The God Cocktail

ThinkingJesusIn ’03 there was a small Indy film, Dopamine. The story involves a young computer programmer who is part of a small tech start up in the Bay Area developing an artificially-lived computer character. The cartoon-like bird, can “hear,” “see,” and “interact,” with the user. The tech company manages to place its prototype in a children’s classroom. The programmer develops a relationship with one of the classroom teachers. The situation raises interesting questions for him:

Are human beings essentially different from the computer-generated bird? Are we only very sophisticated chemical systems that react to others in an equally sophisticated manner?

To raise the level of poignancy, the young man also has a mother suffering from Alzheimer’s. He sees a once beautiful relationship between his parents disappear as his father is reduced to the role of caretaker. His initial take on life is indeed that we are no more than complex chemical reactions – his mother’s loss is tragic but still only as a shift of chemicals. However, he begins to discover (perhaps to hope?) that there is something more that cannot be quantified. It is a story of modern love as well (by analogy) as a story of the modern search for God.

The more we understand of our world, the more troublesome becomes our thought about ourselves within the world. If my experience of the world is inherently mediated by chemicals (via neurons, etc.), and that same experience can be significantly altered by altering the chemicals (increased serotonin, norepinephrine, dopamine, etc.), am I anything more than the sum-total of the chemical cocktail in my brain? What is the place of the self, the soul? Where is God in the chemical equation? Is there a chemistry of religious belief (and unbelief)?

Of course, there is nothing new in these questions. Materialism in one form or another (“the material universe is all there is”) has been an live option since the birth of philosophy in Greece. What is new is our increasing understanding of the workings of the material world and the sense of cogency that accompanies it. Materialism seems yet more cogent (sensible and plausible) because we can increasingly use only material arguments to account for all that we see.

Christians can easily become disquieted at this turn of events. The growing materialism of the modern world feels quite threatening for some. Many simply choose not to think too much about these things or grasp at every scientific straw that might lend support for the faith. My own thought is that the clash between materialism and the Christian faith is the result of bad theology and the failure to understand some very foundational aspects of the faith.

St. John Chrysostom, in the prayer of the Anaphora, describes God as “ineffable, beyond comprehension, invisible, beyond understanding, existing forever and always the same” (ἀνέκφραστος, ἀπερινόητος, ἀόρατος, ἀκατάληπτος, ἀεὶ ὢν ὡσαύτως ὤν). God is uncreated, utterly unlike anything created. But we believe that the Uncreated became a Creature in the Incarnation of Christ. This is the primary revelation of God: “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father,” Christ says (Jn. 14:9). We also believe that it is possible to perceive God, to recognize His work, to know and understand His presence and His action (“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” Mat. 5:8 NKJ). This latter reference notes, however, that such perception is also related to an inner state (pure in heart). This perception can be generous in the extreme (the “wise thief” sees Christ and understands everything “in a single moment” despite his criminal life). But such a generous perception is not at all the same thing as a material object, or within the category of material objects. God does not present Himself as an object – thus not in an objective manner. The human experience of objects (and “objectivity”) is not an example of evidence, reason and acceptance. The human experience of objects is that we take them or leave them, ignore them, use them, abuse them, lie about them, etc. Were God to present Himself as an object among objects, the fate of such a presence would differ in no way from that of other objects. The Incarnation is a case in point. God is objectively present in Christ – and we killed Him. Thus it is not at all true that God could make the case for His existence in a manner that would be salvific if He but accommodated Himself to our objective requirements.

In the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16), the Rich Man cries out to Father Abraham to let the poor man, Lazarus, return from the dead and go to his brothers and warn them.

Then he said,`I beg you therefore, father, that you would send him to my father’s house, `for I have five brothers, that he may testify to them, lest they also come to this place of torment.’ “Abraham said to him,`They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.’ “And he said,`No, father Abraham; but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ “But he said to him,`If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.’ (Luk 16:27-31 NKJ)

This parable sees something of a literal fulfillment in Christ’s raising his friend, Lazarus, from the dead. What we are told is that it is precisely from the time of the miracle of Lazarus’ raising that the leaders sought to kill Christ (Jn. 11:53) and that they sought to kill Lazarus as well (Jn. 12:10).

