Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Re-Thinking "Spiritual" Experiences

After I decided to pursue my questions, about Christianity, I embarked on what could only be described as a reading frenzy.  Never before had I experienced this sort of, nearly insatiable, hunger for increased learning.  For the next two years I read, read, and read some more...I read every waking moment, in fact, except for when I was eating, sleeping or working. (I still read quite heavily today but, thankfully, I have since backed off a little.)

For this post I'd like to focus on just one of those (very early) books, namely "Fingerprints Of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality", by Barbara Bradely Hagerty. While it wouldn't be accurate to say this book shook my faith, in any profound way (although I would read a few books, later, that would) it did cause me to make two observations, both of which only deepened my appetite for satisfactory answers.  Those observations, in short, were as follows: a) all people, of all religions (or no religion at all), have similar sounding "spiritual" experiences, and b) the mechanics of these "spiritual" experiences are becoming inreasingly understood by scientists.

Regarding the second point, listen to Alicia's story (from p. 67)...

"It was payday, and he had already spent all the money on drugs. We had loaded the bag and we were in line and he told me, 'You know, we can't pay for these.' And I looked at him. And we had to leave the whole basket of groceries there. We came home and I remember the dishes were piled up in the sink. I just remember laying my head on the side of the sink and feeling the coldness of the sink right on my forehead... ...And then all of a sudden something literally went through my back and my inside. This alignment took place inside. And it started down low, like in my stomach and in the lower back, and it was just like my spine was being straightened out. It's like when a cat gets scruffed by its mama on the back of the neck and they get kind of lifted up. And all of a sudden, I knew I was just done. That was it. I took the kids to my mom's, and came back, and told Luke I was going to get clean and sober, and he had to go. And I was in rehab a couple of weeks later."

So, did Alicia, ultimately, become a Christian?  No, she turned, instead, to Sufi mysticism. But, if the Christian God is unique (and the "only road that leads to salvation") than shouldn't the "spiritual" experiences of Christians be special, at least in some way? Was the devil, perhaps, trying to mislead Alicia, by mimmicking the sort of "real" "spiritual" experiences that Christians have?  (You know, the ones that are actually from the true Christian God?) Or, maybe, there was a purely natural explanation?

Listen to what Barbara says, a few pages later (p. 76) (the bolding is my own)...

"...the prelude to this transformative moment is not just emotional. One's body plays a part as well. Something is happening in the mind and in the body, in the psyche and in the physiology, at an emotional and at a cellular level. And at some point these two states, interacting, bring the person to a tipping point. 'There's a whole series of stress hormones, so when the mind interprets a set of events as negative, the stress hormones get released,' McNamara explained. 'And they function to recruit all kinds of chemicals to meet a threat. In the short term, these chemicals make you stronger and sharper and more vigilant. But in the long term, when the vigilant state becomes chronic, this leads to tissue damage and prolonged activation of the epinephrine system, which activates all of the parts of the body that are meant to meet a threat--the brain, the muscles--the hair, even. If you stay in vigilant state for too long, you'll collapse sooner or later.' When a person reaches 'bottom'--if she is lucky--certain things begin to happen. The body may 'up-regulate.' On the basis of meditation studies, some scientists speculate that when people 'let go', as Alicia did when she rested her head on the cool kitchen sink, that can set off a chain of events. The anxiety dissipates, leading to lower levels of stress hormones such as cortisol. The person feels less pain and fear, her breathing slows, and she experiences a sense of release and joy. This is associated with endorphins (natural opiates that the body produces), which are best known for the rush of good feeling called 'runner's high'. The sensation of happiness and euphoria is enhanced by an overall elevation of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain. (Prozac, for example, works in the serotonin system to raise the bottom of depression.) Emotional release can also lead to a surge in a feel-good chemical called dopamine."

Now, I understand that, as it is sometimes said, "explaining something doesn't (necessarily) 'explain it away'".  Perhaps. But it certainly does cause one to wonder...if science can come to understand what is happening, inside the body, during our most treasured "spiritual" experiences, than where, exactly, does God come into play? And how do we know, for sure, that God is involved in these "spiritual" experiences at all (much less the Christian God, specifically)?  It seemed to me these were valid questions.

Ok, well, this post is already my longest yet (and I promised, last time, to try and keep each post both brief and to the point).  I'll pick my de-conversion story up again, right here, next time.

3 comments:

  1. Perhaps. But it certainly does cause one to wonder...if science can come to understand what is happening, inside the body, during our most treasured "spiritual" experiences, than where, exactly, does God come into play?

    Again, a disconnect for me. No offense intended, but this doesn't even strike me as valid question because it assumes that there should be some sort of inherent tension between a) a mechanistic explanation of a spiritual experience, and b) the reality of said experience.

    In other words, the question assumes, fallaciously, that we shouldn't be able to describe a spiritual experience in mechanistic language if it were authentic. Or, to go another direction, why should the ability to explain a spiritual experience in mechanistic language be counted as evidence against the spiritual experience?

    This is another one of those "false dichotomies" I alluded to. Your question implies that you believe either, the experiences are truly spiritual in which case we shouldn't have a mechanistic explanation, or, the experiences aren't truly spiritual because we have a mechanistic explanation.

    I don't believe either of those.

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    1. Oh no, no, I do not believe that we "shouldn't be able to describe a spiritual experience in mechanistic language if it were authentic". There is no such assumption intended in my question at all. This is a complete misunderstanding of my point. Reading this book just made me realize that there are some very well understood reasons for such experiences, that's all, so it made them inherently less mysterious in nature (to me). God could still be involved, of course, this much is obvious and uncontroversial. It's like saying that God could have directed evolution....well, yeah, of course he COULD have. But did he? Where is the evidence for this? That's the deeper question, in both cases, and it's the sort of thing I was beginning to wrestle with at this stage of my journey.

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  2. Oh no, no, I do not believe that we "shouldn't be able to describe a spiritual experience in mechanistic language if it were authentic". There is no such assumption intended in my question at all.

    Well then I guess I misread you.

    Reading this book just made me realize that there are some very well understood reasons for such experiences, that's all, so it made them inherently less mysterious in nature (to me).

    Ah, gotcha. What conclusion have you drawn from it all?

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