dotCommonweal

A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors

.

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.

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 Im 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 neuroscienceor any sciencecan 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.

Comments

Commenting Guidelines

I have been teaching Wolfe's essay, "Sorry, But Your Soul Just Died," for a number of years along with Mark Salzman's wonderful novel, Lying Awake. (The former is in a collection of essays entitled "Hooking Up;" the latter tells the story of a Carmelite Sister whose arid spiritual life suddenly blossoms at about the time that she is diagnosed with temporal lobe epilepsy. I agree with Brooks that the issues raised by neuroscience are important and are not going away. My own view is that not enough attention is being given to this work by theologians or scholars of religion.

I probably don't have any business posting on this thread; I can spot a high-brow theological discussion in the making that will quickly outpace my poor powers of comprehension.But as a former Unitarian-Universalist, none of Brooks' notions struck me as new and different. It was always a given in our UU Sunday school that the quest for the sacred is hard-wired into the individual, and different cultures "invent" different religions to serve that quest and to stabilize social norms and morality.Fertile ground for exploration, I think, lies in the stories of those whose quest for the sacred led them to faiths outside their cultural norms, a faith that ostracizes them or leads them to death. A good example is the novel "Silence," about 17th century Japanese Catholics, which I learned about on this blog and have re-read several times since then. Equally interesting would be the stories of American and European Christians who have converted to faiths outside their social norms. In his experimental novel, "The City of God," E.L. Doctorow wrote about an Episcopal priest who converts to Judaism and explains, "I'm a better Christian as a Jew than I ever was as a Christian."I've mentioned fictional characters, but these types of conversions happen in real life. The Church's martyrologies are full of such people.It seems to me that when converts break the mold, you can chalk some of it up to the charismatic nature of specific missionaries (Doctorow's priest marries a Jewish woman), to the sense of dignity the new religion offers those marginalized by the dominant culture, to effective "translation" of new doctrine into something very close to what people already believe.But there's also often something in the dominant religion's practices that are out of whack which makes it easier to convert away from it. Indifference among followers, rote practice, temporal controversies that detract from the sense of sacred, punishment of those whose faith is imperfect, competition among adherents to be recognized as the true keepers of the faith, a sense of exclusivity that leads adherents to call for a "smaller, more faithful Church," which clearly means that some people need to go. (Any of this sound familiar?)It is difficult for me, given my upbringing, I suppose, to dismiss the notion that God has opened many paths to the sacred. Those paths may not be equal. It seems to me that only one is fully realized. But it strikes me that an imperfect path is better than wandering around entirely lost. And one of the great mysteries we'll never know in this life is whether those paths might not ultimately converge.

I think one of the great weaknesses of current theology (and I indict myself in this comment) is the continued ignoring of science. Now let me immediately clarify that I don't think theologians have to wait anxiously for the latest deliverances of natural scientists and scramble to adapt the faith to those deliverances. But I think that most theologians, both "liberal" and "conservative," have since the 19th century pretty much turned their back on serious interaction with the natural sciences.I recently read the later Herbert McCabe's On Aquinas and thought he did a very good job of showing how Aquinas provides a resource for thinking about these questions of brain/mind/soul/self. I think that in that book he attempted the kind of dialogue between science and theology that we more of today.

I hope this isn't too off-topic (but hey, at least it's not political, right?), but this discussion seems somewhat related to the recent headlines about how the Vatican says believing in extraterrestrial life is NOT incompatible with Christianity because arguing that there are no aliens would be tantamount to placing limits on God ... ... at the same time, if science ever proves the existence of alien life--especially intelligent alien life--what does that do to human theology? Did Christ also "save" the aliens? Did they even need saving (if they didn't fall from grace, why would they?) Is sin a uniquely human condition or it it truly universal? Is humankind uniquely created in God's image--physical as well as mental--or is God's "image" really just his sentience and thus any self-aware creature was made in God's image even it is an intelligent rocklike creature (ala one of Star Trek's more famous aliens)?

"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"I had thought that Meditation, which not all Christians practise, was an attempt in both Buddhism and Christianity to get beyond symbols. I wonder if the following would be an improvement: "Christians and Buddhists in meditation experience the same reality but interpret it in different ways because of the particularities of their respective traditions."

Robert Reid, C.S. Lewis wrote a sci-fi book about aliens ad salvation, which I read decades ago (and became one of the reasons I gave up reading Lewis). Maybe somebody can help me with the title. Magnificent life forms on other planets fall from grace in their own Edens until a baby is born in a stable on a grubby little planet called Earth, where the inhabitants aren't too bright ... If I recall, the book is told from the POV of an angel.

I found the comments here better than the column, which made my brain hurt when I read it. I think Brooks' reach exceeded his grasp, though I can't be sure. One thing, I think that regular folk were well ahead of the neural curve in terms of finding "neural Buddhism" (or whatever) appealing. Hell, even Sam Harris is attarcted by it. (And I can say "hell" in this context because if Harris et al don't believe in it, then it's not threatening. Right?) I think Peter is right on in the last few grafs of his post. Brooks writes: "The cognitive revolution is not going to end up undermining faith in God, its going to end up challenging faith in the Bible." I think he means challenging faith in organized religion. And that's been going on. To find that we are predisposed to certain virtues is nice, but only as far as it goes. If Darwin upset you, then neuroscience is more of the same. Doesn't really answer any questions, and doesn't raise that many more. (IMO.) If you can deal with Darwin (as Catholicism can) then you can deal with this stuff. And I doubt it'll undermine religion; most people (I believe) still believe in the literal Creation story and disbelieve evolution, and so on.Paul, I thought of "Lying awake" when i read this, and remembered how much I loved that novel. And again, art preceded much of the science. Jean, that you have re-read "Silence" is a testament to fortitude. Love the novel. But I can only take so much in a calendar year.

