Posts Tagged ‘spirit’

SERMON: “A Closet Trinitarian Comes Out” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, July 15th, 2012

I’m glad that I’ve read the Bible cover to cover at least once.  And I’m also glad (now) that I spent so many years as several flavors of a Christian: an evangelical of the “Navigators” style; a speaking-in-tongues Charismatic (think Pentecostal); and a moderate Christian apologist (of the type that leans on writers such as C.S. Lewis and Paul Tournier).  For one, it puts me in a position to more deeply understand aspects of the American psyche and culture.  For another, it gives me a basis for seeing the ways in which religion got things right almost by accident.

I realized today that I’m a sort of atheist trinitarian, in that I relate to my own body and consciousness as sort of a three-layered organism.  Not in the Greek or Christian manner of body, soul and spirit, but more through a recognition of the apparent natural divisions between levels of consciousness.  Don’t worry — I have not suffered a miraculous conversion from my materialist self.  For it turns out that one does not have to wax mystical to talk about the mysteries of our experience of existence.

As I’ve mentioned in previous sermons, I once asked a psychologist friend if my brain processed information differently when it entered through my ears.  His answer was “yes”.  This, to me, is why “prayer” works (no matter who or what you are praying to): there turns out to be a difference between just thinking a thought and saying it out loud in terms of just what our brain is capable of doing about that “thought”.

Clearly, someone other than me noticed this difference, and so preachers have long taught young believers to pray out loud to God if they want their prayers to be heard.  (They are also taught that God can see their innermost thoughts, but that is an issue of exerting remote control over the believer’s behavior, I think, and therefore has less to do with the issue of answered prayer).  Even my psychic of some years emphasized that I should say things out loud, as that was the only way that my “higher self” could understand my intentions (funny that we rarely question such confident pronouncements concerning unknowable things).

Now I can’t prove that any preacher or psychic taught these things with a full knowledge that he or she was simply slapping their stamp of ownership on a copyright-free bit of natural neural processing, but certainly they have all been building upon an evolved human trait that is a quite earthly-process and not, in truth, a mystical connection with the divine.

But be that as it may, this represents a way in which the promoters of the metaphysical have got something right, even if their understanding of it is wrong.  For whatever we may say, the phenomenon of talking out loud to oneself and “hearing” a response is real.  All that I’m saying is that it is one “level” of our consciousness (by which I mean the cognitive product of the physical organ of the brain as we experience it) “talking” to another.  It is a completely self-contained process — literally.

We are in a time of increasing research into the brain, and we are to the point where machines can now be plugged into the brain to “read” (in a rather crude sense) our thoughts (specific electrical impulses) and turn those signals into actions of an artificial limb, say (or conversely, an implant that can replace the damaged parts of the ear, generating signals that the brain can be trained, over time, to recognize as discreet sounds).

As in many discoveries of science, each new revelation of underlying physical processes that are observed and understood quietly removes one more plank from the increasingly rickety edifice of metaphysical doctrine.  And yet, in an interesting way, the more we learn about how the world works, the more we can appreciate the ways in which our ancestors made sense of underlying realities that they could not explore in such a scientific manner.

And this is where I get back to the idea of the “trinity”.  The Greeks, I believe, came up with the notion of the human being made up of the body, the soul (mind) and the spirit.  Early Christians took up this system and many of us today carry on with this conception of ourselves as being made up of three distinct domains joined together for the purpose of living out our years on earth.  The body is, of course, all that is physical about us: our bones, our blood, and our organs and tissue.  The soul is the essential, immutable “you” — your personality, your likes and dislikes — the thing that sets us apart from the person next to us.  (It seems to reside in the brain, but it is not dependent on the brain, and so we call it the “mind”).  The spirit is the part of us that is non-physical, eternal.  It enters us upon our birth (or thereabouts), and departs the body as soon as the physical phase of our life ends, returning to the source from which it came (taking with it, I assume, our “soul” — at least in Christian theology).

We are learning that there are enough non-brain nerve systems in the body to build another animal-sized brain (should we want to do that).  So that our “gut” is sending signals to our brain about what’s going on “down there” (this in addition to the chemical signals of food and digestion).  So that when we talk about our body “knowing” something, there turns out to be an actual physical basis for that as well.

My high school senior photo — proclaiming the Christian “brand” with a Holy Spirit lapel pin.

What I’m saying is that there turns out to a quite genuine basis for the concepts of the body, soul (mind) and spirit being a sort of three-in-one in our own bodies.  Of course, I haven’t yet discussed the physical basis for the idea of “spirit” yet.  But actually, I have.

The part of us that we have always (historically) taken to be the voice of God (or our “higher self” or, in the case of mental illness, the “voice(s) in our head”) is that mid-level of our brain. (Here I mean in actual physical terms.  In terms of our experience of that part of our brain, we’d call it our consciousness).  This is the part of our brain that is activated when we ask ourselves a question out loud, or when we pray (which is, in practical terms, the exact same action).  This is the part of our brain that answers back in that “still, small voice”.

