Lisa Fullam

Lisa Fullam is associate professor of moral theology at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley. She is the author of The Virtue of Humility: A Thomistic Apologetic (Edwin Mellen Press).

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Spirituality and Genetics

Tim Spector, Professor of Genetic Epidemiology at King’s College London, reported recently on studies indicating that spirituality is genetically influenced. Money quote:

Twin studies conducted around the world in the U.S., the Netherlands and Australia as well as ours in the U.K. show a 40 to 50 percent genetic component to belief in God.

This isn't the first time such a link has been shown: D. T. Lykken, T. J. Bouchard, Jr., M. McGue, and A. Tellegen, writing in the Journal of Applied Psychology in 1993 (Vol. 78, No. 4, 649-661,) also found evidence of genetic factors in behavioral traits, including "religious orientation." Working on a large population of twins from Minnesota (no, not the baseball players...) they concluded: 

These findings extend the already large body of evidence that indicates the important influence of genetic factors on virtually all traits that are of interest to applied psychologists. 

And this takes us back also to the hotly-debated 2005 book by Dean Hamer, the director of the Gene Structure and Regulation Unit at the U.S. National Cancer Institute, The God Gene: How Faith is Hardwired into our Genes. (NB: Spector and the Minnesota twin researchers don't point to a specific gene, as Hamer did.) 

Behavioral genetics is tricky business, and it's important not to overreach. There was criticism of Hamer's work, both scientific (is it replicable? does he over-interpret his data?) and theological. Among the theological skeptics was John Polkinghorne, an Anglican priest and member of the Royal Society and Canon Theologian at Liverpool Cathedral. Commenting for The Daily Telegraph, he said "The idea of a God gene goes against all my personal theological convictions. You can't cut faith down to the lowest common denominator of genetic survival. It shows the poverty of reductionist thinking." Hamer insisted, (correctly, I think,) that his thesis was not about the existence of God, but about human capacity to experience what we might describe as spiritual awareness.

Of course, it's possibe to consider these findings from a more scientific perspective. Human beings are adept at perceiving patterns, whether or not they're actually there. (Two easy examples are the way we so easily see a face on the moon, or the way superstitions arise from temporally-but-not-causally related events.) Obviously this deep trait is adaptive—one can imagine the usefulness for hunters of being able to infer from this set of imprints in the mud that a deer walked here. A more ethereal version of the same would be spiritual awareness. One could also posit a strong community-building function to spirituality, regardless of the nature or existence of its referents. 

But is there another way to think thelogically about this?

Evaluating Spiritual Practices

How do we evaluate spiritual practices? (By "spiritual practices" here, I want to start by casting a big net--let's include everything from grace before meals to religious life.)

Easy answer--a spiritual practice in Christian tradition is good for us to the extent that it fosters our growth in ability to respond to Jesus' twofold commandment of loving God and neighbor. 

Yeah, but--how do we KNOW we're becoming more loving?

Remembering the UpStairs Lounge Fire--and Waiting for SCOTUS.

It looks like we’ll hear from SCOTUS on Thursday regarding two important gay rights cases, one concerning DOMA and the other regarding California’s Prop. 8, which bars same-sex marriage in the state. Possible and likely decisions have been amply covered.

As we wait, let’s take a minute to look backward and forward.

Today is the anniversary of the UpStairs Lounge fire in New Orleans, the biggest mass killing of LGBT people in US history. TIME magazine’s Elisabeth Dias and Jim Downs tell the story. This wasn’t (exactly) a hate crime--the likely culprit was a sometime patron of the bar. What’s sad is the community’s response.

Another Bishop Hits the News

This time in Newark, NJ. The bishop is Archbishop John Myers, and the offending priest is Michael Fugee, who admitted groping a 14 year-old boy 12 years ago. (He later recanted his confession, saying that he'd only confessed so he could go home sooner.) He was tried and convicted, but the conviction overturned on appeal based on inappropriate instructions to the jury. The appellate ruling did not question the validity of the confession.

Same-Sex Civil Unions?

Now that Pope Francis has been said to have approved of same-sex civil unions during his time in Argentina, we begin to see other cautious voices chiming in.

USCCB Opposes Violence Against Women Act.

On March 6, the USCCB issued a statement expressing "concerns" about the Violence Against Women Act, saying the in the end, the USCCB could not support it.Why their concern, you might ask? Surely the USCCB opposes violence against women?You guessed it: it's about same-sex marriage. This is from the USCCB press release:

Religious Liberty Alert! reports that a New Jersey man was denied the right to wear a religious head covering for his driver's license photo. Specifically, he wanted to wear the Holy Colander.What? "As a Pastafarian, I believe the universe was created by a Flying Spaghetti Monster," Williams said.

This Week in the Killing Streets

Two pieces side by side in today's San Francisco Chronicle:1. A pit bull who mauled a police horse in an unprovoked attack was spared euthanasia. More than 113,000 people signed an on-line petition to spare the dog, and raised an "undisclosed sum" of cash for his defense. The dog, unleashed and uncollared at the time of the attack, also caused the officer riding the horse to be thrown and injured. 2.

New Year's Aspirations?

So, it's that time again, when we're suddenly accountable for those New Year's resolutions that seemed SO reasonable, so do-able, just yesterday or the day before. Fortunately for all, TechCrunch offers apps to help us keep what Time described (for 2012!) as the top 10 broken New Year's resolutions.

Happy Xmas (War is Over)

Happy Xmas (War is Over)This lovely version of John Lennon's classic is by Sarah McLachlan and the Sarah McLachlan Music Outreach Children's Choir and Youth Choir.