Saturday, February 12, 2011

What Is Neurotheology

We have heard about feminist theology, ecotheology, Black theology, Latino/a theology, liberation theology, and animal theology. The latest one is called neurotheology.

Neurotheology has attracted attention in academia and among the general public. Many books have been published that explore the relationship between brain science and religious experience, and re-open the debate between science and religion.

Dr. Henry Benson of Harvard, a pioneer in mind/body medicine, talked about the relaxation response and the benefits of meditation in the 1970s. Today one can observe what happens in the brain when one meditates.

Scientist Andrew B. Newberg studied the brain activities of experienced Tibetan monks before and during meditation. The brain scans showed increased activities in the meditators’ frontal lobe, which is responsible for focusing and concentration.

Another study at the University of Wisconsin-Madison using functional magnetic resonance imagining (fMRI) showed that compassion could be learned. That parts of the brain associated with compassion could be changed by meditation.

Some scientists insist that our religious and spiritual experiences are nothing more than biological phenomena. Newberg said on NPR, “But the data also does not specifically eliminate the notion that there is a religious or spiritual or divine presence in the world.”

Newberg suggests that science and religion are not antagonistic, and the two can help one another. Georgetown University Professor Ronald Murphy, S.J., writes, “Augustine once defined theology as fides quaerens intellectum, faith seeking to understand. Newberg wants to establish a partnership between that quest and mens quaerens intellectum, the brain seeking to understand.”

In Principles of Neurotheology, Newberg discusses the interaction between neuroscience and theology, proposes guidelines for a neurotheological hermeneutic, and reflects on major topics in theology.

You might have also seen Dr. Daniel Amen’s PBS programs on “Change Your Brain, Change Your Life.” He has also written Healing the Hardware of the Soul and talks about optimizing the brain-soul connection.

One chapter particularly catches my eyes. It’s about brain health and the Sunday sermon. He asks, “Can your priest, rabbi, or minister’s weekly sermon be affected by brain function?” Then he answers, “Preachers who exhort the love of God likely have cool limbic systems; ministers who preach God’s wrath likely have limbic systems that are often associated with negativity.”

I guess next time when your church interviews for a new minister, you better ask for his or her brain scans.

Do you like rituals? Dr. Amen writes, Catholics, Lutherans, and Episcopalians tend to be more “anterior cingulate” in brain function. This part of brain enables people to be flexible, adaptable, going with the flow, and cooperative.

Christians “with temporal-lobe sensitivity who experience mystical or spiritual experiences may gravitate to Evangelical of Pentecostal worship services.” The temporal lobe is responsible for memory, hearing, and the understanding of language.

I find this emerging field of neurotheology fascinating. Knowing a bit more about how the brain functions helps us to be better pastors and spiritual leaders.