October 20, 2017

Minds, Brains, Souls, and Gods: A Conversation of Faith, Psychology and Neuroscience – Part 7, Chapter 14: Does God Guide and Direct Us?

Minds, Brains, Souls, and Gods: A Conversation of Faith, Psychology and Neuroscience – Part 7, Chapter 14: Does God Guide and Direct Us?

We continue the series on the book, Minds, Brains, Souls and Gods: A Conversation on Faith, Psychology and Neuroscience.

Today Part 8, Chapter 14: Does God Guide and Direct Us?

Jeeves student raises the question about how to acknowledge the diversity of views about how Christians get guidance from God for life’s choices.  How much involves using the mind?  How much depends of feelings and emotions?  What about hearing voices and seeing visions?

First of all, Jeeves notes the episodes in Scripture where dramatic guidance is given.  The Saul-to-Paul-Road-to-Damascus experience, Moses and the burning bush, Balaam and the donkey, and so on.  He notes that, as far as he can see, nowhere in Scripture are we encouraged to see these as the norm.  Hearing voices and seeing visions can be strong pointers to psychopathology, and with suitable drug treatment the visions disappear and the voices can be cured.  He noted in the previous chapter (13: Does my Brain Have a God Spot) early researchers noted a relationship between religiosity and epilepsy.  In fact, Hippocrates, the father of medicine, called it “the sacred disease”.  But the most recent research shows a lack of link between religious experiences generally, religious awareness in particular, and selective activity of certain parts of the brain.  Jeeves concludes Chapter 13 with:

Ultimately appealing to subjective experiences alone as the grounds for beliefs is an unsure and moving foundation.  It was certainly never one used by the early Christians.  If you read the accounts given in the New Testament, for example, you will find that the constant grounds appealed to for taking seriously the claims of Jesus Christ are not subjective feeling in time of ecstasy, but the many and varied accounts of the life, teaching and activities of Jesus and his disciples.

In other words, for those who are willing to examine the evidence with an open and critical mind, the evidence—or perhaps better, the testimony—is open and available.  It’s important to say that it is open and available, and does not require any presuppositions, although many agree that there is more evidence for the existence and the life of Jesus Christ than for other historical figure around the same time that most people take for granted, such as Julius Caesar.  As Oxford historian Diarmaid MacCulloch wrote recently in his 1161-page magisterial volume Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, “There is, however, an important aspect of Christianity on which it is the occupation of historians to speak: the story of Christianity is undeniably true, in that it is a part of human history.”  Ultimately, however, at no point, as far as I can see, is the claim made that people are to be argued into the kingdom of God.  Rather the main thrust of the message is that Jesus Christ is alive and offers the opportunity of entering into a personal relationship with him.

Paul on the road to Damascus

Jeeves cites the groundbreaking study by neurologist Antonio Damasio on studies of individuals with injury to the orbital frontal cortex of the brain, explored in detail in his book: Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain.   According to Damasio’s theory, our life experiences help our minds develop automatic responses to events.  At moments when our consciousness lacks the relevant knowledge for a decision, we are guided by subtle emotions and intuitions.  The implications of Damasio’s theory is that emotions deliver many of our most complex and rational judgements about the world, guiding us in our moment-to-moment decision making.  Without knowing why, we often just feel that this or that is the right thing to do.

Jeeves mentions this an example of the artificiality of thinking we can totally disconnect mind and emotion.  That’s not the way we are made.  That is not how the brain works.  The question remains how to keep a proper balance.  There are no simple answers, certainly not from within neuropsychology.  When I have shared my story (especially on-line) of how I moved from atheism to Christianity I always get criticized by the atheists for “letting my emotions play too major a role”.  Conversely, I can’t hardly count the “deconversion” stories I have read where the interlocutor insists they have disconnected their emotions and made a decision strictly based on the empirical evidence and their rational thought.  That’s not the way we are made.  That is not how the brain works.

