Escaping the Meaning that Kills

“For this reason many among you are weak and sick, and a number sleep.” (1 Cor. 11:30).

We normally think of meaning in positive terms, as that which gives a narrative whole and goal to our lives, but what if the story that shapes our lives is killing us. A punishing, angry God, like a father who can never be pleased, a system of acquisition and consumption which can never satisfy, an isolated sense of self focused on autonomy and choice, may provide a religious, capitalistic, individualistic system of values but the system itself may be diseased. Meaning systems are necessary for survival, but they are also that which create the environment of life, potentially producing stresses and traumas as part of the system, which science is more and more linking with the increase of disease.

The first step in recognizing the role of culture, meaning, religion, and belief in physical health is mind/body holism, in which we instinctively and practically recognize that the body and mind cannot be split. What we believe, think, and experience, leave an imprint on our physical health. Physicians, such as Dr. Gabor Maté, are beginning to explore the relationship between trauma and repression and the increase of a variety of diseases. Rather than simply treating the physical symptoms (the physical disease) he began to recognize that the root cause of disease can be linked to stress or trauma. Maté realized, as coordinator of the Palliative Care Unit at Vancouver Hospital, that patients with chronic illness often shared an emotional history. “Similar dynamics and ways of coping were present in the people who came to us for palliation with cancers or degenerative neurological processes like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.” In his private practice the same pattern appeared in patients with “multiple sclerosis, inflammatory ailments of the bowel such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease, chronic fatigue syndrome, autoimmune disorders, bromyalgia, migraine, skin disorders, endometriosis and many other conditions.”[1]

There is even a new field of medicine, psychoneuroimmunology, tracing the link between the brain and the immune system. Emotional makeup and stress have been linked to diseases such as scleroderma, and the vast majority of rheumatic disorders, the inflammatory bowel disorders, diabetes, and multiple sclerosis.[2] Maté cites a study of medical students under the pressure of examination, demonstrating that their immune system was suppressed. He notes that loneliness has been shown to have similar results in psychiatric inpatients, concluding: “Even if no further research evidence existed—though there is plenty —one would have to consider the long-term effects of chronic stress. The pressure of examinations is obvious and short term, but many people unwittingly spend their entire lives as if under the gaze of a powerful and judgmental examiner whom they must please at all costs.”[3] His description verges on the theological, with certain forms of Christianity and other religions, projecting onto God the role of examiner, making all of life a final exam. If the problem is not religion per se, it may be we do not have emotionally satisfying relationships which “recognize or honour our deepest needs.”[4] At the deepest level, the level of experience and meaning, we may not recognize that we are filtering the world through an understanding which is spiritually, psychologically and physically, sickening.

As has been widely noted, our culture is experiencing an epidemic of loneliness. An article in JAMA journal of psychiatry refers to this epidemic of loneliness as responsible for the death of 1 American every 5.5 minutes due to suicide and opioid overdose. An annual mortality of 162,000 Americans is attributable to loneliness (exceeding the number of deaths from cancer or stroke), which is a term that, according to the British historian Fay Bound Alberti, did not exist in the English language until 1800.[5] It is not simply that people are not connecting with others, but the very notion of self is disconnected. As Charles Taylor describes it, “We are ‘buffered’ selves.” We conceive and experience the self, not as in traditional societies as porous and interconnected, but in an inner mental space.[6] This self-conception creates the condition for developing acute loneliness. The very concept of self, pits the self against others, and even within the self our mind is divided, with the inner self in conflict with the outer self or the “body.”

Meanwhile, theologically inclined psychologists have developed the new field called Neurotheology, which recognizes, 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. 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.[7] Timothy R. Jennings, a medical doctor, in The God Shaped Brain: How Changing Your View of God Transforms Your Life,compares the impact on the brain of an angry or loving concept of God.[8] As he notes, “Brain-imaging studies have demonstrated that the more time a person spends in communion with the God of love, the more developed the ACC (the anterior cingulate cortex) becomes. Not only that, the person experiences decreases in stress hormones, blood pressure, heart rate and risk of untimely death. Even in our mortal and defective bodies, love is healing. Conversely, the more time spent contemplating an angry, wrathful, fear-inducing deity, the more damage to the brain and the more rapidly one’s health declines, leading to early death.”[9] Not only does this demonstrate a mind/body connection, but implicitly, a God/human connection of expansive proportions (a point I return to below).

