Well, here goes a quick, shallow dive into neuroscience that inevitably brings oversimplification to complex phenomena. While we may speak of certain brain regions being more active or less active during different states of consciousness, those regions cannot be the sole cause of such states. That’s because the brain works as an integrated whole with connections between its various parts or modules.
Different Quakers worship differently during a meeting. Some may carry on a silent but wordy conversation with God, others may fantasize and daydream, some may allow recent events to pass through their consciousness, others may be half- or even completely asleep. However, many Friends engage in a process remarkably like, probably the same as, meditation. When we speak of “centering down” during a meeting, we are concentrating on clearing the mind just as meditators do in so-called “centering prayer.” That may involve focusing on an object or sound (Om) or may simply be a process of “brushing away” various random thoughts in order to arrive at an “inner emptiness.” This focusing involves the frontal brain lobes, where reason and morality largely reside.
As meditative emptying continues, respiration and heart beat slow. Blood pressure drops. If my memory of Biological Psychology serves me, the hypothalamus and the brain stem modulate this process. At some point, a significant release of dopamine is triggered in our Friendly brains. Dopamine has been called the “pleasure molecule” as it is also involved in the response to addictive drugs like cocaine or methamphetamine.
If our Friends continue to center down, PET brain scans reveal that their parietal lobes become less active. Among many functions, the parietal lobes orient us in space and time and appear to be instrumental in our sense of personal identity. When time, space, and identity disappear because of parietal silencing, people often have a sensation of oneness and unity with the Universe. They experience a mystical state that is sometimes interpreted as being with God. Consider a recent study of some thirty patients with traumatic damage to their right parietal lobe. These patients were more likely to express feelings of Universal Oneness than were “normal” subjects.
So, what can we make of all this? Is God merely an illusion produced by an abnormal brain state? Or is the brain capable of sensing two different realities: our daily, normal reality and a transcendent reality that is no illusion at all? There’s no way to know the answer to this question. Speaking for myself, I have faith that a spiritual brain can bring us into contact with a transcendent reality—God, the Eternal, Being Itself, Spirit, whatever you want to call it. It is, in my opinion, the same Reality that speaks to us in Meeting for Worship.
Much of this post relies on a Teaching Company video course taught by Dr. Andrew Newberg. The same material probably appears in his book, Neurotheology , which—however—I haven’t read.
Our Lord and Savior, the only Son of God, “God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God, One in Being with the Father.” That was how many of us first met Jesus. We met him as the man-god whose sacrifice on the cross saved us (potentially) from hell.
And that was how Marcus Borg, as a young Lutheran, first understood Jesus. But, after many years of soul-searching and academic study, Borg came to view Jesus, not as God, but as a man whose talents and gifts placed him in the same category as Mohammed and the Buddha.
In his book, Meeting Jesus Again, for the First Time, Borg talks about the post-Easter Jesus, the Jesus of faith, but concentrates on the pre-Easter Jesus, the historical Jesus, the man. Because our sources for Jesus’ life were written by people of faith, it’s exceedingly difficult to discern this pre-Easter Jesus under the layers of mythology that have covered him. However, Borg believes that we can at least come up with a “sketch” of the real Jesus.
Borg sees the historical Jesus as a man who showed the characteristics of four types of religious figures. He was 1) a spirit person, 2) a teacher of wisdom, 3) a social prophet, and 4) a movement founder.
A spirit person often appears in anthropological studies as a shaman or holy man. We would call such people mystics. They are aware of a spiritual dimension that underlies what we call reality. Spirit people can come into direct contact with this spiritual reality—what we may call God.
So, for example, the temptation of Jesus in the desert at the beginning of his ministry is a legend that probably derives from a real experience he had. Again, the Transfiguration, in which Jesus communes with Moses and Elijah, is a mystical experience that encouraged Jesus to affirm his ancestral religious inheritance in a new way.
Viewed from another angle, Jesus—in his parables and aphorisms—was a teacher of alternative wisdom. Examples abound: “A man cannot serve two masters.” “If salt has lost its flavor, what good is it?” “Let the dead bury the dead.”
And Jesus was also a social prophet who criticized the Judaean elite who collaborated with the Romans. “If the blind lead the blind, will they not all fall into the Pit?” When he chased the money lenders out of the Temple, Jesus was following the prophetic tradition of acting out a message from God. And that message was that the Scribes and Pharisees had substituted power and money for the true worship of God.
Of course, we would not have our Christian churches today if Jesus had not been the founder of a movement. We may grant Paul credit for extending Christianity across the Roman world, but we must remember that Jesus began the community with the Twelve Disciples and many other unnamed followers.
So, how do I personally view Jesus? Well, I certainly accept Borg’s analysis; but I go a bit further. While I don’t think that Jesus was literally God on Earth, I accept Peter’s response to Jesus at Caesarea Phillipi: “Thou art the Christ!” The Greek word Christos means “the anointed one”; and that was apparently how Jesus saw himself. Before he began his mission, he stood up in a synagogue and read the following verses from Isaiah:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.” (ESV)
After reading, with all eyes upon him, Jesus remarked, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” My personal belief, my personal faith is that this scripture remains relevant today.
For those interested in Borg’s book, which contains much more than I’ve outlined here, click on this link.
That’s the challenge of Ben Pink Dandelion’s 2014 Swarthmore Lecture. Pink Dandelion believes that the Society of Friends is sick, having been infected by modern secularism and individualism. To return to health, the Society needs to re-form, i.e., go back to the basic principles of Quakerism.
