Faith and Neuroscience: Wisdom, Training, and the Numinous

B0010280 Healthy human brain from a young adult, tractography
Healthy human brain from a young adult © Alfred Anwander, MPI-CBS, Wellcome Images, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

What help can people of faith receive from neuroscience? This was the question that Revd Dr Alasdair Coles asked in his lecture at the Faraday Institute last week. Alasdair works in Addenbrookes hospital, Cambridge, both as a neurologist and as a hospital chaplain. He brought both these perspectives to his talk, which I will summarise here in my own words. Continue reading

Paying Attention

© Ruth Bancewicz

Encountering something new and terrifying is not an experience many of us seek out deliberately, but simple astonishment is usually a fruitful emotion. We have the opportunity to learn when we come up against the unfamiliar. Astonishment imprints something in our minds, and prompts us to ask questions. Take a child’s first encounter with a grasshopper: How can such a little thing make such a big noise without seeming to move a muscle? Why does it jump away so fast? How can it jump so high with such little legs? Such questions can lead to a lifetime’s fascination.

Theologian Jurgen Moltmann has written about the experience of wonder and its importance in both science and theology. The ancient Greek philosophers taught that knowledge begins in wonder. When we are open to something and give ourselves up to discovering what it has to show us, we learn. When we already ‘know’ what it is about we shut down our perceptions and it has nothing to tell us. Continue reading

Jurgen Moltmann: The aesthetic dimension of science

Tanaka Juuyoh, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

German theologian Jurgen Moltmann spoke very movingly in his CIS-Faraday Lecture ‘From Physics to Theology: A Personal Story’ on Tuesday. Moltmann described in detail his experiences as a soldier in the Second World War, his discovery of Christianity and early immersion in theology.

In his teens Moltmann was a keen student of chemistry, physics and maths, doing experiments in cellars with his friends and competing with them to learn more and more advanced theories. His education came to an abrupt halt when he was drafted into the German army at 16 and spent five years in uniform: about a year fighting and four years in British prisoner of war camps.

As a prisoner Moltmann, like many of his companions, suffered from boredom, horrific nightmares and deep depression. After his first winter in a Belgian camp the beauty of spring cherry blossom filled him with overwhelming joy. Eventually he was moved to a POW camp in Kilmarnock where he experienced warm hospitality and acceptance by his Scottish hosts, and began to feel human again. When a British army chaplain gave him a Bible Moltmann read it, first out of boredom and then with real interest. He realised that Jesus had also been through ‘the valley of the shadow of death’. Moltmann’s discovery of a God who loved him helped him to find hope again.

After just over a year of captivity Moltmann heard of a camp where the younger prisoners whose schooling had been interrupted by the war could study for university entrance exams. ‘Norton Camp’ had a well-stocked library and here the Moltmann read his first theology books, enjoying an almost monastic experience of intensive study and spiritual growth. After attending a post-war Student Christian Movement conference where he experienced reconciliation with young people who had fought on the other side, he decided to study theology.

In the second half of his lecture Moltmann spoke about the human dimensions of science: power, beauty, truth and wisdom. Unless ethical power develops as far as scientific power, science will remain dangerous.

Moltmann is the first person I have heard to actually flesh out what beauty in science looks like (though I expect others have written on this – answers on a postcard…) According to Moltmann, beauty in science can be experienced as symmetry, simplicity or unity. And beauty is seen most clearly when systems are moving from chaos to order, or vice versa. While beauty is not worth searching for in science for its own sake, Moltmann is convinced that beauty is a sign that you are nearer the truth, and that this sort of beauty is not subjective. Beauty may be useless from a utilitarian point of view, but it is meaningful in itself. I wonder how much an experience of the horrors of war informs this theologian’s love of beauty?

Expecting the unexpected

1 Cor 3:19 says

For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight. As it is written: “He catches the wise in their craftiness”

The Christian faith is counter cultural and full of surprises, even looking at it from within our present culture which is so influenced by Christian values: leaders are servants; guests are welcomed equally regardless of their social standing; no ‘sin’ is worse than any other; and forgiveness is free.

So when we do science should Christians – who believe that God who in his relationship with us is wise enough to turn things upside down (as far as most human wisdom is concerned) and come up with things that are better than we imagined – not expect the same thing to happen when we look at the world? That’s certainly the world that science reveals. Continue reading