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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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Scientist are zeroing in on the God particle. The preferred name for the God particle among physicists is the Higgs boson, or the Higgs particle in honor of the physicist Peter Higgs, who proposed it more than 40 years ago. They are colliding sub particles from the atom to discover it. Scientist are developing their brains uniting both hemispheres to acknowledge that the universe is one vibration or uni-verse. We have the String Theory, but the discovery of the God particle can merge theology and science in unity. I will change science as we know it.

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I really like this sermon, but I find this part difficult to accept:

 

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.

 

Is humanity really moving in the direction of empathy? The 20th century introduced a plethora of brutally efficient methods of human destruction. Neo-liberal globalisation is fundamentally incompatible with human empathy or spiritual development. The 21st century appears thus far to have learned nothing from its predecessor. I think it was Hegel who noted that the only thing we learn from history is that we never learn from history. What do you think?

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Dutch,

 

That was wonderful! As someone who is has a religious experience watching "Nova", this really touched me and I will probably be using it in my preparation for meditation!

 

I have to agree with Phil, however. I'm not too sure that humanity as a whole is evolving to empathy.

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Phil,

Thank you for reading it.I am away from my computer so there will be at least two responses to your questions.

 

First: Steven Pinker on the myth of violence | Video on TED.com (I couldn't copy the actual link from my phone)

 

While neither he nor I would disagree that we are more efficient in killing, the numbers show that we kill fewer of ourselves.

 

The unprecented UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights would be evidence that our aspirations are higher. Karen Armstrong's Charter for Compassion has a global target, again unprecented in anything even religious organizations have tried.

 

More later

 

Dutch

 

Dutch

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Thanks, Dutch.

 

I found your sermon very interesting.

 

Cheers

Paul

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Is humanity really moving in the direction of empathy??

 

Absolutely. Dutch mentioned PInker. His book is The Better Angels of Our Nature. The evidence is overwhelming, it is unambiguous - humans are becoming less violent over time.

 

George

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First: it is not a perfect world. There will always be the tug of tribalism and the temptation to use power to oppress. However I am speaking of the grand arc of evolution which is not a straight continuous line.

 

The limits of reciprocal altruism as an explanation of why we treat each kindly and with relative fairness has been reached as new research reveals the deeply rooted prosocial propensities humans have for moral action. Even the Social Contract view of human political organization has been called into question. As prosocial animals we naturally seek a peaceful and orderly society. Laws are usually to prevent "freeloading" by the few.

 

Frans de Waal does research in the evolution of morality and empathy in primates. He uses his results to argue against a theistic God as the source of morality. That's OK with me because I think his work fits perfectly a process theology that sees that everything is related externally (where the materialists do their work) and internally. It is evidence that the Divine Becoming and the Universe Becoming are dancing the evolutionary waltz. God does not pull soul, with accompanying morality perhaps, out of the pharmacy and inject it at the end of the first trimester in fetal development. Morality and empathy have been evolving for 13.7 billion years.

 

Frans de Waal Ted Talk

 

Karl Jasper's Axial Age, examined in Karen Armstrong's book, The Great Transformation, posits that all major religions/ worldviews evolved the same spiritual/moral view of individual dignity and responsibility between 800 and 200 BCE. No longer was the relationship between the divine and humankind centered in the tribe or the nation. The relationship was between the individual and God. We talk about the Western idea of the dignity and worth of the individual to have grown out of the teachings of Jesus but we can point to the Amos and Micah and Isaiah as early realizations in the Judaeo-Christian traditions.

 

I think the evolution of democracy is part of this grand arc but if I continue it would mean that I had thrown in the kitchen sink.

 

Take Care

 

Dutch

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Is humanity really moving in the direction of empathy? The 20th century introduced a plethora of brutally efficient methods of human destruction. Neo-liberal globalisation is fundamentally incompatible with human empathy or spiritual development. The 21st century appears thus far to have learned nothing from its predecessor. I think it was Hegel who noted that the only thing we learn from history is that we never learn from history. What do you think?

