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Mapping the Brain: A Pathway to God

by Paul W. Walaskay

Dr. Walaskay is assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Rochester, Rochester, New York. This article appeared in the Christian Century March 7, 1979, p. 246. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


 

For you created my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb [Ps. 139:13].

These lines are reminiscent of a rather quaint natural theology. But there are rustlings offstage as a cast of scientists discreetly parts the curtains to reveal some stunning new implications for natural theology.

Over the past 40 years neurological researchers (most notably Wilder Penfield, and more recently Harry Whitaker at University at Rochester) have been mapping the functional terrain of the brain. They have isolated areas of the cerebral cortex that control our various sensory perceptions and motor functions. They have also found that each hemisphere (right and left) of the brain specializes for the accomplishment of distinctive types of mental activity.

The work of the left hemisphere is primarily logical thinking, language ability and mathematical functioning. It processes information linearly and sequentially. The right hemisphere is primarily responsible for our orientation in space, for artistic endeavor and holistic mentation. It seems, to process

information in a more diffuse way than does the left hemisphere and is able to integrate scattered bits of seemingly disparate data. “If the left hemisphere can be termed predominantly analytic and sequential in its operation, then the right hemisphere is more holistic and relational, and more simultaneous in its mode of operation” (Robert Ornstein, The Psychology of Consciousness [Viking, 1973], p. 68).

In everyday life most of us rely heavily on the analytic left hemisphere. Our Western culture, in fact, is primarily “left hemispheric” in its application of rational thinking to almost every facet of human existence: science, economics, politics, education, religion, law (the French word for law, droit, comes from “right hand,” the hand that rules and is controlled by the left hemisphere). The East, on the other hand, has been guided in the main by the right hemisphere, with its nonrational view of life. I have noticed in Israel, for example, that there is no such thing as queuing up at a bus stop or a ticket office -- one often feels fortunate that bus drivers bother taking the same route each time or that tickets are printed at all.

The lateralization of the brain provides a surprising and curiously close analogue to religious experience and expression it suggests an interpretive tool which can with caution be applied to the classical theologians. Neurological research reveals a sophisticated yet sound biological basis for speaking of religious life. And the religious experience of such a writer as the apostle Paul bears nave yet eloquent personal witness to what we are discovering about the brain.

I

Throughout the history of Christianity theologians have struggled to convey their bimodal perception of religious life. Paul of Tarsus was the first Christian theologian to write autobiographically about his religious experience and to name the power that held together two very diverse sides of that experience.

Paul wrote a strange statement in II Corinthians 5:13: “If we are insane [exestemen], it is for God; if we are sane [spohronoumen], it is for you.” Reinhold Niebuhr once quipped: “It is almost impossible to be sane and a Christian at the same time.” I suppose that all of us contain mixed measures of sanity and insanity, of madness and reason. The passage cited above enticed me to leak more closely at those passages where Paul uses the language of madness (nonrational, right hemispheric) and reason (rational, left hemispheric).

Paul’s “sanity” language clusters around two sections of his Corinthian correspondence: I Corinthians 1-4 and II Corinthians 11-12. In I Corinthians he wrote:

Christ [sent me] . . . to preach the gospel and not with rational wisdom [sophia logou], lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. For the word of the cross is folly [moria] to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God [I Cor. 1:17-18].

Paul proceeded to be more specific about how his teachings came across to the Corinthians:

I did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with sophisticated arguments or wisdom. Rather I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. For I was with you in much weakness, fear and trembling; and my speech and my message were not persuasive words of wisdom, but the demonstration of spirit and power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God [I Cor. 2:1-5].

Here he was recalling his own insecurity and inability to communicate the gospel effectively. At least some in the church of Corinth simply dismissed him as an idiot.

In the II Corinthians passage Paul also linked foolishness with this own difficulty in speaking the gospel. This time he was not defending his message but his apostleship.

