Neurotheology Versus Psychotheology: The Deception Behind Experiences of Enlightenment

Part of the attraction of neurotheology, with its focus on chanting, prayer, meditation, and various spiritual exercises (rapid movements of head, body, arms, etc.) is that this a direct route to interrupting negative habits of thought without having to deal with the particulars of belief. Those who achieve “enlightenment” experience a shift in consciousness that seems to open up their world beyond everyday consciousness. They report feelings of greater peace and compassion that pervade every part of their life. The feeling is so intense that it exceeds belief, or at least any particular form of belief, so that it may result in the suspension of belief. Andrew Newberg (the leading researcher in the field) equates the experience of enlightenment with a “shaking up” of cherished beliefs. He maintains, “Beliefs are principles that you formed in the past, and enlightenment — going by the dictionary definition — means ‘to bring new light to ignorance.’”[1] Add to this the hard science of brain scans and the literal reshaping of the brain by means of “intense ritual,” and the recommendations of Newberg seem irrefutable.  Experience trumps belief such that the experience contains the truth that will bend or shape belief accordingly. Isn’t this precisely what is needed in this moment in which Christian belief is proving to be one more degraded ideology subject to the manipulations of the most recent demagogue?  Do not belief and doctrine simply serve as justification for cruelty? While every religion may be effective in describing a particular portion of reality, as with the story of the five blind men and the elephant, error enters in when one imagines that his description precludes the description of the others. The wise man can see what the blind religionists cannot, the various religions affirm a common core of reality (they all have hold of the same elephant) they simply approach it in different ways (the trunk, the tail, the leg, etc.). Is it not the case that the various religious traditions are more or less “true” to the extent that they have a piece of the elephant and help human beings overcome self-centeredness and become open to love?  But when religionists insist upon particular doctrines and beliefs it is like a blind man claiming an elephant is all snake-like trunk.

There are several layers of error in this notion, but in refuting the errors I also want to bring out an elemental truth (to which I shall return). The inherent arrogance of this argument was brought home to me as a participant in an inter-religious dialogue in Japan. It was the Thai Buddhist Priest who explained to the rest of us (Muslims and Christians), mucking about in the particulars of doctrine and belief as we were, that his own position of enlightened experience had taught him to see what we could not. As with the blind men and the elephant (as captured so well by Leslie Newbigin), his message was that we Christians and Muslims must learn the humility of the blind as none of us have more than one piece of the truth. As the imparter of this wisdom, the Buddhist took the place of the king in the story, he was the one who sees all and is not blind like the rest of us or like the world religions which do not have access to this fullness of reality. He managed to insult everyone present and to offer no basis for dialogue, other than relinquishing the particulars of our own belief. This is the same arrogance of a John Hick, a pluralist and key scholar in religious studies, who presumes to make absolute statements about the relative truth available to the various religions.

Neurotheology, I have previously argued, falls into the same error as religious studies in that its focus on experience, mood, oneness, enlightenment, to the near exclusion of the details of belief, is in danger of promoting moral idiocy. Can we determine truth through its impact on the brain or is the brain, like human identity and experience itself, subject to manipulation, such that a particular experience, mood, or MRI reading, is not in itself a sufficient guide to discerning truth?  This past week brought the news that the head of Shambhala International, the largest Buddhist organization in the West, was forced to step down after confessing to a number of sexual relationships with his followers, some of whom accused him of drunken groping and sexual extortion. Enlightenment, as with the Kyoto School and of Martin Heidegger (as I argued in my previous blog), may impart many things but apparently enduring moral insight is not always included.

