03 January 2015

Doubts at Christmastime

The 2013 Christmas tree at
Bethel Lutheran Church,
Coulee City, Wash.
Christmas is a time, in Christian narrative, when something real occurs. God becomes someone who shares our loneliness...and our biology. Christians also experience this Emanuel together in the Eucharist, or the Lord's Supper, or Communion, or whatever their particular denomination calls it.

But so many times that story sounds so foreign to our experience.

The connection Mary Eberstadt observed between the growth of secularism and the decline of traditional families also indirectly opens questions whether religious convictions come as much from social connection as from perception of transcendent truth.

And after searching for a church this year, after attending one church several months and still feeling like visitors, after realizing one Sunday I no longer want to try, after seeing the divisions in Christianity—by culture, socioeconomic status, personality, and sometimes teaching—it's clear social connections matter when it comes to the work of attending church, or going somewhere else instead.

In her December 24th op-ed in "The New York Times," Stanford professor, Tanya Marie Luhrmann, observes, “Much of what people actually do in church—finding fellowship, celebrating birth and marriage, remembering those we have lost, affirming the values we cherish—can be accomplished with a sense of God as metaphor, as story, or even without any mention of God at all."

Robert Sapolsky, another Stanford professor, begins his narrative of religion's biological underpinnings by discussing schizotypal personalities or personalities not schizophrenic but somewhere on a schizotypal continuum. The right amount of metamagical perception at the right time, hearing a voice from a burning bush for example, he suggests, might give an individual prominence in the community and be an evolutionary advantage.

He then applies the theory to other mental conditions. A mild version of obsessive compulsive disorder for example might allow religious people to invent and follow rituals. He uses Martin Luther as an example.

It's plausible to see obsession in the hours young Luther spent confessing every day. But it is hard to see how that led Luther to oppose the medieval Church's sale of indulgences. One could imagine an obsession would work the other way.

But even if the Apostle Paul didn't have epilepsy of the temporal lobe—causing his fascination with religion and his urge to write—Sapolsky's broader point remains that biology explains part or all of what we call religiosity.

We know the nerves of some make them more sensitive to spicy food. I'm not very spiritual, at least compared to Pentecostals I grew up around. Maybe if we knew enough about neurology, we'd see why my brain hangs up on things other brains accept.

Former Seventh Day Adventist pastor Ryan Bell, who blogged "A Year Without God,” said in a recent interview with Chris Stedman, “...the existence of God seems like an extra layer of complexity that isn’t necessary. The world makes more sense to me as it is, without postulating a divine being who is somehow in charge of things.”

But what does all this say about the world?

Moses didn't bring the Israelites stories of a burning bush; he showed them to a burning mountain. The book of Daniel tells of Nebuchadnezzar, and Cyrus, and Michael the archangel, moving back and forth heedless of modern categories. In Deuteronomy 13 and 18, Moses gives his people criteria to discern the credibility of prophets. In 2 Peter 1, the apostle Peter writes, “For we have not followed cunningly devised fables...but were eyewitnesses of his majesty....”

The Bible's argument is not that there are not false visions to be had or that the messengers are normal but that they witness something real. And even if we don't accept the Christian narrative, we have to face the possibility humans are social and religious because there's something real to which we are responding.

Sometimes doubts are windows that let wonder in.

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