So, does God guide and direct us?  Of course to the materialist the answer is an emphatic NO!  All such claims of guidance and direction are simply an exercise in self-delusion.  The consensus of Internetmonk over the years, I think, would be termed “apophatic”.  We know how God DOESN’T lead us and guide us, let us count the non-ways: liver shivers, warm fuzzies, spine-tingles, goose flesh, words-of knowledge, prophecies, Bible roulette, proof texts, dreams, visions, coincidences… I like how Jeeves puts it:

St. Ignatius 1491-1556

I also believe that too often we fail to learn from wiser Christians of former generations such as Saint Ignatius, who had much of importance to say about guidance.  He reminded us that, at times, a careful and deliberative process must be involved.  It includes weighing up certainties and doubts, consolations (things that see to draw us closer to Jesus) and desolations (what seems to draw us away from Jesus), what attracts and appeals, what seems to be highlighted and what isn’t.  In this way, gradually, we sense God’s calling and we make a choice.  This is Saint Ignatius’s preferred way.  Keep the mind fully engaged and then, because of how we are made, our emotions will play their proper part…

And in the context of our present discussion I would add that it is together that we can be guided as, in love, we give frank advice to our fellow Christians who face choice points in their lives requiring, at times, difficult decisions.  It is so easy to deceive ourselves with wishful thinking that we need to test our thoughts against the sounding board of fellow believers.  They may bring a wider perspective on an issue with which we have become so preoccupied that it has grown out of all proper perspective.

Comments

  1. I suppose citing chapter(s) and verse(s) regarding such topics as words of knowledge, prophecies, dreams, and/or visions is not allowed because it is an example of proof texting in the minds of all right-thinking iMonk disciples, sages, and gurus. More’s the pity, since we KNOW (emphasis mine) how God DOESN’T (emphasis yours) lead us. Really? Regarding warm fuzzies, spine tingles, goose flesh, Bible roulette, and coincidences, our task is to learn to separate baby from bath water.

    • I probably should have noted that I was speaking somewhat ironically and/or sarcastically. I believe God’s direction to us is very personal and taylored to each of us as individuals. I am thinking of reviewing a book by an atheist who experienced an audible voice of the Lord speaking to him. Very interesting story. I think of my friend, Tara Hendrickson, who facing death from kidney disease to her one remaining kidney, and having resigned herself to that death, heard a word of knowledge from a preacher saying, “There is someone here who has given up on their healing and the Lord is saying just trust me one more time.” The proof was in the pudding as she received two brand spanking new kidneys from the Lord. But I have also seen much fraud and abuse in “charismatic” and “pentecostal” circles. So no, RWP, if you have a story feel free to tell it. The main take away from the part of the post you cite is don’t make your experience normative for everybody else.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says:

        > The main take away from the part of the post you cite is don’t make your experience
        > normative for everybody else.

        +1,000

        And do not question My faith when I refuse to just-accept someone’s Extraordinary claim. Do not question My faith when I refuse to fall-in-line-and-follow.

        If it is imperative I follow – I am confident the Lord Almighty Eternal High-King Of All Creation Master Of The Heavenly Hosts can effortlessly (a) provide that person with a coherent argument as to why they have the direction or (b) unmistakeably tell Me that is the person to follow. Lacking (a) or (b): The answer is “no”.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      > because it is an example of proof texting in the minds

      Actually I am all for Proof Texting on this topic – as it will demonstrate that such instances are (a) Rare and (b) Extraordinary [as in – very rarely mistakable for anything else]. There are no precious few verses about goose flesh.

      And there is the corollary of (a) – Rare – which is that these instances are often separated by l-o-n-g periods of time [unlike people who have such experiences every other Tuesday… and need to see a doctor].

      > Regarding warm fuzzies, spine tingles, goose flesh, Bible roulette, and coincidences,
      > our task is to learn to separate baby from bath water.

      Or the Bath Water is just Bath Water – which is fine, there is nothing wrong with Bath Water, it is good for bathing – but it is not Divine Guidance.

      I’ve had experiences. ~2.5, in a life time, so far. That conforms to the rules of (a) and (b). They very much stood apart, I was confident of what was happening when it happened.

