Can We Measure the Scientific Benefits of Christian Contemplation?

A recent article on the UK-based website Christian Today (not to be confused with Christianity Today) poses the question “Can Science Prove Christian Meditation Works?” (click on the link to read the article).

The author notes that spirituality is a “hot topic” these days, and so speculates how Christian forms of meditation stack up against meditation practices from other religious traditions and/or secular forms of meditation.

“Buddhist meditation has long had a big advantage over Christian contemplation, because the latter hasn’t been scientifically researched,” warns the author of the article, who goes on to describe a recent research study done on a group of retreatants at a Jesuit center in Pennsylvania. Noting that the results of this study were “preliminary,” the author nonetheless enthusiastically reported that the “Christian meditators reported that their physical health improved, feelings of stress decreased and they also experienced an increased sense of the transcendent,” along with more objective data, such as positive changes in their levels of dopamine and serotonin.

Another study, this time of Carmelite nuns, “demonstrated that the sisters’ reported mystical experiences of union with God did show up on brain scans.”

The author concludes with this observation:

Future studies involving more people will be needed to develop these insights. For example, it is unclear what are the main ‘active ingredients’ in spiritual practices and retreats. Is it the practice of prayer or the sense of being in a spiritual place? There is also the question of how religious retreats differ from secular retreats, and whether going on holiday or being with a loved one might be equally transformative.

Image credit: Shutterstock.
Image credit: Shutterstock.

What are we to make of all this?

I agree with the author’s contention that Buddhists are not the only ones who have a meaningful spiritual practice (although, to be fair, so many Christians, including Christian clergy and church leaders, are so unaware of our own contemplative heritage that it’s no wonder that people outside the church have no sense of Christianity as a contemplative path; we have our work cut out for us just remembering our own spiritual heritage). And hopefully science-based research into the physiological changes and benefits of sustained spiritual peace will help us to understand the nature of those practices better, especially on a purely material level.

Even so, this article, brief and general though it is, does raise a few red flags for me.

Trying to measure the scientific efficacy of Christian contemplation, or, for that matter, comparing the “benefits” of Christian prayer to other meditation practices, seems a bit like wondering if my marriage is happier than yours. Sure, it makes sense to understand happiness and to engage in best practices to build a happy marriage — but comparing my marriage to yours is not a best practice. As soon as we reduce Christian prayer to a place where we can measure its “effectiveness” or “scientific merit,” we’ve stripped it of its essence, which is spiritual rather than therapeutic. To further my marriage analogy: for a marriage to be happy, paradoxically, the partners in the marriage need to be devoted to giving love rather than just to seeking happiness.

Happiness in marriage (as in life) comes not because we selfishly try to make ourselves happy, but rather because in loving others, we create the space in our lives for happiness to flourish. It’s a matter of trust. Just as with every exhalation I trust that more oxygen will be available for me to inhale, likewise when I choose to give my life in love to my wife, I trust that this gesture is what is best, regardless of how “happy” I am from day to day or even season to season.

The point behind contemplation is loving and adoring God, not accessing tools to manage my life better. Many contemplatives find that because they pray, their lives are better; but that is a happy side-effect and not the main point. If we try to reduce contemplation’s worth to what it does for us, we’ve stripped it of its mystical value and left only an exercise, geared toward personal fulfillment rather than spiritual worship. It becomes a narcissistic, experience-addicted parody of true contemplation.

For years I have known Buddhist leaders who struggle with the trendiness of mindfulness therapies. They see the mindfulness movement as subtly undermining the riches and beauty of authentic Buddhist dharma. If meditation is just something I do to manage my life better, then who needs enlightenment, or for that matter, compassion and service?

I pray that, as the scientific community takes a closer look at Christian forms of prayer, meditation, and contemplation, that our spiritual treasures do not suffer a similar fate.

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