Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Mind over matter

One of the teacher candidates I supervise teaches biology and life science. He handed me a science magazine for youth with an article that fits right into my theme of spiritual power over physical reality. Wim Hof, a 50-year-old athlete from the Netherlands, climbs into a tank wearing only a pair of shorts and is buried up to his neck in ice. This would kill me and you in about an hour. Not Hof, who emerges healthy and comfortable.
And not Tibetan Buddhist monks, who achieve the same.
The monks, wearing only loincloths, meditate in below-freezing temperatures at high altitudes. By visualizing fire and heat, they are said to be able to control the flow of blood in their bodies and stay warm, resisting frostbite and hypothermia. In one amazing feat, the near-naked monks are draped in wet sheets while they sit on glacial ice. Within minutes, their bodies dry the cold sheets. The ice around them melts too.
I don’t know what physicalists would say about this—maybe that it shows “God” is physical. This weird claim came from an atheist who told Barbara Bradley Hagarty he had the experience of being connected to everything around him—the classic mystical experience—but he interpreted this as meaning “God” is physical.
"God" only physical!

I enclose “God” in quotation marks because for many people the word refers to a humanlike individual. For me it means spiritual reality. My first experience with an atheist subordinating spiritual reality to physical reality came in The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality, wherein atheist André Comte-Sponville also describes a mystical experience, and he admits humans can have a spiritual life but does so reluctantly and with difficulty.
Then he makes an assertion amazing to me. He says that spirit does not create nature but is created by nature. Translated, this says that "God" didn’t create the world; the world created "God." A reasonable statement if "God" means an external deity, but ridiculous if "God" refers to spiritual reality.
Comte-Sponville says spirit comes from nature. I believe the reverse—I believe nature is a manifestation of spirit. He says,
It is likely that without the brain, [thinking, imagining, laughter, and so on] . . . would not even exist. On the other hand, without this ability, the brain would be an organ like any other.
I’ve read that science is finding evidence that our thoughts are not limited to brain power only, but arise in our whole body. It seems to me, this destroys his argument.

But wait. I see where his weird claim comes from. Elsewhere he marshals “arguments against the belief in his existence.” Readers, did the word “his” jump out at you? It should have. It’s the entire, total, whole, complete (my thesaurus doesn’t supply any more synonyms) reason atheists declare atheism. It’s our ridiculous language referring to God—the damaging He-His-Him syndrome that reduces the Absolute, the Infinite, to an idol with merely human mind and will. As I read Comte-Sponville’s arguments against believing in God, I shout, “I don’t believe in this god either!” And this god IS created by the world.

So we Christians should learn this lesson from atheists, who rank among the most deeply spiritual people I know. Exhilarating discussions about spirituality are conducted by atheists . . . who deny that spirituality exists! My nearly twenty-year association with atheists impresses this fact on me.

Now for the mind-over-matter question raised by the popular book The Secret AND by Wim Hof and the Buddhist monks. As I reflect on my own history, I see the truth of Job 3:25: “What I feared has come upon me.” Did my fears bring on the bad things that happened? That’s the perplexing question.

William James, a psychologist/philosopher, was a pioneer in melding secular knowledge with religious insight. Writing around the turn to the twentieth century, he urged people to realize that our beliefs create our facts. Some statements of James:
• Belief creates the actual fact.
• Believe that life is worth living and your belief will help create the fact.
• If you want a quality, act as if you already had it.
• It is our attitude at the beginning of a difficult task which, more than anything else, will affect its successful outcome.

• We can alter our lives by altering our thinking (I liberated this one from its original sexist “man” language).
• The world we see that seems so insane is the result of a belief system that is not working. To perceive the world differently, we must be willing to change our belief system, let the past slip away, expand our sense of now, and dissolve the fear in our minds.
No one can argue against the common sense in these statements or the need to remind ourselves of their message or the difficulty of actually putting them into practice. It has been taught by great wisdom teachers in many traditions and many eras.
Eric Butterworth, now deceased, is a modern one:
If you have ever had a desire to do something but have held back or stopped short for some reason, then you need to know this fundamental truth: "If you want to, you can! Because you couldn't want to if you couldn't. Your desire is proof-positive of your ability."

It is the fear of failure that postpones your initial effort. How can you develop the faith you need to keep on? By keeping on! Simply refuse to give in to the negative thoughts that tend to harass you. Know that your power to see a goal at all is also the power to see it through to achievement. Believe this and act as if it were impossible to fail!
So I believe that our thoughts create our circumstances and I see my life improve as I alter my thoughts. Here’s the rub—I do not believe that we can (or should) fulfill our wishes by believing they will come true. It’s my understanding that The Secret encourages people to do this—I confess I haven’t read the book and ask to be corrected if I’m wrong.

