For me the brain is a mystery. Ever since I was a teenager I wanted to know about this strange jumble of nerves and chemicals, electrical impulses and blood that somehow results in what we think, who we are, what we decide. Twenty years later I became a Christian and the mystery deepened. Where did God fit into all of this? Were my vivid experiences of God a part of me or a part of something else?
In very different ways these two books attempt to address this issue. I have to admit I was quite excited about reading ‘How God changes your brain’. Opening up the brown package I expected to get real answers to my questions. And, in a way I did. It explains in detail the way that spiritual practice changes the function and structure of the brain. That faith, and the practice of faith calms the primitive side of us and turns up the more altruistic, empathic side. It explains that prayer and meditation can cause us to become not only less selfish but to loose our sense of self altogether. Heady stuff. Or not. Because at the core of this book is an evasion. I find it incredible that two people can spend years researching the subject of God and still not recognise His reality. Towards the end of the book Andrew Newberg says the following:
‘For those who embark on a spiritual journey, God becomes a metaphor reflecting their personal search for truth. It is a journey towards self-awareness, salvation or enlightenment, and for those who are touched by this mystical experience, life becomes more meaningful and rich.’
And for those of you who are thinking: ‘This must really mean something profound but I just don’t get it’, don’t worry it really is meaningless. Newberg and Waldman are clinging onto the Naturalistic world view for all they are worth, almost hanging on by their fingernails. Also, it is profoundly patronising for people of faith. The suggestion, which is repeated throughout the book, is that God is not actually real. On the final page of chapter 11 (Miracles pp150) C. S. Lewis describes the dillemma:
‘It is always shocking to meet life where we thought we were alone. ‘Look out!’ we cry, ‘it’s alive’. And therefore this is the very point at which so many draw back – I would have done so myself if I could – and proceed no further with Christianity. An ‘impersonal God’ – well and good. A subjective God of beauty truth and goodness, inside our own heads – better still. A formless life-force surging through us, a vast power we can tap- best of all. But God himself, alive, pulling at the other end of the cord, perhaps approaching at infinite speed, the hunter, King, husband- that is quite another matter… There comes a moment when people who have been dabbling in religion (‘Man’s search for God!’) suddenly draw back. Supposing we really found him? We never meant it to come to that! Worse still, supposing He had found us?’
And yet HGCYB is a book with a great deal of useful information. Much of the focus of it on the practice of meditation, and how this can improve our emotional and mental health. This is an area the mainstream church has ignored. I think there is a certain fear that we may stray into Eastern or even ‘New Age’ practices. This could be the case if the focus of our meditation is internal (as with Buddist meditation) but if we focus on God, to look outside ourselves to the divine, we will not fall into this trap. Another argument against using meditation as part of spiritual practice is that it is not mentioned by Jesus in the Gospels. This is true, but the reason for this could well be that He didn’t need to. I did a quick search of the Old testament for the words Meditate and Meditation. They came up 18 times in the Psalms alone. I like this one:
‘Within your temple, O God,
we meditate on your unfailing love.’ – Psalm 48 v 9
This, and the other verses, were something all his audience knew. Only we have forgotten.
So, how does this work? Well, about a year ago I started to pray using a form called the ‘Jesus Prayer’. As this involves actions as well as words I’ve tried to draw it below:
The words are: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God. Have mercy on me, a sinner’. This is a very old prayer, from the 4th or 5th Century. The prayer is silent. The up stroke in the picture represents a breath in (try to breathe from your stomach, like a singer) and the down stroke a breath out. The traditional way to use this prayer is to find a quiet place, a relaxed position (I like to lie down but there is a danger of falling asleep) and say this prayer between 10 and 20 times. This may be quite difficult at first but it is worth persevering. As you continue you will find any worries fading and the barriers between yourself and God falling away. After a while God will become clearer and He will start to communicate. This may be a feeling of peace, or a great inrush of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes I am prompted to pray quite simply for people I know who are in need.
I taught this prayer to our bible study group and about two thirds of them began to practice it. One couple, who were suffering from health problems prayed it to help them relax enough to sleep. Another lady decided she didn’t like the words and used the same breathing technique, but on the words of the Lords Prayer. I have used it in all sorts of stressful situations, even in the middle of meetings. It doesn’t always solve the problems, but I feel so calm it doesn’t matter!
C. S. Lewis takes the role of the brain in relation to God and takes a completely different tack. HGCYB sees God as a product of the Brain. Lewis sees the brain as an spearhead or incursion of the supernatural into the natural world. The argument goes something like this:
- The ability to reason is completely unlike the rest of the natural world.
- Also the notion of right and wrong (even when it does not benefit the individual concerned) is so strong in Human Beings.
- Therefore it must come from outside the natural world.
- Therefore there must be a super nature outside of nature that has created this ability.
Human minds, then are not the only supernatural entities that exist. They do not come from nowhere. Each has come into Nature from Supernature: each has its tap-root in an eternal, self-existent, rational Being, whom we call God. Each is an offshoot, or spearhead, or incursion of that Supernatural reality into Nature.
I’ve tried to illustrate this below. On this 2D picture I’ve shown God on one side and Nature on the other with the two meeting within the Human mind. But it is more like a mingling or layering. Lewis talks of another dimension. I think it would be more accurate to talk of another sense. For a number of years I lost my sense of smell. I can well remember the day it came back. Just the smell of bacon was like a whole extra layer of reality in the world. Experiencing God is like that only bigger; a whole extra sense of reality.
Before we move on to more of Lewis’ ideas about Nature and God I think it is worth pointing out that this is not a particularly easy book to read. This is not because of the language or style (which, as you can see from the extracts is rather elegant) but because of the time in which it was written. Like most books of Christian thinking it is arguing against the prevailing thinking of its day.
