Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Book Review: Fingerprints of God

For some time now, I have been interested in the intersection between science and spirituality. If God in fact exists and is responsible for the existence of the universe, if there is something that transcends what we can see, touch, and measure, then it is reasonable to assume that there would be traces of the Divine, “fingerprints of God”, if you will, to be found within human experience.

Because of this interest, I have sought out and read books such as those by Paul Davies. Mind of God is probably his best known. Other such books and authors which readily come to mind include God: The Evidence by Patrick Glyn, Language of God by Francis Collins, and the work of Gerald Schroeder, an observant Orthodox Jew and scientist who finds no contradiction between a Talmudic reading of Genesis and the standard scientific account of the origin of the universe and the emergence of life on our planet. Schroeder, apparently, had a great deal to do with the conversion of Anthony Flew from convinced atheist to theist – or perhaps deist.

Thus, I was pleased to receive a copy of Barbara Bradley Hegarty’s Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality for Fathers’ Day. Bradley Hegarty is a journalist who, for some years now, has covered religion for National Public Radio. Bradley Hegarty says that in writing this book, she is trying to understand her own experience, having been raised in a devout Christian Science environment and then, by way of a “numinous experience”, discovering the Jesus of the Gospels, leading her to the edge of Evangelicalism and finally, “mainstream Christianity”. What Bradley is looking for, she writes, is scientific confirmation, or at least justification, for her "intuition that God exists", that there is “something more”.

Among others, a major focus of this book is the emerging field of “neurotheology”, the exploration of what happens, both during and after, in a human brain when someone meditates, prays, uses a psychodelic drug such as peyote in a religious ritual, "hits bottom" or otherwise experiences a spontaneous conversion, or has a near death experience. The instruments these researchers use are products of state-of-the- art medical technology: highly sophisticated EEGs and brain scanning machines, such as MRIs and PET scanners.

As it turns out, such practices and experiences do make long term changes in brain activity and even, in the actual physiological structure of the brain itself.

Of course, the evidence in this regard has not yet accumulated to the point where most scientists have been convinced to abandon a materialistic view of the universe, or of life. However, the researchers that Bradley Hegarty interviewed are convinced that the science is about to enter, or has in fact already entered, a “paradigm shift” in this regard.

While this is clearly not a theological book, Bradley Hegarty’s journalistic research clearly has theological implications. From a Christian perspective, perhaps the most interesting is that NDE’s and long term practices of meditation and prayer produce similar results in the brain. This gives a whole new spin to the idea of the spiritual life, specifically the Christian spiritual life, as “dying to self” or “dying with Christ”.

However, for all that, Bradley Hegarty’s book does not touch on several significant areas. First, apparently none of the research subjects are drawn from those pursuing an Orthodox Christian spiritual path: in the book, we encounter Roman Catholic nuns, Pentecostals, Buddhist monks, “spiritual but not religious” types, and others, but no monks from Mount Athos. So I am left wondering: what would their brain function look like?

Another pertinent question has to do with identifying “non-local mind” with God or transcendent spiritual reality. This is reminiscent of Jung’s “collective unconscious”. What if “non-local mind” is simply a product of humanity?

Then there is a related, but more urgent issue. What of the human encounter with spiritual evil? One thinks immediately of Malachi Martin’s Hostage to the Devil in which, for five persons, spiritual encounter has a destructive, not restorative effect. One also thinks of Scott Peck’s People of Lie as well as characters such as Charles Manson, the “Son of Sam”, Alistair Crowley, and various high level Nazis, whose ideology was undergirded by a certain spirituality. One would also note that for many traditions, Chritsian and non-Christian, it is deemed dangerous to undertake sustained spiritual practice apart from the input of someone who is more experienced and even, outside a spiritual community. Further, much spiritual literature is devoted to the matter of dealing with the egotism and evil that one will encounter while pursuing union with God. The closest that Bradley Hegarty gets to dealing with any of this is acknowledging that spirituality and certain psychiatric and neurological disorders exist on a continuum, reminding one of Jung's statement that "mystics are swimming in the same ocean in which psychotics are drowning".

With these shortcomings in mind, Bradley Hegarty’s book is worth the read. In the end, she reaches a common conclusion, one that seems entirely appropriate: while the existence of God and a transcendent realm is not provable, belief in God and another plane is justifiable, at least as reasonable as a purely materialist view of the universe.

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