My reservation was strengthened when I read an interview of Eckhart Tolle in Unity magazine. Because I no longer have the magazine, I have to use my own words to state the sense of his. He said we sometimes have a conviction that something will happen if it is indeed on the way. And he did not support the notion that we can direct the course of history by focusing on our wishes. Our inner Self knows what will happen, and working with it is the key.

My problem with believing in wish fulfillment stems from my acceptance of Carl Jung’s insight that the human psyche “reaches so far beyond the boundaries of consciousness that the latter could easily be compared to an island in the ocean.” We don’t know what will truly bring happiness. My ego, my thinking I, might want fame, but my inner Self may know that I’d hate it if it happened or that it would harm me or harm others. Recent newsmakers sadly illustrate this.

I agree with religious people that what we call God knows best what’s best for us, and the eternal Mystery always produces more than we can fathom. I have wishes, of course, but taking a lesson from Buddhism, I try to release attachment to specific results and trust in a larger Wisdom than my own. I try to improve the quality of my thoughts.

The Institute of HeartMath can help us do that. It studies how the earth’s magnetic fields affect human activity and, conversely, how the feelings and brain activity of many people influence the earth’s fields. It developed the Global Coherence Initiative to teach us how to achieve coherence or harmony and minimize conflict. Here is its mission:
The Global Coherence Initiative is a science-based initiative to unite millions of people in heart-focused care and intention—to shift global consciousness from instability and discord to balance, cooperation and enduring peace.
This reading of mind over matter excites me.
Let’s explore some more this idea of our lives being the consequence of our thoughts and beliefs. Here are some deep-seated beliefs that control lives today or did so in the past:
• Women should not work outside the home.
• Gays are intrinsically disordered deviants with psychic disturbances (language used by Vatican officials). Sharp observers note that a statistically disproportionate number of religious have a homosexual orientation, leading to the conclusion that many Catholic officials who denounce gays are themselves gay.
• Muslims are a threat to us.
• We have to fight to defend ourselves against enemies.
• I will always be bested by people who don’t like me.

We can easily see the consequences of these beliefs—personal, religious, national, and global. Here are affirmations to counter ingrained beliefs that cause trouble:
• All people have a divine center.
• A spoonful of honey attracts more flies than a gallon of vinegar.
• With spiritual help we can overcome our difficulties.
• Life flows easily and joyfully.
• The money I need will come to me.
• When people practice peace, more peace happens. This last reflects the belief of the Global Coherence Initiative .

Sunday, January 24, 2010

God in the brain? 2

My friend Tina:
I know this sounds a bit "far out" but after my brother John died this past year, I went to see a local psychic who lives in my neighborhood and has a good reputation locally. I wanted to know if John had "crossed over" or not, as his consciousness was so intermittent. He did come through with her to reassure me that he had . . . he mentioned a situation only he and I knew of, so I was convinced it was his spirit.
She described him as looking vibrant with a thick dark mustache and hair. And when he told her "death is the only sure cure for aging," we (the psychic Dona and I) both laughed. She said that was a good one and she would have to remember that.
I’m not pushing psychics. I know there are many kind of shady ones. But I had previous knowledge about her so wanted to share this to perhaps help you picture psychics as healthy.
Now to my skeptical friend whom I quoted a few posts ago. He thinks that if our “brains got turned off, there would be nothing transmitting.” As I understand this, he would say Tina’s contact with her deceased brother through the psychic was not true. Tina somehow was deceived because, he would say, there is no spiritual entity besides figments of human imagination and those are produced by chemical processes in the brain.

Physicalists really do not credit any spiritual reality, when for me it is the essence of life, PRIOR to material reality. I believe Spirit—Consciousness or Mind—is the font of material reality. I believe I get spiritual guidance from Spirit (maybe through a variety of spiritual entities), but physicalists believe my thoughts all come from my material brain. Incredible.

What I don't get in the message of physicalists is this: It seems they talk about spiritual experiences but just avoid admitting they're spiritual, and I suspect they avoid it because they associate spirituality too closely with religion, which disgusts them. I don't understand how they can say all mental activity—all the wisdom, insights, and psychological understandings, the intuitions and creativity, the leaps in understanding that can't be tracked in linear fashion, all the unconscious drivers of human behavior, all the myths in the collective unconscious—that it's all merely the result of chemical processes.
To me it's denying a plain fact.

