What exactly is a religious experience? Can humans relate personally with the divine?
These are two separate questions getting at two very different things.
The first gets at a personality trait of Homo sapiens. The second gets at a relationship between two different beings.
The first doesn’t require the existence of any god; it’s completely intrinsic to our evolved brain circuitry. The second presumes as fact that there is a God.
I, for one, do think we’re not alone in the universe. And I’m not referring to alien life on some planet in a distant galaxy. Personal experiences, upbringing (you might call this indoctrination), and conversations with theists whom I trust give me reasons to think that there is indeed Someone out there. I’ve blogged previously about how the growth of the Christian church in the middle of intense persecution is strong evidence for me that they saw something real during the 1st century AD. I have other reasons, but more on that later.
So moving ahead with a certain degree of confidence that he does exist, I’m wondering what would/should a relationship with him look like?
If I’m honest, right now it’s very much like my relationship with the Prime Minister of my country, who I’ll call ‘Steve’, but you might call ‘Obama’ or some other name. Steve’s in charge of the country. He sets the rules that affect my day-to-day life. I’m fully free and capable of sending Steve all kinds of messages, whether by email, letters, text messages, messages left on his voice-mail, et cetera. Or I might meet with one of his provincial or federal representatives and ask them to forward my petitions, which include quite a few hard questions of why things are being done the way they are. But despite all these ways that I can communicate to Steve, he never gets back to me. At least not directly. Perhaps those representatives might pass on a response back to me, or circumstances in my day-to-day living change because Steve has imposed some new regulation. But I don’t expect to hear from him directly. Wouldn’t it be amazing if he did, though!?
I hope I don’t have to belabor the point about how this relationship with Steve parallels my relationship with God. (But please don’t think that I give Steve the same kind of reverence!? All analogies eventually break down.)
And that’s why it’s so frustrating when I’m told often that I can have a personal relationship with the very Creator of the universe. Who wouldn’t want that? But can I? Can it really be true?
Christians of all stripes do claim such a personal relationship. But so do Muslims. And Sikhs. Buddhists claim to tap into some kind of cosmic oneness. Tibetan monks meditating in their temples experience something powerful. Shamans dancing around a Kalahari bush fire whip themselves into a frenzy that culminates in some kind of mystical out-of-body experience.
Are these all different manifestations of the same thing?
Scientists have used powerful brain scanning techniques to look into what’s going on inside our heads during these kinds of experiences: MRI-scanners to look at the structure of the brain, PET-scanners to measure activity in those structures, and EEGs (electrodes on your head producing squiggly lines on paper) to measure the electrical signals coming from them. Some of these scientists have compared what’s going on inside the heads of Christians praying and Buddhist monks meditating, and have come up with some intriguing parallels. Two particular brain regions ‘light up’ in both groups during their religious experiences.
One brain region is responsible for keeping track of where your body is in space and time … where your body stops and ‘out there’ begins. You’ve got sensors on every square inch of your skin, others in every muscle and bone, and yet more at every joint of your skeleton. All of these are constantly measuring position, angles, stretch, and acceleration and telling your brain so you can respond immediately to any situation. When an insect lands somewhere on your body, you turn your head immediately to where that spot is, no matter how contorted your head and limbs are. If a ball is suddenly thrown at your face, you immediately put up your hand and catch it or deflect it even before you fully realize what’s going on. This area in your brain always carries a constantly changing map/image of your body in 4-dimensional space: imagine what that looks like in the head of a gymnast doing their floor routine, or an acrobatic diver on her way down!
But this brain area also becomes particularly active during intense prayer and meditation. Could this be in part why many religious experiences describe an out-of-body sense? Or a feeling of oneness with the universe or with Someone massive and dimensionless? Could those neural circuits just become confused by a flood of internally-generated inputs that your brain interprets as a religious experience?
