Science, Contemplation, and the God Who Doesn’t Exist

I spent a few days at St. Benedict’s Monastery in Snowmass, Colorado with Thomas Keating (one of the founders of the Centering Prayer movement) and a small gathering of contemplatives, academics, and neuroscientists. Hosted by the Center for Engaged Compassion at Claremont School of Theology, the purpose of the event was to begin a conversation between Christian contemplatives and neuroscientists in hopes of designing future research projects.  For the past twenty years there has been growing research and interest in what is sometimes referred to as “Contemplative Science” promoted by organizations like The Mind and Life Institute and Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism.  Contemplative science has focused, almost exclusively on Buddhist forms of contemplative practice, ignoring the wealth of practices that exist in Western religious traditions.  Dr. Michael Spezio and my friend Dr. Andrew Dreitcer (both former Presbyterian ministers) facilitated the event in the hopes of deepening the scientific understanding of the contribution Christian contemplative practice can make in the cultivation of compassionate action.

The event was a crash course in Christian anthropology and theology.  We spent three days exploring the world views of Evagrius, Aquinas, Ignatius and then explored various contemplative practices including Ignatian contemplation, centering prayer, and the compassion practice (as developed by Frank Rogers).  We looked at a variety of neuroscience techniques, methodologies, studies to discern the role of the brain in moral action.    I’m neither a scientist nor academic so much of the conversation was at the limits of my comprehension, however it was interesting to discover thel hunger that exists within the scientific community to engage religious tradition and practice. I learned that although the Western scientific community has increasingly embraced the Dalai Lama and Buddhis practice, there is great resistance to explore the religious traditions of the West, Christianity namely.  As one researcher told me, “God is a problem.”  What I realized in my interactions with scientists both at the Snowmass conference and in other settings, is that a significant number of Western scientists have wounds from their own Christian upbringing that cause a kind of reactivity toward any conversation with Christian theologians.  At Snowmass, I heard stories by a group of researches of childhoods scared by dogmatic pastors, shame-based churches, and Christian elders unwilling to engage real questions and doubts.  As I listened to one researcher in particular describe the kind of God he was forced to worship as a boy, I realized that I too would have left the Christian faith if I was forced to accept a God who is all-controlling, distant, and shaming.  When he finished his story of the God he no longer believes in, my only response was, “I don’t believe in that God either.”

In my experience, contemplation (and Christianity in general) isn’t about belief–a set of statements that we hold in our head, as much as it is a way of being in the world.  Christianity is a spiritual path, a way of becoming increasingly transparent to love, a way of becoming more alive, more free, in greater friendship and solidarity with others. Contemplative practice (or prayer), supports this path by helping us consent to the compassionate activity of God. Contemplative prayer helps us to see ourselves and the world as it really is.  It helps us to let go of our attachments, our filters, so that the Mystery that we call “God” can move and breathe within us.  In my experience, as we consent to God’s activity we find natural, creative ways of living lives that are compassionate, joyful, and courageous (see Jesus).  How will scientists measure this?  I don’t know, although I was encouraged by the interest of the researches I met.  There is a deep awareness within the scientific community that the world is in serious crisis (environmentally, politically, economically) and that the only hope of resolving these problems is by cultivating compassionate awareness and action within the human family.  Certainly Christianity is a source of wisdom for this endeavor, and yet part of the work of bringing together scientists and Christian contemplatives is first renouncing the God who doesn’t exist.  The manufactured God that has been used to frighten, control, and manipulate people.  The God who has scared, wounded, even tortured so many.

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4 responses to “Science, Contemplation, and the God Who Doesn’t Exist

  • John L

    These thoughts dovetail well with your Sep 5 essay on religious hypocrisy, and I resonate with both. I’ve pretty much given up on religion and religious tribalism. I find myself increasingly acknowledging Spirit in my questions and weakness, rather than certainty and strength. And I applaud anyone trying to bridge the mysterious intangibles of compassion and empathy with a scientific platform. Isaac Newton said something that puts both religion and science into healthy perspective,

    “I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”

  • Archie Honrado

    Hi Mark, I just stumbled on your blog. I am doing a little research on apophatic and kataphatic prayers for my book and teaching on soul care for urban youth workers. One of my thesis statement to help urban youth workers practice Centering Prayer- apophatic prayer- was in centering prayer, we engaged part of our brain that does not deal with reason, tasks, problem solving. That after a long grueling day of engaging our Frontal lobe, Centering prayer and apophatic engages a less used and fresher part of the brain- which I thought was Frontal Lobe. Do you have any idea or anyone you know can point us to what part of the brain is engaged on apophatic prayers?
    Thanks Mark for your time

    • Mark

      You might want to check out Chapter 7 of Andrew Newberg’s Why We Believe What We Believe. He has studied what he refers to as Centering Prayer, and describes the parts of the brain connected with that practice. The problem is it seems he’s actually studying a form of lectio divina and doesn’t know it. In fact, Centering Prayer probably activates the parts of the brain connected with both intention and release, rather than attention and focus. No other studies have yet been published that address precisely your question, though one of our staff members at the Center for Engaged Compassion is in the midst of such a study.

      • Mark

        Here’s another response from Dr. Michael Spezio, a neuroscientist and psychologist from Caltech and Scripps College in Southern California. Michael also works with the Center for Engaged Compassion at Claremont School of Theology:

        “Your question is a very good one and we’re glad you asked it. It comes up time and again in discussions about how the brain contributes to contemplative practices such as Centering Prayer. In fact, we’re engaged in research on that question and so can share with you a bit about what we’ve learned.

        To begin, as you know, the brain is typically divided into two hemispheres — left and right — and each hemisphere is divided into four lobes: occipital, parietal, temporal, and frontal. The frontal lobe includes the main cortical area for movement: the primary motor cortex. The cortical areas in front of the primary motor cortex are known collectively as the “prefrontal cortex.” The idea that we really work only certain areas of the brain really hard during our normal, grueling days is only true for very primary sensory and movement areas of the brain. So if we work a lot on the computer, we’re definitely using lots of our visual and movement areas. If we listen to a lot of music or other audio, we’re definitely using lots of our auditory/hearing areas. If we’re working out or doing athletics, we’re definitely using lots of our movement areas. For everything else — speaking, listening, thinking, creative imagining, reasoning — we use lots of integrated areas throughout the brain. So we don’t just engage our frontal lobes, or even our prefrontal lobes, during a grueling day of normal life. We really use the whole brain.

        In contemplative practice, if we close our eyes and if we are in a quiet environment and if we are sitting still, we greatly reduce the typical neural processing in our visual, auditory, and movement brain areas. We still use those areas, to be sure, even when sitting quietly with our eyes closed, but we don’t have lots of light, sound, and muscle commands as we usually do. Also, if we can let go of discursive and evaluative thinking during the time of Centering Prayer and open ourselves up to a relational turning toward the divine person, then we engage different neural networks throughout our brains, including really important networks in our prefrontal cortex that relate to relational engagement. This is the essence of the kind of apophatic practice that is Centering Prayer: it is not just apophatic but relational, in that it asks of us an opening up to and consenting to the presence of the divine. Our neuroscientific work supports the notion that during Centering Prayer we engage neural networks in the prefrontal and temporal lobes that have been linked to relational engagement.

        I hope this brief response to your great question has been helpful. Centering Prayer is not so much, then, about shutting areas of the brain down — and certainly it does not shut the frontal cortex down or off — but about up-regulating circuits for relational openness and engagement in a non-judgmental and non-discursive manner.

        Good luck with your book! It sounds like it is very much needed in today’s world.”

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