The Neural Buddhists
David Brooks has a fascinating (but I think ultimately flawed) column in, yes, the New York Times talking about the potential impact of neuroscience on religion. He argues that neuroscience will prove as challenging to 21st religion as evolutionary biology did to 19th and 20th century religion:
First, the self is not a fixed entity but a dynamic process of relationships. Second, underneath the patina of different religions, people around the world have common moral intuitions. Third, people are equipped to experience the sacred, to have moments of elevated experience when they transcend boundaries and overflow with love. Fourth, God can best be conceived as the nature one experiences at those moments, the unknowable total of all there is.
In their arguments with Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, the faithful have been defending the existence of God. That was the easy debate. The real challenge is going to come from people who feel the existence of the sacred, but who think that particular religions are just cultural artifacts built on top of universal human traits. It’s going to come from scientists whose beliefs overlap a bit with Buddhism.
I have not read any of the writers Brooks lists, but my initial response is that these are not new issues for Christian theology. The idea that religious doctrines are symbolic expressions of human religious experience has a very long pedigree. The German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher was writing in the early 19th century that religion was rooted in a feeling of “absolute dependence” and this grounding of theology in anthropology later became central to the theological project of liberal Protestantism.
In Catholic theology, this approach was given its most systematic expression by the Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner in the second half of the 20th century. Very simply stated (which is a dangerous thing to do with Rahner), he argued that Christianity was the answer to questions posed by the transcendental dimension of human experience. Confronted with the essential mystery of our existence—and in particular the mystery of death—we long for an “absolute savior” who we recognize in the person of Jesus Christ.
This approach to theology is less popular than it once was. Post-modern thinkers have raised skeptical questions about the universality of “human religious experience,” and that skepticism has influenced theology. There is increased interest in the particularity of religious traditions. This has manifested itself in a variety of ways, such as the increased popularity of Karl Barth among Protestant theologians and the recognition of the limitations of Rahner’s ideas about “anonymous Christianity” in the context of interreligious dialogue. Christians and Buddhists do not simply symbolically express a similar reality in different ways. They really do experience reality in different ways because of the particularity of their traditions. In his 1984 book The Nature of Doctrine, George Lindbeck suggested that theology was poised to move in a “post-liberal” direction.
Brooks’ argument suggests that neuroscience will allow us to see religious traditions as simply diverse expressions of the same underlying brain chemistry. I must say I’m skeptical. Just because the same portion of the brain lights up when a Buddhist is meditating or a Christian is praying does not mean that the two are having the same experience. Human experience is always mediated through language and culture. It is always particular. That some anthropological constants exist I do not doubt, but those constants “underdetermine” human culture. All known cultures, for example, have incest taboos, but they differ on what degree of kinship constitutes incest.
Thus the question is not primarily whether the religious traditions of the world reflect the brain but what they do with the brain. What kind of human culture is made possible by particular religious traditions? To what extent do those cultures fully actualize the potentialities latent in what Christians (and not only Christians) call “creation?” How does grace build on nature?
That is not a question that neuroscience—or any science—can ultimately answer. It requires a leap of faith. It requires a leap of faith to believe that this oddly organized collection of cells and chemicals is a being of incomparable dignity and transcendent destiny. It requires a leap of faith to believe that the fullest expression of the human is found not in the lives of John Galt or the New Soviet Man but in an obscure Palestinian Jew who gave his life “as a ransom for many.”