A second brain region that ‘lights up’ is located at the core of your brain and is responsible for controlling the traffic of information going to other brain regions. This is the part that overloads when you’re playing that computer game when dozens of zombies start appearing all over the place and a giant hole is opening up in front of you and death rays are flying through the air and … or when you’re taking care of 18 screaming toddlers, the phone is ringing, someone’s knocking on the door and the smoke alarm is wailing. This part of your brain decides what information is important and real and needs to be dealt with. It also gives you a sense of time, and under certain circumstances it can essentially slow down brain-time (or increase brain-speed) to help you cope with that barrage of information, as some people will describe when they’re in the middle of a life-threatening situation. When this brain region ‘lights up’ during religious experiences, could this be why people describe it as “more real than real“, or the feeling of timelessness and eternity?
Our brain stores all kinds of memories … childhood moments … major events in our lives … random facts that make you wonder why you still remember them. Neurophysiologists can trigger those memories using small electrodes inserted in the right places. They can also trigger sights and sounds that are entirely artificial … the smell of burning toast … the sense that there’s someone standing beside you … that your thumb is being squeezed. This is probably why people describe seeing their “life pass before their eyes“, as well as all kinds of bizarre images and encounters, during a near-death experience as the brain starts to shut down and the precise control of millions of nerve impulses starts to break down. Likewise during drug-induced hallucinations, and the dreams you experience every night. Could this brain region also be highjacked during a vision that people ascribe to a religious experience?
The brain is often compared to a computer. Computer programs and connections (the Internet) have become so impossibly complicated that nasty people can ‘hack into’ any system by finding all kinds of ‘portals’ and ‘vulnerabilities’. Could such vulnerabilities exist in the human brain and be tapped into by hallucinatory drugs, intense sensory overloads (computer games; yoga; tantric sex), transcendental meditation and even religious experiences? Some atheistic neuroscientists like Daniel Dennett think so, and have compared religion to a virus or a parasite.
So far, everything I’ve written above only addresses the first question I posed at the start: is the religious experience just a peculiarity of the human brain?
But what about Question #2? Assuming God exists (which I do, but I’m not trying to prove that point in today’s blog post), could it be that we can relate to him in some way, probably in part using our brains and the neural circuits I wrote about above, the ones that are fairly easily highjacked in other ways? Are we wired for God?
The similarities between a divine encounter and a drug-induced hallucination or near-death experience don’t have to mean that they’re one and the same. The latter may only reproduce certain elements of the personal relationship. The fact is, I relate to my wife through many of those very same neural pathways, but that doesn’t mean she’s only a figment of my imagination, conjured up by millions of years of evolution.
Also, keep in mind that MRI, PET and EEG … and any other tool that scientists might use … only access the biological component of religious experience. Most people today believe that the supernatural world is just as real as the natural. Unfortunately, this division between natural and supernatural is misleading: some equate it with factual versus mystical, or real versus make-believe. Perhaps it’s worth seeing this instead as the difference between reality in the 4 dimensions that we’re most familiar with, and reality in all the dimensions of the universe. I’ve tried to get a definitive answer on how many dimensions there are, and found numerous answers that range as high as 18. But even proposing a five- or six-dimensional universe can open up some mind-blowing possibilities. To explain this, let me borrow an illustration from my book …
‘Flatland’ is a hypothetical world of only two spatial dimensions: forward-backward and left-right. The third spatial dimension … up-down … has been squashed down to insignificance. Flatland is like a page in a book, and the other pages are parallel universes. Moving from one page to the other is impossible because the up-down dimension just doesn’t exist. The only way to move around in Flatland is to go left or right or forward or backward, but always within the 2-dimensional plane. Along comes Luke Janssen, a Being that operates in three spatial dimensions, including the up-down axis. Imagine I extend my finger down ‘out of the heaven’ into Flatland: all of a sudden my finger appears in Flatland like a little circle that grows in circumference as I extend my finger deeper through their plane of reality. Out of thin air, I just suddenly appear to them, albeit only in the form of an expanding circle. And when I pull my finger back, I become a shrinking circle and then just as suddenly disappear (from their perspective). Next I re-extend all four fingers and my thumb into Flatland, and from their perspective, I suddenly re-appear, but now there are five of me that suddenly appear out of thin air in Flatland! And though they are five distinct and completely separate manifestations of me, Flatlanders know somehow that all five are the same person. Five persons in one — a ‘quintity’?
