Some of my regular readers may be amused to learn that I actually got the eighth grade science award. (I guess I took extra good care of my egg baby or something.) Somewhere in high school, I, like many other adolescent girls, fell away from pursuing the sciences. Fortunately, others went on in their pursuits, and the past few days we’ve been speaking with one of them: today we’re wrapping up our interview series featuring Stanford neuroscientist Saskia de Vries on the subject of neuroscience and theology.
How has studying the brain changed your understanding of yourself? How has it changed your understanding of human beings and what makes them “made in God’ image” and about who God is and what God is like?
I think one major thing that I’ve learned about humans is that we aren’t particularly rational. I mention this earlier, that we have a misguided notion that if we just took the time, and were careful, and smart, and logical, that we could take all of the inputs we get – all the information we have ever received in any form throughout our whole lives – and have the perfect appropriate responses to all things. That we can be purely rational and our behavior would be flawless. This just isn’t so. We aren’t purely rational – and frankly that’s a good thing, because we wouldn’t survive very long if we were. The size that our brains would need to be, and the amount of energy they would need to consume, in order for us to function that way would be enormous. Not to mention that if we were slowly processing large quantities of information with such top-heavy brains – an irrational predator would come and eat us before we could respond. Our brains have evolved to use information processing short cuts to reduce energy demands and streamline processing. And this has been very beneficial evolutionarily. But it also means that when it comes to things like money and politics and life in our modern society, we don’t make logically optimal and rational decisions – despite our illusion that we do.
I never know how much we should look to humans to inform our image of God. While I think we are “made in God’s image,” I don’t think we are replicas of God, and I worry that we tend to make idols of God in our own image.
Now and in previous centuries the church has often rubbed up against science (think Galileo, Darwin, etc) much like a Brillo pad on grease- with a stubborn, even hostile determination to rid itself of the questions science has posed for theology. Are there ways in which, to borrow the apostle Paul’s sentiment that God is “reconciling all things to God’s Self”- you see any rapprochement taking place here?
Yes and no. There remains much hostility between the church and science, although in many ways this appears often to be more politically based than religious, per se. But there is indeed a growing sense that one can affirm both science and faith. Many Christians accept the big bang and evolutionary theories. Almost all Christians embrace medical and technological advances, all rooted in science. And some are eager to find common ground between science and religion. But I’m a bit wary of much of the way this is going about.
One approach is Stephen Jay Gould’s idea of non-overlapping magesteria (NOMA). That’s the idea that science and religion are concerned with separate realms of our lives. To paraphrase Gould, one deals with the ages of rocks, the other with the rock of ages. And I think many people, whether they realize it or not, buy into this mindset. But I think this idea is wrong. The first problem, is that it reduces God to what Dietrich Bonhoeffer, among others, referred to as “God of the gaps.” Anything we can explain is science, and what we can’t explain is God. This idea that God must exist outside of science, outside of the natural world, is sad – and poor theology.
Another problem is that I don’t think it’s clear where we draw the boundaries between science and religion. As our scientific knowledge continues to grow, those gaps get smaller, and we’re quickly pushing God further and further out of our lives. Many people, including Gould, say that the one realm where science has no place is questions of morality. And here I’d disagree as well. Science has plenty to say about morality. There’s been great work done in psychology, evolutionary biology, economics and neuroscience that contribute to our discussions of morality.
Another approach for affirming both science and religion is to say that there must be a dialogue between the two. This is a bit better – but it has a bit of a problem. The main flaw is when this is expected to be a two way street – that beliefs and facts are to be given equal footing, such that scientific results are considered a matter of opinion. And, at the risk of sounding condescending, I just don’t see how that can be. Don’t get me wrong, science doesn’t have all the answers, scientists don’t know everything, but when empirical evidence and religious beliefs go head to head, I don’t see how one can hold the two in balance.
Ultimately science is a method, a way of asking and testing questions. Religion is – well, it’s trickier to define. At worst it’s a set of beliefs; at best, a relationship with God, a cultural practice, a community, a spiritual practice, an ultimate concern. However we define it, I don’t see how it can inform how we ask and test questions. But, I do see how what science has learned can inform our beliefs, how we function as a community, how we nurture our selves and one another, and how best to act on our ultimate concerns.
At the same time, I do think scientists, when in dialogue with people of faith need to hear and understand where the questions and misgivings of some believers stem from. For instance, many people who don’t accept evolution don’t do so because they are so deeply committed to the facts of the six-day creation myth, but because evolution pushes God’s involvement further away in space and time. If God didn’t shape humans out of mud and breathe life us a few thousand years ago, but maybe God did trigger the big bang – that sounds so cold and uncaring. And so I do think scientists involved in these conversations need to be able to listen to and to speak to those concerns. But I don’t think religion can tell scientists how to ask questions or what results to accept.
But yes, I do see a growing interest among Christians to understand how faith and science can co-exist. And I think we need to move beyond trying to jam these two puzzle pieces together, but learn how science can inform our faith, how our theology and our practice can grow from what we are learning.
Maybe a similar question would be: what is the promise and peril of neuroscience for Christian theology and the church?
I mostly see the promise – I believe that the continuing developments in neuroscience can help us to better understand the world, ourselves, and our relationship with God. I see this as good – as great really. This is peril, however, if our goal is to clamp firmly to the past. If Christian theology wants to uphold the doctrine and theology of the past, then neuroscience (and all science) is a great peril to theology and the church. If our faith requires that, then we’ve got big problems. The advances in neuroscience will change our doctrines and our understanding of God, ourselves, and the world. We have been warned not to create idols, and I think that when we cling to our old worldviews we create such idols – idols of our concept of God, idols of the world and of ourselves. My experience is that by destroying idols we breathe anew. I think theology that embraces science, that embraces neuroscience, will breathe new life into our faith, new life into our church.
Got comments for Saskia? Leave them below. Thank you, Saskia, for your contributions here, and for your thoughtfulness both as a scientist and a person of faith. If part of what it means to follow Jesus is to exhibit a curiosity about and wonder with the world around us, you’ve modeled this for me. I hope for all of our sakes you keep asking the questions!
Tomorrow, I respond to one reader’s suggestion that I can’t be a woman minister because “the Bible says so”….