After reading Brooks yesterday, I turned away wondering what the issue is.Isn't this all what the gospels (and others) talk about in terms of the blind? Our soul longs for God; our body adapts to the presence of the transcendent. Is there a difference? Some are blind in thinking that the body adapts to something that is not there. They express this by calling our "longing" a vestigial remnant of earlier behavior, instead of seeing the earlier behavior as a srage in the development of the longing.IOW, do we really see light? Or is light just a fantasy created because we have eyes? Who can say?

CS Lewis wrote a trilogy of science fiction: Out of the Silent Planet; That Hideous Strangth; and Perelandra. James Blish dealt with similar issues in A Case of Conscience.More recently, Maria Doria Russell dealt with alien life wonderfully in The Sparrow and The Children of God.

I had thought that Meditation, which not all Christians practise, was an attempt in both Buddhism and Christianity to get beyond symbols. I wonder if the following would be an improvement: Christians and Buddhists in meditation experience the same reality but interpret it in different ways because of the particularities of their respective traditions.Joseph,I think your formulation and Peter's formulation together represent one of the fundamental divergences in theological approach that Peter alluded to in his invocation of Lindbeck's The Nature of Doctrine. Are religious (or, for that matter, cultural) symbols a means of clothing experience in order to make it expressible (which is what I take you to be saying), or do they form the matrix that gives shape to experience itself (which is what I take Peter to be saying)? So I suspect Peter will not be amenable to your modification.

On the interactions between science and theology, I would recommend the fine work of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences out here in Berkeley. They have been doing pioneering work in the area over the past 25 years, including a number of collaboratives with the Vatican Observatory. The center is directed by Robert Russell, a physicist who is also an ordained minister with the United Church of Christ. Russell is arguably the successor to Ian Barbour, a pioneer in this field. http://www.ctns.org/While I think Prof. Bauerschmidt is correct that dialogue with science has not been a focus for many theologians, there are some exceptions. The Lutheran theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg has done some writing in this area over the years, as has Ted Peters, who teaches out here in the Bay Area at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary. Nancey Murphy, an evangelical theologian who teaches at Fuller has also done a great deal of work in this area. Her book "Theology in the Age of Scientific Reasoning" tries to integrate the post-foundationalist philosophy of science developed by Imre Lakatos. Interestingly, in her later work, Murphy has relied less on Lakatos and more on Alasdair MacIntyre, which may be indicative of the problem Prof. Bauerschmidt is raising.Just to be clear on my own views, I'm by no means opposed to considering the issues that Brooks raises. What I was trying to say is that 1) the issues raised are not new ones for theology; and 2) that neuroscience on its own (without sufficient attention to language and culture) is unlikely to be able to give us an adequate understanding of human religious experience. I agree with the commentators that an understanding of neuroscience is going to be important for an adequate Christian anthropology. But I think Brooks goes too far here in suggesting that neuroscience will render irrelevant the particularity of individual religious traditions. Oh, and yes, Joseph, I'm afraid that's not a friendly amendment. But you can always try to get a second for your motion and outvote me...:-)

Again -sorry to be repetitive - I urge the fine thinkers here to join the Templeton Foundation "big question" discussion on "Does Science Render God Obsolete?"Just personally, I think Rahner's view still has lots to offer and that the Dawkins Hinchens etc. gang are lightweights -depite popularity - on the isues being broached at Templeton.

I have to agree with Peter Nixon that neuroscience alone is unlikely to ever explain religious belief. As a researcher in a neuroscience group, I am not at all confident that we will know enough about how the brain works in the next century to propose a mechanistic explanation of belief. The knowledge flow is going the other way, at the moment. I remember an experiment where brain imaging was used to see what brain regions are involved in trust. They used husband and wife pairs; the subject was told he or she was about to receive a shock, and the researchers recorded brain activation when the subjects spouse was present or absent for the experiment. The actual data that comes from this type of experiment is hard to interpret at best. What that experiment means depends on concepts: things that are frightening; trust; soothing; husbands and wives. Currently, fields that bear on human behavior and thought, like psychology, philosophy (and religion), are what we use to validate our mechanistic experiments about the brain. Its hard for me to imagine us getting to a point where mechanistic information about brain function will contradict or correct a theological/cultural understanding of whether Buddhist meditation and Christian meditation are the same. As we learn more about the brain, we will learn about physical processes that are involved in brain function. This information is as threatening to religion as the theory of evolution is: in other words, not threatening to me, David Brooks, or anyone on this blog, but possibly to someone. I guess I can imagine a culture war around this issue like the one around creationism. The fact that thoughts/self are physically connected to the body/brain comes as no surprise to Catholics or scientists. But if evolution makes you doubt that God created you, maybe the notion that thoughts are processed and religion is experienced through certain parts of the brain will, too.

