Conference 2017 Q & A
At the March 2017 Grasping the Nettle Conference, attendees were motivated to ask a number of wide ranging questions relating to ‘The Soul of Science and the Heart of Religion’. Some of these were addressed in the final session of the conference and a transcript appears below for your interest and reflection. We hope that questions, not discussed in this session will be addessed in due course.
Question 1. The term ‘neuroplasticity’ is used by neuroscientists to explain how the brain can be moulded to certain purposes, including what we believe, How can we take account of this while staying clear of the worst forms of indoctrination?
Sarah Lane Ritchie: I think the very broadest principles in neuroplasticity would suggest that it’s important to create holistic experiences. Also, let’s make sure that we’re getting outside of abstractions.
Liam Fraser: All the word (indoctrination) really means is to teach. If one views any form of teaching as being a bad thing and any form of forming or shaping of the mind as being a bad thing then atheists, humanists and anyone else is as guilty of indoctrination as anyone within the church, We’re all attempting to teach things to one another and there’s nothing wrong with trying to do that. The only danger and it comes back to the ‘cult’ question - when these things are harmful to people or when they’re using a coercive or domineering manner. If those things aren’t present, then there’s nothing wrong with the indoctrination in its purest sense.
Iain McFadzean: We are perhaps in danger at times of equating brain plasticity with degrees of hypnotism which is in the same ball park but it’s something quite different. While the worst experience of religious indoctrination can in fact involve degrees of hypnotism ( and we might all have experienced that in situations where there are things that are being repeated, whether its music or whether its mutterings or somethings being and then people are speaking over and then it can become something very close to a hypnotic induction.) What we’re talking about here is being aware of brain plasticity, of being aware of what is helpful and what is not helpful and working to a best practice.
Antony Latham: I think we’re also missing the action of God in bringing us to believe. Because while I agree that we have neuroplasticity, and as we continue in a particular belief we’re going to see changes in the brain and that makes sense. Many of us have come to faith through what we would call a miraculous revelation and certainly for
myself, this was an overnight thing – it’s not the same with everybody. So I just wanted to bring that in because it can seem very sort of human centred. Having said that, having become a Christian, we then have to work on it and I’m very grateful for the information we’ve had on that.
Question 2. On the assumption that the Holy Spirit communicates with, or through, the mind - the thinking part of ourselves -
do you think the soul is synonymous with mind?
Antony Latham: We don’t know. I’m a dualist. I believe there is an immaterial soul and whether you want to say this also, spirit which is the part of the soul that communicates with God. That’s probably where I am and I believe that is how we communicate with God. Yes, integrated and using our brains, the whole of our brains, certainly not the pineal gland, I think that’s one thing that Descartes definitely got wrong.
Bethany Sollereder: I’m not a dualist. So I’m happy to represent the other side and say that the Holy Spirit isn’t just active in our minds but in our bodies as well. So I would assume that when I’m in prayer and I’m listening for the voice of God that there’s divine action in the synapsis of my brain but there’s also divine action in the emotional responses that are lodged in my body. In my muscles, in my nerves, all the way through so the experience of God isn’t something that’s just here in my brain or mind, it is actually all the way through the body.
Sarah Lane Ritchie: Yeah and also there’s also plenty of testimony in scripture about the Holy Spirit being present throughout creation so it’s not as if the Holy Spirit is only present to human beings and again if we can take a strong account of divine eminence so basically God’s presence in the world. There’s no reason to confine the Holy Spirit’s interaction with us to our brains or creation in general. We don’t have to say that human beings are so special that we’re the only ones that get to interact with God. The HolySpirit’s presence is something that pervades all creation at every level.
Question 3. When Jesus said to the dying thief ‘Today you will be with me in paradise’, which part of the thief went to paradise?
Sarah Lane Ritchie: I would be willing to say that Jesus was saying something that we can only interpret in our limited English language as meaning one thing but it could have been referencing a much larger kind of thing. What if there’s this reality out there that is so rich and there’s an understanding of what it means to be with God after death that is so beyond what we can comprehend. So the only thing that Jesus could say was today you will be with me in paradise. I have no idea what that’s like. I just don’t have the words for that.
Antony Latham: I agree with you it’s a mystery so let’s not be too dogmatic. However when that thief was dead, where was that person? – And you might say that about anybody who’s dead. The body’s there, there’s no life. So you’re saying that there’s absolutely nothing, no existence, and that only later is that person recreated. There’s a huge problem if you don’t mind me saying with the non-dualist viewpoint. Dualism is basic Christian belief I think.
Bethany Sollereder: There are two ways that I could interpret that passage as a non-dualist. One is to say “yeah they were dualists and we have other reasons for not being dualists and they understood it as to kill only the body.” Just as one might refer to the moon being a light. The moon is not a light but the ancients understood it in that way. So that would be one possibility. The other way to look at it would be that Jesus is simply saying to the thief on the cross ‘Your experience will be today.’ ’You will be with me in paradise’ so that his eyes close on the cross as he dies and in the next instant of his consciousness it’s recreated in whatever way he’s with God in paradise. It’s a way that we could make sense of that.
Antony Latham: The first part I would take some issue with because Jesus was the one who spoke although it does depend on your view of the authority of scripture.
Bethany Sollereder: Jesus talked about the mustard seed as the smallest of all seeds. It’s not even close to the smallest of all seeds….Jesus became human and I think we need to take that seriously in the sense of saying if you talk to Jesus about modern sciences, say quantum physics, he would have said ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ I don’t think we should expect Jesus’ words to be considered aside from historical and cultural context.
Question 4. What are the implications, from what we’ve heard, for Christian worship, how can we structure that, what its content should be when we consider some of
our knowledge about what’s going on in the mind/the brain?