Pink Dandelion doesn’t mean that Quakers should abandon the Twenty-first century for the Seventeenth, but he does identify four cardinal principles upon which traditional Quakerism rests. Quakers 1) encounter the Divine directly, 2) use systems of discernment to interpret such encounters, 3) facilitate Divine encounters through silent worship, and 4) lead a particular kind of life grounded in these spiritual experiences.
In modern, liberal Quakerism number one is problematic since there are many liberal Quakers who don’t believe in God at all. There can be no encounter with something that doesn’t exist. For these Friends, number three—silent worship—becomes silent meditation. There is nothing to be worshiped.
Number two—systems of discernment—depends on a collective process in which the individual can rely on others for guidance. Certainly, there are still clearness committees and minutes of the entire meeting relating to an individual concern, but Quakerism has become progressively privatized. According to Pink Dandelion, most Quakers do not expect religion to follow them home after First Day Meeting. They do not really feel accountable to the meeting. No elders will show up at their homes to see whether they are leading a Quaker life. These Friends make their own decisions without interference from their co-religionists. Unfortunately, this kind of individualized religion vitiates the traditional process of discernment.
Number four is also problematic. In a privatized Quakerism, one may pick and choose among the many Testimonies in a Yearly Meeting’s Book of Discipline. And even individual testimonies are subject to interpretation. For example, Friends are usually advised to lead a simple life, but perhaps owning a Cadillac is simple if it leads to the peace of mind Quakers are supposed to have. And as regards drugs and intoxicating substances, aren’t there good drugs and bad drugs? Don’t some drugs in fact lead to personal integration if taken in moderation? And anyway, what’s wrong with a couple of beers after work or a joint just before bedtime?
In his defense of traditional, conservative Quakerism, Pink Dandelion muses, “Maybe we’ve too much said we love you and what is it you’d like us to be for you rather than saying we love you and this is who we are, and you’re welcome to join if that works for you.”
What is my opinion of Ben Pink Dandelion’s lecture? Well, I agree. However, the divide BPD sees between conservative and liberal Quakerism is a divide that splits my own personality. Part of me is a skeptical, modern materialist; part of me is a somewhat traditional Christian. The Christian part is dominant, but I do feel considerable sympathy for skeptics and non-theists who are drawn to the Society of Friends. Of course, ours is The Religious Society of Friends. Ben Pink Dandelion and I* want to keep the religious basis of Quakerism while welcoming all Seekers after Truth.
BPD ends his lecture on a positive note. He advises us to “inhabit” the four cardinal principles of Quakerism. If we do so, he says, we will be transformed and become agents of transformation for others. For a YouTube video of his Swarthmore lecture, click HERE. For the lecture in book form, click HERE.
*I’m not actually a member of any meeting at the present time.
In the twenty-first century, Quakers are noted for their individuality. Nevertheless, if we review the various Testimonies found in Books of Discipline, a picture emerges of the ideal Quaker: a gentle, soft-spoken person with no detectable racial bias or animus toward those who are less well-off. In fact, feelings of compassion and mercy are stirred whenever our ideal Quaker sees a poor family struggling with basic needs.
Well, I’m obviously not an ideal Quaker. I can, for example, get angry with partisans of Donald Trump, and thoughts of repugnance at the poor sometimes pop into my mind. The latter occurs, for example, when I’m working at Walmart as a cashier and am checking out a large family with unkempt, noisy children who climb onto the conveyor belt. The overweight parents are buying cokes, chips, and candy with the food stamps they’ve gotten from the government. “How gross!” or something like that flashes through my head.
Now, if thoughts are indicative of character, that means I’m a person who sneers at the poor and considers myself superior to them. However, contrary to the Freudian model of the mind, thoughts do not necessarily reflect a person’s basic personality or character. A thought may be only a random, ephemeral phenomenon produced by an accidental firing of synapses in the brain.
However, if I dwell on such a thought and worriedly concentrate on it, I may develop a pattern of thinking such thoughts, i.e., a neurotic obsession-compulsion. Rather than mulling over an unwelcome thought, it’s best to ignore it, to brush it to one side, as it were. With such a technique, thoughts of hatred and disdain lose their power and do not lead to any kind of action.
A textbook case of this process is described in NPR’s Invisibilia podcast. A man known as “S,” very much in love with his wife, was bothered by intrusive thoughts of killing her. He became so anxious over this mental violence as to become a complete recluse. Only when he was treated by a “mindfulness” psychiatrist did he get relief. He still had thoughts of stabbing his wife, but he no longer paid attention to the thoughts. They could harmlessly drift away.
And, in my case, thoughts of hatred toward the poor are more than counter-balanced by thoughts of compassion. I let the disgust evaporate before it can really become bothersome. I concentrate on the thoughts of love and empathy that arise in my mind. Those are the thoughts I choose to define me.
There is the question of unconscious racial bias among white people. If an African American passes me on the right side of a one-lane freeway entrance ramp, I may think, “You Black *#%! That thought, in and of itself, is no proof of racial bias. However, if negative thoughts about African Americans pop up regularly in my mind, if there’s a pattern of such thoughts, or if such thoughts lead to discriminatory actions, that’s evidence for racial prejudice (although it could theoretically be a compulsive obsession like “S” suffered from).
Especially telling are incidents in which, out of fear of African Americans, white persons call the police when they observe people of color performing the ordinary actions of daily life. These bad thoughts leading to bad actions almost certainly result from the racism of the thinkers.
To conclude, thoughts may or may not be indicative of a stable personality trait, may or may not be indicative of racial bias, for example. We must look at how people act to deduce how they are; and, even then, we must be careful about judging another person.
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