to put it, that Jesus Christ is alive. He rose from the dead and because of this, we will also. When life gets brutally hard, as it does at times, I cling to this knowledge if only by my fingernails. Not only because it promises a better hereafter but also because in raising Christ from the dead, God fulfilled all that he had promised his people, including his promise to be with us and sustain us during our times of trial.

As St. Paul rhetorically asked “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” I know this even when I don’t feel it. How do I know it? Because it was revealed to God’s people and then taught to those who came after. It’s what has sustained countless believers throughout the ages — from the apostles through to my mother.

It’s why she was able to say “it is well with my soul” even when all was definitely not right with the world. It was a peace rooted not in circumstances or even neural firings but what God has done. It’s the only kind of faith worthy of the name.

Copyright 2008 Roberto Rivera y Carlo. All rights reserved.

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About the Author

Roberto Rivera y Carlo

Roberto Rivera y Carlo writes from his home in Alexandria, Va.

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