The point that Slavoj Žižek might insist upon, is that the leader of Shambhala committed his crimes, not in spite of Buddhist teachings in regard to detachment, but precisely because sexual immorality and even murder (as per his commentary on Kim Ki-duk’s film, “Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter … and Spring”) are internal to this detached gaze. It is not that Žižek is anti-Buddhist, but Buddhist notions of Nirvana and detachment (and forms of enlightenment that presume this orientation) duplicate Sigmund Freud’s picture of the fusion of Eros with Thanatos, which Freud dubs the Nirvana Principle. Buddhist detachment but also every form of jouissance (the pursuit of illicit or evil desire), according to Jacques Lacan (whom Žižek is following), constitutes complete subservience to the super-ego or the symbolic (the seat of the death drive), or what Paul will describe as a universal law. Subservience to this law of desire may take many forms, all of which are either masochistic or sadistic, but both Žižek and Lacan find the fullest and earliest articulation of the death dealing nature of this desire in the Apostle Paul. The unique perspective that Paul and psychoanalysis bring to religion, but also to the universal orientation to the law, is that human desire works through a fundamental and primordial deception. Brain studies, experience, focus on mood and emotion, cannot possibly get at this deception as it functions to generate an identity (religious and atheistic) and a world of experience and emotion.

Psychotheology, at least as I have understood and developed the discipline, fuses Žižek’s psychoanalytic insight (which he claims is simply an outworking of the Pauline picture of the law) with a fuller reading of Paul, so that psychoanalysis finds the completion of its categories and the resolution of the predicament of the death drive in theology. This pertains to neurotheology in that it accounts for the peculiar experiences Newberg describes, not as an achievement of transcendence, but as the outworking of an imaginary identity relinquishing power to the id or what Lacan dubbed the “real.” The real is precisely not reality but is the underlying force working within the tri-partite structure which Paul will identify as the law (what Lacan calls the symbolic and Freud calls the super-ego), the “I” or (ἐγὼ) ego (which Lacan dubs the “imaginary” and which he describes as “frustration in its essence” as it blocks entry into the fullness of reality).  The oceanic feeling, or what is sometimes depicted as Nirvana or enlightenment, is the outworking of the basic human conflict or struggle between “I” (the ego) and the law (the symbolic). The feeling of dissolution of the “I,” described in experiences of enlightenment, depict the full subservience to the symbolic (the law).

In Pauline terms, the ‘body of death’ pits ‘the members of my body’ against ‘the law of my mind’ and this makes ‘me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members’ (7.23-24). The body of death does its work as the body itself, with its members, stands outside the law of the mind or the symbolic and this constitutes the work of the real or death drive. To give in to this dualism (whether it is called enlightenment, Nirvana, or the oceanic feeling) is simply to follow the course set out in the law of sin and death. As Žižek describes it, the antagonistic dialectic between the imaginary and symbolic (or the ego and superego) takes place through the displacement of the physical body (Organs without Bodies, 93).  This out of body experience is a succumbing to the primordial lie of detachment. The passage into the real is from being a body to establishing a symbolic distance from the body (and having a body): ‘the body exists in the order of having – I am not my body, I have it’ (Organs without Bodies, 121).  This detachment, taken literally in certain religions and experiences of enlightenment, is accompanied by a detachment from doctrine and belief.

Though Žižek is an atheist, he recommends Christ’s teaching which would elevate some principles, some trues, a certain ethic, over others. Certainly, part of what it means to identify Christ with the truth is to relinquish the notion that truth is something we can possess or own. This is not “my truth” but it is God’s truth, so it is not reducible to my comprehension, my formula, or my limited understanding. At the same time, this truth is both a Person and personal which means this truth does not float free of the particulars of embodiment, incarnation, belief and doctrine. The personal nature of the truth of Christ cannot be reduced to propositions but who he is pertains to the specifics of what he taught. This is not a delimitation of truth but is foundational to building a holistic truth system. The trues of the world, the trues of science and history, the trues of philosophy, and even the trues of religion and experience, potentially find coherence in this Person. This coherence necessarily escapes any one finite mind and will involve the ineffable and mystical. Still, this truth does not float free of the particulars of belief and doctrine.

In part III I will address the psychotheological resolution to the predicament of dualistic struggle neurotheology posits as inherent to achieving enlightenment.


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.