As an aside, I think that once we get closer to seeing ourselves as we actually are, some of the more troubling mysteries of life become less mysterious (though not always less troubling).  For example, I think that the difference between the average Christian who prays and hears God reply, and the untreated schizophrenic carrying on animated conversations with invisible others at Denny’s late at night is only a matter of degree.  The first is operating pretty normally, the second has just enough of a disorder in the brain that the normal operating system of that mid-level of consciousness is running at an unmanageable speed.  The ancients (and many of us “moderns”) may see the mentally ill as something strange and aberrant, but the truth is that it doesn’t take much of a genetic twist to turn what is otherwise a human exactly like ourselves into one we think of as less-than human.  So that the Bible stories of Jesus casting out demons and bringing the so afflicted back to their “normal” selves is not such a strange story to us if we just peel back the superfluous layer of magic and mysticism that keeps us from seeing human behaviors and illnesses of the past to be just like those that we see today.

And that is how I see the world — fairly free, now, of the filters of metaphysical belief.  Nothing about the world I see has changed, only the way in which I see it.

So one could fairly say that I still “pray”.  When I’m stuck, overwhelmed, or can’t figure out where I left my keys, I often have to stop and put my question into spoken words.  And in many cases, that other level of my brain kicks in and starts to work on the problem — as if by “magic”.

It’s tricky — as a hard-core Darwinian materialist — to “pray” in this way.  This act of talking to myself has been plastered with more brand-names than a NASCAR stock car, and there is a certain revulsion at the idea of giving any credence to the charlatans (be they well-meaning or not) who keep claiming this “secret practice” as their own.  But, in the end, why would I deny myself the benefit of this other part of my brain capacity?

When I was a young Christian, I was taught to pray.  This was the first instance of my natural capacity being sold back to me as a gift from outside of myself.  Later, there came a time when I felt that I recognized the voice of Jesus answering my prayers.  Later, still, the voice seemed to sound almost like my own.  When my Christianity came to its end, there was silence for a long time (I would ask no questions my “spirit” could answer).  Then a psychic re-branded my mind once again as my “higher self”, and we talked up a storm for years and years (this is where I really learned both the “power” and the limitations of this capacity).  When I finally moved beyond belief in toto, I grew silent again for a while, shy of the brand names still clinging to my “spirit”.

But why should I be shy about embracing this part of me that has always been, well, me?

Looking back it’s obvious that the voice that answered me has always been my own.  Perhaps that is why many have come to believe that God is not a jealous God at all, but will answer any who call on him.  These are much closer to the truth of the matter than those who are trapped within the particular “brand name” of spirituality that they have been sold.  But both of these groups are still only accidentally right about what is really going on inside our brains and our bodies.  They continue to live with an extraneous barrier between themselves and their own experience of that self.

I’ve heard many Christians sputter the nonsense that modern humanist thought is all about elevating humans to the point that they displace “God” from his rightful role as our master.  Once again, they are partly right, but only accidentally.  For I do not say that we are God (as an actual being), only that God (as an experience) turns out to be a phenomenon of our own consciousness.  And though they may not be able to appreciate it, there is a huge difference between those two ideas.  I do not exaggerate the power of our natural mental phenomenon to the level of something metaphysical, but neither do I make the more troubling mistake of disdaining and discounting it because it is not of God.

No.  For my part, I strive to simply enjoy the modest “trinity” that is my own body, soul and spirit.  Completely of this world, and as temporal as my own life.  There is wonder enough in that for me.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “God Brain, Dog Brain” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, May 22nd, 2011

I think that we can all buy into the idea that we have multiple levels of consciousness.  As an example: I’m one of those that can drift off into a thought while I’m driving and suddenly realize I don’t remember driving the last half of a block.  How did I do that without the car suddenly flying into the tumbleweeds?  Well, of course there is physics, with the combined forces of inertia and gyroscopic effects that tend to keep a vehicle going fairly straight most of the time, but there is still a measure of continued human control inputs that were being fed to the steering wheel and gas pedal by some part of my brain.  We tend to call this part of our consciousness “body memory”, or the “unconscious” or even “reflex”.  (Though reflex –as I understand it — is more properly the domain of the deeper part of our brain, just above the parts that keep our heart beating and our lungs breathing).

But if we consider the functions of our brain from the most basic: running the bodily processes that keep us alive; to the most abstract: the part of our brain that allows us to consider our own thoughts (as in: we are having a thought; we are aware that we are having a thought; we are having a thought about that thought; thinking about that thought changes the thought –or the process that generated that thought — thereby literally re-wiring a small part of our brain; whew!), we must come to the conclusion that there are multiple levels of processing going on inside these skulls of ours!

For the religiously minded, these different levels of consciousness are personified as mind, body and spirit (the body being the “lowest”).  So the part of consciousness that we are most familiar with — the one that converses with others and makes the grocery list — is the “mind” (in this organizational system).  For the more severe believer, our ancient animal impulses are labelled as our “sinful nature”, and therefore confined to the “body” where they can (in theory) be isolated, berated and battled (or, more often than not, happily succumbed to!).  But one level of our consciousness — the one that talks back to us when we talk to it — we make out to be God, or the Holy Spirit, the one that hears our prayers.