I believe an objective spiritual reality, what we call God, is independent of our individual minds, conscious and unconscious, and yet also prompting our individual minds and working through them. Tina and those who described the experiences in my paranormal posts are not stupid.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty is not stupid but in fact courageous. She challenged her prior belief and risked losing the respect of her fellow journalists by looking for evidence of spiritual reality or “God.” A few posts down, I cited some results of her study. Here are more of her conclusions:

• Hagerty found what I have in my less disciplined study of this subject—spiritual experiences are common. Most people have them, and this is what explains the power of religion. But they come randomly and are hard to nail down in experiments. We can’t predict them (although we increase the likelihood of having them by being sensitive to their possibility).

• While chemicals like psychedelic drugs can prompt mystical experiences, Hagerty thinks they mediate the spiritual dimension and that the experiences are not only physical.
• It’s just as rational to believe that brain activity results from our minds or Eternal Mind as to believe that thoughts result from brain activity.

• Our thoughts may impact others, not only ourselves; she thinks our thoughts can have an effect on another persons’ body. This would mean that prayer for others works. In one experiment a husband’s thoughts changed his wife’s physiology. Prayer studies show this too. I wrote about studies of this in God Is Not Three Guys in the Sky.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

“Why God hates Haiti”

This is the title of Lisa Miller’s column in Newsweek. She quotes Western religious attempts to crack the mystery of theodicy—why does God let bad things happen? None of the attempts gets past the limiting habit of discussing spiritual reality (“God”) as if it were an individual “He.”

A more answerable question is, Why do disasters induce deeper relationships with Spirit? Why do tragedies turn people toward spiritual reflection?
Being jolted out of ordinary existence prods us to look deeper than surface existence. It plunges us to a depth where Spirit reigns and we can’t deny It. In shock we yearn for and stumble toward greater purpose and meaning than caring for creature comforts.

Bad things happen. Evil is part of reality. This is easier to accept with a more abstract notion of Spirit than a theistic god with humanlike mind and will as Westerners imagine Spirit. In the face of Infinite Immensity we intuit a Force that cannot be fathomed, and we are humbled.

P.S.
Sure, I know intellectually that spiritual reality needs to be understood more inclusively than as a single set of humanlike images like the Father/Son guys of Christianity. But I’m human.

So I relate to God as if She were a human individual. I get mad at Her, for instance, for making life so complicated & hard. I say I wouldn’t mind it being boring once in a while, but I know that’s not true. Silly emotional me.
One thing we Christians can learn from Jesus is relating to God as to a parent. He called God “Abba” or the familiar “Dad,” we were told at the School of Theology.

1 comment from Green Monk:
Very well said. I share your feelings towards God. :)
Next time—back to the theme of mind over matter.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

God in the brain?

I got a fascinating response to the previous post and here are pieces of that email conversation. David Steeves wrote that he read Varieties of Religious Experience years ago and it helped him to keep an open mind.
Science is bound by rules regarding quantifiable events. In other words, if it can’t be measured, it’s not open to scientific inquiry. Religions and questions of god are by nature not quantifiable, so I doubt that science will ever have an answer to the question of god’s existence. I have kept an open mind because I have experienced and seen things which are not quantifiable.

One simple example happened years ago and is not religious. I witnessed a glass ashtray which weighed about 14 oz., jump about 8 inch into the air all by itself and break in half. It then fell back down in two pieces and lay where it landed with no further motion. I picked it up and looked it all over. It was room temperature, the break was very clean, no splinters, and nothing was attached to the ashtray in any way. I cite this as an example of an unexplainable event that cannot be reproduced or studied.

