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Early in the history of this blog, I showed some disdain for some of my reductionist biologist brethren who in their frenzy to tie religion to brain impulses ascribed the visions of Mohammed and Joseph Smith to epilepsy. The desire to reduce the entire unseen world into mechanisms, impulses, and a pile of biological functions drives some science worshippers to distraction. In the comments, I commented on how rare these seizures really are, and I stand by that comment. As a child neurologist, I don’t run into spiritual seizures. However, In fairness, any child who feels a profound oneness with God during his seizures, likely does not have the vocabulary to express the wonder of their experience. I may just have patients who have this experience who cannot express it.
While the experience is rare, it is not unique. There are many who have described these spiritual seizures. Perhaps the most verbal and most eloquent description comes from the great Russian author and epileptic, Fyodor Dostoevsky.
” For several instants I experience a happiness that is impossible in an ordinary state, and of which other people have no conception. I feel full harmony in myself and in the whole world, and the feeling is so strong and sweet that for a few seconds of such bliss one could give up ten years of life, perhaps all of life.
I felt that heaven descended to earth and swallowed me. I really attained god and was imbued with him. All of you healthy people don’t even suspect what happiness is , that happiness that we epileptics experience for a second before an attack.”
In fact, Dostoevsky himself stated the belief that Mohammed in his great vision of God must have had epilepsy because he recognized the experience. Curiously, though he knew and recognized this event as a seizure, It did absolutely nothing to cast doubt on the singular spiritual reality of his experience. Even though the seizure was an event happening within his brain, he was convinced that it was a physical event within his brain that gave him a very priveleged glimpse of the face of God. Far from throwing doubt on God’s existence, this experience drove him forward in the face of all kinds of obstacles, trials and discouragement. This siezure formed the absolute foundation of his faith.
The folly of discounting subjective experience with a materialist explanation is that the impulses in the brain simply do not mean that what we are sensing from those impulses is in any way not real. It would be silly to say that because you measure visual impulses in the occipital lobe as you look at an apple, olfactory impulses as you smell it, gustatory impulses as you taste it, that therefore the apple did not exist. Similarly, Dostoevsky saw the ecstatic and profound euphoria he experienced preceding his siezures as an inborn gift that put him in touch with a higher truth that people cannot ordinarily experience.
Working in this same vein, the 1996 movie Phenomenon features John Travolta as George Malley, an ordinary man who develops a brain tumor that enhances and supplements his brain function rather than destroying it as an ordinary tumor would. A neurosurgeon sees an opportunity to advance scientific knowledge by operation on his tumor in order to learn about brain function in a way that had never been done before, calling himself George’s “biographer” in a sense. George then point out that ” that isn’t me, it’s just my brain.”
The real challenge for any of us when we come to any profound experience or realization is to embrace it, to share it and to help others experience it as well. What the fictional George had to offer was a glimpse of what was inside each of us, our true human potential. While the story is fictional, the moral rings true. We are more than our synapses and neuronal impulses. These represent sensations, ideas, inferences and experiences of something more, something real and powerful, something central to our humanity.
So when an atheist lazily discounts religious experience and accounts of the divine as simply seizures, he is missing the point. He is buying into an all to prevalent attitude that sees brokenness or dysfunction where true beauty and mystery might lie. This theme is masterfully explored by author Mark Salzman, in his book, Lying Awake. Based on a true story, he recounts the story of a Carmelite Nun who experiences the very seizures Dostoevsky describes, which drive her lifes choices to enter the sisterhood. Over time these ecstatic visions are accompanied by a more and more severe headache, leading to the discovery that seizures are behind her experience with the divine. The Nun is then given a heartbreaking choice, have her temporal lobe lesion removed surgically and cure her headache, losing a profound connection with God in the process, or to keep the connection, knowing her headaches may grow worse, and the episodes may eventually debilitate her. Salzman makes a very strong case for the counterintuitive, that one could very reasonably choose to keep their seizures, seeing them as key to their sense of self identity and happiness. That to lose her seizures would be to lose something wonderful and amazing. Doubtless the New Atheist crowd would be stupefied at such a crazy idea. Perhaps because they have already severed this profoundly human connection and experience from themselves, leaving them the poorer for it.
In honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the holiday we celebrate today, I am reposting my two cents, first published June 13, 2008.
43 Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy.
44 But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;
What would the world be like if Christianity as a whole really took this seriously?
While these words certainly sound nice, and few disagree in Sunday School, it seems to me that very few actually live these words. Our nation was touched and somewhat perplexed at the compassion of the Amish a couple of years ago after a gunman killed 5 small Amish girls before killing himself. The entire community forgave him, turned up in droves to his funeral, offered his widow condolences and the Nation generally approved. I wonder if there was any controversy within the Amish community themselves. Five years earlier, a cowardly civilian attack performed by hijacking airplanes and flying them into skyscrapers launched a cry of retribution leading to two wars with millions of casualties, the relaxing of civil rights and Geneva convention protocols, and lifting the torture ban regarding prisoners.
