Yesterday the Christian feast of Epiphany celebrated the wise men visiting the infant Jesus. In church I was disappointed that the homilist, a learned, highly-respected scripture scholar, spoke of the Magi story in the Gospel of Matthew as if it were fact. I nodded when he encouraged us to discern the direction of divine guidance at this beginning of a new era, expecting him to throw an inclusive light on the subject, but he floored me with his narrow interpretation.
He upheld the Christian claim that Jesus is the only Son of God and savior of the whole world, even adding the self-serving, christo-centric claim that Jesus saves Hindus, Buddhists, etc.etc, even if they don’t know it. I’m sure that, if questioned, he would be quick to agree in a politically correct way that other religions have as much validity as Christianity. But the two assertions contradict each other.
Darn, I was disappointed by the smallness of his vision!
A much more exciting and relevant explication of epiphany happened on NPR this past week. Fingerprints of God. Barbara Bradley Hagerty never speaks the word “epiphany” but that’s what she writes and talks about, somewhat reluctantly. She was a little embarrassed, “spooked” to find herself experiencing transcendence.
An NPR correspondent, Hagerty explores whether science can find physical evidence of God in her book, Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality. She wanted to know, “Does brain activity reflect encounters with a spiritual dimension?” I’m glad she used terms like “spiritual dimension,” “transcendence” and “spiritual reality” and never reduced God to a humanlike individual or god.
Belief in matter-only dominates science—93% of scientists believe God is a delusion conjured up by the brain. Spiritual matters, it’s assumed, are no subject for scientific observation, but in the last 20 years some neuroscientists have started looking for physical evidence of the spiritual world.
Is God only the result of chemical processes? Of a God spot in the brain? Is it just the activity of nerve cells? Or do people actually touch the Transcendent? Hagerty concludes that science can’t prove or disprove God, but she believes there’s something there.
There is a lobe in the brain that apparently registers awareness of Spirit and there is a phenomenon called temporal lobe epilepsy, which leads some scientists to believe that religious greats like Moses, Joan of Arc, Mohammed, Teresa of Avila, Joseph Smith, the Buddha, and Paul on the way to Damascus merely had this condition. But Hagerty doesn’t buy it. She thinks the temporal lobe mediates spiritual experience instead of causing it, and she uses the distinction between a CD player and a radio to illustrate.
Turn off a CD player and the music is gone; it’s in the gadget. Turn off a radio and you don’t hear the music but it’s still being transmitted by the station. Just so, Spirit is always transmitting, but some brains turn it off or have the volume so low it’s hard to hear. Others are sensitively attuned to it, and a few have the volume so high they actually may need medical help. Hagerty thinks people with better antennae have more transcendent moments.
Right here is the crux of disagreement between non-believers and believers, and here I mean believers who are well aware of religious tyranny, fraud, and foolishness. We think some spiritual entity initiates transcendent events. We believe the epiphanies come from a reality outside of our individual consciousness, although we can cultivate habits that develop better antennae to receive them. We can’t be shaken from our profound conviction of Something Beyond this surface world, and we base this on experience. The philosopher/psychologist William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience quotes such persons:
God is more real to me than any thought or thing or person.And he comments about this conviction:
God surrounds me like a physical atmosphere.
These feelings of reality . . . are, as a rule, much more convincing than results established by mere logic ever are. . . . if you do have them . . . you cannot help regarding them as genuine perceptions of truth, as revelations of a kind of reality which no adverse argument, however unanswerable by you in words, can expel from your belief.James addresses rationalist pooh-poohing of anything spiritual.
If you have intuitions at all, they come from a deeper level of your nature than the loquacious level which rationalism inhabits. . . . something in you absolutely knows that [the transcendent moment] must be truer than any logic-chopping rationalistic talk, however clever, that may contradict it.Because William James looks at spirituality as a disinterested observer, his conclusions have more credibility for me than those of any religious writer. The same applies to Barbara Bradley Hagerty’s Fingerprints of God. Both of them console and uplift me.