I could belabor this analogy, but I hope you see my point: from my three spatial dimension existence, I can be and do things that Flatlanders can’t comprehend. Think of the possibilities if there were a Being who could operate in multiple other dimensions of the universe beyond the ones of which we’re aware.
This sense that there’s something out there is a universal human phenomenon. As I’ve blogged before, if you go to any corner of the globe at any point in history and talk to people of any socio-economic status and every level of education and intelligence, you’ll find theists among them. Given what we still don’t know about the universe, to categorically deny the possible existence of such a Being is simply close-minded and prejudiced. Perhaps you ask whether we have positive evidence for his existence. For me, the best evidence is the radical changes in the lives of many people who claim to know him. Not just the ones who claim He scraped them off the bottom of the septic tank of life and turned them into entirely new, changed people, but also those otherwise average people who selflessly change the world around them in the name of Christ.
So getting back to Question #2: what would the relationship between a 4-dimensional Homo sapiens and a 10-dimensional God look like? It certainly would defy easy explanation. It wouldn’t be at all surprising that the answer involves something beyond the three pounds of nerves packed inside our cranium. Most people believe there’s something else about us besides just our brain, and will resort to words like mind or soul or spirit. Consciousness is still something that scientists fully accept as real but can’t at all explain. A comatose body can be fully alive and yet show little or no signs of brain activity, and then suddenly the personality ‘comes back’ to full consciousness months or years later. Some people have returned from a truly frightening experience called ‘locked-in syndrome’ in which they’re fully conscious and aware, but completely unable to do anything, even moving their eyes. They hear and see everything, but their family and care-givers think they’re comatose or possibly even dead. And, again, there are those who describe out-of-body experiences about which they are completely convinced, even if you and I don’t believe them.
Why is it so hard for us to put our fingers on this thing called mind/soul/spirit, and to perceive a relational connection with Someone beyond our 4-dimensions? Perhaps it’s an ability that too few among us practice and develop. How many people will never be great musicians simply because they never picked up a musical instrument? Or will never learn Italian simply because they didn’t try. We in the Western world are CONSTANTLY distracted with inputs that dominate our attention: cell phones, TV, radio, portable music players, computer games. No matter where you find masses of people, notice how many are staring at some kind of electronic display and/or have something plugged into their ears, or at least have something playing in the background. How much time do we spend just simply sitting and thinking in silence? Contemplating life? And meaning? My guess is you haven’t spent more than a few hours of your entire life in that kind of contemplative moment.
That may explain why people in less developed countries are more aware of a different plane of existence. It’s not a lack of education, because we in the West have leading scientists like Francis Collins (former head of the Human Genome Project, and now Director of the National Institutes of Health) and John Polkinghorne (co-discoverer of quarks) who don’t hesitate to declare their faith in God. Instead, I think it’s in part because those less developed countries have no electronic distractions. On top of that, they’ve experienced life and death in ways that we never will. They’ve held the hands of loved ones breathing their last breath. They’ve carried the dead body of that loved one, and covered it with handfuls of dirt or placed it on a pile of sticks and spent hours watching it burn to nothingness while they envision that loved one re-uniting with other loved ones from long ago. They’re often wondering where their next meal will come from, and have a mortal fear of things for which we would just go to the local pharmacy. They’ve actually lived with the animal from which their family got milk or eggs, and thanked it for its life when ‘that time’ came, whereas we just walk down the supermarket aisle and carelessly toss food items in the shopping cart. I could go on, but my point is simply that, not only are we distracted by electronics, we’re also completely sheltered from the realities of life. The Wachowski brothers were definitely onto something when they wrote The Matrix.
I’m still puzzling my way through those two opening questions.
What have I learned so far?
That there’s more to us than just our physical body and our brain’s electrical activity.
That we appear to be wired for some kind of relational experience beyond the here-and-now.
That you can’t confidently rule out the existence of a Being beyond our limited and shallow understanding of the universe.
That some of us claim to have tapped into something much bigger than Homo sapiens.
That too many of us spend too little time trying to navigate those uncharted waters.
So much more to be learned. So much more to be said.
Perhaps in my next blog.