I have talked to people about possible causes and no one has ever been able to explain it. I have never been able to make it happen again and don’t know what caused the ashtray to move all by itself. If anyone has an explanation, I would love to hear it for it still confounds me. But this is a simple thing, and in no way compares to the existence or non-existence of god. If there is no way to explain a simple event how can one hope to explain god?
The Yogis of India could move material objects. To me your example gives evidence of spiritual reality, but to the question, “existence or non-existence of god,” I say it’s not about a god. The question I pose along with Barbara Bradley Hagerty is, Does spiritual reality—thoughts independent of the material brain, for instance—exist? Dave says,
The ashtray incidence has always puzzled me and I would welcome other people’s opinions on what they think may have happened. I know some people will doubt it even happened and that’s OK. I know it did happen, and it’s just one of the unexplainable happenings in this world. As Carl Sagan used to say, “The universe is not only stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine.”
I've heard too many credible stories like this to discount all of them, and I go with the sentiment expressed by Sagan and Shakespeare (see my Hamlet quote on the right). Dave again:
No one made it happen. I was seventeen years old at the time, 1966, sitting in the living room of the farm house where I grew up, talking to my mother about something, the subject now lost, when the ashtray simply jumped up in the air and broke. My mother and I saw the event, and neither of us ever knew what to think. My mother is now dead, so that leaves me as the only living witness. Not the best circumstances to insure believability, but I saw what I saw and have never come close to any kind of reasonable explanation.
There was no history of haunted or ghostly happening in the house. No one was trying to move the ashtray, we didn’t even have the ashtray as a focus of our conversation, until it jumped in the air and broke. My father didn’t believe that it happened the way we said, but my mother and I saw it happen and no one has ever been able to explain it.
Over the years I have read and studied physics in the hope that I would find some plausible explanation for an inanimate object moving on its own. I found that it is not against the laws of physics if all the sub-atomic particles would suddenly move in the same direction at the same time. The problem is that the odds against this happening are so great it should not happen in all the time in existence, from the big bang to now. So what happened? I have no idea and probably never will.
I must say I've never heard of this kind of thing happening without someone exercising mental effort to make it happen. I believe quantum physics can explain odd cases, but this ???
I'm really puzzled.
Yes, it would be interesting to see what reaction others have. Most people I’ve mentioned it to look at me as though I’m a nut or full of BS. Yet, I know what I saw and I know that I’m telling the truth, but I can’t prove it or make it happen again. It’s been very frustrating. Does it have any meaning? I know it has made me question many things, because I saw an event that doesn’t fit with how things are supposed to be and supposed to work.

The ashtray had no significance, it was not the focus of our attention, the house had no history of unusual events, and nothing like it has happened since.
I have not been able to forget or let go of the questions, and it remains a puzzle. We try to find patterns and make the life we live make sense. For some people religion gives them a sense of meaning; you say that you have found spirituality to have meaning; others find meaning in science and the empirical method. All relate to finding patterns in life that make sense and seem right.
But what do you do with something that makes no sense, that doesn’t fit? I sometimes wonder if this is why I saw the ashtray break, so that I would spend my life wondering and searching and never be able to accept what others so easily have faith in.
Hmm. I just thought of something. Carl Jung tells of incidents like this. I’ll have to find the examples and report in future posts. They don’t have physical explanations but seem to be reactions to conversations, so that the material events reflect immaterial events—consciousness. Come to think of it, I was wrong when I wrote I’d never heard of this kind of thing—some examples in my Paranormal posts relate to this. Readers, click on topics under “Paranormal” in my index, and let us know what you think.
I like David’s searching reflections.
Someone emailed a typically insulting and scoffing response to my question, "Is God in the brain?"
If God occasionally appeared to regular people, then I would agree that maybe it is the brain playing tricks on you. But, since he only seems to appear to people who have questionable mental stability, I think it is more a case of "man creating god" to control the hearts and minds of others.

No one can disagree that religion has been used to take people and wealth from the masses for the entirety of life on earth, or at least as long as it took the first who could make fire and converse. . . .
Disproving the existence of God is simple, really, we're dealing with a supreme being who only appears to a select few who then tell others about it. What he should do if he really wanted to prove his existence is to appear on the 50 yard line of the next Super Bowl football game, so that billions around the world could be convinced. . . .
Prayer makes people who really can't do anything about a situation feel good by making it seem they are actually doing something. . . . Prayers to cure illness and disease sometimes are claimed successful when a cancer patient suddenly goes into remission, ignoring the scientific evidence that cancer does, sometimes, do just that. . . .
A few years ago, my dad went on a pilgrimage to see the cathedrals of Europe, with stop at Lourdes—one of the best examples of "mass hysteria" I can think of, with the power of suggestion in a crowd of people taking over reason. Dad said there were perhaps 20,000 people there that night. . . . Religion has been in the tourist business for a long time.