In Arthur C. Calrke's classic "Childhood's End," aliens come to earth and give humanity a machine that lets us look far back in time--which according to Clarke would immediately destroy most religious faith except for ... and here I can't recall if Clarke said that a very ancient form of Buddhism or Hinduism would survive--it was one of the two.

We live in an age where people look at life in terms of their "experiences" and it is no surprise that this approach will resonate with them.And if we believe in a God that is everywhere, we would expect that some kind of religious "experience" would be the norm rather than the exception.But I don't think that religious experiences are the core of religion as such. The core of religion as such is conversion, which one may "experience" but which profoundly changes one so that they see things radically differently (and do so permanently). This different way of seeing was remarked upon, I believe, by Thomas Merton, who was able to see it in other religions as well as his own. When we talk about conversion, I don't think we are talking about brain chemistry any more.

Better still, I now think, "encounter the same reality" since "experience" already implies conceptualization. Some years ago I audited a very good course on Plotinus given by a Jesuit at Fordham. Plotinus claimed to have ascended to the level of the One. The professor, as best I can recall, thought it was conceivable that Plotinus had encountered God in his "ascent"--I assume some sort of meditative practice--but thought discursively and wrote of his encounter in symbols derived from his version of Platonic metaphysics.On neuroscience there is an article the March Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience by Deena Skolnick Weisberg, a Doctoral Student at Yale. I have not seen the article but it is summarized in the current issue of the Yale Alumni Magazine. In brief--to summarize the summary--Skolnick Weisberg found that mention of neuroscience intimidates readers and sems to cause them to think less critically than they otherwise would.

In 2000, Princeton University Press published the English translation of a discussion between an eminent French neuroscientist, Jean-Pierre Changeux, and the philosopher Paul Ricoeur. It entitled "What makes Us Think?" Ricoeur argues for a position that sounds quite like that of Kathleen Mortell. Changeux would fit in with Brooks, etc.In my view, Ricoeur has the better of the argument, but there is no "knockdown" argument. An interesting feature of Ricoeur's position, from my perspective, is that Ricoeur eschews mind-body dualism. For him, thinking and judging and initiating action just are what human organisms do when when they're functioning normally. They are performances of the human organism as a whole, brain linked to all the other vital organs and our sensoria. Brains, on this view, are necessary for thinking, but not sufficient for doing so.

Peter, I just want to compliment you on your original post - I thought it was concluded brilliantly, and you stated very clearly the vague and intuitive reaction I had upon reading Brooks' piece.

You're prophetic, Jean! Here comes some scholarly nitty-gritty :-)When I was young the bits of mystical writings which I read seemed, well, awfully nutty -- with the exception of St. Teresa of Avila, who seemed eminently sane. Later, when I did my doctoral dissertation on Jacques Maritain's epistemology I had to read a good bit by and about mystics because of the influence of the mystics on his work. The most valuable work I read was Robert C. Zaehner's "Mysticism: Sacred and Profane" (Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1957). You all might find it valuable too. Although Zaehner was recognized as a remarkable scholar and an amazing linguist (not to mention British spy!), his work was extremely controversial because his thesis ran counter to the dominant thesis among scholars of comparative religion of his day, namely, that there is *only one* kind of "mystical experience" and it is of God. These days there are many in comparative religion who agree there are different basic kinds -- but that fact is not reflected in Brooks article. Zaehner's evidence for his position comes from the writings of the mystics themselves. His work includes, among others, texts from Christians, Jews, Muslims and Hindus at different times and places, and from many poets and other writers. What he finds described in these vastly different traditions are *three* basically different kinds of mystical experience. Only one kind is apparently religious, that is, it is a real meeting with God.Many of Zaehner's readers have claimed that his interpretations are biased by his Catholic faith. (He was a convert .) This in spite of his *main thesis* that genuine religious experience is NOT limited to Catholics and that descriptions of meetings with God can be found in such works as the Bhagavad-Gita, and in writers such as the Sufi Junayd, and many other non-Catholics. Neither does Zaehner think that all Catholic mystics have in fact encountered God.In one basic non-religious kind of experience (which Zaehner calls the "pan-en-henic" mysticism), the mystic is conscious of the *external* world and experiences himself as *part* of the whole cosmos and as *the whole* cosmos as well. For this mystic the whole is identical with the part, the part is identical with the whole, and the parts are identical each other. Many such mystics identify this cosmic reality with God, but by no means do all of them. Here comes Zaehner's most controversial thesis: this sort of bizarre thinking is basically the same kind of thinking that is found in schizophrenics. I should add that psychiatrists would generally agree with him. (The neuroscientists seem to ignore the psychiatrists. So much for considering all possible explanations of a given phenonmenon.)Zaehner speaks from his *own* experience about pan-en-henic mysticism: he tells us that he himself had a pan-en-henic experience (all is one, one is all) when he was a young agnostic sitting under a tree reading Rimbaud, and he says that although the experience was overwhelming, it never even occurred to him to think that he was experiencing God. In spite of the implications for his own possible mental stability, he criticizes the experience vigorously as noetically worthless. What is important about the Brooks article is that at least two of the neuroscientists he mentions (Newberger and Damasio) seem to think that this sort of experience is *the only* sort of mystical experience that there is, and they view it as a superior grasp of reality, even though it leads to contradictions on a cosmic scale. That it contradicts the first principle of science does not seem to bother them one whit. This, I submit, is contributing to the enthronement of irrationality in the popular culture. The end of the Enlightenment is upon us, folks.I do no mean to disparage their findings -- they are important. But not in the way that they think they are. In the other non-religious mystical experience considered by Zaehner, which he calls "isolation" mysticism, the mystic focuses inward, totally *away* from the material world and finds in the "depths" (or "heights") of the inner self a reality which is so gloriously beautiful that the mystic mistakenly thinks it is God. The third kind of mystical experience, says Zaehner, is apparently a real with God , that being who is described as Love. Why does Zaehner think this kind of experience is different from isolation mysticism and pan-en-henic mysticism? In part because some mystics have had two, even all three, kinds of mystical experience, and they tell us to beware of confusing one with the other.Let me also mention that Thomas Merton said, "I like what Zaehner is doing", and Bernard McGinn also takes him seriously. If you're interested in Christian mystical experience, by all means get hold of all three volumes of McGinn's masterwork "The Presence of God". I look forward to his fourth volume about contemporaty mystical experiences and thoughts about it, including Zaehner's. P. S. If you tired vainly to understand to Maritain's maddening "intuition of being" (also called "creative intuition"), my sympathy. My conclusion was that it was really an instance of pan-en-henic mystical experience. Philosophers can also be nutty. See Parmenides -- and Plotinus, and Eruigena, and Spinza, and Heidegger, and maybe even my favorite -- Wittgenstein. (I'm not the only one who thinks W. was a pan-en-henic mystic. I discovered Zaehner when reading McGuinness about the Tractatus.) End of scholarly nitty-gritty.)

