Neurotheology Versus Psychotheology: Does Enlightenment Promote Moral Idiocy?

Building a playhouse for my children I ran a rusty nail into my hand; I was being cheap and trying to reuse nails. The next day, in the midst of teaching, I noticed the veins in my arms had turned a bright red.  I clearly had blood poisoning. A trip to the local doctor cured the blood poisoning but he sent me to the university hospital where they let me in on some terrible news. My blood platelets were over-sized and too few. They told me I could not risk travelling into Tokyo on the train and that I would have to cease working and check into the hospital in the next few days. They made it fairly clear my time was up. They didn’t give us a clear diagnosis but Faith, my wife, and I narrowed it down to two possibilities, both of which were irreversibly fatal. So, I stayed home and began to feel the weight of death descend. I did indeed feel my energy running out. I began to shuffle about the house, moving slowly as life seemed to be ebbing away.

I was in this state for about a week until my next appointment at the hospital. It was then that the two young doctors took me aside and explained they had made a mistake; I was not sick at all. It turns out I just have strange blood platelets.  I was not dying. Yet, I had already started the process. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I had gone on believing my life was finished.

I had often heard of instances of those who dropped dead within 24 hours of being cursed by a shaman. What I did not know was that modern medicine men have similar powers of suggestion. Sam Shoeman was diagnosed with liver cancer. He was told his liver scan was abnormal, suggesting extensive cancerous growths in the entire left lobe of the liver. His doctors told him that he had only a few months to live. Following the bad news his whole purpose was merely to survive until Christmas, that he might celebrate it with his relatives. He left the hospital late in October. He was readmitted just after New Year’s Day and died within 24 hours.

What is remarkable is that the man did not really have terminal cancer. The liver scan had been botched and the autopsy revealed only a single 2-centimeter nodule of cancerous tissue that could not possibly have killed him. Why did he die? Shoeman was convinced that he was about to die and all of the people around him shared the conviction. He had also received a deadline, so to speak, expecting that he would be lucky to make it past Christmas. Hence his death, of psychosomatic causes, on January 2.

The modern medicine man or the tribal shaman exercise power (not necessarily equal power) on the basis of a particular construal of the world. There is no question that our beliefs can help us thrive or, apparently, they can kill us. Add to this the idea that there is no belief more important to mental health and sickness than our view of God and you have the foundations of a new field of study.

Neurotheology is a study that has arisen which recognizes that, not only does our understanding of God shape our mental health, it shapes our brain as well. Recent studies in this new field show that the view that God is angry, punishing, or loving, directly impacts the growth and shape of the brain.  In a sense, this is not surprising but simply demonstrates our continual participation in the creation of our own environment. The Christian notion of creation seems to be that we continually feed into the created order which acts back upon us. The Fall of man had cosmic repercussions and creation, according to Paul, is awaiting the revealing of the children of God as they are the means to cosmic redemption. We are not simply the products of our environment (determinism) as the world is malleable and we can relieve our own pain and suffering, as well as that of others, through the transformation of our mind. Neurotheology can describe this transformation as it impacts the brain but are all transformations equal (good and true) and are all experiences of enlightenment the same simply because they leave the same physical imprint on the brain?

The question that arises with neurotheology is the same question which arises with religious studies, is the “peace” of a Buddhist/Hindu quietism, the “love” of a Sufi, the oceanic feeling of oneness of the East, the same as  peace, love, and unity as outlined in the New Testament.  More broadly, does “salvation” amount to the same thing in the various religious traditions or are there a unique set of values attached to varying worldviews and salvation systems? Is it as John Hick describes it that, “All religious traditions affirm a transcendent and benign reality? That is their common core, but they approach it in very different ways.” While no one would presumably deny certain commonalities in human experience, is it possible to depend upon this shared experience to determine the meaning of key concepts apart from a set of shared practices?

Andrew Newberg, a leading researcher in the new field, has scanned the brains of praying nuns, chanting Sikhs and meditating Buddhists so as to demonstrate the relationship between the brain and religious experience. All of this is interesting, but from his observations Newberg has begun to draw conclusions about the nature of belief. The danger in this study, which Newberg sometimes seems to acknowledge, is that the nuance of belief is not accounted for in the very nature of the study. Newberg assigns value to belief according to its physical/experiential impact, with the result that religions are equalized, beliefs flattened out, and ultimate value attached to various experiences of enlightenment.

Newberg seems to have unwittingly reduplicated the presumptions of religious pluralism. “Religious traditions are more or less “true” to the extent that they help human beings to overcome self-centeredness and to become open to love others.” The major traditions are “more or less equally fruitful in saintliness, producing extraordinary men and women whose spirit and lives make God more real to the rest of us.” Newberg’s research, focused as it is on such practices as meditation, prayer, and those practices which would impact the brain, if it is taken as an end in itself could be construed as concerned only with the phenomenology of religion and not the tenets of religion. As Newberg strays from describing the scientific meaning of his research to its possible implications, he sounds like one more religious pluralist.