But God is merciful. The flow of a life between unbelief and belief is something of a dance and a journey. He gives us Himself in accordance to the ability of our heart. He draws us to Him, often imperceptibly. Even in the life of belief, the dance and journey continue. For there, we are told, we see Christ “in a mirror, dimly” (1Co 13:12 NKJ). The “dimness” of our present perception is a reflection of our heart and not of the quality of the revelation. As the continue in the journey, the mirror becomes yet more clear.

But what of the chemical mix, the brew within our brain within and through which we experience the world? Would an increase of dopamine or serotonin change our perception of the mysterious God? My own experience in life says no. My brain has been “all over the map” in the course of my lifetime. My perception of God has sometimes been more clear during times of great depression and quite dim when it was otherwise. And the opposite has been true as well. The perception of God is, in the teachings of the spiritual fathers, not driven by our emotional or mental states. It exists both within and beside these states.

There is a perception, a “seeing” that is beside the seeing of the mind. This is the perception of the heart. The tendency of our mind (thoughts and feelings) is to fragment everything. We see details. We are overwhelmed with details. We experience the world as a cacophony of the senses. Repelled by one and attracted by another, we stumble through life like a drunken man, pushed and pulled by the things around us. This is a description of the passionate life. With increased purity of the heart, however, there comes the increased ability to perceive the whole. To see one thing, not only as itself but in its relations as well, is the beginning of knowing the logos of something. Were we to perceive everything in such a manner, we would perceive the truth of all things. For nothing is as it is in itself, but only as it is in relation (including most especially its relation to God).

If there is a strength in our modern way of seeing, it is in the power unleashed by the focused seeing of one thing. The so-called scientific view breaks the universe into component parts and in all things seeks for causes and effects. Knowledge of one thing (more or less) splits the atom. But the failure to see all things and the logoi of their existence turns such power into sheer destruction. We know a great deal while knowing almost nothing. The question: where is God in the chemical cocktail, is the question of the scientist – it is to look for God as an atom among the atoms.

As a modern man (inescapably), I have most often found God at the borders and edge of my existence. Overwhelmed by the fragmentation of my own mind, I begin to know God in my not-knowing. It is to take my reason to the boundaries of its ability and allow myself to see just beyond that. It is also to step back and refuse to see all things as fragments. To see all things in relation is also to cease to be an observer (in some manner). For if all things are in relation, then I am in relation as well, not as observer but as participant. To see myself as participant is itself a small form of ascesis, or spiritual training. It is a requirement of love – for love has no objects, only participants.

In the film I referenced at the beginning of this article, the young man is thrown into confusion by the contradictions of his experience. Either life is nothing more than the chemistry of his brain, and thus no more significant than the digital programming of a computer model, or there is something unquantifiable, something “ineffable, beyond comprehension, invisible, beyond understanding,” etc. within our experience and just beyond the edge of our knowing. His choice lies between the fragmented mastery of the chemical equation and union with the Joy that extends beyond.

Belief in God makes a choice that is not dissimilar.

Comments

  1. Dino says

    Superb Father!

    This is a fantastic and most sober critique of what often poses as one of the most common reasons for modern unbelief.

    This leads on smoothly from the comments section in the previous essay…

    it is not at all true that God could make the case for His existence in a manner that would be salvific if He but accommodated Himself to our objective requirements.

    Science as a knowledge of ‘appearances and functions’ is immensely inferior to Spiritual Knowledge, as Knowledge of the Essences (“Logoi”) of creatures.
    And that is simply: ONLY concerning the created;

    how much more of a distance then must there exist between the paucity of what Science (“Scientism” to be more precise) presumes it can ‘know’ of the Uncreated One (or rather the supposed preposterous probability of His existence), from what He actually reveals through His Revelation to the pure in heart… ( often directly!)

  2. mary benton says

    Father Stephen – This is indeed one of your best. There is a great deal to ponder here and I plan to take more time to soak in it…

    I believe I mentioned before but would like to mention again a book that has recently become fairly popular: “Proof of Heaven” by Eben Alexander. He is a neurosurgeon who wasn’t convinced of anything spiritual until he had his own near death experience.

