Tag Archives: research

Five things you didn’t know about Jesus

“In the end, as theologians like to say, Jesus is not so much a problem to be solved as a mystery to be pondered,” writes Rev. James Martin. That reminds me of a Gabriel Marcel quote. (Also interesting in this short piece: The literary evidence of Jesus growing in wisdom, in a natural, normal sense, rather than just knowing all from the beginning.)

CNN Belief Blog

Opinion by the Rev. James Martin , special to CNN

(CNN) — With Easter approaching, and the movie “Son of God” playing in wide release, you’re going to hear a lot about Jesus these days.

You may hear revelations from new books that purport to tell the “real story” about Jesus, opinions from friends who have discovered a “secret” on the Web about the son of God, and airtight arguments from co-workers who can prove he never existed.

Beware of most of these revelations; many are based on pure speculation and wishful thinking. Much of what we know about Jesus has been known for the last 2,000 years.

Still, even for devout Christian there are surprises to be found hidden within the Gospels, and thanks to advances in historical research and archaeological discoveries, more is known about his life and times.

With that in mind, here are five things you…

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‘From Martin Luther To Mark Driscoll: A Literary Version Of The Telephone Game’

Unfortunately for Christianity and for book publishing and for aspirations of beginning an academic seminary, a recent post by Warren Throckmorton demonstrates once again the shoddy research and poor attribution ethic of Pastor Mark Driscoll. The pastor is involved with the founding of a seminary. For that to be successful and reliable in any sense, it will need a scholar of some gravitas to offset Driscoll’s involvement.

Please read “From Martin Luther To Mark Driscoll: A Literary Version Of The Telephone Game” by Throckmorton.

Aside

Just some interesting stats I discovered: Apparently, the high-water mark for Episcopalians — or membership in The Episcopal Church USA — was from 1959 to 1967. See the stats here. What’s strange, however, is the number of Episcopalian clergy continued … Continue reading

Where’s the ‘heart’? The brain’s role in belief, feeling, and decision-making

I remember Bishop Lawrence saying something like this: the heart desires and the will justifies. Or, maybe it was, the heart desires, the mind rationalizes, the will actualizes. Something along those lines. Desire for something comes first, rationalization/justification second, and then actualization.  

This thing called the “heart” in Christian circles — it is not the organ that pumps blood but rather an inner orientation toward something or some things. In Christianspeak, the “heart” is the most crucial part of the person, the desiring element of us, the ultimate guide underneath the surface of belief and behavior.

But that point of view seems less and less of an adequate explanation of reality. Consider the following true story from the Sydney Morning Herald:

Elliot had a small tumour cut from his cortex near the brain’s frontal lobe.  He had been a model father and husband, holding down an important management job  in a large corporation and was active in his church. But the operation changed  everything.

Elliot’s IQ stayed the same – testing in the smartest 3 per cent – but, after  surgery, he was incapable of  decision. Normal life became impossible. Routine  tasks that should take 10 minutes now took hours. Elliot endlessly deliberated  over irrelevant details: whether to use a blue or black pen, what radio station  to listen to and where to park his car. When contemplating lunch, he carefully  considered each restaurant’s menu, seating and lighting, and then drove to each  place to see how busy it was. But  Elliot still couldn’t decide where to eat.  His indecision was pathological.

Elliot was soon sacked. A series of new businesses failed and a con man  forced him into bankruptcy. His wife divorced him. The tax office began  investigating him. He moved back with his parents. As neurologist Antonio  Damasio put it: “Elliot emerged as a man with a normal intellect who was unable  to decide properly, especially when the decision involved personal or social  matters.”

But why was Elliot suddenly incapable of making good decisions? What had  happened to his brain? Damasio’s first insight occurred while talking to Elliot  about the tragic turn his life had taken. “He was always controlled,” Damasio  remembers, “always describing scenes as a dispassionate, uninvolved spectator.  Nowhere was there a sense of his own suffering, even though he was the  protagonist …  I never saw a tinge of emotion in my many hours of conversation  with him: no sadness, no impatience, no frustration.” Elliot’s friends and  family confirmed Damasio’s observations: ever since his surgery, he had seemed  strangely devoid of emotion, numb to the tragic turn his own life had taken.