Science tells us that we have at least three physical, evolutionary layers of brain, meaning we have two additional (and later) add-ons to the primitive, non-reflective, yet reflexive survival brain.  The latest evolutionary addition contains the higher rational faculties, and probably is the part most responsible for our ability to be self-reflective to the degree we are.

Evolutionary psychologists will also tell you that these later developed parts of our brain serve a very important social function in that they allow us to moderate, or interrupt, our natural fearful response to strangers and reach out a slightly damp hand to introduce ourselves (as opposed to attacking them and trying to rip their throat out).

Every spiritual guru or new-age whats-it peddle their own brand-names for our intrinsic multi-layered consciousness.  What is most often sold is the notion that parts of our “self” are actually existing outside of our own heads and bodies.

(My “psychic” told me that my physical body could not contain the full dimension of my spirit.  Now this wasn’t that hard for me to swallow, as I’d spent fifteen years of my life as an Evangelical Christian.  Of course it helps that I live in a society surrounded by support for the notion of the “spiritual”.  You can’t swing a cat without running into someone talking about “spiritual things”)

Now this is not just a question of semantics.  In fact, I think it’s more a question of conception than words, though words matter (clearly, or else there’d be no point in marketing such a variety of names for the levels of human consciousness).

As I described in an earlier sermon, it was while reading Daniel Dennett’s book “Breaking the Spell”  (reviewed on this blog) that I finally realized that I had been imagining a part of my own consciousness as being external to my physical self for the last 35 years of my life.  Once I had that realization, I had the very singular experience of feeling my “spirit” re-enter my body.  (For the first time in my adult life, there was no-one and no-thing outside of myself listening in on my thoughts).

Now no actual “spirit” re-entered my body.  That would be ridiculous (but surprisingly easy) to believe.  So what actually happened?  I think that I simply stopped projecting a part of my own mind outside of itself.

If this sounds odd, take a moment to speak out loud to whatever god or spirit or higher self you speak (or pray) to.  Where is that other party in the conversation physically located?  Where do you sense him (or her) to be?  Floating around you?  In Heaven?  Next to you?

Ask the average person that question, and I’d bet a nickel most would prove to be actively imagining a part of themselves out in the ether somewhere (in some diffuse way).

We humans are magical thinkers.  There can be no serious doubt about that fact.  Just look around at the crazy shit humans believe.  At any given time, one out of five Americans is believing something stupid.  One week one in five don’t believe Osama bin Laden is really dead.  Another week it was that President Obama’s birth certificate was a forgery.  The same percentage thinks aliens are flying through our skies at night, crashing once in a while.  So why wouldn’t most people believe in angels and demons, gods and devils?  It comes pretty naturally to us.

We have God in our brain.  We also have our inner dog (or cat — take your pick).  We have our inner “critic” as well (or “the committee” as some folks call it).  We also have the faithful, non-verbal part of our brain that memorizes frequently-needed physical motions, so that we can learn to play the piano, chop an onion, hoist a baby onto our hips, or have sex in a way that propagates the species.  We also have a level of thinking that allows us to analyze our thoughts — looking for errors and false connections.  And that part of our brain can use the tools of reason to manipulate the middle-managers in our brain into correcting (or at least patching over) detrimental connections, bad file storage, and un-helpful reflexes (this is what therapy and counseling are all about).

That’s a lot to fit into a skull, but then, we humans have evolved huge, calorie-burning brains to handle the challenges of managing our three-in-one brain, of coordinating the myriad synapsis that fire off in each multi-layered social interaction.  I can just imagine the frantic communication channels that are buzzing in there as the highly rational, modern brain figures out how to talk to the middle-aged, transitional (dog?) brain that has to find a way to make sure the deep, wet, survival brain is on board with blood to the muscles, energy to the cells, and oxygen to the brain so that the whole circus parade resident inside our skulls can manage tasks such as ordering our steak medium rare at a restaurant.

God brain.  Dog brain.  Love brain.  Beauty brain.  Rage brain.  Chew-off-my-own-limb-to-save-my-life-brain.  Chew-off-your-arm-to-protect-my-child-brain.  Sugar/alcohol/drug brain (MORE!MORE!MORE!) It’s all in there.

I expect we’ve personified parts of our consciousness in order to be able to hold these parts of our self in a manageable, conceptual framework.  Makes sense.  So it probably doesn’t make that much difference whether we call a part God or dog (up to a certain point, at least, as I do think we’d be better of losing the habit of externalizing the God part — maybe fewer people would do mean things under the false belief that “God told them to do it”).

For me, for now, I might try out talking to my “selves” on the level they operate at.  I’ll talk to god-bob like, well, god.  And dog-bob like dog.  Who knows who else is lurking in there (though I expect there’s a limit to the levels of consciousness amenable to carrying on a conversation).  Again, I’m putting a conceptual template on top of a slightly amorphous reality as a sort of practical “bob’s brain” management tool.

In time I expect brain science will progress to a point where new names for the multiple levels of our consciousness will enter the popular lexicon.  Which means I’d better get my seminars and books going before someone finds a better set of names than the ones I’m selling…

t.n.s.r. bob