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Is God out there beyond the neurons?

NCR Staff

Br. Wayne Teasdale is a lay monk who teaches at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. His book The Mystical Heart: Discovering a Universal Spirituality in the World’s Religions is quoted extensively in Newberg and d’Aquili’s new book. With regard to this research, Teasdale thinks that describing the fruits of prayer solely in terms of unitive states, of feeling at one with everything, misses much of its richness. Sometimes prayer is a life-changing experience of compassion and of conversion, or even of God’s unknowableness; sometimes it’s a visit by a Presence. Consciousness in prayer is incredibly creative, he told NCR.

John Haught, professor of theology at Georgetown University and director of the Center for the Study of Science and Religion, has followed the research, too. Haught told NCR: “We now realize how much our religious and ethical behaviors are connected to brain processes.” In many ways we already knew this, he said, yet now scientists have located it more precisely. “This work makes us realize how intimately linked our most precious expressions are to the operators in the brain, and how vulnerable, too. It’s another way to see how deeply incarnational our religion and spirituality are. It’s both humbling and bracing.”

Newberg and d’Aquili’s theories about evolution’s embrace of religion reveal how deeply connected we humans are with the natural world, Haught said. Necessarily we are paying attention more and more to that human relationship with the natural word. “The old religious dualism that split the divine from the material allowed us to ignore what’s going on in nature. This research helps link us with the story of life and the universe in a much more intimate way.”

Of course, Haught said, the ontological question remains: Is God out there beyond the neurons? Science can’t answer that now, but it’s telling us this: Drawn by the intuition of a deeper reality that the brain provides for us, we probably cannot help but be spiritual searchers. And science can illumine our seeking.

Science writer Steven Jones quips: “Few working scientists have much sympathy for those who try to interpret nature in metaphysical terms. For most wearers of white coats, philosophy is to science as pornography is to sex: It is cheaper, easier, and some people, bafflingly, seem to prefer it.” Change the word philosophy to theology and you get the current picture of the relationship between hard science and religion.

Like the religious experience continuum, however, scientists can be arranged on a scale between hard-nosed skepticism and willingness to consider the spiritual. At one extreme are those who think as Jones describes; at the other, there are both fundamentalists and New Age types whose scientific method seems to be: “I want this to be true, so therefore it is. End of discussion. Don’t confuse me with facts.”

In the middle are biologists like Andrew Newberg and Eugene d’Aquili, physicists like Niels Bohr, Erwin Schrödinger or Albert Einstein -- hard-nosed theorists rigorously faithful to the data and willing to go wherever it leads, yet with a touch of wonder in their eye, who see the living world as though turning a child’s kaleidoscope.

For them, science and religion profoundly enhance each other.

Investigating the religious brain has opened a new path toward understanding our relationship with the tremendous and spellbinding mystery that is God. There’s surely more to come.

And our mystical minds will be there, watching and praying.

National Catholic Reporter, April 20, 2001