When other countries asked not to jump into war, to slow down, we derided them. When Singers spoke out against the idea of war they quickly became Pariahs and were decried as unpatriotic, complete with burning of albums and death threats. In short, most of America acted the way the natural man does, we returned violence and intolerance for violence and intolerance, loving our neighbor and hating our enemy. At my own peril, I am going to take a journey down into politics and war, a subject fraught with contentious traps, and explore the possibilities of nonviolence and loving our enemies.
First Published May 1, 2008
6 He that ascended up on high, as also he descended below all things, in that he comprehended all things, that he might be in all and through all things, the light of truth;7 Which truth shineth. This is the light of Christ. As also he is in the sun, and the light of the sun, and the power thereof by which it was made.
32 And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free
We are emerging from an age that put value above all else upon the ideal of truth. But what exactly is truth? Is it absolute? beauty? freedom? enlightenment? facts? data? reason? principles? unchanging? Is something that is true for one person necessarily true for another? Is truth for ourselves at one point in time necessarily true to ourselves at another point? The terms modernism and post-modernism are used and abused in these kinds of arguments all the time. I am not sure what these terms mean exactly. To a certain type of person post-modernism is moral relativism and the devil, while to another type, modernism is rigid, unyielding, black and white thinking in absolutes. In the end I think both sides are largely talking past one another and caricaturing the other side. This is not my desire. I just want the truth.
What’s that you say Jack, “The truth!? You can’t handle the truth!” Perhaps.
For me, the problem with perceiving truth lies with the mind. If certain neuroscientists are to be believed, consciousness itself is an illusion. Our will is a delusion and trick of natural forces. While this is all quite controversial and will have people arguing for a long, long time, the limits of our thinking are less controversial. We will fill in missing articles to make sense of things whether it is sounds or vision, we fill in missing detail in an attempt to make cohesive sense of what we see or hear, even if it isn’t there. The simplest example of this is our blind spot, the hole in the retina where the optic nerve leaves the eye. We don’t see that we can’t see it because our mind fills in the space.
But it doesn’t end there. It turns out that memory is the same way. Studies have shown that eye-witnesses are unreliable. An astute reader (Thanks, Glenn) pointed me to the one of many authors involved in 30 years of memory research that shows being fed misinformation clearly and reliably distorts our memory. Additionally, certainty itself has proven to be an emotion. We like to think of emotion or feelings and cognition and logic as separate but in reality they are intricately intertwined. If our own senses, memory, emotions, and logic are untrustworthy what does that leave us with?
Well I guess there is data, measurement, and Science. The problem here is that data and testing hypotheses requires interpretation of data. Data and measurements mean nothing in and of themselves. They require interpretation. Designing experiments involves something even more mysterious, imagination. Furthermore, it turns out we are learning there are limits to what science can know.
Newton’s laws of motion were long thought infallible until Einstein proved there are instances where they fall apart. However, to our experience Newton’s laws are good enough to at least get us to the moon. For all Einstein’s and modern physics work we still haven’t figured out what gravity actually is and what causes it. The fact remains, we can make little sense of physics without it.
Believing the Earth is flat works for what we need until we can fly around the globe or become so economically linked as a planet that we need time zones. The sun revolving around the Earth seems common sense to direct observation. However the assumptions mankind made based upon this were shattered by Copernicus, bad behavior ensued.
Heisenberg learned by equations that it is impossible to predict where a particle is and what it’s momentum or speed and direction of movement is at the same time, developing what is known as the uncertainty principle. It is somewhat esoteric but basically it means mass and momentum of the super small subatomic particles is apparently random.
It also turns out that understanding the universe itself has hit a brick wall, as there is a moment in time in Big Bang theory that all of our physics mathematically breaks down. It also turns out that we are just receiving light from the edges of the perceptible universe from so long ago that we truly have not the slightest idea if these conditions still hold now. If the power of a theory comes from ability to predict, I am afraid there comes a point where we are unable to predict anything.
Which brings me to God. Yes, I know it is a matter of controversy to his existence and there is limited evidence, but for me, like gravity to physics, nothing makes sense without Him. To the critic, religion and myth is just a defense mechanism we use to make sense of the world, true or not, much like the tricks of the senses I linked above. This may be. I cannot prove otherwise conclusively, but it also appears to me that the need to do this is an inseparable part of our makeup as human beings. If I am to ever abandon this part of my humanity, I will need one whopper of a reason to do so.
If we take it on faith that God exists, clearly, it is undeniable that we, as humankind, cannot comprehend all that God can comprehend. This being self evident, why even bother trying to learn of God?
