I mentioned in my last post, after coming off of a long hiatus, that this blog would also take a bit of wholistic personal care focus. That means rounding out how the spirit and the devotional life intersects with both psychological and physiological health. In a sense, I am working on something which I think has been often forgotten within the realm of both Christian academia and Christian discipleship: a theology of the body.
One of the books that has been most influential to me in this journey has been Rob Moll’s recent book What Your Body Knows About God: How We Are Designed to Connect, Serve, and Thrive (IVP: 2014). I’ve been looking forward to this book for sometime if for no other reason than so many of the books along these lines are absolutely terrible! The fact that IVP would put their name on something devoted to exploring the relationship between God and the body was a bold move given precedents, but one I am glad to say in the end payed off. This book is, hands down, the best layman introduction to a theology of the body that I have found, and in my own future work it will most certainly be one of a few which I will utilize regularly.
Moll’s foundational premise is not that hard to decipher: the body, though fallen and broken by sin, retains some positive element of the imago dei and, therefore, reflects the design of God its relationship both to the mind and the spirit. This isn’t some statement on origins nor is it really an apologetics oriented defense, but, rather, a conviction that neurology and brain function support the general orientation of the Christian worldview in both design and purpose.
There is too much in this book to really go too deep in a review, but let it be said that neurology’s findings certainly help create a cumulative case for a spiritual purpose to the brain. Take, for example, the fact that in prayer both our nervous states (sympathetic…aka fight or flight and parasympathetic…aka relaxation) are activated. The fact that both states (arousal and calm) are active at the same time is almost unique to spiritual experiences and, the more interactive the systems get, the more profound the spiritual experience is(23). Or, take for example, the growing science of mirror neurons. Against our previous convictions, we now know that the way we actually know how a person is feeling is by “mirroring” an action within side our own brain. That is, our brain “mentally imitates” an action in order to understand it, so that we can respond appropriately. In other words, when you smile, my brain smiles, and that’s how I know you’re happy! This has profound effects for the Christian notion of “self and other”, of seeking after joy and peace and happiness, of suffering and empathy, and of loving one’s neighbor as one self!
I was glad to see Moll rely heavily on Andy Newberg’s work who really is a pioneer and probably the most respectable name in the field of the “spiritual brain.” Newberg is extremely helpful as a professional neurologist and his work–which I have previously interacted with and learned from–does an excellent job of relaying issues objectively (I might take a moment here to plug the Great Courses series by Newberg on the Spiritual Brain, which is excellent!). Moll is obviously not as “agnostic” as Newberg is in his work, but he takes up the same bastion of treating the evidence fairly and responsibly. Moll makes the case, if you will, for the Christian worldview’s integration of neurology.
One of the areas of the book most helpful is Moll’s admission that though he’s generally building a positive case for the spiritual brain, suffering and brokenness are still reflected in our brains, much less in the wider world. His personal story is candid and it’s helpful knowing that he and his wife have had to address the downside of the spiritual brain in its limitations. I have little respect for anyone who speaks about the positive nature of things without experience the tears and the questions that accompany the downside of things. This is where Moll shines. As he states, “Seeing her so sick rattled my belief in this project” (65), and that is a statement that needs to be said. While our brains are fascinating in their ability to commune with God, we also see brokenness within them, we see people handicapped by depression and anxiety, by mental diseases and limitations. Where does this all fit in to the “spiritual brain”? First, we follow Paul in his conviction that “what is mortal may be swallowed up by life” (2 Cor 5.4). Second, our brains are still majestically designed to receive support, imitate support, and give support. Moll notes that in one study with MS patients, scientists found what they did not expect to find: “giving support improved health more than receiving it” (105). But ultimately, accepting our suffering–versus running from it–is the path into true, meaningful discipleship which will ultimately culminate in “everything new” (Rev 21.5).