It is not simply one’s view of God, as religion may or may not enter in to our understanding and experience of reality. The tendency may be to project an image onto God, as an extension of the superego – the punishing father figure who personifies a retributive legal order, such that it is not doctrine or belief about God, but an inner bent or pattern which takes precedent. Getting rid of a punishing God, for example, through atheism may (and in my experience, often does) simply unleash an obscene superego figure which is beyond religious control. Ex-believers may continue to feel the punishing effects of the God they do not believe in. The law or father-figure of the conscience, is not subject to denial. The real issue is not so much God, but how to get rid of an oppressive experience of self and the world, which may or may not be experienced as religion.

Psychotheology, as I have developed the term, fuses Lacanian psychology with a (fuller) reading of Paul, so that psychoanalysis finds the completion of its categories and the resolution of the human predicament in theology. The Lacanian understanding develops what Paul calls “the body of death” which is the isolated, interior notion of the self, but Lacan does not counter this understanding in the way that Paul does, with being joined to “the body of Christ.” As a result, for Lacan, death drive or the superego is a constant factor in a person’s life. The only possibility is to manipulate this force for death, but there is no deliverance. As a result, the isolated sense of self, the inner dialectic between ego and superego, or between the law of the mind and the law of the body, is a permanent condition.

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 death (the death drive, in Lacanian terminology). Meaning systems, as we have them, take effect within this system (translated into religion or economics or personal striving) between the ego and superego (or the law). One scores points, gets ahead, establishes themselves, according to the zero-sum game of the score-keeper (God, the superego, the cultural imperative). The symbolic of this body of death is the very substance of meaning, and to escape this system is to escape meaning as our world constitutes it.

As Paul Hessert has described, the encounter with Christ brings an end, or should, to meaning as we know it.[10] But of course, the opposite is also often the case, as Christ is made to support our meaning systems (be they legal atonement theories, nationalism, capitalism, or some other measure of success). These systems are “meaningful” according to the point or end toward which they take us. For example, education is only judged meaningful, if at graduation a job is secured – otherwise it may be judged meaningless. Christianity may be meaningful in this context, as it serves to bolster the goals of society – a good education, a good job, a happy family. What possible purpose for a faith that does not serve, or perhaps interrupts, the accepted pattern of meaning.

As Hessert notes though, the New Testament describes culture has having an “endemic flaw” summed up in the term covetousness. The greed or desire of culture is its shaping force and value system, which according to the New Testament is definitive: ”I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people; I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters, for then you would have to go out of the world” (1 Cor. 5:9–10). The world is constituted by covetousness, and to be shaped by the world is to partake of this meaning system (see Eph. 5:3, 5; Col. 3:5; 1 Thess. 2:5, Heb. 13:5, 2 Pet. 2:3). This is what belief embraces and what unbelief cannot begin to fathom, as unbelief is founded in the meaning system immediately available. As Hessert puts it, “Covetousness names the dynamic of the meaningful life of self-realization, self-development.”[11] In Paul’s terms, covetousness (as in Romans 7:7) constitutes an “ethos” or orientation to the law, in which the I is ever striving and never achieving. The demands for attaining and improving are constant, as there is no achieving the illusive object behind the law. Paul calls it “the body of death” as the alienated individual in relationship to self is involved in a deadly struggle. The body or self is objectified, something one has, rather than what one is. The body is a means to fulfillment (or not). “There is no choice within the culture-body between self-fulfillment and non-self-fulfillment.” The choice is only “how self-fulfillment is to be –achieved and expressed” and the body provides the instrumentation. “In the ‘body of death,’ . . . the life of the body is only ancillary to its parts (‘members’).”[12] Modern medicine has taken this understanding to the extreme, picturing the body in terms of a mechanical apparatus (e.g., the heart as a pump, the brain as a computer, etc.,) and like much of theology, it does not address the root of sickness.