    I listened to it on CD and was captivated because, as a scientist, he could look at all of the “scientific” explanations he would have given for his experience – and found that none of them applied. For him it was proof – because he saw, experienced and learned while his brain was off-line. (He had always assumed before that there could only be experience through the brain and when the brain was dead, all was gone.)

    Then, I read critiques of the book by people who were not at all swayed by his story and discounted him in a variety of ways. This too was fascinating. With our world being full of information AND misinformation, no one knows what to believe and so we tend to not believe anything or we believe what we want to be true. In a sense, we no longer believe in “proof” – because next week the newspaper will say something different.

    Left to our own devices, we humans certainly make a mess of things. Thank you again for being willing to ask the hard questions (or letting us ask them).

  3. Michael Bauman says

    I’ve never been attracted to the concept of materialism. My parents simply taught me that all that we take as the material world is contingent, inter-relational and only a part of our reality.

    Still, until I found the Church I struggeled with the false bifurcation of being that modernity tries to force on us. I sought unity of mind and heart, body and soul without sacrificing one for the other. I tended to assume goodness at that point in my life and so looked for an explanation for evil. Christianity was what made sense.

    It took a long time, however, to come to the point where I longed for union with Christ and through that deepening communion with Him, I began to come to the wholeness of myself. Still more in theory than reality but it helps me live in hope.

  4. Karen says

    This looking for “God” in the brain thing is starting to be ubiquitous now. I happened to catch a segment of the “Dr. Oz” show this past week. Dr. Daniel Amen (another PBS “guru” of the brain) was featured and had hooked up a woman who is a well-known medium (as in occult spiritualist) to electrodes connected to a machine that reads brain waves. Her brain waves changed dramatically when she was in communication with the spirits. For Dr. Oz and Dr. Amen, this was the “evidence” the “spirits” really objectively existed.

    When I was a student at an Evangelical college, the psychology dept. conducted a seminar with a special speaker who presented findings of a study comparing the brain activity of people praying “in tongues” and people praying in their own language to see if there was any difference (this was back in the late 70s, early 80s). One of my psych. profs. was there. He was a cessationist, raised Southern Baptist, and believed “speaking in tongues” was an occult happening for which one had to be in some kind of altered state of consciousness. He was quite flummoxed when the study found there were no differences between the brain activity of a person praying in tongues and one praying in their own learned language.

    I believe these two studies do reflect something of spiritual reality, but in order to understand exactly what that is and to know how to interpret this data, it is still necessary for spiritual discernment (purity of heart).

  5. fatherstephen says

    I assume that my “chemistry” interacts with God. It’s just that I also accept that my chemistry has a relationship with God that is analogous to what the sacrament has or an icon has. That relationship very likely doesn’t show up on a chemistry chart, though states of thought and feelings that accompany them certainly will show up. When I experienced God in a deep depression, I think that the deep depression would have been what showed up on someone’s chart. In that sense, there is no “God chart” of the brain. Though, I dare say, that just as the Church’s experience teaches, states of calm and quiet are conducive to greater awareness of communion. The heart rate might slow, etc. But God is not the heart rate nor the rate of respiration. He is not the chemical.

    I did not choose to lengthen the article to go as far as my thought was going (it was already long enough). But I was thinking about the relationship of the “true self” to the “ego,” as I’ve written about before. They are not at all the same thing. There is some kind of relationship, but mostly of a tangential nature. When I have fully contemplated the “true self” part of me becomes quite uncomfortable. My ego wants to live forever, just as my ego wants to be God (even though it won’t admit it). The thought of my ego being extinguished is quite frightening at times. My knowledge and experience of the self is still quite young and sometimes feels uncertain. It is not sustained in the same manner as the ego. The ego, feels more “objective,” though nothing could be more ephemeral than the tissue of lies, anxieties, doctored-up narratives, etc., that actually constitute the ego.