We argue so often about what is the "true path" or the "true religion" forgetting that it is not impossible nor unreasonable that God is everywhere and that not just anyone but perhaps everyone gets a peek from time to time no matter who they are or what they might believe. But I have heard that one of the signs of a "true" mystical experience is that it makes one want to live differently, in the sense of not only experiencing God as love but as wanting to live a life of love because of that experience.Zaehner's own pan-en-henic mystical experience may not have led him to this; you don't say if it did. But even so it may also be that after someone has had the sort of experience that Zaehner would call truly religious, might it not be possible that one could look back and see where the Hand of God was active? Isn't a lot of Augustine's insights (for example) simple retrospection, where he knew that something was going on but was not yet equipped to say what it was.Anyway, going back to the original topic, I guess I would say that while mystics may have mystical experiences, mysticism isn't about experiences. It is anchored in something else, which I called "conversion" above, but might also be called metanoia. The anchor of religion is a change of heart based on a change of sight. Many religions know about this. And this transformation, because it both transforms and is believed to be permanent, can't be about brain waves or brain chemistry in the sense that has been proposed above. What would cause a person (or a brain) to rebuild itself in the space of a moment?

"But I have heard that one of the signs of a true mystical experience is that it makes one want to live differently, in the sense of not only experiencing God as love but as wanting to live a life of love because of that experience."Unagidon--Indeed. And that is one of Zaehner's criteria for a meeting with the God of Love. According to him such experiences at ;east inclines the mystic to love all of God's creation, including, of course, their fellow humans. Unfortunately, isolation mysticism (the sort that is an experience of the depths of the soul according to Zaehner) sometimes leads the mystics to think that they *are* God, and they become "puffed up", as St. Paul would no doubt put it, and they sometimes become arrogant. This reminds me of what was sometimes said of the nuns of Port Royale -- "Pure as angels, proud as devils". I don't know whether any of them deserved the saying, but it is undoubtedly true that *some* mystics do become inordinately proud of themselves after their experiences. This whole subject is so vast it's mind-bogglling. I just wish that the neuroscientists realized how vast it is. Hindus have been describing such experiences for 5,000 years! Good Aristotelian that I am, I would be very suprised if there were no concommitent brain activity as the various sorts of mystical experiences occur. On the other hand, I could of course be very, very wrong. According to Arthur Goleman there is a type of Hindu experience, nirodh (sp?), during which the mystic's body is as close to death as a human body can be. Even brain waves are almost totally suspended. The subject is fascinating, and, I repeat, vast.What concerns me most from a Catholic point of view is that there are Catholic thinkers who also seem to reduce all mystical experience to one sort. Fr. deMello, the Indian Jesuit, And Fr. William Johnston, another Jesuit, spring to mind. deMello's writings incurred criticism from the CDF, and in that instance I think the CDF was right. Of course, I'm one of the ones who think I am in no way identical with God. No way.If you think the culture wars in the West are intense about the liturgy , just wait until the Asian theologians tangle with the Western ones about the ontological relationship between God and creature.

Unagidon --I agree that the non-religious sorts of experience could be valuable in leading the mystic to a different dimension of human life, and that includes the pan-en-henic experience. Any intention towards what is absolutely good, true, and beautiful is bound to be pleasing to God. The problem is not to confuse oneself with Him, no matter how valuable each human being might be. We are incommensurable,and the religious mystic reminds us of that.

unagidon,P.P.S. I doubt that such transformations as occur are necessarily permanent. Teresa of Avila. That paradigm of religious experience, tells us that she became so proud that God had favored her with jer experiences, that in a vision He showed her her place in Hell. She got the message :-)

Correction: I spoke of isolation mysticism ss "the" other kind of mysticism besides the pan-en-henic kind But It is not the only other kind. -- the genuinely religios type is a third basic type.