Paul’s other usage of “body” pictures not the individual, but the corporate body of the church, or the body of Christ. “For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ” (1 Cor. 12:12). This resurrection body exceeds the possibility of meaning provided in the body of death – “resurrection is not a possibility of the body of death, as though that body destined for death might have an entirely different order of life hidden within it. While from the standpoint of the body of death there may be renewed life, there is no resurrection, no other life. Even imagination, bound to meaning, fails at this point.” Paul (in Romans 6) pictures resurrection life as death. There is a dying to meaning. “This death is not the transition to another ‘life’ within the body of death, another set of possibilities (‘life beyond the grave’). It is not the death that meaning is able to encompass and transcend. The death associated with resurrection is total and final death.”[13] In this ultimate relinquishment of meaning, resurrection occurs.

As Christ describes it, this is a completely different environment: “Make your home in me, as I make mine in you. As a branch cannot bear fruit all by itself, but must remain part of the vine, neither can you unless you remain in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me, with me in him, bears fruit in plenty; for cut off from me you can do nothing” (John 15:1-5, JB). This different environing does not depend on its members, on the body, or on the branches, for life. In the body of death, the body borrows its life from its members. The members of the physical body or other members of the cultural body provide life, and delivers it to others. In Paul’s imagery, it is only through being incorporated into the body of Christ, that the eye, the hand, the foot, or a particular individual has access to life. “Now you are Christ’s body, and individually members of it” (1 Cor. 12:27).

Thus, in the celebration and realization of being incorporated into this body, to turn to consumptive desire is a return to the body of death – which is quite literally, in Paul’s estimate, deadly: “Therefore when you meet together, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper, for in your eating each one takes his own supper first; and one is hungry and another is drunk” (1 Cor. 11:20–21). They have turned to a covetous biting and devouring one another. “For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself if he does not judge the body rightly. For this reason many among you are weak and sick, and a number sleep” (1 Cor. 11:29–30). They have traded life for death, and this impacts them bodily/spiritually/physically.

[1]Gabor Maté, When the Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress (Alfred a Knopf, 2003) 57-58.

[2] Maté, 47.

[3] Maté, 54-55.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Dilip V Jeste, Ellen E Lee, Stephanie Cacioppo, “Battling the Modern Behavioral Epidemic of Loneliness: Suggestions for Research and Interventions,” JAMA psychiatry, 77(6)

[6] Charles Taylor, “Buffered and porous selves”

[7] Andrew Newberg,

[8] Timothy R. Jennings, The God-Shaped Brain: How Changing Your View of God Transforms Your Life (InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition).

[9] Jennings, 42.

[10] Paul Hessert, Christ and the End of Meaning: The Theology of Passion (Rockport, Massachusetts: Element Inc., 1993).

[11] Hessert, 190.

[12] Hessert, 194.

[13] Hessert, 197.

Why Does Anakin Really Become Darth Vader: The Logic of Empire Versus the Peaceable Kingdom

(Reposted from July 26, 2018)

In an interview with Time George Lucas explains the fall of Anakin Skywalker as a failure to live up to the way of the Jedi (“pop-Buddhism” or, as Lucas describes himself, “Methodist-Buddhist”) teaching: “He turns into Darth Vader because he gets attached to things. He can’t let go of his mother; he can’t let go of his girlfriend. He can’t let go of things. It makes you greedy. And when you’re greedy, you are on the path to the dark side, because you fear you’re going to lose things.”[1]  If Anakin could have remained detached from his passions, Lucas indicates, he would not have become the evil minion of the Dark Side. Think here of the fully enlightened Obi-Wan Kenobi floating in the ether urging Luke to “Let go.” He has already been struck down, willingly, by Darth Vader but having passed through the veil of death he has come out on the other side, devoid of the hindrance of a physical body and fully in possession of his true essence.