Now consider the above: Elliot cannot make decisions because of something that happened in his brain, not in his “heart.” His emotions have been neutralized because of something that happened in his brain, not in his “heart.”

To make proactively good or bad moral decisions, to have good or bad feelings toward God, to decide any number of things related to expressing or living one’s faith — all of these critical elements of spirituality are no longer available to him as a result of a problem with his brain.

These observations should give any believer pause. What do you mean when you say “heart”? Could it be there’s no “ghost in the machine,” no intangible presence attached to our biological organism? Could it be our “spiritual experiences” are tricks of the brain?

If nothing else, Elliot’s story should change the language of devotional life and church communal life. “Heart” should no longer be treated as an intangible part of reality but rather as a metaphor for brain functions.

Furthermore, why are apologetics still grounded in abstract arguments rather than critical assessments of facts? Can we really look at new research without considering its implications? Can we really just make broad-brush statements about “chronological snobbery” and “materialistic naturalism” when Western Christians constantly benefit from medical and technological advances from research based in the naturalist point of view? (Even when there are reasonable, contemporary critiques of that point of view.)

Read the rest of the story about Elliot and comment below.

A new rebuttal to Hanegraaff’s claims about brainwashing re. Teen Mania

In 1998, in the academic journal Nova Religio, sociologist Benjamin Zablocki wrote, “Many scholars deny that brainwashing exists and consider its use as a social science concept to be epistemologically fraudulent. Others make grandiose claims for the brainwashing conjecture, often using it to account for virtually everything about human behavior in high-demand religious organizations. Neither of these approaches is helpful.”

Furthermore, in her 2004 book Bounded Choice: True Believers and Charismatic Cults, Janja Lilich wrote, “Brainwashing does not occur in every cult, and it can occur in other contexts.”

So brainwashing is a viable concept, and the context for brainwashing does not have to be a cult.

What does this have to do with anything?

Hank Hanegraaff said brainwashing has been “utterly discredited.”

He’s wrong.

While Zablocki wants to qualify and consider the use of the term “brainwashing,” he certainly does not believe the concept has been “utterly discredited,” to use Hanegraaff’s words.

Let me back up.

Late last year, after MSNBC aired a documentary suggesting that Teen Mania’s Honor Academy used mind control techniques, Hank Hanegraaff came to the youth organization’s defense. (Read a collection of related posts here.)

In his defense of Teen Mania, after the documentary aired, Hanegraaff said, in part, “Equally significant is the fact that cult mind control as a sociological model has been utterly discredited. If brainwashing techniques did not work in the 20th century reeducation camps of communist China, it is sophistry to suppose it to be effectively employed in the ESOAL (Emotionally Stretching Opportunity of A Lifetime) weekend retreat of TMM’s Honor Academy.”

His use of the word “sophistry” backfired. I rebutted Hanegraaff’s claims here. I pointed to Kathleen Taylor’s critically acclaimed 2006 book, Brainwashing: The Science of Thought Control, published by Oxford University Press. I also quoted from the book.

I challenged Hanegraaff to withdraw his erroneous statements. To the best of my knowledge, to this day, he has not corrected his error.

Hanegraaff wasn’t the only defender of Teen Mania’s Honor Academy. However, consider Lalich’s definition of a cult in Bounded Choice: “A cult can be either a sharply bounded social group or a diffusely bounded social movement held together through shared commitment to a charismatic leader. It upholds a transcendent ideology (often but not always religious in nature) and requires a high level of personal commitment from its members in words and deeds.”

After watching the MSNBC documentary back in November, I think many people could reasonably say that some past practices of Teen Mania’s Honor Academy were cultic and controlling in nature. Whether those practicies continue, I don’t know.

Brain research and your spiritual life; of bad habits and religious rituals

Bad habits tend to involve things we do with our bodies, but spiritual and religious cures tend to involve intangible, unseen things like prayers, beliefs, and will-power.

Habits are developed, maintained, and broken in the brain, according to this research from MIT.

The spiritual and religious cures that deal exclusively with intangible, unseen things ignore the full picture of human nature.

