Last evening (12 December) the National Geographic Channel televised "The Real Caligula" as part of its series, When Rome Ruled. I got caught up in this, because Caligula (who ruled from 37 to 41C.E.) was known for his erratic and nearly mad behavior. After an inexplicable illness, he became psychotic and claimed to hear voices of the gods...in fact, spending much time in the temple of Jupiter conversing with that god's statue. He would then often dress as Jupiter at public gatherings of the Senate. His behavior led to a long series of murders, debauchery and expenditures of wealth on ego driven projects (e.g. a nearly mile long causeway bridge between the emporer's palace and the temple of Jupiter for his singularly private use).
I cite this historical period for two reasons. First, researchers believe that, like other Roman emperors, Caligula suffered from epilepsy. In the history of ancient Rome, this was also known as the "sacred sickness" because of the kinds of experiences cited with Caligula above. Also, it is believed that a particularly violent epileptic seizure early in Caligula's reign triggered a psychotic break and the onset of manic depressive behavior. Second, modern study of the brain (primarily work being done through NIH) has led to associating certain spiritual experiences with areas of the brain associated with epilepsy (temporal lobe), delusions (brain stem) and reality detachment (frontal and parietal lobes). NPR recently reported on this research; the summary of which can be reviewed at http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=110997741&sc=emaf .
Neurotheology is a growing science that engages research on the function of the brain and the experience of God. Much of what I have shared above would suggest that spirituality resides in the realm of psychoses and other neurological disorders. No doubt, this would please atheists, agnostics and other skeptics of God and spirituality. In truth, I wondered early on if some of my more profound experiences of the Holy were onsets of a break with reality. After all, I am a trained scientist as well as a theologian. Isn't science the search for hard data and concrete evidence?
Over the years, I have become as familiar with moments of deep spiritual awakening and insights as with other aspects of larger reality. Having now spent hundreds of hours in various modes of psycho-therapy (self initiated) exploring the possibility that such experiences and resultant changes in life patterns, I have come to accept the consistent diagnosis of "normal with the usual levels of neuroses." (as an aside, every person who has a personality has some number of neuroses as a part of life...we deal with them or learn to compensate in some way. BTW, denying having neurotic behaviors can indicate a kind of delusion....a more serious behavioral issue). "Normal" in psychotherapy denotes an acceptable range of behavior characteristics given to the general population. It's nothing special.
What we are learning is that brain function can reflect two avenues of experience. One can lead to a deepening of reality and human character. The other can lead to one of several forms of psychoses or be the affect of a genetic disorder (as in epilepsy). The parts of the brain responsible for these functions also connect with deeper functions. It is here that theology (especially ascetical theology -- exploration of prayer and spiritual discipline) can intersect with physiology and psychology.
Folks generally pray as if God is "out there" somewhere. The more typical view is that heaven exists as a place separate and away -- a place to which we will "go someday." Since we are spatially oriented, we have denoted "up" as a good place and "down" as a bad place. We have Dante largely to thank for that orientation.
Jesus spoke of heaven in a very different way by saying that "the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand." He was not talking about the end of the world (as many suggest). The grammar of the New Testament (Koine Greek language) used in that quote means literally, 'the Kingdom of Heaven is able to be palpated -- touched -- and experienced in the moment of time and space.' Greek allows for a mouthful of meaning in a few short words. The New Testament also spoke of God within us. In fact the first order of creation includes humankind being created "in the image of God."
The theology of Imago Dei (image of God) does in no way indicate that we look like or function like God (Caligula's delusion...a dysfunction associated with the brain stem and temporal lobe). It means that our foundational character, which defines us as uniquely human is of God....God "breathed into the being, and the being became human" (transliterating the Hebrew text). Our essence, then, is of God. How then do we access this center of our nature (theologians call this nature our ontological core)?
Prayer does not go out unless it first goes in....deep within. It is the discipline of contemplation and deep meditation. Both of those are associated with the frontal lobe. It is like a computer. The programs we must have are all in binary code (ones and zeros). The operating system must be capable of "reaching in" and transcribing that code into usable language and symbols. The brain is the operating system that reaches into the core of our being to connect us with not only our True Self but with the God whose image is reflected in that True Self. The brain translates the experience into forms that we use in daily life...to define our complete reality.
This is not a fond hope, but the cutting edge of theology and science...working in tandem...and now often working in harmony. For some very interesting reading, I suggest Dr. Francis Collins (MD, PhD), who is now head of NIH and formerly led the team that mapped the human genome. His books, The Language of God and The Language of Life are both outstanding reading in both science and spirtuality. When the completion of the genome mapping project was announced by then President Clinton in 1993, Dr. Collins began his short presentation with the words, "We now have seen the fingerprint of God."
In Christ's Love,