    I do not think that the modern experience of “tongues” is itself a product of the Holy Spirit. I believe it is a technique (though its practitioners would doubtless reject this). As a technique, I’ve thought of it as “jazz prayer” (indeed, the use of “scat” in Jazz singing is quite similar). It is a means of engaging emotion and sometimes an altered state of consciousness through the technique of speaking nonsense (most people’s “prayer language” is quite repetitive and belongs to its own “dialect”). Old line Pentecostals sound distinctly different than modern mainline charismatics. Is it legitimate. Certainly as legitimate as “swooning” (as the Methodists called it in Wesley’s time, or “being slain in the Spirit” as it is called today). I do not think either is a result of the Spirit, but is a distinct cultural phenomenon (anthropologically speaking). Orthodox sobriety properly takes a very dim view of such religious expressions. However, the fervor that necessarily accompanies them also makes for strong religious convictions and sometimes moral convictions. But in the past decade or two I’ve seen phenomena not unrelated at American political rallies (which resemble nothing so much as American religious rallies). It’s not hard to understand why anyone who has come out of all of that doubts everything asserted about God everywhere. It has certainly made me doubt everything about politics.

  6. Karen says

    Those two studies essentially just showed an altered state of consciousness in the first (specifically, greatly suppressed activity in the frontal lobes, and hyperactivity in the temporal lobes of the kind “normally associated with seizures and states of extreme stress and high anxiety” according to Dr. Amen!) and a normal conscious state in the second correlated with the phenomena in question.

    The results of the Dr. Oz Show experiment certainly do tend to validate the teachings of my faith that forbid any involvement in occult mediumistic activity! The frontal lobes, among other things, are the seat of our higher order of mental functions of planning, reasoning, our capacity for making judgments related to empathy and sympathy, and our capacity for the recognition of deception! (No joke!) Another thing particularly troubling about the Dr. Oz segment for me was that Dr. Amen (who I have gathered is a species of Christian by conviction based on things he has written), commented that the brain wave change for the medium under her “influence” validated that things like the “prophets mentioned in the OT” and other such things not explainable by science are “real.” I was horrified (but not surprised given the venue) that he would give the impression this mediumistic occult activity was essentially the same as that of genuine prophets of Holy Scripture who were in communion with the true God! I’d like to write the man and ask him, if he genuinely believes in Christ, what the heck he was thinking to give such an impression! (That’s my ego talking there for sure!)

    The second study suggests that the activity of speaking in tongues (for Christians–it didn’t have subjects who were occult practitioners, in which case there may have been a different result perhaps) is a human activity akin to normal praying from one’s own conscious state. It certainly doesn’t suggest anything other than what you have offered by way of explanation. It also debunked my former prof’s prejudiced expectation, which amused me no end since I was a Pentecostal at the time! :-)

    I have pondered the relationship of my “self” to my “ego” following your writing on these issues. I don’t know that I know my “self” hardly at all. I’m so used to dealing from my ego and know all those anxieties, lies (except I often take them for granted as true), doctored narratives, judgments, etc., quite well! I suspect that my self is just me with all my memories, thoughts and emotions, etc., rightly ordered as a result of my deepest awareness properly opened up to and connected to God. Needless to say, I’m not there yet.

    Anyway, thanks for this very insightful reflection. Lots of good stuff to ponder there.

  7. says

    Fr. Stephen,

    I agree with Dino & Mary…one of your best!

    Speaking of studies: I saw a show recently (episode of Through The Wormhole) in which they tested the brain activity of those who prayed or in the case of atheists meditated. With the followers of Judaism, Christianity & Islam, the areas of the brain associated with personal interaction & vocalization became extremely active, conclusion: these groups believe in God who is a person so these areas are affected as if they really were interacting with another human. With followers of religions like Buddhism & Hinduism, the areas of the brain dealing with abstract thought & visualization became just as extremely active, conclusion: these groups believe that God is impersonal & an abstraction so these different areas are affected. Meditating atheists? No part of their brains showed any increased activity, conclusion: these people don’t believe in God in any form, either personal or impersonal so no areas are affected. However, they had no clue as to why a meditating atheist showed no higher activity in their brain while others, such as agnostics or the SBNR crowd who meditate exhibit activtity in yet different areas of their brains than those in prayer. Guess they haven’t figured out that meditation is not the same thing as prayer. Personally, as an astronomy buff, I was trying to figure out what prayer/meditation had to do with wormholes ;-)

    My 1st year of college (30 years ago) I attended a couple of times an independent charismatic religious group. I quit going when they insisted that I wasn’t a Christian because I didn’t exhibit any of the “manifestations” (tongues, swooning, etc); furthermore I didn’t want to as I was not conviced that the source was the Holy Spirit. I was good with our different beliefs until they also got very insistent that I was possessed by a demon that was preventing me from “manifesting”; even attempting an exorcism against my will through “laying on of hands”. My not being a “touchy” person & refusing their attempts only served in their eyes as proof of my demon possession. I’m sure my then hell-fire temper did not help either. Let’s just say that in that situation a little ego combined with a right hook works wonders! In the end they decided to pray for my soul from a respectful distance & I suddenly had a clear path to the door.