 

Hi Phil and welcome since i haven't yet responded to your welcome thread.

 

I would answer your question with a definite YES.

 

While there is no doubt that our industrial growth and other factors concerning advancements in science and areas during the 20-21 th century have increased the capabilities to destroy ourselves, in my view, there has also been a notable increase in the level of consciousness among more and more individuals. I am not saying that we won't destroy ourselves. Frankly, i don't know nor am i aware of anyone else who does. Yet the direction and spiritual progress of the masses has in my experience improved in the area of empathy. If you listen and believe the news and television which is focused on the negative i think it would be hard to disagree with you. Yet if you look closely at our parents and parents parents and then our children and grandchildren i think you will see that we are clearly making progress in the empathy area. In my early days women, especially among my ethnic class were severely abused and others including law enforcement mostly looked the other way. it was the same for child abuse, homosexual abuse, black abuse and a host of other social issues. While it has not all gone away, i think we have made progress and empathy has increased in those areas in my personal experience. in my lifetime and childhood we had no empathy for blacks and wouldn't even allow them to use the same bathroom or drink from the same water fountain. And supposedly we were more Christian then, if one listens to the sermons of many present day fundamental preachers. I think not.

 

Just one point of view to consider,

Joseph

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Joseph, Excellent points. Racism, sexism and homophobia have not been eliminated, but a lot of progress has been made just in our lifetimes.

 

George

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I'm still not 100% convinced that empathy is on the rise. Yes, I agree in part with what Dutch and Joseph said, but I think some of it can be attributed to mass media, instant communication, and globlization. We are far more aware of what's going on around the planet than we have ever been. It seems there are more opportunities to be empathetic.

 

I have to say Dutch, that I went away and reflected on this last night. Then, as I do quite often, watched "Into the Worm Hole" on the Science channel last night. My brain must have been lit up like a Christman tree because it really was a "religious experience". Science and religion, huh, who knew?

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I ran the Pinker talk past my fundy friend who often tells me that the world is getting more and more violent, suffering more and more crime, etc.

 

Funnily enough, he now seems to have adopted the theory that in the end days the world will actually be more peaceful before Jesus comes again.

 

Seems you're damned if you do or damned if you don't!

 

Anybody heard of this theory that the world will be perhaps at peace when Jesus comes to wreak havoc?

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I ran the Pinker talk past my fundy friend who often tells me that the world is getting more and more violent, suffering more and more crime, etc.

 

Funnily enough, he now seems to have adopted the theory that in the end days the world will actually be more peaceful before Jesus comes again.

 

Seems you're damned if you do or damned if you don't!

 

Anybody heard of this theory that the world will be perhaps at peace when Jesus comes to wreak havoc?

 

My former fundy friends used to say that there would be a huge divide just before the "second coming". That good and evil would be much more pronounced and that there would be no middle ground - you were one or other. But never that the world would be at peace.

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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.

 

Why? is a strange question I find. When a teenager asks Why? are they not asking what are the consequences? When a younger child asks Why? that child is asking about the antecedents perhaps. Causes and effects - and we are stuck in between.

 

Science focuses on the causes and perhaps religion on the effects. Just waxing lyrical here.

 

As an aside, the word religion is not its root - to reconnect?

Edited by romansh

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As an aside, the word religion is not its root - to reconnect?

 

Kinda. According to Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary it is from Latin meaning "reverence, piety, religion, probably from religare to tie back, tie up, tie fast." Its Indo-European root is *leig 'bind.'

 

George

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This part stood out the most for me:

 

"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"

 

It is easy enough to be compassionate in the abstract. But actively expressing compassion beyond my "tight circle of friends" and people I meet through work or through introduction is definitely a challenge.

 

Internet communications are a way forward: there's more thinking time, and I can even hide behind a powerful avatar. I can look at my honesty in a written message and work on getting closer to genuine communication and compassion in the 'real world'.

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