Buddha’s original insight into the human predicament (suffering, disease, and death) was to lay the blame on desire or attachment. It is not that detachment gets rid of suffering and death—but the point is to posit a reality which is untouched by suffering and death and, so, relinquish a grip on the material world in a way that takes hold of this alternative reality. In actual practice in Japan, this has not meant a refusal of violence but a fearless embrace of death—as in Bushido. To be struck down or to strike down (by light saber or sword) is of no great concern as death is a passageway into a more substantial reality. Isn’t this the teaching of the Bible and Christianity? Consider the hymns we have sung for decades: this “world is not my home I am just passing through,” “I’ll fly away,” and “we will meet on that heavenly shore.” Those who accept Jesus into their heart have the assurance of a spiritual heavenly home and this is why Jesus came. Now we can see that death is not a reality and this material world will soon be burned up.  Our souls will depart for heaven, upon separation from our bodies at death, and we will spend eternity in disembodied bliss.

The irony of the many post-evangelicals who have passed into various forms of neo-Gnosticism (see the fine blog and podcasts with Bret Powell) is that they have not changed their basic worldview. Reformed theology along with the many forms of disembodied Christianity (see Philip Lee’s Against the Protestant Gnostics) presume that Christianity addresses categories removed from death and the life-long orientation to death.  This understanding was never far from the Gnostic Christ or from the Star Wars‘ portrayal of Anakin as a Christ-like figure (his immaculate conception, his Ben-Hur like chariot/pod race). The New Age pagan universe is not so different from the second century pagan universe, as in both good and evil are not really opposed forces but each is a necessary part of the other. The point is not to rid the world of the dark side but to keep all things in balance. The serpent and Judas are joined to Christ in the same way that Anakin, a Christ figure, is joined to Darth Vader.  The neo-Gnostics, like the originals, presume that the serpent represents a feminine principle which has been demonized and so we need to hear this voice which would have us imbibe in the fulness of knowledge.  Those with true insight, as the Zen Buddhist philosopher Kitaro Nishida puts it, recognize that the principles of good and evil, God and Satan, can be conjoined and harmonized within the self so that the enlightened individual is greater than God and Satan. The goal is to achieve balance and harmony through detachment from both principles.

Within this pagan horizon, one who claims to be the “way, the truth, and the life,” or one who advocates selling everything, not simply to become detached but so as to become attached to Him, must be the ultimate devil. Christ explains that he did not come to bring balance and harmony, but a sword. “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and his mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters–yes even his own life–he cannot be my disciple.” Christianity is not paganism precisely because it opposes, divides itself from, and does not presume to explain and incorporate the “necessity” of evil. Darkness is not a counter-balance to light, and death is not a doorway to life; death is the final enemy and darkness will be penetrated and overcome.

On the other hand, the sign of a Christianity turned Gnostic (whether by post-evangelicals or evangelicals) is the willingness to accede to the necessity of evil as a tool in bringing about righteousness. Violence, nationalism, or personal betrayal (in my experience “raising up new servant leaders for the Church” requires that the old ones be expendable) in which doing evil to singular individuals is justified in bringing about the greater good for the kingdom (an actual theological explanation I received). There is no end to the evil (war, keeping the foreigners out, imprisoning children, or simply doing evil to a friend) which may be required to usher in the kingdom. Calvin maintains the Fall, Judas, and evil, are a necessary part of God’s plan, so it should be no surprise that, in the name of this sort of Christianity, some are willing to play the role of Judas so as to advance the kingdom.  After all, don’t we need Judas to betray Christ so that the world revolution can begin? Maybe Judas recognized he was the necessary cog in fomenting a showdown.

In its exclusiveness, orthodoxy is intolerant of this sort of evil because the kingdom established on this principle (“Let us do evil that good may abound”) is itself evil. (Which is the interesting part of Star Wars – the Republic turned Empire – “we ourselves have become evil” – to which I will return below.) To state it differently, there is the possibility of defeating evil and not simply the presumption that Good and Evil are two sides of the same coin, false opposites to be harmonized in a higher principle. Christ presumes to separate good and evil and not reduce them to mere appearance. His harsh judgments of the Pharisees (“You are of your father the Devil”), of his own disciples (“One of You is a devil”), and even his chief apostle (“Get behind me Satan”), are meant to divide and separate the good from the evil. Where paganism would obliterate differences – good and evil, male and female, darkness and light – Christ draws lines and distinguishes elements, such that the imbalance is not undermined but accentuated.

