Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

Stanford neuroscientist Dr. Saskia de Vries shows movies to fruit flies and observes how their brains respond.

What can our grey matter tell us about sin and redemption?

If all this boobie talk is becoming tiresome- incidentally just the other day NPR’s Terry Gross was interviewing someone who has written a whole book on breasts- we’re on to a subject I find frankly far more scintillating.  It’s one that we’ve been waiting for, and it won’t disappoint.  Today is the first in a four-part interview series with friend and fellow saint and sinner Dr. Saskia de Vries- about implications of the latest discoveries in neuroscience for Christian theology and how these two areas, of neuroscience and theology, might converse with one another.

Saskia and I met in college through the InterVarsity circuit.  Now, more than fifteen years later (my college reunion is next weekend and I’m not going because I’m in denial) we both have traveled a bit spiritually and theologically  (while, I would like to think, and speaking for myself, keeping the very best of our evangelical influences).  Saskia went on from Yale to earn a PhD from Harvard in neurobiology, and currently is a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University.  She has spent her entire career studying visual processing- how the cells and circuits of the brain detect and encode visual information (ie. how an image is turned into a neural signal) and how that information is used to guide behavior.  She currently studies this in fruit flies, where she records the electrical activity of tiny cells in the fly’s brain while she shows movies to the fly.  (I have a question in about which flicks are her flies’ favorites. )

"I'm in the mood for a romantic comedy." "Aw, c'mon! We always see chick flicks. How about an action thriller?"

In July I’ll have the privilege of leading worship with Saskia and preaching to her church, Old Presbyterian Church, in San Francisco, where she is an active leader in the community.  Saskia, thank you for agreeing to be interviewed.

How did you become interested in the relationship between neuroscience and theology?

For the most part these have been distinct interests. I have been interested in both fields for a long time. I think I got more directly interested in the relationship when a few years ago I was revisiting some of the confessions of the church. I found myself really frustrated about what I feel are misconceptions about our selves, as humans, and the world. I understand why they are in there, some more subtly than others, as these confessions were written hundreds of years ago and reflected the accepted understanding of the world at the time. But our understanding of the world has changed, significantly. And I found myself frustrated that the self-correction that is the norm of science seems to be missing in theology. I have to believe it’s not all together absent, but it seems to me that we are largely willing to ignore what we’ve learned about ourselves and the world in order to hold onto these historical documents. We do so only as a disservice to ourselves. We don’t ignore it in other realms of life – when it comes to legal practice, or medicine, or technology. But we do in the church. Why? To what end? I think this need to cling to the past is hurting the church.

How has your vocation as a neuroscientist informed your faith?

As a scientist, you are trained to ask questions. We constantly ask questions, and sometimes the most exciting breakthroughs come not from asking new questions, but from asking old questions in new ways. As technology develops, and as we learn more, we often have new insights and new tools with which to ask old questions. Questions, however, aren’t always encouraged when it comes to faith. Many view faith as believing things without asking questions, or at least not too many questions. But I’ve always asked them. And I’ve found that I can put a lot of question marks into the midst of my faith, and yet my faith persists. I don’t necessarily believe everything that many consider required of a Christian, but I continue to follow Christ. In fact, I believe I probably follow Christ more faithfully with the question marks there than I did without them.

You are a Presbyterian, which means you belong to a confessional church that is “reformed, always being reformed.” How do you see our confessions needing to change or stretch into the latest discoveries in neuroscience?

So many of our confessions were written some 300-400 years ago, and were written in the mindset and worldview of that time. And that’s fine, good even. But as our understanding of the world and of ourselves has grown, I think our confessions need to, too. I think, for starters, our confessions can reflect what we’ve learned about the origins of the world and of our species. But this is not a dominantly central part of our confessions.

The confessions are written with a very strong dualistic sense of self – that our body and our soul are distinct. This does not hold with science, and some have argued is not even biblically accurate – I refer you to the work by Nancey Murphy on this. I think this is harmful to our understanding of ourselves, reducing us to heads and hands as Marcia Mount Shoop said in her book a few times. (You can read an introduction to Mount Shoop’s book, “Let the Bones Dance,” here: Maintaining this duality is also harmful to our relationships with each other and with the world around us.

Further…the ideas of strict rationality and free will are very strong undercurrents in the confessions, particularly how it relates to the concept of sin.

We Christians talk a lot about sin and redemption. How do your studies enrich and problematize these two categories?

Perhaps one of the big problems emerging from the intersection of neuroscience and theology regards the concept of sin or morality. More and more we are finding biological causes for immoral behaviors: brain tumors that result in sinful behavior, genetic predispositions to violence or addictions, etc. How do we hold people accountable for behaviors that they aren’t freely choosing? Can the same behavior be sinful if freely chosen but not if it results from a tumor or brain trauma? And perhaps most commonly, is homosexuality a sin if you are “born this way?” These are tricky questions, that I think underscore problems in our understanding of free will and our understanding of sin.

As a follow-up to Marcia Mount Shoop’s book which you reference earlier, she argues that a central Christian claim is that redemptive transformation happens at the cellular level. How would your work corroborate this?

I like this idea. I am very much a physicalist – I believe that our mind and our souls are one with our bodies. And to the extent that our experiences change us, they change our bodies – even on a cellular level. Experiences, both good and bad, can change the neural connections in our brain, the genes that we express and the molecules that we make. This is true for traumatic events (eg. PTSD) as well as healing events. And so yes, I think that redemption reflects changes that happen cellularly.

Tomorrow, are human beings hard-wired to believe in God? Is faith just a firing of certain neural circuits?  Stay tuned. And, got a question you’d like to ask Saskia?  Leave it here.



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