"I doubt that such transformations as occur are necessarily permanent. Teresa of Avila. Thatparadigm of religious experience, tells us that she became so proud that God had favored her with her experiences, that in a vision He showed her her place in Hell. She got the message :-)"I agree and I see that I overstated this. What I meant was that one of the favors of mysticism might be a new way of seeing. A mystical experience may be an experience but a new way of seeing would be more of a new mode of existence. None of this would negate the fact that it is a human doing this, with all the weaknesses of the human. Mysticism doesn't negate the possibility of sin. (Nor the probability of it, for that matter.)So I suppose that unlike having an "experience", this type of mysticism also confers a new responsibility. One doesn't transcend one's human limitations; perhaps one now needs to lead a life of attention as opposed to will (to steal a thought from Simone Weil). The recognition of this might be one of the things that makes this more than a simple experience. The outlines of what this responsibility might be and the practical implications of this new way of seeing then becomes one of the foundations of religion. "Love and do what you will" becomes everyone's aspiration, but a mystic might understand this differently than someone who needs a catechism to spell it all out. The original post to me seems to assume that religion is built outwards from its concepts. Or maybe there are general feelings of something (I see a lot of articles lately about "altruism genes", for example). The concepts are in place, the person has a "mystical experience", but this is some manifestation of brain chemistry overlaying a set of platitudes or philosophical concepts. But I think that from the point of view of religion, it works the other way around. The truth comes from a certain kind of mystical experience of God. THAT is the base, and the rest is the manifestation.Sorry to be so cryptic. I'm no scholar, unfortunately.

What a fascinating discussion, especially these last exchanges between Ann and Unagidon (almost euphonic in the juxtapostion of names)!I was reminded in their dialogue of a phrase that I read in a book by Denys Turner in I think, his book, The Darkness of God. Turner warns against reading our contemporary fixation on "experiences" back into the writings of the classical Christian mystics, like John of the Cross.Turner says: theirs was not "the experience of nothingness." but rather "the nothingness of experience."I don't think that this invalidates the legitimacy of the concept of "experience," but points us, as both Ann and Unagidon seem to me to be doing to criteria of transformed experience. The no-nonsense mysticism of Teresa finally, I believe, eschews extraordinary manifestations in favor of the everyday challenge and joy of doing God's will. In this Therese may have precisely understood her namesake's teaching -- both doctores ecclesiae.

Here is something from Alasdair Macintyres book Edith Stein A Philosophical Prologue 1913-1922 (pp. 167-168).Four features of Teresas account of her life are worth noting. First, she understands the experience of Gods presence as something that in those who undergo it has a history, the history of a life of prayer. We grow or fail to grow in our apprehension of God and we have to identify our limitations at each stage of that growth and be instructed as to how to move beyond them. The life of prayer is a life of learning. Secondly, she identifies the obstacles and difficulties that arise at different stages and the conflicts through which we have to move to overcome them, especially the obstacles, difficulties and conflicts that arise initially from our strong attachments to so much inourselves and inour worldly environments that prevents us from acknowledging Gods presence. Thirdly, she rejects a false spirituality. We are human beings with bodies, not angels, and it is as such that we pray. And it is the human nature of Jesus through which we come to apprehend his divine nature. God discloses himself through that embodied human nature ot our embodied humanity. Fourthly, Teresa is always open to the possibilities of delusion and illusion. But what those possibilities are is also something that has to be learned. We do not bring with us from our previous life an adequate grasp of the criteria of illusion, a set of rules which would prevent us from being deceived. ..It would seem to be that a mystical experience as we understand it as Catholics would be necessary to get someone to the first level, to the idea that there are levels of apprehension and to a desire to face them. So the act of conversion starts us out, but it doesnt solve all of our problems. In fact, it may create a new set of problems for us, and in religion, just as in scholarship, it can be liberating to be able to move from one set of problems to a new set of problems.I dont think that any of this is captured by discussions that treat mystical experiences as simply forms of experience. This is a problem with how science proceeds (despite the fact that this is how science has to proceed). I have had many discussions with atheists who claim that they are objective rational thinkers ruled by science. When I argue that their thinking is actually riddled with metaphysics and leaps of faith and that this is most particularly evident in their daily lives whenever they are confronted with qualities like beauty, they respond that yes, they believe in qualities like beauty, but these are simple consumer preferences of their and that some day science will show that these things are the arbitrary manifestations of their brain chemistry. They believe in metaphysical experiences (and what would the camping industry be without them?). But their metaphysics requires them to look at these as isolated events.

When Macintyre refers to "Teresa" does he mean Sr Teresa Benedicta, known as Edith Stein, or St Teresa of Avila, foundress of the order Sr Teresa joined?

Given the centrality of conversion and transformation being discussed, why should we prefer Zaehner's philosophy of mysticism to deMello's or Johnston's? The latter spent decades in India and Japan respectively, while Zaehner rarely spent much time outside Europe. I think both are valid ways of studying cultures, but I have my doubts about studying mysticism that way.