This sort of intolerance is counted the source of evil in New Age paganism. How can one achieve peace if continually caught up in this agonistic struggle? The quietism of the East accepts the inevitable cosmic conflict but presumes one can withdraw to a higher plane. Where Christ demands a definitive belief, the New Age principle would suspend belief and revel in non-duality, non-thought, and a primal Ground in which substantive reality is enfolded into Nothingness. The Force needs its “Anakins” as much as its “Lukes” and it is no surprise that the same principle should give rise to both. What I have argued in my previous two blogs, as with the Kyoto School, Martin Heidegger, and the head of Shambhala International, is that this form of enlightenment may “positively” impact the brain (as determined in the valuation system of neurotheology) while actively promoting evil. The Gnostic, in reply, would point to the relativity of terms such as “good” and “evil” and valorize the role of the serpent and Judas. What is a bit of groping, fascism, National Socialism, murder, betrayal, in light of the cosmic balance, the Empire, or the kingdom of God? (Perhaps Anakin should be made to realize the Emperor only appears evil through the limited perspective of the archaic league, the Jedi, and he is the true master.) Both the Gnostics and orthodox Christians would accuse the other of being deluded. (As I have argued, neurotheology does not have the tools to look at the brain and make a determination one way or another.) The precise nature of reality is under contention.

The Bible and Christianity (in its pre-Gnostic form) accounts for the drive to detachment and non-duality, not as acceding to the primal ground, but as a delusion arising from rejection of the divine perspective. The Fall consists, as Bonhoeffer describes it, of humans displacing the divine role and becoming the arbiters of their own ethic. Paul describes the cathecting of the law into the self so that both law and the subject are transformed in the process. The law, taken up into the subject, divides the “I” against itself so that the individual is simultaneously constituted and consumed in the ensuing struggle.

The law is not something distinct from the self but is that part of identity – that punishing voice within which would obliterate the ego. The key point is that the agonistic struggle is not something which happens to the “I” or ego; rather the ego is constituted in the struggle with the law. To succumb to the law (or to what Paul describes as a deceived orientation to law definitive of sin) is to give death full sway. Thus, Freud dubs it the Nirvana principle, as in a masochistic self-relation ultimate pleasure is to be had in a death dealing dissolution.  Obi-Wan’s succumbing to death, or the enlightenment goal of dissolution of the ego, succumbs to the deluding power of the super-ego or the law (which in the revised Star Wars would be the Evil Emperor).

Paul’s resolution (unavailable in psychoanalysis) is a deconstruction of the entire dynamic. The ego is identified as a spectral unreality, the law (superego) is one’s own voice given final authority, and the positing of these two realms denies the reality of the mortal body and death. The serpent, Obi-Wan, but every form of paganism, whispers, “You won’t die, you will be gods knowing good and evil.” Paul’s cry in regard to the real of the death drive, “who will rescue me from this body of death,” is to be found in the specific work of Christ in exposing the death dealing orientation of sin (the death drive). Death and desire, the controlling forces of sin, are displaced by life and hope. The “I” can be said to have been crucified with Christ, but it is not that the placeholder of the “I” remains empty. It is now, Paul says, Christ that lives within me. What this means in experience is detailed in his depiction in Ro. 8 of taking on the perspective of Christ in relation to “Abba Father” through the Spirit. Paul fills in each part of the tri-partite identity with a depiction of the work of the Trinity.