But ‘Miracles’ was published in 1947. This is before the theory of the Big Bang, before Global Warming (well it was happening but no-one realised it), before chaos theory or butterflies flapping their wings in China. The universe seemed a very safe predictable place. David Hume could argue without a trace of irony that miracles could not happen because it was simply so unlikely that nature could be any different tomorrow from what it was today; so improbable, that it was impossible to believe. And Lewis needed to have a counter argument to this.
But the chapter ‘On Probability’ is the last one that the reader will need to make allowances for. From then on Lewis launches into a glorious and completely unapologetic exploration of the Miracles of the New Testament. Starting with the primary miracle of the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. Today, even Christians don’t like to examine miracles too closely. I have tried to lead discussions on the physical nature of miracles and been constantly deflected into their emotional and religious significance. But Lewis meets this challenge head on. He describes miracles as being like God reaching down directly into the world. Our God is the creator, the god of nature as well as supernature. So every birth is His work, but through the medium of the biological process. In the conception of Jesus he dispensed with the mechanism of biology and reached directly into the womb of a young Jewish girl at her prayers. Following on from his argument that each one of us has a ‘tap root’ of God within us he says:
We cannot conceive how the Divine Spirit dwelled within the created and human spirit of Jesus but neither can we conceive how His human spirit, or that of any man, dwells within his natural organism. What we can understand, if the Christian doctrine is true, is that our own composite existence is not the sheer anomaly it might seem to be, but a faint image of he Divine Incarnation itself – the same theme but in a very minor key.
So, in all miracles there is a fusion of the natural and supernatural. And in this way they are physical prophecies, precursors of a ‘New Nature’. ‘There will be no room to get the finest razor blade of thought between Sprit and Nature’ says Lewis. I think we see this at work in the Gospels many times. In the feeding of the five thousand;
“Bring them here to me,” He said. And he directed the people to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to Heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. – Matthew 14: 18-19
At some point during the bread and fishes acquired a new spiritual reality. They were still loaves, still fishes, still could be eaten and digested, yet Heaven had entered that bread at that moment of giving thanks. I wonder what it felt like to eat that bread? Were those people changed by it?
But there is one thing I need to disagree with Lewis on. In many places he says that this fusion of God’s Spirit and Nature happened at one time in history. Even reading the bible this is clearly not true. There are many instances of this happening in Acts. But does this still happen today?
The answer is ‘Of Course it does’. Even among the Christians I know I can think of many instances. It is almost commonplace. But, as this is a blog rather than an academic discourse I’m going to describe something that happened to me last spring:
At the beginning of 2012 I found myself in a difficult place. I felt I was stalled in many areas of my life. My work was not going well, I seemed to be sleepwalking through both my Church and home life. During this time I had a vivid picture in my mind of being in a dark wood, surrounded by brambles and thorns. Gradually, as the days grew longer, the picture changed and I seemed to be coming to the edge of this wood. Through the brambles I could see a bright green hillside. Then the changes to the picture in my mind stalled. I was standing on the edge of the beautiful hillside; there was nothing stopping me from walking forward but I couldn’t and I could still see the brambles and thorns on the edge of my vision.
Then I became aware of God asking me to make a journey. Now this happens from time to time. The journeys are not usually very long, sometimes just to the other side of the room. The furthest I’ve ever been asked to go is Oxford (about 40 miles away). In this case it was to climb to the top of the hill near our house. Now this was not an unreasonable or difficult request but, for a few weeks, I kept on putting it off. Finally, I put on my walking boots (It’s quite a steep climb), packed my paints, and walked out of the house and up the hill.
As I reached the top I began to realise that the landscape was actually the picture in my mind. To my right was the wood, full of brambles and thorns. To my left was a bright green hillside with wild flowers and little bushes in the distance. I sat on a bench and painted the picture you can see here. Then I packed away my paints and walked forward away from the dark wood.
It was at this point that the extraordinary thing happened. The ground under my feet seemed to have two distinct realities. It was still physical ground but it also had a spiritual reality that was hovering slightly above the solid ground. This spiritual ground was slightly luminous and even brighter than the grass in the spring sunshine. I wish now that I had been paying more attention. What was I actually walking on? If this had been water rather than ground could I have walked on it, like Peter and Jesus? I don’t know. Because what I was most aware of was a tremendous sense of peace and joy. The walk across that hillside was also a walk away from the brambles and thorns into a more positive future. I felt physically very strong and light, as though it took no effort at all to make that walk.
For someone like myself, with a scientific education, such an experience raises more questions than it answers. But I know it was not a dream or an illusion. If anything, it was more real than my everyday existence and has had a profound and lasting effect on my life. But I am going to leave the last word to Lewis:
But Christian teaching, by saying that God made the world and called it good, teaches that Nature or environment cannot be simply irrelevant to spiritual beatitude in general… By teaching the resurrection of the body it teaches that Heaven is not merely a state of the spirit but a state of the body as well: and therefore a state of Nature as a whole. Christ, it is true, told His hearers that the kingdom of Heaven was ‘within’ or ‘among’ them. But his hearers were not merely in ‘a state of mind’. The planet He had created was beneath their feet, His sun above their heads; blood and lungs and guts were working in the bodies He had invented, photons and sound waves of His devising were blessing them with the sight of His human face and sound of His voice… From this factor of environment Christianity does not teach us to desire a total release. We desire, like St Paul, not to be un-clothed but to be re-clothed: to find not the formless Everywhere-and-Nowhere but the promised land, that Nature which will be always and perfectly- as present Nature is partially and intermittently – the instrument for that that music which will then arise between Christ and us.