In his recent book Minds, Brains, Souls and Gods: A Conversation on Faith, Psychology and Neuroscience Malcolm Jeeves, emeritus professor of Psychology at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, answers questions about psychology and neuroscience in the form of an e-mail conversation with a fictional undergraduate student. The questions posed by “Ben” represent the cumulative experience of more than half a century interacting with students taking psychology. Many of the questions came to Jeeves personally, others were suggested by friends and and colleagues … questions they had been asked by students and occasionally out of the blue through e-mails from people around the world.
One of the questions posed by Ben involves the nature of divine guidance – does neuroscience have anything to teach us here? What roles do reason, emotion or feeling, and dramatic experiences play in divine guidance? Is it just in our heads? In his response Jeeves makes four major points.
(1) Although there are episodes in Scripture where there is dramatic and direct guidance through visions and voices, we are not encouraged to see these as the norm. “Hearing voices and seeing visions can be strong pointers to psychopathology, and with suitable drug treatment the visions disappear and the voices can be cured.” (p. 146)
(2) We cannot make a clean separation between rational thought, emotions, and feelings. That is we cannot disconnect mind and emotion. Emotions and intuitions often guide human responses and “without knowing why, we often just feel that this or that is the right thing to do.” (p. 147)
(3) We need to learn from the past and keep our minds fully engaged. He refers to Paul and to St. Ignatius who reminded us that a careful and deliberative processes is the preferred way. “Keep the mind fully engaged and then, because of how we are made, our emotions will play their proper part.” (p. 148)
But his final point is the one that really caught my attention.
(4) Social psychology and neuroscience has much to teach us. Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.
Finally, there’s all the work on social neuroscience … where we are constantly reminded of the key importance of social interaction in our cognitive processes, our neural processes and our decision making, and hence in guidance.
This as you know, resonates with pervasive biblical themes about the importance of membership in the community of faith. … Membership in the church community of believers is not an optional extra for the Christian who happens to like making friends and being with other people. Being a member of the community of the church is part of who and what we are. (p. 148 emphasis added)
In this answer Malcolm Jeeves refers to a book he wrote with David G. Myers, Psychology Through the Eyes of Faith, a book I happened to pick up last summer. The section on social psychology begins with a look at nice people and evil doers and the rather profound role that social interactions can have on the behavior of individuals for good, or for ill. This is a fascinating chapter that points out the nature of collective evil.
If evil is a personal aberration, then its remedy must also be personal. … The way to deal with sin is to convert the individual.
But research clearly reveals that the human problem is also collective and that these individualistic remedies often deliver less than expected. True, evil emanates from the hearts of individuals. … Yet evil also accumulates onto a power that transcends and corrupts even well meaning individuals. (p. 187-188)
Myers and Jeeves summarize some of the research including a study where subjects were separated into groups of prisoners and guards. The act of role-playing had a profound effect on the players, both guards and prisoners.
The steel bars symbolize as well the way in which destructive role relations can affect rich and poor, white and black, husband and wife, employer and employee, teacher and student. Evil behavior is sometimes structured into the very roles we are forced to play. (p. 190)
The roles we are forced to play, convinced to play, enticed to play, encultured to play, the list goes on. Myers and Jeeves conclude this section:
Precisely because sin has a collective aspect, we must also make a collective response to it. … Since we are not self sufficient, we stand in need of the church’s corporate fellowship. Only in that context can we adequately struggle against the with the evil within and about us.
It is the whole believing people, not isolated believers, that is the body of Christ. To say that the church is Christ’s body reminds us that together we can admonish one another. Together we can enable each other to minister … To repeat, evil is collective as well as personal and so requires a collective as well as a personal response. (p. 191-192)
There is an incredibly important point here. When it comes to discerning God’s direction we stand in need of the church’s corporate fellowship. We have no evidence, certainly no biblical evidence, that God calls solo Christians as individual bodies of Christ.
But … like voices, feelings, and reason, the corporate fellowship of a church can be an imperfect guide. A church can turn from the way of God, in small wanderings or in massive defections. Churches are not immune from the psychology of group think or othering, from the intoxication of power, pride, and/or ambition, not immune from corporate evil. The pressure to play roles can have a strong effect on Christians for good and for ill. How do we distinguish divine guidance from human frailty? Am I genuinely called as a Christian teacher and scientist or should I find fulfillment as a submissive homemaker? I bring up the last not to make trouble, but as a Christian scholar and a woman I would get very different answers from different churches as we all know.
This leads to several questions worth some discussion.
How does God guide and direct?
What place is there for voices and visions, emotions, or reason?
How can we know if a corporate church is on the right track?
How do we find (or grow) churches that provide the corporate fellowship of God’s people?
What might we learn from social psychology or neuroscience?
If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at] att.net.
If interested you can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.