      I would add a rule (c) they were accompanied by mental health sufficient to realize they were MY experiences. There is no reason for either anyone else to believe me, or even for anyone else to be all that interested. The more eagerly someone wants to detail their Experience(s) to me, the less I am inclined to believe it. Anyone who wants to tell a random crowd of strangers is automatically a fraud [unless rare qualifiers exist].

      Also – pro-proof-texting – how often did those instances tell someone to DO what it is they otherwise WANTED to DO? People don’t need Guidance to do what they were going to do anyway, especially when that thing is in their best interest.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        Actually I am all for Proof Texting on this topic – as it will demonstrate that such instances are (a) Rare and (b) Extraordinary [as in – very rarely mistakable for anything else]. There are no precious few verses about goose flesh.

        Like other paranormal phenomena, they are very rare and often leave no evidence of their passing.

        I have only experienced 2 1/2 in 61 years.

        And there is the corollary of (a) – Rare – which is that these instances are often separated by l-o-n-g periods of time [unlike people who have such experiences every other Tuesday… and need to see a doctor].

        Unlike people who have such experiences (up to Raising the Dead every other day), and play one-upmanship games on those to don’t with a smug “O ye of little Faith…” or whispers of “Not Really SAVED, tsk tsk”.

        First, it lends itself (like contemplation, prayer and devotions, and Bible knowledge) to One-Upmanship.

        Second, the pressure to produce (if not Top the Others) leads to faking it just to keep up.

  2. One of the most difficult things to learn is not to elevate one’s own experience to the level of Holy Writ and not to denigrate the experience of others. Another word for this is humility.

  3. Mike, I’m glad you came back early to explain you were speaking in sarcasm as I was about to pack my bags. I have no quarrel with those who choose to limit their interaction in life to the physical, mental, and emotional as a discipline, but when such folks claim their little piece of the pie is the whole shebang, this puts me in mind of Jesus’ response to Peter’s heartfelt and quite rational insistence that Jesus get off this path to the cross that only deluded people would be on. Jesus wasn’t calling Peter “Satan”, he was calling what Peter was doing Satanic, the discouragement of someone following God’s calling as best they knew how to do.

    Following God is hard enough without naysayers determined to confine everyone into their shoebox of materialistic rules and regulations. Yes, it is quite possible to get lost in a rabbit hole, and yes, it is necessary to take into account the “sounding board of fellow believers,” present and past, but sometimes those fellow believers can take you for a walk on the garden path and you’re never seen again. This morning Rhymes has got it right– baby and bathwater. A good part of the bathwater is the notion that we can separate this out entirely with our mind. Get thee behind me!

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      “A Fanatic is someone with one piece of a pie who thinks he has the whole pie.”
      — Pope John Paul II

  4. Lexiann says:

    Maybe it is more simplistic — the sudden soft voice in our mind arising from the murk of subconsciousness (or Jung’s collective unconscious). For example: the thought not to take the dog off leash with you to collect bird feeders and when you go alone there’s a deer bounding into the woods he would have chased; or, the mental urging to take your cell phone with you on a quick trip into the garage, and you don’t so when you break your ankle you can’t call 911 and neighbors don’t get to you for 4 hours. Mm yeah. That still small voice, that gut feeling…but then when you listen or look for big guidance it’s all silent…

  5. Mike the Geologist says:

    One interesting aspect of God guiding us occurred when I realized that I had walked around for a year with an untreated burst appendix. At that moment of realization and for the next while, God took me through that year and showed me that every bible study I led, every jail sermon I preached, indeed, every sin I committed in that year was ordained by Him for me to walk through, whether I realized it at the time or not. This blew my mind with the amazing knowledge that He really was the Good Shepherd, leading and guiding the sheep and that He really was working all things together for my good because I loved Him and was called according to His purpose. That comfort brings tears to my eyes even now as I tell it.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      I still want to know the mechanism as to how that happened.