Dear Jim McK,He's referring to what he thinks Edith Stein got from reading St Teresa of Avila. Sorry, I was in a rush this morning when I posted it.

Clarification --I said earlier that the sort of thinking found in pan-en-henic mystical experience ('everything is identical with everything else') is basically the same kind of thinking found in schizophrenics. This might be upsetting to someone who has had such an experience. I do not mean that someone who has had such an experience once without any of the other characteristics of schizophrenia would be diagnosed as one. Zaehner himself, for instance, had such an experience once and no doubt would not be so diagnosed. Schizophrenia includes serious problems with other kinds of thought disturbances (for instance, schizophrenics sometimes have problems classifying things) as well as serious behavioral problems. There are "clusters" of disturbances which lead to such a diagnosis. My apologies if anyone was disturbed by what I said.

P.S. I should have added that not all who are diagnosed as "schizophrenic" exhibit this kind of thinking, or so I"ve often read. (As you can see, I am no expert on the topic.)

Coming late.butI have just completed postgraduate studies a portion of which was dedicated to researching neuropsychiatry and mysticism.I do agree that emerging research in this area is going to validated early intuitions among theologians with respect to the immanence of the Divine. Divinization is rooted firmly in the Christian tradition and was a contribution more of Eastern Christianity than Latin Christianity. It isnt connected to becoming God (the perennial temptation) as much as birthing God to use one of Eckharts phrases. It is interesting to note that historically Western Christianity was slow to adopt the basic notion supporting the title of Theotokos for Mary. How the creature can bear the Creator was something that the Western mind has difficulty in grasping. Not so much with the Eastern mind with its more meditatively disposed, neo-Platonic mystical and quasi Gnostic orientation. Examining Marian piety between the two traditions would, I think, reveal this difference.As for revelation, Aquinas, standing apart from modern Biblical theology maintains that revelation is not a public event. Instead God infuses the mind with the Divine meaning of public events and the mind (through the prophet) makes a judgment. This process is obviously situated in history with all that implies in terms of content and mode of expression but the point is that revelation, according to Aquinas, occurs in the mind. Of course, the issue of discernment is one that needs to be developed. I think the Roman Church has discernment pretty well established and developed we need to create more spaces for the saints and the prophets. Regrettably, we havent found a way in the new Jerusalem to stop stoning the prophets. As seen most recently, IMO in the warnings against both Teilhard and Demello.

Unagidon --MacIntyre says in the text you quote: " We grow or fail to grow in our apprehension of God and we have to identify our limitations at each stage of that growth and be instructed as to how to move beyond them."While I think this spirituality of "ascent" is probably true in Catholic contemplative mystics (the cloistered ones), it doesn't seem to be universally true -- see St. Paul. And, in my very limited store of knowledge of the subject, three seem to be two strong strains of meditative practice in the Catholic tradition -- one which emphasizes the intellect (apprehenson, knowledge of God is the goal) while the other emphasizes will (love of God is emphasized), and the second is extremely concerned not only with prayer but with doing good. Do the theologians count contemplative prayer as a charism? There seem to be many, many subspecies of genuninely religious mystical experience. Not only do the mystics' practices differ, but the Object is apprehended differently. Some mystics apprehend God as Trinity, some as Good, some as Beauty, etc. And sometimes I suspect that Buddha himself apprehended God simply as Being, without the sort of specification that the others find, and so Buddhists often say there is no God in the Western sense (God = the Good, the True, the Beautiful, Absolute Love. I should add that I don't think that Zaehner's classifications are exhaustive. He hardly touches on the Buddhists at all, and I think he overlooks a fourth general kind of mystical experience which I have found only in a few Protestants. Inthis sort the mystics' focus is on the external world (just as the pan-en-henic type is) but they experience God's presence in all material things. They, however, do NOT identify themselves either with God nor with the other things in the world. This is not pan-en-henic, not "cosmic' intuition as it is sometimes called. Among those mystics, I think, are Jonathan Edwards (no pantheist of any sort he!), and Wordsworth, and a few others, possibly including Thomas Merton, whose background was Protestant. I first came across this sort in Anne Fremantle's "The Protestant Mystics". They include some odd ones, but there is one lady (whose name I have forgotten) who simply describes her ecstatic joy in find God present in nature. In no way does she identify herself with Him. Oddly, I've never come across any Catholic ones of this kind.About the delusions that Weil discusses -- the philosopher Nozick asks the most pertinent question about this: how do you know an absolute when you find one?(As I said, the field is a vast one!)

