Our Pantheist Future

David Brooks' column on neuroscience and religion has attracted a fair amount of comment from my favorite bloggers: Andrew is favorable, Rod is puzzled, Dougherty and Larison dismissive. Here's Brooks' conclusion:

If you survey the literature ... you can see that certain beliefs will spread into the wider discussion. ... First, the self is not a fixed entity but a dynamic process of relationships. Second, underneath the patina of different religions, people around the world have common moral intuitions. Third, people are equipped to experience the sacred, to have moments of elevated experience when they transcend boundaries and overflow with love. Fourth, God can best be conceived as the nature one experiences at those moments, the unknowable total of all there is.

In their arguments with Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, the faithful have been defending the existence of God. That was the easy debate. The real challenge is going to come from people who feel the existence of the sacred, but who think that particular religions are just cultural artifacts built on top of universal human traits. It’s going to come from scientists whose beliefs overlap a bit with Buddhism.

In unexpected ways, science and mysticism are joining hands and reinforcing each other. That’s bound to lead to new movements that emphasize self-transcendence but put little stock in divine law or revelation. Orthodox believers are going to have to defend particular doctrines and particular biblical teachings. They’re going to have to defend the idea of a personal God, and explain why specific theologies are true guides for behavior day to day.

Now I take the Larison-Dougherty point that defending particular doctrines and particular Biblical teachings is what Christianity has more or less always been about, and that a faith based purely on "elevated experience" and "self-transcendence" isn't really any faith at all anyway, let alone a serious challenger to the Christian tradition. Another way of putting this would be to note that Christians can agree with the second and third of Brooks' four beliefs and vigorously dispute the last of them. Neither the commonality of moral intuitions across cultures nor the universal availability of some form of religious experience are notions that are particularly threatening to Christian orthodoxy (or to the other monotheistic faiths); what is threatening, out of Brooks' litany, is the notion that the sort of baseline spiritual experiences that neuroscientists can measure is the only sort of spiritual experience there is, and that we should define the concept of God as the sum of humanity's lowest-common-denominator encounters with the numinous.

This notion's major premise is summed up nicely by Brooks as follows: "Particular religions are just cultural artifacts built on top of universal human traits." No, the Christian would say: Particular religious systems are cultural artifacts, in a sense, yes, but they're artifacts built around specific human experiences, not universal ones. Christian theology and Christian ritual are compatible with the universal human ability to experience the sacred through prayer and meditation, but they're "built on top" of particular encounters and revelations that tend to have little in common with the "transcending boundaries/overflowing with love" experiences that neuroscientists are equipped to measure. Indeed, in both the Old and New Testaments, the foundational encounters with God - the religious experiences that created Judaism and Christianity - are nothing like a meditative, free-floating sense of one-ness with the universe. Instead, whether it's Moses encountering the burning bush or Job being addressed out of the whirlwind or the disciples encountering the Risen Christ, the encounters with God that shape the Judeo-Christian tradition tend to be extremely personal on the one hand (God has a personality, a voice, even a body; He isn't just some cosmic soup we can all go swimming in) and extremely terrifying and difficult to comprehend on the other. Within the post-Resurrection Christian tradition, too, the defining encounters with the divine have followed a similar pattern - from Paul on the road to Damascus and John on Patmos down through monastics wrestling with demons, saints being addressed out of crucifixes, the various apparitions of the Virgin Mary and so forth. And the higher Christian mysticism, in particular, is defined by its emphasis on the need to move beyond the warm love bath that may - as Andrew suggests - represent our initial apprehension of the nature of the divine into the vastly more difficult terrain traversed by figures like Saint John of the Cross and Mother Teresa.

Having said all this, though, I think that Brooks is basically right: I don't think that the "neural Buddhism" (or "neural Pantheism," more aptly) that he's talking about is an intellectually serious challenger to the great monotheistic faiths, but then I'm in the tank for Christendom, and what I'm looking for in a religion doesn't seem to be what most Americans are looking for. In a society that's simultaneously shot through with spiritual yearnings and addicted to the idea that Science can solve all of life's problems, an approach to spirituality that dispenses with the weirdness and scariness and miraculousness of the Judeo-Christian encounter with God, throws a scientific patina on prayer and meditation and promises that Love is all you need seems like a pretty obvious winner. Especially since replacing a personal God with an impersonal Love Force seems to be a popular - if to my mind puzzling - way around the problem of theodicy for a great many people who take the Holocaust to have disproven the Christian conception of God. Also, what Tocqueville said.

And with that, I'll kick the subject over to Mr. Pantheism himself, James Poulos.