Why We Believe

In the November 3, 2008, issue of Newsweek (my news magazine of choice), Sharon Begley offers a fascinating article entitled, “Why We Believe: Belief in the paranormal reflects normal brain activity carried to the extreme.”  In the essay, Begley converses with a number of prominent psychologists, neurologists, and anthropologists to investigate what goes on in the brain that leads otherwise “normal” human beings to believe in paranormal phenomena ranging from ESP to alien abduction to the intuition that one has been reincarnated.  Several times Begley obliquely alludes to more common—if not more mundane—experiences as well: those we would call religious.


According to a recent study in the journal Science, Begley points out, people’s tendency to experience extrarational phenomena (the essay, not surprisingly, uses the term “irrational”) often coincides with periods of anxiety and chaos.  This is especially true with regard to the experience of underlying patterns and what Begley calls “illusory correlations” among things that, in ordinary times, appear random.  Begley quotes Bruce Hood of the University of Bristol who says, “In the absence of perceived control, people become susceptible to detecting patterns in an effort to regain some sense of organization.”


Neuroscience considers this susceptibility to be disconnected from actual reality.  I would argue, however, that this consideration betrays a materialist reductionism on the part of the biological sciences—a reductionism that biology’s first-cousin physics shed long ago. 


Whereas Hood believes the intuition of deep and underlying order that abides even in the midst of chaos is nothing more than a human coping mechanism, Christians claim that this intuition is of the presence of the living God who creates order from the “chaos and void” (Genesis 1).  We are more attuned to deep order and cosmic connection in times of chaos because at those times when we experience a loss of control we shed the emotional, psychological, and even material layers that otherwise buffer us from the presence of God.  We become vulnerable.  Our lives—including our psyches—become “thin places” and we are better able to intuit God.


This is not to deny the biological explanation for how this intuition kicks-in at certain times.  The essay concludes that the tendency to look for extrarational explanations for our experiences is located in a “bundle of neurons in the superior parietal lobe of the brain.”  This is the area of the brain that enables us to distinguish where our bodies end and the exterior world begins.  There are necessary and appropriate times, such as sleep, when these neurons shut off.  This bundle also becomes quiet at other times, including during intense prayer or meditation.  For Begley and those she interviews, this is an unfortunate evolutionary mistake which opens the door for our minds to perceive connections and the presence of a nonmaterial reality that simply do not exist.  Our “normal brain processes…become hijacked and exaggerated,” she explains.


This discovery by science provides a biological—even mechanistic—explanation of how it is that we come to believe we have experienced any number of extrarational things, from little green spacemen to the palpable presence of God.  But an explanation of how is not the same thing as an explanation of why.  Rather than an evolutionary mistake, the brain process that enables us to intuit layers of reality beyond the material (layers that, in its material reductionism, biology claims are illusory) is the means by which we experience the presence of the living God, by which Rudolph Otto said we encounter the Holy.


Begley comes to a couple of conclusions with which I whole-heartedly agree, though she intends them as unfortunate whereas I celebrate them.  The first is this: “The universal human need to find meaning and purpose in life is stronger and more basic than any attachment to empiricism, logic, or objective reality.”  Thank God.


Second, in discussing the scientific research that undergirds her essay Begley says, “It quickly became clear that belief requires an open mind—one not bound by the evidence of the senses, but in which emotions such as hope…can trump the evidence.”  A better articulation of our Christian faith is difficult to imagine.

Walking the Sands

Fourteen hundred years ago, King Oswald of Northumbria–newly restored to power after seventeen years as a prince in exile–sent to Iona on the Scottish coast for monks to Christianize his kingdom.  After fits and starts, Aiden came.  Nostalgic for his island home on Iona, Aiden chose as the site of his new monastary the tidal island of Lindisfarne from which he could gaze across the sea and see Oswald’s court at Bamburgh Castle. 

