Thursday, November 3, 2011

God on the Brain

In their book, How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist, neuroscientist Andrew Newberg and therapist Mark Robert Waldman  conclude that believing in God is good for your health.  Based on evidence culled from brain-scan studies, a wide-reaching survey of people’s religious and spiritual experiences, and the authors’ analyses of adult drawings of God, they made the following discoveries:
· Not only do prayer and spiritual practice reduce stress, but just twelve minutes of meditation per day may slow down the aging process.
· Intense prayer and meditation permanently change numerous structures and functions in the brain, altering your values and the way you perceive reality.
· Contemplating a loving God rather than a punitive God reduces anxiety and depression and increases feelings of security, compassion, and love.
 It’s the last one that is interesting to me, not because it’s surprising—I imagine a having a strong belief in a punitive God would indeed result in increased anxiety and depression while believing in a loving God would naturally result in feelings of security, compassion, and love.  I didn’t need a neuroscientist to tell me that.  What makes it interesting is that so few people believe in such a God.
According to the authors, Americans view God four ways.  “Whether we are conscious of it or not, we all assign a personality to God.”  These personalities are as follows:
· The authoritarian god (32% of us)
· The critical god (16% of us)
· The distant god (24% of us)
· The benevolent god (23% of us)
So only 23% of religious people have increased feelings of security, compassion, and love.   Put another way, at least 48% of religious people have heightened feelings of anxiety and depression.  (I’m assuming, of course, that both an authoritarian and a critical god would be punitive, but I think that’s a pretty safe assumption.  I didn’t include in that 48% a distant God, since punishment would seem to entail engagement.  Nonetheless, one could argue that being distant and unengaged is a form of abuse if not punishment, but at the very least no one would describe a distant god as being warm, compassionate, and loving any more than we would call a distant father those things.)  That doesn’t surprise me, I’ve worked in churches all my adult life  and have seen and read enough about church life to know that they are often very anxiety-ridden places. 
If this is in fact true, that only 23% of religious people believe that God is principally benevolent and loving, we all ought to be concerned.  My favorite theologian, N.T. Wright, tells of the time when he was talking to an Old Testament professor when a student approached and said to the professor that she didn’t like the God of the Old Testament, that he was mean and wrathful and judgmental; that she preferred the God of the New Testament, full of grace and mercy and forgiveness.  (It strikes me that this was not a very graceful thing to say to a Christian professor of the Old Testament, but I digress.)  She went on to say that as a Christian she was obligated to follow the New Testament God, not the Old Testament God, to which the professor pointed out, quite calmly and gently, that the Old Testament God was the God of Jesus Christ.  There is only one God in the Bible, and, sure, there is fire and brimstone in the Old Testament, no doubt, but Jesus didn’t just show up and introduce a whole new way of viewing God that was different from the God revealed in Scripture.  This loving, benevolent God is found from Genesis through Malachi; Jesus just pointed it out.  Drawing from the Law and the Prophets—and principally from Deuteronomy and Isaiah—Jesus taught that the nature of God is to love and forgive and be merciful, and that he, Jesus, was the fulfillment or pinnacle of that understanding of God.
Jesus himself was the epitome of compassion and love. 
So why do only 23% of us believe in his God?

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