Faith and the Human Brain
It seems as if the general public's appetite for all things 'brain' is increasing. More and more, neuro-mania is creeping into all aspects of contemporary consciousness, so it should come as no surprise that two recently published books directly referencing the brain, discoveries in neuroscience, and their impact on Christianity are offered up for consideration.
Sir Malcolm Jeeves, one of the world's premier neuroscientists, has spent decades thinking deeply about the mind-brain link and matters of faith. A prolific researcher, Jeeves addresses an array of familiar topics in his latest book, Minds, Brains, Souls and Gods: A Conversation on Faith, Psychology and Neuroscience (IVP Academic), but this time with a twist. Modeled after C.S. Lewis' Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, the book takes the form of a correspondence between Jeeves, a seasoned scholar with deep philosophical and theological anchors, and a hypothetical student, Ben, who is exploring these questions for the first time. In these exchanges, the text addresses questions about neuroscience, faith, and the sort of things you would expect undergraduate students studying neuroscience to ask. The questions posed—How Free Am I?, But What About the Soul?, What Makes Us Human?—form the basis of the 19 chapters.
The conversations read like emails that relate to the translation of biblical terms in Genesis, their original Hebrew, and other matters of theological anthropology. There are some contemporary questions about how modern brain imaging studies impact the way we think about faith, and it is here that the text most satisfies. An excellent and detailed exchange explores the nature of the soul and how well it fits within the Christian faith. Free will, the authority of Scripture, human uniqueness, and morality are addressed, some receiving more extensive treatment than others. The dialogue in "Does My Brain Have a 'God Spot'?" is engaging, and I particularly enjoyed how it draws to a close. Jeeves has a knack for bringing the conversation back to an invitation to consider how spirituality and neurology need not necessarily be antagonistic.
The God-Shaped Brain: How Changing Your View of God Transforms Your Life (IVP Books), by Timothy R. Jennings, is an altogether different read from Jeeves'. Where Minds, Brains, Souls and Gods comes across as an academic endeavor, The God-Shaped Brain is more accessible and clearly written for a broad, popular audience. Jennings' book is filled with personal stories and anecdotes taken from his medical practice. The writing is colloquial, and while the level of systematic theology may not be as deep as in Jeeves' text, many of the same topics and issues are addressed. Interpretation of Scripture, matters of morality and agency, human brokenness and spirituality are complemented by a litany of medical analogies that are used to draw connections to familiar matters of faith in ways that even those without significant training can connect with.
Jennings does an admirable job of introducing neurological systems to the uninitiated, and he makes a good-faith attempt to educate readers about the complexity of the brain. The bulk of the text's informal style includes attempts to make connections between the structure, circuitry, and function of the brain and familiar matters of faith such as fear, doubt, sin, and love. This is done with varying levels of success, but it provides a good starting point for those who are just beginning their investigation of these issues.
The tenor of Jeeves' book strikes a tutorial chord, whereas Jennings' text comes across as more pastoral and personal in its storytelling format. Engaging the obvious and/or hard questions that advances in neuroscience bring to the table of faith need not be restricted to a singular starting point. For those without a background in natural or social science, Jennings' informal and idiomatic theological style may be preferable as a starting point to wade into the issues before diving headlong into the deeper waters that Jeeves explores in his conversations. But both are worthwhile texts.
William M. Struthers is a professor of psychology at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Ill., and the author of Wired for Intimacy: How Pornography Hijacks the Male Brain (IVP, 2009).