Lindisfarne quickly became the center of Christian prayer and devotion in northern Britain, and it gained the name “Holy Island.”  Like Iona before it, Lindisfarne was understood to pulsate with the heart of God.  Pilgrims flocked to the Northumbrian coast to make their way onto Holy Isle, but when they reached the coast they were met by the foreboding tides.  Twice daily when the tides are in, Holy Island is inaccessible.  But twice daily when the tides are out, the island becomes linked with the mainland by a thread of sand.  For more than a millennium pilgrims have waited patiently on the tides until the sands emerge, so they can begin the trek to Lindisfarne.  Because in the eras before tide tables the water could rise with unexpected speed, posts were driven into the sands to mark the high ground.  Pilgrims could mostly avoid danger if they hugged the marked way.  Even so, there are stories of lonely pilgrims who encountered sudden dangers and were drowned by the waters on their journey from worldly life to Holy Island.

Last month I made my own pilgrimage, and I joined the Communion of Saints who have walked the sands.  The Rev. Marcus Losack was my pilgrim guide.  This from my journal:

“Six of us walked back across the sands on the Pilgrims’ Way from the mainland to Holy Isle.  I walked along the sand, dodging threats of quicksand, wind, and the impending regularity of the returning tide.  Come what may, the guideposts were there to mark the way.  At one point even the guideposts were unreliable because the water was too high.  Marcus served as our guide when we had to veer from the marked path.  The walk was a sacrament, to be sure.  The wind was, on another level, its own sacrament.  As it blew, literally changing the face of the water, it hearkened to me the Holy Spirit.”

On our Christian walks, we benefit from those markers left before us, those posts that make our paths straight in the wilderness of the world.  And yet, there are those times when even the stalwart markers fail us.  The tides creep upon us, and we fear drowning.  At such times, when water rises, wind gusts, and markers fail, a trusted guide on the Christian walk can save a life and see us to the heart of God.

The Myth of Fingerprints and Saint Anselm

As the air turns cool and the leaves begin to change color each autumn, one of my personal rituals is to watch Bart Freundlich’s film “The Myth of Fingerprints.”  With all due respect to the Godfather films, The Myth of Fingerprints is my favorite movie.  The film was released in 1997, and the cast is stellar: Roy Scheider, Blythe Danner, Noah Wylie, Julianne Moore, Laurel Holloman, Michael Vartan.

The setting is a Thanksgiving holiday in a rambling New England country house.  A family has reunited after three years apart, and the viewer quickly is made aware that their separation has been with good reason.  The house crackles with tension–spoken and unspoken–and the veneer of familial love repeatedly cracks.  Characters variously wonder in confusion why their family relationships are so broken.

This morning I’ve been working on lecture notes for an upcoming Gathering class session on Jesus and the Atonement, and I’ve been re-reading Saint Anselm.  Anselm argues that humanity’s sin has created a chasm between ourselves and God.  Because of the age in which he lives (the 11th century), Anselm casts his argument in terms of honor and satisfaction.  Humanity’s sin has robbed God of God’s honor, and because God’s honor is supreme, even if humanity were to become sinless today, we could not satisfy the honor we’ve besmirched since the dawn of time.  God’s love is supreme also, and in love God offer’s Jesus the Christ–the God-man–as the one who can pay humanity’s debt and satisfy God.  Most often in our day, Anselm’s theory is vilified as cold and transactional.  His language of honor sounds archaic to our ears.  We protest, “Why can’t God simply forgive and forget?”

But Anselm’s theory underscores, as does the Myth of Fingerprints, that true reconciliation cannot occur without satisfaction.  This has special significance in today’s world where so often broken human relationships attempt to achieve reconciliation with superficial ease.

Whether one considers the societal oppression of the Jim Crow South; a strained relationship between parish and priest; or a wounded marriage relationship in which partners have been emotionally abusive toward one another, these devastating experiences prove that no efficacy occurs when a paper-thin veneer of amicability is taken as an acceptable response to wrongs committed.  Anselm’s theory, even with all its flaws, drives home the fact that cheap reconciliation is no reconciliation at all.

All that aside, there are some great lines in The Myth of Fingerprints.  Like this exchange around the Thanksgiving table, where Noah Wylie’s high school friends Tom and Jerry have joined the family for dinner:

Mom:  You boys haven’t changed, at least where food is concerned.

Jerry:  Actually, that’s not true.  Tom likes mustard now.

Warren (Noah Wylie):  You do?

Tom:  I like mustard now.  Although, I don’t understand it…it seems that any sandwich with mustard on it is, in essence, a mustard sandwich.

Truer words were never spoken.