Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Christ and the Cognitive Science of Religion

(These are notes toward a potential project on a scientifically-informed Christology.)
Your brain with its sensus divinitatis
I've been reading Justin Barrett's Cognitive Science, Religion, and Theology. Barrett, a cognitive scientist now teaching at Fuller Seminary, demonstrates how cognitive science provides an understanding for the human mind. The development of the human brain with various key characteristics like an innate sense of teleology (things happen for a particular end or "telos") form the basis for a natural "sense of the divine," or to use John Calvin's terms a sensus divinitatis. As Calvin wrote,
That there exists in the human mind, and indeed by natural instinct, some sense of Deity, we hold to lie beyond dispute (Institutes I.3.1).
CSR inside
 Barrett, and now I'll join in, offer this sensus divintatis as a background for faith in God, arguing that this basic belief is endemic to human life and therefore an important component in building a theology informed by science. For him, this is Cognitive Science of Religion (CSR). For me, it represents the proper use of natural theology and thus one of the key contributions that the sciences provide for theology. This awareness of the divine has been noted in the writings of Paul in Romans 1:19-20. (And I'm certainly not the first person to say that.) 
For what can be know about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.
This is a cool book
Nonetheless, this sense of the divine, however, remains vague. As Michael Welker noted in Creation and Reality, it is a "vague knowledge of a vague power" (p. 25), open to serious distortions and manipulations. C. S. Lewis, when analyzing the similar concept of a "minimal religion," with a broad sense of the divine (and immortality), offered this critique; it
cannot exclude the Christian view that He [God] was present in a special way in Jesus, nor the Nazi view that He is present in a special way in the German race... In practice it will not be a religion at all; it will be merely a new coloring given to all the different things people were doing already.
We therefore need more clarity for an informed, and ultimately, beneficial belief, a belief that gives comfort, that changes our behavior toward the good, and really, that converts. Here the Gospels are critical because there we don't see abstract Deity, but the concrete and definitive revelation of God in Jesus. In Karl Barth’s words, we cannot focus on an “abstract deity,” but what “actually took place in Christ" (Church Dogmatics IV/1, 186).

And thus we arrive at the best news of all. We are created for God, and this is affirmed by the insights of cognitive science, but to have definitive knowledge of "the Deity" we need to look at Jesus Christ, who is indeed "is the image of the invisible God" (Colossians 1:15).

What do you think of all this?


Anonymous said...

A twist on the question of people needing God. Rather than, “Why do people need God,” but instead, "in light of such evidence, how do you explain atheists?" I think it is leaned by turning a blind eye to the personal nature of it all. We have the ability to flounder in our “self-doubt” as well as “god-doubt.” Our vision reaches in both directions in similar fashion.

"The question: Is there a personal God?
is a symptom of the uncertainty:
Is there a personal man?"
~Abraham Joshua Heschel

As Edward O. Wilson, in his book Consilence, also claims the human brain is created to believe in god...unlike other creatures. He writes:
“The human brain is the most complex object known in the universe…to the grief of most preexisting life forms, came humanity…The result was the capacity to take possession of the planet…”

It's a double-edge sword to find God's image within you.

In 1 Corinthians 13: 12 the idea that we might see God “Through a glass darkly” is provoking to me. What do you see in a mirror but your own face. Tyndale renders 2 Corinthians 2:18 in similar fashion, “..and now the Lord’s glory appeareth in us all as in a glass.” ). This idea of God in our brain and in our social relations, is reflected a bit in this fragment of a poem I wrote a few years ago:

"I swat at angels that flutter my brow
These Seraphim’s wings,
I’ve no time for them now.
Bent over my keyboard
I’m translating my soul
Into electronic devices,
But, my vices still grow...
I feel Eternity seep into my brain,
Like a leak in the cosmic pluming I can’t find.
Visions grow imperceptibly
Then crash into my soul.
Images disjoint time...
Before of a picture window
We gather, looking out—to look in.
Mirror neurons do their bit...
I hear a family chatting,
I feel generations on the move,
In their conversations
I hear echoes of my own.
Our bodies morph,
But the conversations remain..
Time makes it’s mark,
And then it enters eternity by doing so..."

Plato also describes such seeds of this transforming knowledge of God in human nature:

"...every soul of man has in the way of nature beheld true being; this was the condition of her passing into the form of man. ... having had their hearts turned to unrighteousness through some corrupting influence, they may have lost the memory of the holy things...when they behold here any image of that other world, are rapt in amazement; but they are ignorant of what this rapture means, because they do not clearly perceive. For there is no light of justice or temperance or any of the higher ideas which are precious to souls in the earthly copies of them:
they are seen through a glass dimly.."
...And they have the less difficulty in finding the nature of their own god in themselves, because they have been compelled to gaze intensely on him; their recollection clings to him, and they become possessed of him, and receive from him their character and disposition, so far as man can participate in God... and is the reason why the soul of the lover will never forsake his beautiful one, whom he esteems above all; he has forgotten mother and brethren and companions, and he thinks nothing of the neglect and loss of his property; the rules and proprieties of life, on which he formerly prided himself, he now despises, and is ready to sleep like a servant, wherever he is allowed, as near as he can to his desired one, who is the object of his worship, and the physician who can alone assuage the greatness of his pain…”

The Apostle Paul tells us that Jesus is that very image set before us for contemplation.

-Bill Jackson, Oroville CA

Sherry Gutierez said...

Hi Greg,
I am taking some on-line courses to complete my AA degree. I just finished a philosophy class, and one of the papers I had to write was concerning free will. In my research, I ran across Sam Harris' book entitled "Free Will," and then I watched his lecture at CalTech. Here is the link:
I am curious if you have heard or read any of his stuff; and, if you had, what your thoughts were of his views, from a science/theology perspective. Don't worry, I do not follow his beliefs. I was just wondering how you would answer what he puts forth.
Enjoy reading your blogs. Take care.
Yours in Christ,
--Sherry Gutierez

GCootsona said...

I've heard of Sam Harris, and know him as one of today's prominent anti-theist voices, but I haven't been that interested in reading him. I do, however, know one of the members of our Chico Triad on Philosophy, Theology, and Science, Michael Fitzpatrick has written a paper on Harris. Maybe I can get my hands on that. (Or Michael, maybe you're reading this....)
What I would say is that the current work on brian science is really fascinating and important. Nonetheless, we already knew before fMRIs, etc. that thinking involves the brain. (A sharp tap on the head with a hammer will demonstrate pretty quickly that we can't have a mind to make decisions without a functioning brain.) So it's not odd to see that our free choices are wrapped up in the brain's doing things like neurons firing, etc. That work must happen somewhere.
Still, as I said, I haven't read Harris's book....

M Fitzpatrick said...


Indeed our teleological capacity is built in. But we still need more cognitive work to establish when our teleological "sensors" get it right. False positives are all-too-common for us to immediately move to a natural theology based on this finding. God, skeptics might say, is the biggest false positive of them all.

As for my essay on Sam, I sent you the .pdf a few weeks ago of the published article. You're welcome to distribute. My thoughts on his free will argument are not in that paper though - they lie in the paper I presented to the Triad, which you're also welcome to distribute.