12/17/2007

Religious Affections, etc.

The Christian Audio free audiobook last month was Jonathan Edwards' The Religious Affections, and I've been listening through it slowly. The experience has sparked some thoughts (as good books always do):

Audiobooks are good for you

Listening to a long, careful and cohesive argument (as The Religious Affections is) or even a classic novel (with more complex sentence structure than modern fiction) sharpens your brain. It requires you to focus on what you are hearing in a way that stretches you, in a refreshing way. I often worry that modern movies and television are conditioning us to have ever shorter attention spans. This is a good way to fight back.

As a bonus, I wonder if it might also help in prayer. In The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard notes that when our thoughts wander during prayer, they are only doing what they usually do. Consciously gathering your thoughts and focusing them while listening to something that requires concentration might train them in a way that helps you concentrate during prayer. So far this is just a conjecture, though. No results to report yet.

Read The Religious Affection

The Religious Affections is a penetrating analysis of religious experience by one of the brightest and best theologians ever born on this continent. It was written in the fallout of the second great awakening, and Edwards is trying to come to grips with what he experienced during that time: many extremely fervent religious experiences which withered and died, leaving no lasting devotion.

Its description of the relationship between emotion and the Christian life is very helpful and should be required reading, I think, for worship leaders. It is incredibly important for them in particular to think about what differentiates true religious affection from mere emotion, which can flare up quickly and die just as quickly, and which has no religious significance. Several practical suggestions could be gleaned from the book on how to focus a worship service with this in mind.

Also, it is helping me formulate a better understanding of the nature of religious experiences. Recently I encountered a few examples of strong experiences which I would have thought could come only from God, but which communicated messages I don't think God would communicate. Edwards' book gives me a better feeling for the nature of religious experience and how to discern true from false ones.

Modern Neuroscience isn't all that Revolutionary

This one caught my attention mostly because of my ongoing interest in the sciences and Christianity's place within them. It seems like every other week someone is publishing a paper which supposedly provides a causal explanation of some facet or other of religious belief: stick somebody in an FMRI machine, tell them to think about God, jot down the areas of the brain that light up the most, and presto! You've reduced religion to brain chemistry and explained it in completely naturalistic terms.

Ok, so that was uncharitable. But it is certainly true that neuroscience in general is accumulating proof of correlations between certain brain states and certain beliefs, thoughts, or personality characteristics, and reasoning from that data to the conclusion that the brain states in question provide a physical explanation of the mental events they're correlated with. I'm pretty convinced that this assumption is uncritically inherited from the current academic climate, not deduced from the data.

But what does all this have to do with The Religious Affections? Oh, yes. It turns out that the correlation between brain states and mental states, which modern neuroscience usually portrays as breaking news which finally disproves the existence of the soul, have been believed by Christians for hundreds of years.

Edwards spends a lot of time discussing mental phenomena, as his subject is religious experience. And in different places throughout the book he makes plain that he envisions a deep, 2-way connection between the soul and the body. He says that he is doubtful whether there is any thought however small which does not affect the body in some way. He argues that the devil cannot read our minds, but can introduce thoughts into us by placing impressions in our brains. He says that certain physical sicknesses can weaken our reason by weakening the control the soul has over the brain. And, while I'm on the subject, C.S. Lewis mentions in The Discarded Image that the medievals believed different areas of the brain were associated with different cognitive functions.

So the idea that belief in a soul is threatened by modern neuroscience is groundless. On the contrary, we've been predicting these sort of results for hundreds of years.

Update: I've run across another ancient Christian reference to physical brain changes affecting our mental state: Evagrios the solitary, a 4th-century monk:

... this illusion results from the passion of self-esteem and from the demon's touch on a certain area of the brain.
....
[the intellect] then mistakes for a divine manifestation the appearance produced in it by the demon, who cunningly manipulates the brain and converts the light surrounding the intellect into a form, as we have described. [emphases mine]
On Prayer, texts 73 & 74, Philokalia vol. I