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Neurotheology on emotion

It is possibly humorous that Christian people speak of “intelligent design” when arguing for the creation of the world by God while holding a nearly opposite view about the structure of the human brain and body. It is clear from the architecture of the brain that the essentially non-verbal emotional control center in the right hemisphere is at the top of the command hierarchy for the brain. Religious leaders and preachers decry living our life based on experience and emotion when the “captain” of the brain is designed (presumably intelligently so) to be in charge at all times. Antonio Damasio (an evolutionist and no proponent of intelligent design by any stretch of the imagination) makes a case in his book Descartes’ Error that this design is actually a very good idea. Most theologians are post-Cartesians, however, and most are also descendents of the Rationalists who gave birth to the Puritan religious movement that shaped American Christianity. Rationalists focus on beliefs, will and choice as the centerpiece of true Christianity. In this view, sin becomes willful disobedience, salvation became a choice to accept Christ while true faith becomes doctrinal purity. 

While all that rationalism is in charge while we are not upset, the brain is not wired to give these thoughts priority when we are upset. This has not escaped the notice of the rationalists who have then moved to ban emotions and experience from taking priority in the Christian life. This solution has two major flaws: 1) It contradicts how the brain is wired (intelligent design would disagree) and, 2) the vast majority of those who have accepted the correct beliefs are not noticeably different in their life and character from those who have not. What we find in American Christianity is a vast failure to change the character of believers, arguably because it tries to produce change in the wrong place. If the emotional control center of the brain has the last word and takes over when hard times and strong feelings come, then a spiritual life that changes what we do in the hard times must be learned in the presence of our emotions and will not be helped by banishing them. The control center learns in relationship not by precept and concept. Our character under pressure changes when our relationships (and not our beliefs) become more important than our upset feelings. If this is true, then we would expect that a God of intelligent design would have a lot to say about the nature of the relationships in the precepts and concepts that go in our left-brains. While these concepts would be accurate, it would not make them primary.

What kind of religious beliefs would we find if a religion matched the way our brain is built and focused on retraining the control center? Our relationship with God would have to be stronger than the pain we might feel. We would have to love the Lord with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. Our relationships with others would have to be stronger than our avoidance of pain so that we loved others like we love ourselves. We would have to stay together in sickness or health and carry each other’s burdens. We would have joy with those who have joy and weep with those who weep in order to keep our relationships stronger than our pain. In other words, we would need to learn how to suffer well when necessary. (For more on the meaning of suffering see the Sarx and healing trauma.)


We would not abandon each other or miss chances to be together just because we were upset—not because we eliminated emotions, but because we formed relationships based on love that is stronger than our fear of pain. We would learn to feel strongly yet stay together and give life. This kind of face-to-face relationship when we are upset is just what is needed to train a young or poorly developed control center to handle distress. That would be a spiritual life that would change character. As long as we rely on our beliefs alone to change our character without suffering and rejoicing together we will get the average Western Christian. Oddly, the ancient wisdom literature says the same thing about character. “As iron sharpens iron, so a man hones the face of his friend.” (Proverbs 27:17. See training the Control Center for more on face-to-face training.)

Now, if you had to train a group to handle life and death emergencies and you learned that half the group left each time there was an emergency, who would you train? If you learned that the group that stayed could not hear but were fluent in sign language, what language would you use to train them? If you heard that the current trainers were doing all their teaching in English to the group that always left and denouncing sign language what would you do?

Isn’t neurotheology interesting?