Orthodox Christianity is firm in its belief that Jesus is the only way to God. But is it?
If it is, then is there a way to prove that? Did God leave breadcrumbs to show us evidence for His exclusive hand in our relationship with Jesus?
Enter neurotheology. Dun, dun, dunnnnnn.
Neurotheology, and other research like it, posits that all people are not only capable, but hard-wired to have strong spiritual experiences, no matter their belief system.
Potential outcomes of this research:
- It poses no threat to the truth claims of Christianity, so orthodox theology is left in tact
- God’s doors to us are actually much more wide open than Christians would like to think (pluralism)
- There is no God and all spiritual experiences are simply made of mental constructs and chemicals
- There is a God, but what we consider to be “spiritual experiences” are simply constructs and chemicals, not God Himself (an impersonal diety)
The biggest threat that neurotheology has on religious faith (especially Christianity), is that it’s showing that the Christian spiritual experience is no different than the experience of other faiths, even the experience of people with no faith at all (secular meditation, etc).
“How can human beings who are finite, mortal, and limited have any ability to form a relationship with an infinite, omniscient, and all-powerful being? Of course, the nature of that relationship lies at the heart of all religions.”– Andrew Newberg (R)
Newberg seems to be unbiased in saying that both atheists and religious believers have good reasons for interpreting neurotheology in ways that confirm their own beliefs.
“For those individuals who want to go down the path of arguing that all of our religious and spiritual experiences are nothing more than biological phenomena, some of this data does support that kind of a conclusion.
But the data also does not specifically eliminate the notion that there is a religious or spiritual or divine presence in the world.”– Newberg
On the outset, that seems like encouraging news for Christians. “Cool, some more scientific support for what we believe”.
But slow your roll. He might be saying that there is a divine presence we can have a relationship with, but he’s also saying that everyone has access to that relationship.
I’ve long been prone to believe that access to God is actually much more open than Christians would like to believe. So the inclusivist/pluralist in me is encouraged by this research. This could mean that all religions and non-religions have access to God. That His grace is even more expansive than we thought.
On the other hand, the research doesn’t prove much. For instance, according to NPR:
“Newberg studied the brain activity of experienced Tibetan Buddhists before and during meditation. Newberg found an increase of activity in the meditators’ frontal lobe, responsible for focusing attention and concentration, during meditation.”
Cool, so Tibetan Buddhists are better at focus and concentration. But what does that prove about the ability of all people to connect to God?
Then there’s a study Newberg did on Christians who went on a 7-day Ignatian-style spiritual retreat, and found participants had higher levels of dopamine and serotonin in the brain (R).
This connects with other research about what happens chemically during spiritual experiences.
According to a team of Swedish researchers, higher serotonin activity in the brain correlates with a higher capacity for spiritual transcendence, the ability to apprehend phenomena that cannot be explained objectively (regardless of religion or beliefs). (R, R)
Can spiritual experiences be simply reduced to feel-good neurotransmitters in the brain (serotonin and dopamine)?
Or consider the Franciscan nuns Newberg studied when they joined together in meditative prayer:
“The area of the brain associated with the sense of self began to “shut down”. You become connected to God. You become connected to the world. Your self sort of goes away.”
Or the Sufi Muslims that exhibited a profound surrendering to the will and spirit of God. (R)
There seems to be a common thread…
“[Spiritual experiences] involve an elated sense of well-being and joy, in which the universe is perceived to be fundamentally good and all its parts are sensed to be related in a unified whole.
In this state one usually has a sense of purposefulness to the universe and to one’s place in the universe. This sense of purposefulness may defy logic and certainly does not arise from logic; nonetheless, it is a primary stable and certain perception. The onset of such an exhilarating view of reality is usually sudden and has been described as a conversion experience.
[There are] similar experiences in the lives of many people, including the Buddha, Socrates, Saint Paul, Francis Bacon, Blaise Pascal, Baruch Spinoza, and William Blake… “– The Neuropsychology of Aesthetic, Spiritual, and Mystical States – d’Aquili/Newberg (my emphasis added)
So the common thread seems to be that a spiritual experience is simply the transcendence of self, coupled with the feeling of a breakdown of space and time.
Yet even though this research does seem to show that all people are capable of having higher spiritual experiences, it still doesn’t necessarily disprove Christian exclusivity.
One could argue from an orthodox Christian perspective that, sure, all people might have the mental capacity for transcendence or a spiritual experience of some kind, but that capacity is still faulty and has limits. And that argument even connects to the question of why so many Christians don’t demonstrate the love, joy and peace that many nonbelievers demonstrate. So Jesus is still necessary to bridge the gap, the final piece of the puzzle to fill in our inability to truly know God.
It is also possible that there is more than one kind of mystical experience, and that not all of them can be explained by a single neuroscientific model.– J.S. Miller
In other words, it’s possible that the various spiritual experiences between belief systems are really quite different, and some of them might be better than others, but we don’t have a single neuroscientific model that can account for that.
I can also hear the Christian rebuttals:
“Who cares what the science says, the BIBLE says that Jesus is the only way to God!”
But we have recent, scientific data that shows that we might be wrong. Isn’t that worth looking at? Isn’t the truth worth it?
Yet, if spirituality is simply transcending yourself, one potentially missing part of Newberg’s research is what we fill ourselves up with after you transcend yourself.
There is a 2nd step, and only Christianity has it.
It is love. The kind of love that only comes through the knowledge of Jesus.
“Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.”– John 15:13
That is a great way to rationalize our cognitive dissonance away – but is it true?
Part of me thinks it’s beautiful that the ways to God are broader than our religious little minds like to think.
The Bible, if anything, documents how God shatters our religious ideas over millennia. He expands His grace. Then we restrict it to something that makes a little more sense, to something we have a bit more control over.
But then I don’t want to diminish the love and sacrifice of Jesus. We have 5+ written eyewitness testimonies via scripture about the works and life of Jesus, and those testimonies point to Jesus as truly being the Son of God and the only way to eternal life.
So what is the answer?
I don’t know. The jury is still out on this research, but I think it’s an incredibly interesting subject for Christians to think about.