"Given the centrality of conversion and transformation being discussed, why should we prefer Zaehners philosophy of mysticism to deMellos or Johnstons? The latter spent decades in India and Japan respectively, while Zaehner rarely spent much time outside Europe. I think both are valid ways of studying cultures, but I have my doubts about studying mysticism that way."Jim McK -Zaehner's work is, I think, not a philosophy of mysticism, but rather a *psychology* of mysticism which classifies kinds of experiences on the basis of what the mystics themselves say about them. Deconstructionists say that it is impossible to interpret any language correctly, especially foreign languages. But if this is true, *all* description and interpretation (including what we're engaging in now) is impossible. Yes, there is always the possibility of error, but there is sometimes the possibility of truth, so we persist. That said, I grant that knowledge of a culture, including its language, facilitates interpretation. But it seems that relatively little of a language or culture is necessary to understand much of the writings of many of the mystics who focus inwardly. They are not concerned with things of this world. On the contrary, they engage in ascetic practices in order to wean their consciousnesses away from ordinary, material landscapes, and what they describe are their own *inner landscapes*. ("Self/soul/mind/scapes" would be more accurate.)But they do typically describe this inner world in spatial metaphors whose literal meanings, I think, are not at all likely to be misunderstood. They talk of "height" and "depth" and "abyss", and of "the point" of the soul where the self meets God. That such language is typical of the religious mystics from all those different cultures and times and places leads Zaehner to think that the mystics are indeed describing similar experiences. He looked for the universal and thinks he found it. As to his not having experiences of those other cultures, that amazing man (a classic English eccentric) knew Iranian culture so well that he fooled many Iranians into thinking he was one of them. During WWII he was a spy there. His job was to collect information about what the Germans were up to in the region. The information he collected was crucial data -- it was necessary for the Allied defense of the railway from Cairo to Moscow, and that railway ran through Iran. The railway was the only way to transport the military supplies the Soviets needed to fight the Germans. Zaehner, who was small, dark and round-faced like the Persians and one of the world's great authorities on the Persian language, would move from tribe to tribe to gather information. (He could learn a new dialect in two weeks!) And the Iranians didn't catch on that he was a British spy. He was also extraordinarily brave in doing his work. (See "C: The Secret Life of Sir Stewart Graham Menzies, Spymaster to Winston Churchill", by Athony Cave Brown, and "Peter Wright's "Spycatcher". Fascinating if often extremely ugly books.)

"MacIntyre says in the text you quote: We grow or fail to grow in our apprehension of God and we have to identify our limitations at each stage of that growth and be instructed as to how to move beyond them."True enough. But maybe I see a fork in the road here for the two of us.We (now) in this time seem to think of mystical experience as rare and something done by contemplatives who we think are particularly rare in this day and age. Yet the OP refers to a study that would assume that these might be rather common, in the sense that they are some sort of chemical thing going on. And the implication here would be that everyone has access to them and not necessarily only through extraordinary means.My own argument was that included in mystical experiences as the religions that I know something about understand them was the idea that they can promote a higher level of spirituality. I called this a "conversion" or metanoia. I argued that scientists might segment out the "mystical experience" and a sort of stand alone physical event but that religions tended to see them in the context of a far more complex change of seeing that could not be relegated to a brain chemistry event, since the conversion was complete and permanent (in the sense that the recipient really experienced a different way of seeing, not that they necessarily became saintlike.)As far as I know with Christianity, Buddhism and Sufism, the new see-er is nonetheless not done. There are more levels to reach. They have to be guided by people who know what they are doing (i.e. spiritual advisors).Now...<> I myself think that "mystical" experiences are terribly common, but that this is not recognized in our time because we don't like to think of ourselves as having them. We think that they belong to special or remarkable people only. Jean Raber in another post mentioned Protestants that have experiences of God being present in nature. Of course, we probably all experience that (or know people who experience that; there's a multi-billion dollar camping industry probably built upon it). I think that her point was that Protestants tend to experience this in a certain way that she argues in peculiar to Protestants. But all of us have a narrative that explains the world. The narrative can restrict us sometimes (this is more what Merton is saying, I think, when he looks at other religions in books like Zen and the Birds of Appetite) and this is why we need both the intellectual accounts and, if possible, a good spiritual advisor.) It can also help liberate us, if for example our narrative allows us to have mystical experiences.But perhaps what is remarkable about "mystics" isn't that they have mystical experiences (since everyone has them) but that they allow the experiences to inform their behavior and to substantiate a belief that God is physically present in the world. We (or at least most of us) tend to focus on the strangeness of mystical accounts, of beatific visions of the uncreated light of Mt Tabor, and certainly these are strange things to think about. But perhaps the recorders of these had the intention of stressing that mystical experiences as such truly come from God and maybe that one's mystical experiences might develop over time. But I seem to have the general impression that if one engages in contemplation in order to have mystical experiences, as though these are a goal in themselves. it is considered a very, very bad sign.

Oops. In the above is supposed to be inserted this quote from Ann Oliver."While I think this spirituality of ascent is probably true in Catholic contemplative mystics (the cloistered ones), it doesnt seem to be universally true see St. Paul. And, in my very limited store of knowledge of the subject, three seem to be two strong strains of meditative practice in the Catholic tradition one which emphasizes the intellect (apprehension, knowledge of God is the goal) while the other emphasizes will (love of God is emphasized), and the second is extremely concerned not only with prayer but with doing good."