  8. Dino says

    Some very interesting comments too!!
    I would lie to contribute that although the reasoning capacity of our intellect (what in Greek Christian ascetical terminology is referred to as “dianoia” – διάνοια rather than “Nous”), although not unimportant and partly active along with the entire spirit, soul & body in true prayer is not the main ‘organ’.
    So, the frontal lobes, as the seat of our “capacity for the recognition of deception” (Karen), although not unimportant by any means, are NOT the whole story. An ascetic who has previous ‘taste’ of God’s Grace and the discernment that springs from more than just previous experience knows more through his heart before processing it through his brain/dianoia.
    It is tricky to talk about these things, especially since all is interconnected; however, it is also useful to know that there is far more than scientific observation can ever hope to be able to grasp in those realms that the created has ‘contact’ -not just with the spiritual (yet still created)-, but even with the Uncreated…

  9. Noël Joy Plourde says

    Very nice piece. it outlines a lot of what some of us in mental health field struggle with on an ongoing basis. Science does not necessarily refute religion, but when it attempts to replace true faith in God with false intellectualizations, rationalisms, and false ego, it signifies a deeper fear of death, and the desperate desire of modern humankind to become their own gods, to attain immortality. We, of course, as people of faith, know this to be the ultimate lie of our culture, but it is a reality that permeates our scientific and technological fields.

    There is one differentiation I’d like to point out, and that is the constant misuse of the word “ego”. The definition of the term is really that the ego is the part of the self that is conscious to us. In and of itself, the ego has no real value, it is data. It is just what we know of ourselves. In fact, one could argue that the more ego one has, the more self awareness one has, and that is not a bad thing at all; in fact, it is very helpful. It leads to humility. The more we know ourselves, the more we can ascribe to the grace that God has given us, as well as knowledge of our transgressions.

    Therefore, what most people define as “ego” in a negative sense, seems to indicate more of a narcissism, a self-absorption. It is a false sense of self, not a genuine sense of what one is and is not. I know that in pointing this out, I am refuting the common layperson’s understanding of ego, but when using the term correctly, it really is succinct and can be very helpful.

    So, in essence, being conscious of oneself is not the problem. Really, the lack of superego (conscience) presents far more of a problem than being aware of the ego. This is probably the greatest mental health problem of our culture. It is a lack of conscience, a lack of empathy. In psychology, we (generally) classify people with a lack of superego functioning with Personality Disorders. It was of great concern to many of us in the profession recently when the panel considering criteria for the new diagnostic panel was considering dropping Narcissistic Personality Disorder from the manual. Perhaps this is a reflection of where the field of psychiatry is headed. I still hold out hope that some of us in psychology (psychology defined as the study of the psyche, or the soul) will prevail, and that the work of soul can continue as God’s work in the world. I pray that it may be so.

  10. dino says

    Today, I came across a scientist who blatantly admits to what surmounts to -in some one sense at lest- a fundamentalist-style ‘religion of materialistic scientism': (italics mine)

    “We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill some of its extravagant promises for health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.”

    Contemporary evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin, speaking of science in general quoted by Bruce L. Gordon in “Balloons on a String: A Critique of Multiverse Cosmology” (The Nature of Nature, B. L. Gordon and W. A. Dembski, eds., Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2011), p. 584.

  11. says

    An interesting new trend is to realize how very little even of our material world can be explained without God. One striking example is my husband’s field, psychiatry, in which almost nothing is known and everything is slippery and unclear, because the discipline proceeds on the assumption there is no soul, and of course no God, a deity being by definition unscientific.

