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  1. Sermon I gave 8/7/11 ~#6 in this life Scripture Colossians 1:15-20 Passage from The Shack about God being a verb. To move from a dead noun to a live verb is to move from law to grace. Last night as I was trying to wrestle the final draft of this sermon into completion I thought, “I don’t know anything. I’m just a kid who is exited by new ideas.” So I brought something I need to hear and maybe some things that you will find interesting. If you ask a theologian about the relationship between science and religion a common answer is that science is about discovering how the universe is evolving and religion is about understanding why the universe is evolving. What is the purpose and what is the meaning. Usually how and why questions are answered by the left brain through experiments, scientific method, rational inquiry and reason. At best the theologian might have had a God experience, think about it logically and abstractly, bringing rational statements to the conversation with science. Its as if rational science and rational religion divided the left brain world in half. With the right brain, and what it knows, left out. What does the right brain know? What can it add to the conversation between religion and science? And does science have anything to say about religious experiences of the right brain? In our conversation today I’ll introduce you to a Franciscan nun and a neurophysiologist who has been studying religious experiences for over 15 years. The neurophysiologist is Andrew Newberg. His most recent book for the general audience is “How God Changes Your Brain”. His research can show us what a left brain person can understand about how the right brain works. His observations about the science of religious experiences can put us in our right mind. Ilia Delio is a Franciscan nun and former neurophysiologist. Her life moves from the lab bench to the prayer bench. From the left brain to the right brain she says with laughter because she knows that brain structure and functioning is not so clear cut. In her first career she worked as a neurophysiologist in spinal cord research. One day she noticed with a sense of wonder and awe, a single living motor neuron firing. It just “ripped me in its awesomeness”. She says. A moment of grace. A turning point. Ilia finished her research and joined the Carmelites to learn to pray and learn to garden. Later a Mother Superior would suggest that Ilia was better suited to the Franciscans and their studies. But as a Carmelite she sat daily with other women praying and working in the garden for 4 years. This sitting in prayer daily and daily working in the garden as an active way of focusing or paying attention is a way of knowing with body. As a result the body, the bones, the heart know a reality not accessible in words or reducible to objects that science and reason can examine directly. It is the kind of knowing that a verb gives you. Andrew Newberg began his brain imaging research with Tibetan monks in “mindfulness meditation’ and Catholic nuns in active prayer. They both experience a loss of sense of self, a timelessness, spacelessness, a transcendence or union with what one is meditating on. The nuns might say that when we give up our sense of self then we experience communion with God. These spiritual disciplines result in increased consciousness, increased alertness, and an increased ability to resonate to other people’s feelings and thoughts. To resonate means to vibrate in sympathy with another matching their vibrations. To be empathetic. This experiential knowledge the body gains in the daily disciplines of praying and gardening is an example of the right brain knowledge that was lost 500 years ago with the beginning of the Enlightenment. The modern era chose scientific method, rational inquiry and reason as the only ways of knowing what is real. Up to that time, Ilia Delio says, both the experiential and the experimental were accepted ways of gaining knowledge about the world. Now experiential and spiritual ways of knowing were dismissed as subjective. They became personal, private, closeted. I think Andrew Newberg’s research into the science of the religious experience is one example of efforts in bringing the experiential, body, and spiritual way of knowing what is real out of the closet. After many years of research on brain activity during spiritual experiences he and his team have developed very specific meditations or prayers that improve mental, social and psychological – sounds like a self help book doesn’t it? His book has collected many of the relaxation techniques that have been around for a while. The practice of any these has a positive effect on health and mental well being. But it is in the spiritual disciplines like mindful meditation of the Monks and the focused active prayer of the nuns where one experiences the loss of sense of self and a transcendent feeling of communion or union with ultimate reality, God. – these are the experiences which change our brain. Quiet prayer time is relaxing and has a positive effect on our health and well being but does not have the same effect – increased consciousness, increased alertness, and an increased ability to resonate to other people’s feelings and thoughts. Abilities are what the right brain acquires. It’s activity does not result in more information or facts but it makes you more able to do something. During meditation or active prayer the positive emotions relax the parietal lobe where our sense of self is maintained. Its activity decreases. After meditation the right brain , under less control of the left brain can, use it newly improved abilities, to love and to be compassionate It is this increased ability to be aware of ourselves and others, to feel a greater connectedness with a larger world, to have greater sense of self, to have increased ability for love, compassion, and empathy – it is this spiritual and experiential knowledge that Ilia Delio sees as the other half of the dialog with the science. If we read the science books and look at the universe with wonder, awe and trust, in the present moment, with empathy and compassion one reaches a deeper knowing about what is real. Ilia suggests that this is real wisdom. As our brains develop from infancy to adulthood different ideas about God become available to us. As adults we have several gods in our conceptions. We move between these during a day or week. We center on one of the Gods, preferring it over others. Surveys asked for descriptions of God and how the believer interacted with God. The data suggested five gods, which are Authoritarian, Critical, Distant, Benevolent and Mystical. We would all recognize this benevolent god who loves and cares for us, answers our prayers and occasionally allows suffering. From a neuro-scientific perspective, choosing to believe in a benevolent God is the healthiest choice. Has the greatest benefits and enhances ones ability to be compassionate. From the development of the brain to the evolution of the brain – Newberg sees correlates between the gods and which area of the brain is activated when people are thinking about each kind of god. Thoughts about an authoritarian god increase activity in the oldest part, the reptilian brain. Here are our basic concerns for survival, food and reproduction. We want an authoritarian God to tell us exactly what to do to be safe. When our anxiety or fear rise up this is God we seek. Our earliest primitive conceptions of God occurred about 100,000 years ago. As our human groups grew in size so did our conception of God. The brain evolved to handled a different conception of God. It was not a straight and forward path. Sometimes we are able to widen our circle of compassion, to include more and more people under one God. Sometimes life is so frightening that God’s commandment to love one another reaches only a tight circle of friends. Some today are saying, along with Andrew, that as a whole humans, through the processes of evolution, are becoming more empathetic and this is coincident with the need for larger circles of compassion that must reach around the world in an age of global consciousness. Human evolution is moving in the direction of empathy and we, as part of that evolving, we can also move in the direction of more compassion and empathy through spiritual disciplines. From Ilia Delio - there’s a whole line in the Christian tradition which had another way of thinking about things and that is that Christ was first in God’s intention to love. For the Franciscan theologian Duns Scotus God is love. From all eternity God willed to share that love with another and therefore the Christ was willed to grace and glory prior to any sin. Scotus was basically saying that Christ is first in God’s intention to love and in order for Christ to come, there had to be a creation. In Ilia Delio’s words, Christ, as God’s first word of love, is in the very processes of becoming in the universe. Christ as the head of creation, in whom and through whom all the universe in coming to be. It is Christ incarnating, Christ sacrificing when a supernova explosion creates all the elements in our periodic table which makes carbon based life forms possible. As part of the universe evolving we are Christ emerging. We are in this present moment Christ, the first word of love, emerging into the universe. And this is a story that you can make your own. Andrew Newberg, the neurophysiologist, says that if this story informs your meditations it will change your brain and change the world around you. Really. Scientifically and Spiritually.
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