In place of the law (the punishing superego) is a first order relation with “Abba – Father,” and in place of the ego is the perspective and relational identity of Christ (“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live but Christ lives within me”), and in place of the orientation to death (id, death drive) is the life-giving work of the Spirit.  The fear and slavery under the law of sin and death, with its work through deceptive desire aroused by the law, became “another law” (ἕτερον νόμον), but this law is now voided along with all of its various machinations.  The key difference between the living death of 7.7ff and life in the Spirit of ch. 8, or another way of describing the difference between life and death, is that the death of the “I” divides and alienates (giving rise to the three parts of a lie – what is denied (death), what is posited (the ego), and the controlling medium (the law), while life in the Spirit is a communion founded by the Father who has sent his Son (8.3) who leads by his Spirit (8.14).  The Trinity is a communion in which and through which the new humanity walks (8.4), has their mindset (8.5-8), sonship (8.15), endurance of suffering (8.17), and saving hope (8.20, 24).

The pertinent question/objection, in conjunction with Star Wars, is not simply why one individual became evil but why the Republic became the Empire and how Paul’s prescription amounts to a political intervention? In the end Lucas’ (or what has become the Star Wars franchise) portrayal of the fall of Anakin is not consistent. If Anakin had been portrayed as one who pursued the good or peace, such that like Judas he was willing to do evil to bring on the final confrontation which would bring about peace, this would have followed the trajectory from Republic to Empire. (As it is Anakin proves simply to be weak willed and drawn to power for its own sake.) Hardt and Negri sum up the problem of Empire: “the practice of Empire is continually bathed in blood, the concept of Empire is always dedicated to peace—a perpetual and universal peace outside of history.” This fits Lucas’ explanation that the Empire did not conquer the Republic, but the Republic became the Empire. “One day, Princess Leia and her friends woke up and said, ‘This isn’t the Republic anymore, it’s the Empire. We are the bad guys.’” The pursuit of peace through evil, at the individual and corporate level, produces Empire on the macro and micro scale. Anakin becomes Vader (and this would have been the more authentic portrayal) in the same way that the Republic becomes the Empire; not through attachment to the good but a determination to achieve peace by any means. Anakin should have become a monster through his commitment to fight evil by any means. A democracy becomes a dictatorship in its commitment, as Žižek puts it, “through the very way we, the ‘good guys,’ fight the enemy out there.” The war on terror endlessly reduplicates terror as it functions according to the presumption generating evil.

The enemy which Christ exposes, as Paul explains, is precisely this principle of doing evil that good may abound. The political alternative is the enactment of the good, in every circumstance and at any personal cost (laying one’s life down for the brethren), without falling back on evil. Though “necessity” may demand an immediate violence, a slight moral modification, a temporary suspension of peace, the Kingdom founded on the Cross refuses to succumb to the principle of Empire. The Peaceable Kingdom declares the struggle and its principle, “shall we sin that grace may abound,” as the delusion undone in an original peace devoid of the necessity of conflict.

[1] This was from a 2002 Time Magazine interview. I am employing Slavoj Žižek’s account from his article “Revenge of Global Finance” In These Times at

Why Does Anakin Really Become Darth Vader: The Logic of Empire Versus the Peaceable Kingdom

In an interview with Time George Lucas explains the fall of Anakin Skywalker as a failure to live up to the way of the Jedi (“pop-Buddhism” or, as Lucas describes himself, “Methodist-Buddhist”) teaching: “He turns into Darth Vader because he gets attached to things. He can’t let go of his mother; he can’t let go of his girlfriend. He can’t let go of things. It makes you greedy. And when you’re greedy, you are on the path to the dark side, because you fear you’re going to lose things.”[1]  If Anakin could have remained detached from his passions, Lucas indicates, he would not have become the evil minion of the Dark Side. Think here of the fully enlightened Obi-Wan Kenobi floating in the ether urging Luke to “Let go.” He has already been struck down, willingly, by Darth Vader but having passed through the veil of death he has come out on the other side, devoid of the hindrance of a physical body and fully in possession of his true essence. Continue reading “Why Does Anakin Really Become Darth Vader: The Logic of Empire Versus the Peaceable Kingdom”

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. Continue reading “Neurotheology Versus Psychotheology: The Deception Behind Experiences of Enlightenment”

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. Continue reading “Neurotheology Versus Psychotheology: Does Enlightenment Promote Moral Idiocy?”