  12. SGH says

    Father Stephen

    Given the disappointment and sorrow I felt as I read your post, I realized that you inadvertently stepped on what seems like holy ground in my life. Chemical imbalances in the brain are not just a scientific abstraction but have been a part of my family life for many years. Nuclear resonance imaging can diagnose and measure these imbalances and the damage they have done to the functionality of the brain. I have come to understand that some people are just born with bad brain chemistry. Psychotropic drugs can help, but ultimately they do not seem to solve the problem.

    Now, in addition to attempting to understand and deal with congenital issues of the mind, I watch helplessly as my father’s once intimidatingly formidable mind begins to break down and malfunction. I wonder if a similar fate awaits me.

    An attempt to better understand the functionality and the limits of the human mind led me to the study of hypnosis. Could the study of trance phenomena that I observed in the practice of the martial arts as well as the religions of the world explain the science underlying some portion of these questions? Could hypnosis work in concert with medication? I have seriously practiced various forms of meditation at various times in my life. Ultimately, I even received certification in hypnotherapy from the National Guild. Although I have never really practiced that art.

    Trance phenomena as well as the chemical and structural aspects of the brain are all real. All religions use methods of trance induction. Incense, chanting, movement, the use of art, visualization, even the voice roll of the Protestant minister all induce a highly suggestible alpha state in the participants. This really isn’t open to argument. The state of a brain engaged in worship can be measured with appropriate instrumentation.

    I have also studied artificial intelligence in graduate school; both the then state of the art and the meaning of that metaphor. I have also touched on certain mechanical aspects of systems utilizing artificial intelligence during the course of my career. While I concluded that the metaphor was only a metaphor, robotics and artificial intelligence have had and will continue to have a powerful effect on our economy and our culture.

    It is a curious thing that my studies of religion and the human mind as well as a 27 year career in research and development have all led me to the same conclusion. Our senses and our mind are really very limited imprecise tools for understanding the nature of reality.

    In the end our life is a matter of faith. As I have grown old I have learned that many questions that have deeply concerned me at one time or another really aren’t all that important in the light of eternity. I hope someday that many of the questions that continue to torment me will fall away in the light of the Gospel. It is my prayer that someday after the illusions and disappointments of this world finally fade away, I will find a place of rest where all questions will be answered in His glory.

  13. Karen says

    Rhonda, the study on meditation you mention just goes to show that a lot of the time common sense is all you need to predict what will be going on in the human brain! LOL! Sadly, a relative of mine who has struggled with chronic mental illness from young adulthood (who is also a believer) had a similar experience to yours in the charismatic group you mention. Spiritual delusion and prejudgment is a terrible thing. I’m glad to see you survived quite well with your wits and sense of humor intact. My relative does fairly well with the help of modern medications, and surprisingly, given the diagnosis, has also kept (a rather quirky) sense of humor (which is not typical).

    Dino, I agree that there is far more to spiritual discernment and perception than our reasoning faculties. This is borne out also by testimonies of folks whose brains were “off-line” in the wake of some trauma, but who, nevertheless, had awareness of things going on in the operating room or hospital room and spiritual experiences that far surpassed the capacities of our brains and senses during that time. But, it also did not surprise me that demonic activity would inhibit or suppress our God-given reasoning capacities for even normal “psychical” kinds of empathetic understanding and engagement and discernment of deception either.

  14. Michael Bauman says

    Science, since people must do it, is a socially embedded activity. It progresses by hunch, vision, and intuition. Much of its change through time does not record a closer approach to absolute truth, but the alteration of cultural contexts that influence it so strongly. Facts are not pure and unsullied bits of information; culture also influences what we see and how we see it. Theories, moreover, are not inexorable inductions from facts. The most creative theories are often imaginative visions imposed upon facts; the source of imagination is also strongly cultural. [Stephen Jay Gould, introduction to "The Mismeasure of Man," 1981]

    This quote from Mr. Gould and Joyce’s statement above that God is out of the question in mental health ‘science’ are distrubing. Philosphical materialism is a philosophy that eats at the heart of what it means to be human and what it means to live in community (even secular ones). There is literally nothing that is sacred or permanent. Taken to its logical extreme it becomes the worship of ‘the nothing’.