I come from a faith that teaches clearly that God reveals truth to us as we are able to bear it. This is where spirit, intuition, zen, and all kinds of religious, mystical, or new agey concepts come in. In Mormonism, God wants us to know and understand him, so he comes down to our level and opens truth to our mind as we are prepared, as we seek it, as we will let him, and as we exercise faith.
This communication is described as concepts that enlarge the soul, burn within us, bring inner peace, open our understanding, or ring true. It is subjective, but more than emotion in my experience. I don’t believe we yet have any way to throw out the subjective and inner workings of the mind out as invalid. It seems plausible that, like Newtonian physics, this is good enough for God’s purposes. This method of obtaining truth is messy to be sure. It leads different people in seemingly different directions. Religion has historically led many to conflict, violence, abuse, and tyranny all done in God’s name.
In spite of all of this, I still feel that revelation is central to how we obtain the intangible truths of our existence. There is a way to avoid the hazards. The key is humility. We have faith and hope in what we have learned, but we also realize that our picture is imperfect, as Paul wrote, we see through a “glass darkly”. We do not force our understanding upon or denigrate the ideas others who disagree. Instead we share what we believe and listen as others do the same.
When we find something that enlarges our soul, stretches our mind, and enriches our life, I believe we have to hold onto it. To refuse to do so is to betray ourselves. I believe we have to remain humble, ready to accept there may be many particulars in which we are mistaken, but I also maintain faith that core truths will remain. We can learn much from diversity. Different cultures, different faiths, different perspectives are a strength when it comes to learning truth, if we can just allow ourselves to glean from them. It is a tricky balance. Too often people act out of the fear that to acknowledge the other is to deny yourself. If there is one observation I have made in life it is that fear can make Man one ugly animal.
I believe that spiritual truth is not linear or absolute. We are all on a journey to somewhere. Like any good Mormon I have faith that we are in the process becoming something greater. Some principles, though formative and helpful initially in the journey, we may outgrow as our understanding increases. Shedding them can be very frightening or painful. I cannot believe that this makes such principles untrue. They are a necessary step to greater understanding.
Among Christian religions, Mormonism is unique, in that, while affirming that Christ is the way, the Truth, and the life, and that no one can return to the Father but by him, we also believe in a mechanism for all mankind to receive that gift eventually if they desire it, even if they do not reach that point in this life. Joseph Smith taught that we embrace all truth, wherever it may be found. There is a wonderful universalist, humanist streak in Mormonism that rings very true to me. As I study truth, I find it everywhere and yet I know I have much yet to learn. For the few who are still reading this lengthy, wordy beast of a post, best wishes to you in your own spiritual journey.
The classic differentiator between optimism and cynicism is the half glass of water. It takes a neutral fact and adds a judgement that tells us much about the observers life view, half empty or half full. I think it is possible for either view to overstep its bounds, be it Pollyanna type platitudes or cynical misrepresentations of the motivations of others leading to prejudice and division. One popular truism in the cynical worldview is that it is the same people doing both, that the dreamer is always destined to become the cynic. I do believe this is a possibility and a danger, but I question the underlying assumption. Are optimists just fooling themselves? Do they become cynical when they face up to the truth? There is a certain school of thought, ascribing cynicism to realism with a certain self righteousness about “keeping it real.” Is this valid? Read the rest of this entry »
Many apologies for the light posting. The beginning of the medical school year always seems to kick work demands up a notch. I have something wonderful, insightful, and enthralling coming up as soon as I figure out what it is. Until then, here is the collection of all the enthralling stuff I wish I could write. Enjoy! Read the rest of this entry »
24 And he said, Verily I say unto you, No prophet is accepted in his own country.
These are the words uttered by Jesus Christ at the start of his ministry, which he had just announced in front of the very people he grew up with in Nazareth, in rather bold fashion in fulfillment of Scripture. These are the words sung by Joan Osborne, trying to picture what our reaction would be if God were among us as man–
What if God was one of us?
Just a slob like one of us
Just a stranger on the bus
Trying to make his way home…
Back up to heaven all alone
Nobody calling on the phone
‘cept for the Pope maybe in Rome
I can imagine few things would be more crushing than expectations for anyone claiming to be a prophet. What exactly does a prophet look like? What do they do for fun? Can they joke, smile, laugh, play? Are they all curmudgeons? What is to be the key prophetic characteristic? Brash, bold, solemn, quiet dignity, old, wizened, unkempt, loving, serene, crazed, severe, scolding, bearded, mystical, wise, charismatic, learned, with plenty of experience or a complete lack thereof? I am not entirely sure. I am quite sure that in any case being human is very likely to get in the way of anyone believing any claim for them to be what they are.