I wish you would bear with me a little foolishness [aphrosunes]. Do bear with me! . . . I think that I am not in the least inferior to these superlative apostles. Even if I am unskilled [idiotes] in speaking, I am not in knowledge [gnosis]. . . . I repeat, let no one think me foolish; but even if you do, accept me as a fool [aphrona], so that I too may boast a little [II Cor.11:1-16

Again Paul felt on the defensive and forced to flaunt his credentials:

I must boast; there is nothing to be gained by it, but

I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. I

know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was

caught up to the third heaven . . . and he heard things

that cannot be told, which man may not utter. On

behalf of this man I will boast, but on my own behalf

I will not boast, except of my weaknesses;. . for when

I am weak, then I am strong [II Cor. 12:1-10).

 

Once more Paul was relating the trouble he had with speaking to his being perceived as a fool; yet on the other hand he “saw” more things than others, he had revelations and visions in abundance, and for him that was the ultimate sanity, a thing to boast about. Abundance of visions and lack of speech, sanity and insanity, weakness and strength -- significant contrasts in the Pauline personality. “I am sane for you, but crazy for God”; rational among people but nonrational through encounter with divinity. “When I am weak, then I am strong.” There is strength in weakness, and weakness in strength.

II

The recent literature about the brain’s hemispheric specialization has led me to some surprising insights about Paul’s complex personality. Physiologically the two hemispheres “communicate” with each other through a bundle of neural fibers called the corpus callosum. We term the integration of the modes of awareness “consciousness,” which involves such aspects as an inward awareness of sensibility (a system of internal perception), an awareness of self, and an awareness of unity (the fusion of internal and external stimuli). This implies that emotion and thought, intuition and cognition are so integrated that the mind works as one entity. The complex brain is able to differentiate, compartmentalize and also relate various diverse pieces of information.

It is clear from his autobiographical statements that Paul was able to move freely from one mode of consciousness to another, from the left hemisphere to, the right, and back again -- from law to grace, from mystical experience to ethical evaluation. And in his bimodal religious experience he discovered an internal unity: “By the grace of God, I am what I am” (I Cor. I:10). The experience of Christ in him, Paul’s Christ-mysticism, put him in touch with his primordial being, his essence, his self. The revelation of Christ had come to him in his mother’s (Gal. 1:15-16). For Paul, Christ was the power of God, the dunamis of being. And he meant “being” not only as a general ontological term but “specifically with reference to himself: “Christ in me, the power of God in me, the dunamis of my being.”

Paul experienced the power of being by the grace of God:

“My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in my weaknesses [the weaker side, the right hemispheric experiences],’ ‘that the power of Christ may dwell in me; . . . for when I am weak, then I am strong [II Cor. 12:9-10]

Paul also experienced an internal unity in Christ; he was more than a Pharisaic Jew, more than a Hellenistic Jew; from his conception he had been “in Christ” and as an adult he realized that being “in Christ” meant having the power of God, the power of Being itself. And nowhere was this power more clearly self-evident to Paul than in his weaknesses, in his inability to verbalize (weak left hemisphere) and, his many visions (strong right hemisphere): “I have seen things that are not utterable” -- the ineffable vision, the mark of the Christ-mystic. In his quest for sanity he had become insane for God.

The Chilean psychiatrist Claudio Naranjo suggests that

the relationship between the quests for sanity and enlightenment might be seen as that between the minor and the major mysteries of antiquity. While the former aims at the restoration of “true man,” “original man,” the goal of the latter was the transcendence of the human condition, the acquisition of some degree of freedom from the needs or laws that determine ordinary human life by assimilation to a radically different state of being [The Heating Journey (Pantheon, 1973) p. 17].

Naranjo’s description of the mystic fits Paul rather well. Paul’s mysticism is a quest for both sanity and enlightenment; he recovers for himself the original, primal, true person, and he enters a radically new state of being, the new creation.

Paul can say: “By the grace of God, I am what I am.” For him it is Christ who gives unity to his bimodal, existence. Paul is strong and weak, sane and insane, foolish and wise, and it is his mystical experience of the risen Christ that allows him to live beyond this bimodality.

There is one final binary aspect to Paul’s Christ-mysticism: ecstasy and ethics. The Corinthians were not yet ready for the full impact of Christ-mysticism; they were not yet “spiritual persons, but babes in Christ.” On one, hand the experience of “being in Christ” was truly esoteric and ecstatic. This aspect of Christ-mysticism the Corinthian Christians knew well. They were making bold claims about their many spiritual gifts -- tongues, prophecy, healing -- all magnificent, all praiseworthy, all useful.