The spiritual and religious cures seem to be dualistic, making the body like oil on top of the mind’s or spirit’s water.

The assumption is if the mind or spirit gets right, the body will get right, too.

Is this dualistic view orthodox? Difficult to answer. In Christianity, the believer is promised a resurrected body.

Can we really overcome a bad neural pathway in the brain without directly engaging the brain? Tough question. God does seem to empower some people to overcome temptations.

No matter how you answer those questions, consider this: if our bodies engage with material things for bad habits, our bodies should also engage with material things for good habits.

Good rituals, and habitual engagement with good symbols, might not replace a bad habit, but rituals with good symbols would be better than no bodily engagement at all. (Along those lines, see my argument in favor of Montessori-based Christian education here.)

What starved senses in a man who can only think of his body as engaged in the bad, and only think of some intangible part of himself as engaged with the good.

How does this non-material, non-biological view of change track with the Incarnation? If flesh and bone is, in and of itself, sinful, how could He who knew no sin have taken on flesh and bone? I think “flesh” would include the brain.

As researchers interviewed for this MSNBC article said, humans can strengthen good habits.

Imagine Christian spirituality this way: At the bottom, we have natural law, or the moral law that C.S. Lewis describes in an appendix to his book The Abolition of Man. This is the moral law that seems to have been consistently intuited by humans throughout history. However, it is also a moral law that we all, to greater or lesser degrees, have violated.

At the top, we have God’s help, God’s power that enables people to do truly good things and overcome selfishness. As G.K. Chesterton said in his book Heretics, the only requirement for selfishness is to have a self (which is why “education” in information and basic knowledge won’t make better people).

At the bottom, the moral law. At the top, God’s help.

Here’s what’s in middle: family traditions, ritual practices, ceremonies, liturgical celebrations — the habits and cycles, associated with Biblical stories and Christian symbols, that write new neural pathways into our brains.

As noted in the New York Times article Can You Become a Creature of New Habits?, good changes in the brain are possible.

Let me jump back to a wide angle on this topic: I seriously doubt that Christian evangelists and apologists can adequately engage the world without some understanding of brain research. What makes us human? What’s the norm for being human? What do we assign to the intangible, unseen realm that is actually tangible, if located in the dark cave of the skull?

While my hope is in the free gift of the New Covenant, I do not believe that God controls everything we become. As it turns out, as humans, as biological beings with brains, at least part of who we are, at least part of who we make ourselves to be, depends upon what we do. We can be staunch believers in that New Covenant and still have no pattern of life or practice that associates with Biblical patterns or Christian symbols.

Trippy news about Plato — yes, news about history and philosophy

While I have been wondering about the relevance of Plato in contemporary times, Julian Baggini now has written in the U.K.’s Guardian about some new research into the ancient philosopher’s writings:

It may sound like the plot of a Dan Brown novel, but an academic at the University of Manchester claims to have cracked a mathematical and musical code in the works of Plato.

Jay Kennedy, a historian and philosopher of science, described his findings as “like opening a tomb and discovering new works by Plato.”

Plato is revealed to be a Pythagorean who understood the basic structure of the universe to be mathematical, anticipating the scientific revolution of Galileo and Newton by 2,000 years.

Kennedy’s breakthrough, published in the journal Apeiron this week, is based on stichometry: the measure of ancient texts by standard line lengths. Kennedy used a computer to restore the most accurate contemporary versions of Plato’s manuscripts to their original form, which would consist of lines of 35 characters, with no spaces or punctuation. What he found was that within a margin of error of just one or two percent, many of Plato’s dialogues had line lengths based on round multiples of twelve hundred.

The Apology has 1,200 lines; the Protagoras, Cratylus, Philebus and Symposium each have 2,400 lines; the Gorgias 3,600; the Republic 12,200; and the Laws 14,400.

Kennedy argues that this is no accident. “We know that scribes were paid by the number of lines, library catalogues had the total number of lines, so everyone was counting lines,” he said. He believes that Plato was organising his texts according to a 12-note musical scale, attributed to Pythagoras, which he certainly knew about. …

Read the full article here.