      The only thing I can think of is that the burst appendix formed a thick-walled abscess that sealed the infection off from the rest of the peritoneum but was large enough to interfere with your intestinal flow.

      If so, you were carrying around a time bomb — ten years ago, I had diverticulitis which apparently sealed itself off for an unknown length of time. When the abscess popped, I ended up in ER with early-stage peritonitis.

  6. How much of this “still small voice” is just preconditioned programming? Takes a lot of effort to fix that.

    • Mike the Geologist says:

      And that is what Damasio’s research implied: “According to Damasio’s theory, our life experiences help our minds develop automatic responses to events. At moments when our consciousness lacks the relevant knowledge for a decision, we are guided by subtle emotions and intuitions.” But you know what Stuart, what if it is? Does not God lead us and guide us through these life experiences? Again, God working through “natural processes” is STILL God working.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says:

        > Again, God working through “natural processes” is STILL God working.

        Agree, completely. And this is how “Spiritual” Disciplines, the study of Scripture, etc… can be very rewarding; we are training [possibly even deprogramming] ourselves.

        On the other hand, in my experience, this is not commonly what people mean when they talk about this. And it is a legitimate criticism that this is very close to redefining There in order to have a There there.

        I am comfortable, at this point in my life journey, to say that the vast majority of the time: it is just me. And I have been given enough to know what to do 90+% of the time – and I am confident the same is true for most adults. Which makes what to do a matter not so such much of Knowing [involving Guidance], but of Discipline, Courage, Patience, … Ugh. It would be easier not to know, to have the crutch of needed-guidance.

        > At moments when our consciousness lacks the relevant knowledge for a decision,

        Our emotions, moods, and such influence our decisions and interpretations even WHEN our consciousness has plenty of knowledge.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      > How much of this “still small voice” is just preconditioned programming?

      100%

  7. Stephen says:

    “So, does God guide and direct us?”

    What really disappoints me about this place is how seldom we tackle the really BIG questions. Heh heh heh. [insert winking emoticon]

    Just some random (but hopefully not incoherent) thoughts and questions.

    1.One person’s private revelation is hearsay to everybody else. (I stole that one from David Hume.)

    2.Why does one person get a “road to Damascus” experience and someone else gets nothing in the face of a lack of any detectable differences in their sincerity and piety?

    3.When we eliminate wishful thinking and confirmation bias what do we have left? (See #1)

    4.How do we differentiate between contradictory private revelations? (See #1)

    5.What do you tell Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims when they clam to have private revelations? (See #1)

    • Klasie Kraalogies says:

      In a way, the (honest, non-wish fulfilment) answers to those types of questions sank the whole enterprise for me. In addition to all the other stuff I mentioned in my series.

      There is nothing as easy as to deceive oneself, for what we wish, we readily believe.
      -Demosthenes

    • Mike the Geologist says:

      Stephen, good questions as always. Note my comment at 9:12am. It was like God lifted the veil and showed me how He was working behind the scenes even when I wasn’t aware of it. He is a brilliant tactician and strategist. I don’t doubt he does it for every one of us, even the Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims, why not, He loves them too. I firmly believe He is leading and guiding Klasie. Klasie’s given up on HIm, but He hasn’t given up on Klasie. Overly sentimental… maybe. Too emotional, not scientific enough… guilty as charged. The longer I go on the more I see it as the Franciscans do, it is all a seamless whole. (I just got back from the dentist and I’m a little high from the pain meds – forgive me.)

  8. Ron Avra says:

    The vast portion of our life with God is private and needs to stay there. The impact of the relationship is hopefully observed in our personal and public relationships. Individuals who demand continual validation of their spirituality by constant exhibitions of ‘divine’ revelations need to either grow up or be ignored.

  9. flatrocker says:

    From a Catholic perspective, this brings to mind the various Marion apparitions and the resultant effect they’ve had on the faithful. Whether we subscribe to the actual reality of them or not, they have had documented, profound and far reaching implications. And when I mention these, I don’t mean the “Mary in the toast” versions :).