Proving God doesn't exist is easy, proving he does exist is more difficult, so those running the business are still working on it.
I deleted about half of this response which doesn’t address the questions David posed or that Hagerty posed in Fingerprints.
But here’s a thoughtful response from a “Skeptical Friend.”
Jeanette, let's be clear that your statement, "There is a lobe in the brain that apparently registers awareness of Spirit," is a conclusion and not a statement of fact.
He’s correct in saying it’s not fact; I said “apparently” but my interpretation of the experimental results may be wrong. He correctly clarifies that the lobe in the brain registers similar effects whether “stimulated by electrical probes, by certain drugs, or by intentional efforts to have a spiritual experience.”
I would not conclude from this that there has always been an electrical probe turned on and waiting to stimulate our brains, that there has always been a hallucinogen waiting for us to be receptive to it, or that there is and has always been an objectively existing realm of Spirit out there waiting for us to connect.

As I recall, all three sources of stimulation (and perhaps the abnormal neural firing of temporal lobe epilepsy) can result in a feeling of loss of self. Some may interpret this as a desirable state, whether connecting to some universal field of Spirit or just relief from being too wrapped up in self.
In either case, it may be nothing more than a temporary loss of function in a portion of the brain that produces a sense of self. I've reached a brief self-dissociated state (without drugs!) as part of a rock band's audience and while listening to music alone. It's a pleasant state to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there, and I have no belief that I was in touch with something "more real to me than any thought or thing or person."
The William James quotations regarding impervious-to-logic, most-real-of-all-things certainty regarding that which is least provable brought to mind Nietzsche's Twilight of the Idols:
My skeptical friend then quotes Nietzsche. (I simplified the language, which is nearly impenetrable):
The other idiosyncrasy of the philosophers is no less dangerous; it consists in confusing the last and the first. They place that which comes at the end—the "highest concepts," the most general, the emptiest, the last smoke of evaporating reality—in the beginning, as the beginning. ... Thus they arrive at their stupendous concept, "God." That which is last, thinnest, and emptiest is put first, as the cause.
Well! Nietzsche lets us know what he thinks about God! And my skeptical friend believes “that if all brains got turned off, there would be nothing transmitting.”
I appreciate his wrestling with the issue.
In his autobiographical Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Carl Jung tells of an incident that David Steeves’ experience brought to my mind. He and Sigmund Freud were discussing precognition and parapsychology.
I asked him what he thought of these matters. Because of his materialistic prejudice, he rejected this entire complex of questions as nonsensical, and did so in terms of so shallow a positivism that I had difficulty in checking the sharp retort on the tip of my tongue. It was some years before he recognized [such phenomena].
Jung felt as if his diaphragm were becoming a glowing red-hot vault.
At that moment there was such a loud report in the bookcase, which stood right next to us, that we both started up in alarm, fearing the thing was going to topple over on us. I said to Freud: “There, that is an example of a so-called catalytic exteriorization phenomenon.”
“Oh come,” he exclaimed. “That is sheer bosh.”
“It is not, I replied. “You are mistaken, Herr Professor. And to prove my point I now predict that in a moment there will be another such loud report.” Sure enough, no sooner had I said the words than the same detonation went off in the bookcase.
To this day I do not know what gave me this certainty. But I knew beyond all doubt that the report would come again. Freud only stared aghast at me.
In a letter to Jung later, Freud wrote, “I do not deny that your comments and your experiment made a powerful impression upon me.” He cited other crashes and creaking noises, adding, “Since then it has happened over and over again, yet never in connection with my thoughts and never when I was considering you or your special problem. . . . The furniture stands before me spiritless and dead.”

I, as a believer in the inner world manifesting in the outer world (“exteriorization phenomenon”), see Freud’s attempt to gloss over the incident as inadequate and defensive. And I believe this incident could shed light on David Steeve’s experience. I learned from David that he and his mother did NOT have extraordinarily strong feelings during their conversation (“the subject now lost”) when the ashtray broke.

I find I cannot keep my promise to discuss Jung’s analysis of Nietzsche’s insanity because its complexities would keep me from my primary purpose in this blog. I’ll just say that I agree with Jung that Nietzsche’s problem was spiritual, but, from the little contact I’ve had with him, I’m convinced that Nietzsche appreciated the spiritual realm. He, my skeptical friend, and the atheist philosopher Comte-Sponville (whom I frequently cite), sound so much alike to me! They profess atheism precisely because they have an uncompromising commitment to spiritual principles—truth, honesty, integrity. Their revulsion over the venal acts of religious institutions drives their atheism.

Nietzsche was not the materialist that atheists who cite him assume. See Jung's Critique of Nietzsche.
Years ago, after trying unsuccessfully to be an atheist, I concluded what Barbara Bradley Hagerty has—she’s the journalist who studied whether brain activity reflects encounters with a spiritual dimension (scroll down to my Epiphany posts). She concluded: It is just as rational to believe as to disbelieve. She believes and I believe that the temporal brain lobe mediates experience with a dimension independent of the material world.