In this understanding, as Ernst Troeltsch has described it, the absolute lies beyond history and is a truth that in many respects remains veiled. Neurotheology, likewise, does not presume that truth is available to be articulated as there is only the truth of experience as recorded in the brain. This focus feeds off of and supports an earlier romantic view of the nineteenth century: “Religion as such is a human good. Historical religions all point to and partake of the same ‘reality’; they are alternate variations on a theme, complementary paintings of a single landscape.”

Within a Christian frame, Hans Kung maintains there is salvation outside the Catholic and outside every church: all people “of good will” can attain salvation in their own religions and these may be called “anonymous Christians.” According to the light which is available to them they achieve Christian salvation. Neurotheology claims religious neutrality but the same basic notion holds: if experience and the impact of experience on the brain is the measure, then the qualities and values of various belief systems will not rest upon the particular details they espouse but on their measurable impact upon the brain and experience.

As James McClendon has noted, salvation in Christian terms is not just any experience of success or religious attainment. It means having a share in the liberation and healing associated with the rule of God Jesus proclaimed. Salvation is the ‘success’ that comes with particulars of Christian faith. In faith one shares the practices and convictions of Christ’s rule (to outsiders this may seem more like failure than success). Christian practices include taking the way of the cross and living one’s life in the presence of Jesus the risen Christ. To talk of the salvation of non-Christians (or of misnamed – anonymous ‘Christians’) apart from taking up the cross, apart from living in Christ’s presence, apart from acknowledging Christ’s divinity is not as some have supposed, to give salvation a wider meaning; it is to empty it of its real meaning. As McClendon so aptly describes it, “Talk of Christian salvation without Christian practices and Christian convictions is like talk of a fire that consumes no oxygen and releases no heat, like talk of a society that has no members and remembers no history.”

The mission of the Church is not about a vague need for all people to be better. Salvation for all means there are no exclusive limits – kingdom membership is open. To be the actual, glad recipient of salvation (Acts 17:11) is to become a member of a community of persons living out their lives under the reign of Christ. So, the very meaning of the word salvation in Christian use turns upon the shared life and practices Christians take up when they come to Christ.

McClendon spells out similar points in regard to “judgment”, “condemnation” and “damnation” (Rom. 8:1). The meaning and application of such terms is determined in relation to the community of practice in which they occur. “It follows that they have no clear application outside the bounds of that community: Those who stand in risk of hell (Matt. 5:22; Mark 9:43-47; Luke 12:5) are not some unknown pagans but are nominally God’s own people. They are people within the hearing of Jesus’ gospel.” Love, one of the key words in neurotheology, far from describing a universally understood experience takes on a very precise meaning in the ministry and life of Jesus. While it certainly pertains to a feeling or experience, the willingness to lay down one’s life, stand with the oppressed, sacrifice one’s own well-being, all attached to Jesus’ picture of agape love, describes a peculiar faith commitment and community.

The key problem with the presumptions made by neurotheology (shared with various schools of religious studies) is illustrated by the Kyoto School centered on Mahāyāna Buddhism. Focused around the thought of Kitaro Nishida and Zen Buddhism, the Kyoto school achieved the simultaneous heights of outlining the depths and meaning of Zen while also actively supporting fascism in prewar Japan. Nishida would claim to have reached enlightenment – and indeed he and his followers may have achieved the apex experience studied by neurotheology, but this not only did not prevent their fascism but fed into it. In a similar vein, Martin Heidegger outlines the limit experience of the human condition, while he was also a supporter of Adolph Hitler and an active participant in National Socialism.  As a university rector he takes direct measures against Jewish students, seeing that they are beaten up, and faculty – seeing to the firing of his own mentor. This great metaphysician, who claims philosophical enlightenment, proves to be a moral idiot.

Inasmuch as neurotheology aligns with notions that enlightenment (both small e and large E) is not dependent upon theory but presumes an a-historical a-theoretical experience – it seems to be in danger of promoting this same moral idiocy. Newberg’s theory, in the name of neutrality in regard to religious belief, promotes the notion that enlightenment per se is a key goal. (To say more about the experience of this enlightenment is already to denigrate it.) But this is precisely the goal of a Nishida and Heidegger, both of whom demonstrate an uncritical absorption of the blood and soil which gave them birth. The focus of the Kyoto School, Heidegger, and neurotheology, on experience, mood, oneness, enlightenment, to the near exclusion of the details of belief, is inherently problematic. Historically this focus has not only created passivity in the face of evil but has been complicit in promoting evil. Neurotheology, as with Nishida and Heidegger, seems not have the critical tools to distinguish truth from lies – good from evil, though it can accurately record changes in the frontal cortex, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, and the amygdala, etc. Beyond this Newberg’s extrapolations tend to reduce all religion and belief to a scale of values which cannot account for any particular content.

In my next blog I will examine neurotheology in light of my own area of study, psychotheology, not to reject it but to suggest how it might be set within a clear theoretical (New Testament) framework, enabling critique and nuance of belief and experience.

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.