Unagidon --I suspect there is a linguistic problem here. I'm using Zaehner's definition of "mystic". I couldn't find it in his book, but roughly it is 'someone who has an extraordinary, ecstatic experience of union or identity with an absollute'. I agree that mystics are more common than is commonly thought, but, with Zaehner, I think that the genuinely religious kind is a gift of God and can only be prepared for spiritually. Usually this requires learning to be detatched to the things of this world. This covers the pan-en-henic, the isolation and the religious sort. Indeed, they all have much that is important in common. but they are also fundamentally different too.You might be right that mystical experiences of one sort or another are terribly common -- at least these days. Zaehner also saiys that the panenhenic kind can be caused by drugs. And some people just don't want to talk about them because some experiences are so out of the ordinary. Indeed, most psychiatrists, I gather, agree that the pan-en-henic experience is a mark of the schizophrenic, though Zaehner maintains that it is rather common without any of the other schizoid marks. I suppose the classic description of a pan-en-henic experience is that of Willliam James under the influence of nitrous oxide. And I suspect that James' taking the experience seriously gave some credibility to the claims that extraordinary experiences happen. Now all the psychologists are at least taking *that* kind of experience seriously. But the brain being what it is, I anticipate that the neuroscientists will discover that there are more and more parts of the brain involved, and hopefully they might eventually notice that there are fundamentally different experiences which go along with them. As to mystical experiences informing us for the better, I don't think they always do. I have a friend who was in the Carmelites for some years. When I told her about the Zaehner theory, she was all for it. She told this story. There was a nun in her convent who seemed to be a constant state of ecstacy, and the other nuns thought she must be a saint. But my friend, a good sensible former Protestant, said that she didn't buy that because the mystic nun had such obnoxious table manners. In her state of distraction she would eat everthing with her hands, with her mouth open, and the food would sometimes dribble out. Disgusting. My friend said a saint wouldn't behave like that. And, by the way, Zaehner says that Charles Manson's defense of his behavior include claims of (pan-en-henic) mystical experiences. And William James entertains the possibility that there might even be demonic experiences, though he doesn't give any instances. No doubt the mystic nun had spiritual direction. So I'm forced to ask: who are the spiritual directors of the spiritual directors (think Charlie Manson)?? (Kind of like Plato's questions: who is to guard the guardians?) Oh, there is so much to learn.Complexity, complexity.

Zaehner's conclusions reflect his starting point, as a British imperialist caught in a war against evil who studied an ancient empire with a religious ideal of a war between Good and Evil. It is an insightful perspective in many ways.deMello and Johnston lived for decades in communities in the East. Their perspectives are heavily influenced by this immersion, leading them to a greater sense of unity among mystical experiences.These are different approaches, and each has much to offer. But I think it is legitimate to ask how these approaches affect the analysis, particularly if conversion is a core part of religious experience. I am not convinced that Z understands conversion. He is distracted by categories he has imposed on his subject matter -- the dualism of Zoroaster shows through rather than the unity of monotheism.Z's philosophy of mysticism is probably closer to neurobiological approaches, since both were formed in Western milieus. We will have to see if the data supports his views. The insights of other philosophies, like d & J, need to be kept in mind.

I offer a correction to J. Peter's post of May 14, 11:29 a.m. Ian Barbour is not "late yet. He certainly keeps getting older, but he remains quite well: physically active and intellectually engaged. To me, he remains a vey generous and very dear friend.

"But I think it is legitimate to ask how these approaches affect the analysis "Unagidon,Point well taken, though in what I have read of Johnston and deMello they make no attempt at analysis of the *kinds* of experiences, no doubt for the reason you offer. As I read the Eastern theorists (if such they may be called) consistency is of little or no value. Suzuki, Merton's friend, says so explicitly in at least one place. And yet, although he was a Zenist and as such ultimately rejected *all* values (including truth and goodness) in a conversation with Merton they agreed that love is what contemplation is all about. Of course, Suzuki was perhaps also thinking that love is not what contemplation is all about. (I can look up the references if you like -- if I can find the books. Sigh.)What I see as the foundation of Western rationality is the intuittion that a thing cannot both be and not be at the same time and in the same respect. This runs totally counter to the intuitions which are self-contradictory, such as "each thing is other than itself" (which you can find in Maritain). My main point is that if one accepts the truth of the principle of non-contradiction, then to try to converse meaningfully withsome who rejects that intuition is ultimately impossible. Indeed, in my experience to argue with a Buddhist is ultimately to come to this: we do not agree. This is why I said above that Newberger's and other neuroscientists' acceptance of the opposite intuitions (all is one and one is all; each thing is other than itself) is the death of the Enlightenment.

Frank:I apologize for having incorrectly identified Dr. Barbour as deceased. Don't know why I thought that. Should have double checked. I will amend the post accordingly.Peter

Thanks, Peter. You should also hear from me that I found your misstatement about Ian--and also your thoughtful recognition of his pioneer role in the dialogue between science and theloogy--as I googled David Brooks on neural Buddhism. That eventually led me to recommend your blog and the comments about it to the friend (Bill Hunt, a theologian and one-time Director of the University of Minnesota Newman Center) who had reccomended Brooks' piece to me. So some good came of the of the whole episode!Frank

From the sublime to the perhaps ridiculous. From Fashion and Style: a neural event that led to bliss in a neuroligist. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/25/fashion/25brain.html?pagewanted=all

Ms. Steinfels --The thing about these experiences is that persons whom we take to be quite sane and sober do sometimes experience them, and they typically find them life-altering. We don't doubt their testimony about other things, so why doubt that the experiences (for whatever they are worth) are real? Considering that Dr. Taylor is a scientist, you'd think the Times would have put it in the Science section as data-to-be-explained. That its in Fashion and Style tells us more about the Times than Dr. Taylor