(The Neuroscience of Faith & Sanctification Series)
Christianity is often lifeless and powerless because we fail to engage more than our intellect. Think about how we tend to think of devotions- studying the bible. Our path to God is parsing the Greek or Hebrew, linking the verses that we are reading to other verses, and forming ideas about doctrine and theology. The activity of bible study is often simply intellectual. We seek to learn something new or reinforce as aspect of our understanding of Christianity, but it is rarely transformative because change and growth do not tend to occur with the acquisition of knowledge.
What is so powerful about singing in worship songs is that it engages more than just our intellect. The act of singing itself engages more of our brains than simply speaking or reading, but if we allow ourselves to be focused on the moment and engage our emotions we have entered into an entirely different experience that activates large portions of our brain and possible the heart and “gut” regions of our body. More importantly, if we are thinking about God and FEELING something, than we are in a relational act that has impact. We are no longer simply thinking about God and what He wants; we are encountering him.
The cultural fascination of the American church with hymns and the theology they embody has failed to take into account cultural changes. What was meaningful to one generation may not be meaningful to another. I recently had a client who was very uncomfortable with his emotions and clearly had trouble experiencing God’s love. He had a distaste for all the emotionality that took place in churches like Hillsong. My recommendation? Start attending one of those churches. He needed to understand what was preventing him from embracing his emotions and learn how to engage them in his relationship with God. I’m not advocating one church over another, I do not currently attend a church with contemporary worship, but for him it was important. Think about it for a moment, music is not a purely intellectual exercise? Why not simply recite praises to God? Why include instruments? If we are truly honest with ourselves, music is intentionally designed to evoke emotion and experience. And this emotional exercise is part of most church services!
The bottom line is that a relationship cannot be purely intellectual. We experience people on a heart and gut level. There is a “felt sense” of a person that we engage in. When we are in relationship there is an activation of our social reward network—specific parts of the brain and specific neurotransmitters.
The most important part of this series is that everything needs to be understood and viewed through the lens of relationship and relationship is a whole-body experience. As we think about what it means to be a Christian or grow as a Christian, it all happens within the context of relating to God and relationship occurs in the brain, mind, heart and gut.
Thanksgiving is a great time to practice this kind of relationship because gratitude engages our hearts as well as our rational brain, sometimes it can engage our “gut” too! As you think about the things you are thankful for, try and remember how those good things felt and pay attention to your emotions and the physical sensations in your heart and chest as you thank God for the good things in your life! Have a Happy Thanksgiving!(everyone in the US)
Next Week: The Jesus Homunculus!