Liam Fraser: I think that what Sarah has been describing (in her talk) has been extremely helpful. She ended with the quotation from Blaise Pascal regarding how one actually becomes a Christian. For hundreds of years Pascal has been ridiculed for the idea that if you want to become a Christian - which in his context meant being a Roman Catholic - go to mass! Actually the science actually bears out Pascal. Pascal’s intuition was correct about that and he drew upon a much longer tradition of theological reflection on the formation of habit and how God forms habits within the soul- all now borne out by science. I think one of the most important take-home messages from Sarah’s papers have been that actually it’s really important to have embodied worship by which we mean things like standing, perhaps kneeling, moving around. It means really having emotionally impactful services both in terms of the actual worship that’s going on, in terms of the hymns and the songs into heartfelt prayers and also heartfelt powerful preaching as well. One of my questions to Sarah during the break was “you talked a lot about practice and ritual but what about the sermon?” Because most of us come from traditions where the sermons seem to be quite important at least by the ministers and priests and clergy – if not by anyone else! And what Sarah said was if actually a sermon is emotionally charged, if it’s relevant, if it touches the heart, then actually it will trigger off some of the things she was talking about. So I think, to summarise very briefly, we need worship which uses the whole body in different ways and uses all the senses ideall. We need worship and sermons which have an emotional impact and engage us as human beings not just as disembodied minds.
Iain McFadzean: I agree with all of that. I would just add I think that we need to think about the accessibility of worship to all people. Whether that’s people who understand the language of church or who don’t understand the language of church and by that I don’t just mean people who’ve for 3 generations have had no contact with church. I’m also thinking about people with special educational needs. I’m a foster dad to a little girl who has profound special needs but despite the fact that she is non-verbal, we pray with her every night and when we pray with her, she does the thing that allows her to communicate. She grins from ear to ear. She looks happy and peaceful and she is connecting. Now the cynic may say she’s connecting with me or my wife. With a heart of faith I would say she’s connecting with something beyond that. I think that we need to take all that we’ve heard today and we need to exercise best practice to be able to witness the best way that we can using all the tools available to us. We have been offered some more tools that are not the answer to everything but they maybe the answer to some things and if anything we’ve heard today allows us to create circumstances within worship and shapes worship that makes it more accessible for even one person then that would be worth doing.
Bethany Sollereder: Some Christian groups emphasise that feelings are an optional extra in relation to faith and facts. They’re saying the first thing is that you have facts and it’s the engine on the train and then you have faith. Feeling is the caboose. You don’t need the caboose at all; it just kind of trails along at the end and if it comes along that’s really nice and if it doesn’t come along, don’t worry about it, just stick with the faith and the facts and everything will be fine. I think that what you’ve said today really challenges that. where we should actually be thinking of faith as not the Caboose but as one of the engines, one of the drivers as well. Some of the work of Donavan Schafer in his book ‘Religious Effects’ deals with this as well for people looking to go deeper.
Sarah Lane Ritchie: I am aware that I am speaking in an explicitly Scottish context but, coming from the USA, I have experienced a wide variety of worship formats including
charismatic churches and Free Methodist Churches which are evangelical. I was born into a Southern Baptist Church. For a while, when I was in University, I was in a third wave Pentecostal movement. My most impactful experiences of God have actually occurred in contexts that are sometimes quite different from traditional Scottish worship. While I greatly appreciate traditional cultural expressions of worship in Scotland it is worth realising that people from very different backgrounds might struggle to connect with the people around and with God because the traditional worship context might feel overly cerebral. For people who have grown up in an orthodox Presbyterian tradition it can be incredibly meaningful and impactful but it might not always be as transformative for people from worship contexts that are quite different. They might be going to church with a keenness to know God; they might be people who have big questions and want to explore these in ways that are not just propositional. So how, in a Scottish context, might we think of varying ourapproach to these big questions and how to connect with God? That is an important question. I would suggest it is important to be aware that not everybody easily finds a spiritual home in a cerebral based kind of worship experience and I think that might be one important outcome from what we have been discussing at the conference.
5. What books would you recommend on the subjects we have been considering?
Liam Fraser: If you go to Introducing the God Question (www.thegodquestion.tv/introduce) there’s a recommended reading section there
which gives you a lot of accessible popular level works which are good.I would add one which crosses the popular/ academic divide - a work called ‘Galileo Goes To Jail and other myths about Science and Religion’. It has short chapters going through most of the popular debates. It is written by academics but in a very accessible way and it’s a treasure trove of information.
Bethany Sollereder: I second that - it’s a brilliant book. For the two things that I talked about –suffering and love - Chris Southgate’s ‘The Groaning of Creation’ is extremely good on Evolution and Suffering and on the theme of love I would recommend W H Vanstone’s ‘ ‘Love’s Endeavour, Love’s Expense’.
Sarah Lane Ritchie: As a general introduction to science and Christian Theology, there’s a new book out by Jim Stump called Science and Christianity: An Introduction to the Issues’ It’s my new favourite kind of accessible first stop. Secondly, if you want something a little more challenging, I would recommend ‘The God of Nature’ by Chris Knight.
Antony Latham: I recommend David Chalmers, one of the very well known philosophers of mind.. He coined the term, ‘The hard problem of consciousness’.
He’s written quite a hefty book called ‘The Conscious Mind’. It’s not a Christian book and he’s not the same sort of dualist that I am but the book certainly open up your ideas to
where philosophy of mind is.
Iain McFadzean: On the basis that I think we’re as much about questions as answers, the two books that in my experience have stimulated more conversation than any others are the very accessible book,’ The Shack’ by William Young and another oneslightly different but still very controversial in places ‘Surprised by Hope’
by Tom Wright.