In an article entitled “Religion and the Brain” (Newsweek,May 14, 2001, International Edition), Sharon Begley surveys the growing field of ‘Neurotheology’, the study of the biological basis for spirituality. Her article mentions among other things, the possibility that Paul’s many encounters with the Lord were actually the products of abnormal bursts of electrical activity in his brain caused by temporal-lobe epilepsy.
After surveying various positions, Begley ends her article with a quote from Robert K. Forman: “In mystical experiences, the content of the mind fades, sensory awareness drops out, so you are left only with pure consciousness. This tells you that consciousness does not need an object, and is not a mere by product of sensory action.”
Begley ends her article with the following statement: “The question of whether our brain wiring creates God or whether God created our brain wiring will most likely remain purely a matter of faith.”
Is God purely a creation of brain activity?
Are our experiences of God merely biological activity with no basis in any reality outside of ourselves? Boys and girls, can you say “reductionism?” The Collins English Dictionary defines reductionism as: “any theory or method that holds that a complex idea, system etc., can be completely understood in terms of its simpler parts or components.”
That our brain would be active in the midst of a spiritual encounter is not the issue. As Begley herself states: “That a religious experience is reflected in brain activity is not too surprising, actually. Everything we experience….leaves a trace on the brain.” To conclude that therefore all experience of the divine is ONLY the product of brain activity is a conclusion that goes beyond the data.
In an accompanying article in the same issue of Newsweek, Kenneth L. Woodward correctly points out that: “The most that neurobiologists can do is correlate certain experiences with certain brain activity. To suggest that the brain is the only source of our experiences would be reductionist, ignoring the influence of other important factors, such as the will, the external environment, not to mention the operation of divine grace.”
Clearly the Bible contains many examples of God’s people claiming to have encountered God. But the foundation of the Christian faith is not built on such personal experiences. It is built on historical events, like the Exodus; and Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. As Paul said in 1 Corinthians 15:17: “If Christ was not raised, your faith has nothing to it…
But Paul knows better: “But the truth is, Christ was raised to life–the first fruits of the harvest of the dead.” (V.20) REB
The foundation of the Christian faith is not subjective personal religious experiences. The foundation of the Christian faith is the hard historical reality of Jesus’ death and resurrection, an event attested to by sound and convincing evidence. Perhaps it is also worth mentioning that the evidence of true Christian spirituality does not lie in the realm of spiritual experiences either. It is sacrificial, agape love. ( 1 Corinthians 13)
We do not want to disparage the reality of spiritual experiences. Surely a great God will encounter His people in diverse ways. But we need not be shaken by those who contend that our spiritual experiences are merely biochemical activity. The roots and the fruits of our faith lie elsewhere.