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. Its 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 existenceand in particular the mystery of deathwe 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 Rahners 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.