Embodied faith

One of the fascinating questions for theologians and scientists is the relationship between our brains and religious experience or religious faith. The underlying question goes back at least to Descartes (you know, cogito, ergo sum, “I think, therefore I am”). But, in fact, the question lies at the heart of Christian anthropology, the relationship of body and soul. Whatever the traditional understanding of that relationship, it is profoundly challenged by contemporary neuroscience and philosophy.

Mark Vernon points to the problem:

A diverse group of philosophers and scientists are now arguing that the dominant 20th-century view of cognition, as a capacity of brains or minds, is inadequate. The alternative is often called embodied cognition. It examines the evidence that our bodies play a vital role in how we engage with the world. According to this view, bodies are not just life-support systems for the brain or sources of sensory inputs. Rather, bodies are integral to human thought.

The implication is clear. If bodies are integral to human thought, they are also integral to our religious lives.

He concludes:

if a religious sensibility needs an embodied foundation, this would explain why spiritual directors advise individuals to make pilgrimages, to experience liturgies and rituals, and to discipline and pattern their lives. These are activities that are about letting go, which is also a letting in. Something opens up to a new experience of life. Illumination is gained. Faith known first in the body may be the result.

Vernon is writing in response to a  series of posts by Julian Baggini, “Heathen’s Progress.” Baggini responds directly to Vernon’s views in another post, “The modern believer is not suspicious enough:”

A persistent pain is a pretty good indicator of the presence of bodily damage; the feeling that you have been touched by the Holy Spirit is only a good indicator that you have had a generic religious experience, shared by many the world over, and you have interpreted it according to the narratives and belief systems familiar to you.

Wherever one stands on this issue, and to the extent that every thought, including a religious idea or experience, is in some sense embodied (at the very least it is the product, in some sense, of neural activity), religious faith, or experience, is embodied.

But this raises another question: “Why might our minds be better suited to religion than science?”

Religion involves cognitive representations and cognitive processing that come naturally to human minds, while science traffics in radically counterintuitive representations and in forms of cognitive processing whose acquisition and mastery require disciplined reflective activity across many years of formal education.

For me, among the intriguing questions, apart from the theological and scientific questions, is the significance of all this for contemporary Christianity. We are seeing radical change in the nature of Christian community, with the decline in attendance and membership in mainline denominations and the rise of social media. What does embodied faith look like for young adults who connect via texting or facebook but may not attend services? Even more important, given the importance of embodiment in Christianity, the incarnation, the notion of the community as the body of Christ, embodied practices from the Eucharist to shared outreach, how do we make the connections with the bodies that shape and are shaped by belief?

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