Nonetheless, anyone who settles for the trappings of mysticism is at best “a babe in Christ” For Paul that which completes the experience of being in Christ is love, agape. To possess both the ecstatic experience” and agapeic love renders a person “mature.” The mature Christian, therefore, takes ethics (left hemisphere), as seriously as ecstasy (right hemisphere). Combining the two locates the Christian “in Christ” and makes possible the Imitatio Christi.

III

The post-Pauline patristic literature provides ample variations on the bimodal theme so clearly manifest in Paul’s writings. Toward the end of the second century Tertullian chided: “What has Jerusalem to do with Athens, the Church with the Academy? . . . A plague on Aristotle who taught dialectic!” For Tertullian the regula fidei of itself was sufficient for Christian life. More complicated speculation was deemed useless.

Fortunately, few theologians have heeded this lonely Latin voice, choosing rather to struggle with the complexity of human experience and expression. With no intention to oversimplify the complexity of the theologians I cite, I will briefly state the duality present in their conceptual worlds and how each duality is resolved.

Throughout his life Augustine struggled with “the Inner and the Outer.” God, for Augustine, was totally present as the inside of the inside and at the same time totally present beyond us as wholly other. He is Truth that resides in nature and beyond nature, and this Truth may be reached by two paths: faith and the inner light. Since pure reason is of itself too weak to discover Truth it needs to be aided by the written record of faith. Since eternal wisdom is beyond words, one has a glimmering of wise insight by paradoxically going beyond one’s own soul into the deep and silent realm of interiority. This two-sided searching by means of biblical study and inner quietude is resolved in our personal and collective memories. “The mind is not large enough to contain itself,” says the great bishop, but memory, more encompassing than mind, is the timeless dwelling place of God.

Augustine, undaunted by Tertullian, ushered in the millennial rule of scholasticism. The great king of the realm was, of course, Thomas Aquinas, who used Aristotle’s scepter to tip the theological world away from subjective Neoplatonism as interpreted by Augustine. The “angelic doctor” arrived just as Christian thinkers were choking on a large piece of conceptual roughage called “the twofold truth.” Being astute observers of the world, the sophisticated thinkers could claim a truth in natural phenomena that clearly contradicted a divine truth revealed in Scripture. But then it was necessary to remind oneself that one was, after all, a Christian and accordingly must admit that the revelations of Christianity are also true even if they are nonsense.

It was Aquinas who said there is not simply one convoluted path to Truth, full of logical lacunae and nonsense, but two distinct paths: each beginning with its own premise, each following its own logical progression of thought, each ending in Truth. One can argue on the premise of faith to the God of faith, or one can begin with nature and ultimately arrive at a concept of the God of nature -- and, indeed, they are one and the same God, Being (ens) itself. Natural and revealed theology need not stand as contradictory opposites or be homogenized as a delicate synthetic substance susceptible to breaking down at the least challenge. Aquinas saw that at the end of these two long paths, which came together somewhere near the horizon, was Truth, and in that Truth resided God the prime mover of all thought and faith.

I would suggest that the biological analogue of the brain’s lateral specialization can be a useful hermeneutic tool in understanding the lives and contributions of such complex theologians as Paul, Augustine and Aquinas (not to mention Ignatius of Antioch or Martin Luther). Through the two hemispheres of the human brain, each making distinctive contributions to human activity, a fresh way is provided for comprehending the traditional tension between faith and reason, ecstasy and ethics, eros and agape. In “split-brain” religion, these poles of human experience and expression are neatly compartmentalized, often mutually exclusive, and sometimes demonic and destructive. In the mature person, with the mind of Christ in which there is no divided cognition, the active and the receptive provide for a flowing fullness.

I would not want to confuse biology with divinity. I do not mean to suggest that one group of brain cells mapped out by researchers and excited by electrodes will produce visions of God. But my reading of the classical theologians shows that they share common loci of reason and revelation. Further, these loci bear a striking functional similarity to the specialized tasks of the left and right hemispheres of the cerebral cortex. While we cannot take literally the relationship of the brain and belief, the analogy does provide a valuable way to order what we and others have thought and experienced.


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