One of the questions she asked to determine the existence of such a dimension was this: Does consciousness function when the brain is stilled? The evidence, she indicated, points in that direction, as a multitude of cases testify. She cites a convincing one and I cite one in Synchronistic and paranormal 2 of patients floating near the ceiling of the operating room and watching their own surgery. In Hagerty’s case, the patient described in detail the blade used to cut her. The doctor, asked to explain it, said he had absolutely no scientific explanation and this changed the way he viewed reality.

To explain changes in the brain, my skeptical friend lumps together physical agents like drugs with spiritual inducements like meditation and compassion, but this doesn’t explain differences in human behavior following the two types of inducements. Hallucinogens do not change people for the better; spiritual experiences do. They bring peace, they inspire, they uplift, they induce compassion and hope when despair seems appropriate.

Because of my spiritual experiences, I have no doubt that brain activity chronicles interaction with the Divine. Yes, I’m disgusted by religious wrongdoing, but I’m also impressed and upheld by noble acts of religious people, Muslims included, which don’t get as much press.

I know that my spiritual practice leads to a richer, more peaceful and serene life. I’m just plain happier when I align myself with Spirit.

I like David’s ruminations about his own experience (see comment to this post), particularly William James’ point that a scientific explanation doesn’t disprove the significance of an experience. We often say something’s “a miracle!” when we can find ordinary explanations for it. We’re struck by the thing happening just so, at just this time and place in just this way. It affects us deeply and that’s the mystery we really cannot explain.

I also got a response from my skeptical friend about my statement, “Hallucinogens do not change people for the better; spiritual experiences do."
I think some who have taken hallucinogens would disagree. As one famous example, I recall the Beatles crediting LSD--which they got into before Sgt. Pepper, the album that changed rock and roll and created the occupation of rock critic--with enhancing their creativity and broadening their world views. Southwestern Native Americans using peyote and mescaline to get in contact with the "other world" surely felt/feel that the experience is somehow beneficial. I think that if one attaches positive significance to the experience, it can be beneficial without thereby proving the existence of some extra-physical realm of influence.
I don't know about the Beatles but I know peyote users do not believe the effect they experience in a peyote ceremony comes from the substance. They regard it the medium through which they reach what we call God. In Fingerprints of God Barbara Bradley Hagerty relates her experience at a peyote ceremony that produced a miracle. She considers possible ways to attribute the healing to a physical cause but none of them seems reasonable. I invite skeptics to give their arguments to the contrary.

This leads to another belief of mine—that our consciousness shapes material reality. And consciousness IS spiritual reality. Our thoughts—what we think and how we think—produce our circumstances. Of course, it’s not as easy as some popular books would like us to think—that we can get what we want by believing it’ll happen. It gets much more complicated than that. But I believe that non-material thoughts come first, and the material world we see follows. Materialists—sometimes called physicalists—say our thoughts are just the result of chemical processes in the brain, that our thoughts are essentially physical. I think that’s nonsense.

Neither side can convince the other side, so I’ll just state what I believe, and it’s based on psychology. My individual consciousness includes more than my ego thoughts, more than the stream of thoughts I know. Each of us is driven by a vast unconscious of which we are unaware. These beliefs, habits of mind, attitudes, patterns of thought, and so on, cannot be reduced to physical stuff.

I believe with people of religion that there is something beyond collective human consciousness—a Mystery given the name “God” in English. Jesus of Nazareth and other wonder workers tapped into this mystery. In my section on miracles in God Is Not Three Gods in the Sky I use the findings of quantum physics to explain the power of mind in wonder-working cases. Physicists in experiments “tell” matter how to behave. Exciting! For an explanation written for non-scientists, go to my chapter, “The Man Jesus.”

“Consciousness” is a better term than “God” to explain the universe, because “God” brings to mind a humanlike individual. I think better terms are Mind, Source, Force, Mystery, Eternity. Because of the spiritual experiences I’ve had, I cannot fathom materialists who argue that it’s all just physical.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Epiphany

An epiphany is a manifestation of divinity. It can happen unexpectedly in any circumstance. Most scientists refuse to believe that real epiphanies happen, which leads me to the topic for today.

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.
Added in 2013:  The messagethe thought or ideais independent of CD, radio, and every other physical means of transmission; it is spiritual reality. So are all thoughts, ideas, beliefs, etc. 

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.
God surrounds me like a physical atmosphere.
And he comments about this conviction:
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.