    I’ll bring up three that are worth noting. – Lourdes, Fatima, and Medjugorje. All three were deemed “private revelations.” What has flowed from Lourdes are considerable healing events that are well documented. What has flowed from Fatima are significant conversions of faith. Were these healings and conversions solely in the psyche or was there something more? The healings are real. The conversions are real. What is the source?

    However, what is currently transpiring with Medjugorje is much more problematic. The purported conversions and healings do have some degree of substance. However, the nature of the apparitions is very questionable. Sightings and conversations by the “Seers” with Mary are on an regular timed schedule which is very odd. The presence of personal call outs by Mary of named individuals she seems to take issue with is also strange. There appears to be way too much clerical “handling/manipulations” of the seers. And there’s seemingly no end to the seers sightings and conversations – it’s been ongoing now for a couple of decades. The Catholic hierarchy is increasingly doubtful of any validity to the claims of the seers. Yet the pilgrims keep coming and the conversions keep happening.

    Contrasting Lourdes and Fatima with Medjugorje (and in keeping with the theme of today’s post) it is somewhat fascinating to think where does the power of healing and conversion come from? How much is it of the mind or is it something else? And how do we know the difference and should it even matter?

  10. Just a thought about the still small voice. I think we are culturally blocked from intuiting or sensing that voice. In our fast food world we’re not used to stopping and I have the feeling that sometimes that voice is more still than our concept of still and smaller than our small. Oddly enough I find it easier to approach that voice when I’m suffering either mentally or physically. Somehow that breaks down some of the resistances. Fasting is a similar help. It is self-induced suffering for a purpose. The narrowed focus combined with increased desire and determination actually open the door a little wider. (“If you diligently seek me…”) In the end His voice sounds like my voice because we are one spirit but on those odd occasions when I have a distinct sense of direction from the spirit there is a slightly different texture to it. I still run it by the ones I love in most cases. There have been many times where I wasn’t sure if it was just my ego speaking and have chosen not to act. There have also been a couple a few times where I had the distinct sense that it was not my ego but did not have the fortitude to act.

  11. “Does God Guide and Direct Us?” Can you imagine asking Jesus that, Jesus who said he did nothing outside of the Father’s direction. Can you imagine asking Paul or the original apostles or the early “fathers” or anyone up until the time of the so called Enlightenment. This question and this book strikes me as a hundred years behind the times. If we are going to study hundred year old science, at least make it quantum physics which has practical application for today. Rhymes’ comment still stands for me as the real point for discussion, “our task is to learn to separate baby from bath water.” What’s really sad for me is that the answer to this increasingly has to be sought outside the lame answers given by orthodox religion and science.

    “Once the brain flips the switch to conform to this ‘seeing is believing’ world, the harder it gets to regain our spiritual vision later in life. And by ‘spiritual’ I mean the unseen, intangible aspects of existence that many people struggle to even have faith exist . . . .

    “Brain function, overwhelming physical perceptions and processes, early childhood programming, the rise of the Age of Reason, modern scientific skepticism, our materialistic society, our fact-based educational system– everything seems to have conspired to remove spirit from easy reach. Pure awareness– our spiritual essence, I AM– is dulled to the point we can’t sense it anymore. . . .

    “Where is the GPS that can guide us when all we’re left with is the ego matrix arising from the body– a limited picture of reality where everything is other and alien, where nothing is stable or secure, where everything is changeable and therefore unreliable, where perception varies depending on point of view?”

    Cate Montana, The E-Word: Ego, Enlightenment, & Other Essentials

  12. I have a question for Mike the Geologist, and I hope he sees and replies to it.

    In your reply to me at the top of this comments thread, in your sentence:

    But I have also seen much fraud and abuse in “charismatic” and “Pentecostal” circles.

    why did you use quotation marks? Was it to show that you don’t consider these particular groups to be legitimate
    expressions of the Christian faith? Have you ever written “Baptist” or “Methodist” or “Presbyterian” or “Roman Catholic”?

    I guess that’s three questions.