    As weak as we are the Orthodox Church, IMO, is the only resevoir of the truth left on the planet. It’s at times like these that I am comforted by our Lord’s promise that “the gates of hell will not prevail against (the Church)”

    “Lord God of Hosts be with us, for we have none other hope in times of sorrow but Thee, O Lord of Hosts have mercy on us!”

    Not allowing what Mr. Gould describes as the cultural imagination to rule us is a battle no one can win without divine grace.

  15. Michael Bauman says

    SGH “I’ve come to the conclusion that some people are just born with bad brain chemistry”

    That would seem to be the case. The family of my first wife had a long history of serotonin problems and, until recently, a long history of self medication with alcohol. Now, it seems as if Paxil or some equivalent is used instead. Fighting bad brain chemistry is a never ending struggle that all of us, probably, endure to some extent.

    This type of observation leads some to conclude that either there is no God or that God “made them that way”.

    It is exactly why we need strong teaching from the Church on the anthropology of the Incranation that is revealed in and guarded by the Church. In this day, we need more than to guard it. I appreciate deeply the insights of Fr. Stephen, Dino and others on it.

  16. fatherstephen says

    Noel Joy,
    The use of “ego” in my comments is indeed different than how it is used in psychology. It has become a common shorthand among a number of contemporary Orthodox writers on the spiritual life for the “false self.” It is confusing because the term has currency both in popular language, science, and theology, and carries different meanings in each. But none of them own the term – it just has to be read in context.

  17. Noël Joy Plourde says

    Actually, Fr. Stephen, the Orthodox writers have simply picked up the lay person’s meaning of the term “ego”. I guess it’s a judgment call that some writers use in order to be more contemporary and relevant. I can’t dispute that, but really, in Orthodoxy, reference to the sin of pride seems to be more accurate. However, writers then fear that pride is one of the terms (like passions) that will be misunderstood. I truly believe that it is more helpful to use terms and define them the way they were intended, rather than to go along with misuse. But I know I will lose that battle!

    Another battle I know I will lose but feel ethically compelled to clarify because it has been mentioned here is that of “biochemical” psychiatric disorders. Once again, laypeople believe that this is something of which there is proof, and can be medically diagnosed. There actually is no real evidence of this, and the biochemical basis for mental disorders has been refuted enough that it is not in even in the current vernacular of most of psychiatry, and has not been for about a decade. This is not to say that there is not organicity, but even this is not well understood at all. Anastasia is far more correct in her observation that the field of psychiatry really does not know the basis for mental illnesses, or even why the meds work as they do, for some, but not for all. (I could go on about this, but really wanted to just clarify the point.)

    I know that this is very hard for most people to comprehend. Unfortunately, even Christians make physicians our gods, and extrapolations of theories and inconclusive research become the dogma of the day. This is fed by the field of pharmacology which funds the majority of research pertaining to psych meds.

    It’s interesting to me that many of the comments made here actually reflect the point you are making about being fragmented. We grab onto bits and pieces of information to try to attain some sense of wholeness; yet, as you also suggest, what we need is relationship. We need to be embodied, not dis-embodied; integrated, not dis-integrated. The way we know God is through love, and we find this in relationship with one another. We are the body of Christ, and our salvation is inextricably bound with one another.

  18. fatherstephen says

    Noel,
    It’s not the sin of pride that Orthodox writers (Fr. Meletios Webber comes to mind – himself a PhD psychologist) are describing, but a false construct that most people incorrectly identify as being their actual identity. You might look at my article, The True Self and the Story of Me. I look at Webber’s thought and the fathers.

    I completely agree about the biochemical basis of mental illness. It’s only the past couple of decades that we’ve begun to know much at all about this stuff on an organic basis, and the mechanism of medications is absolutely murky. What is useful, I think, is understanding the biological/chemical basis of the brain (certainly to the largest extent). It is helpful, for instance, as a pastor, in counseling with people to help them understand that many of the “defects of character” with which they labor also have a biological component. It doesn’t absolve us from doing anything – if a depression has a biochemical basis – then I need to get up from my depressed position and seek help – sometimes biochemical help. I don’t tolerate a broken bone either. :) All of this quickly becomes caricatured in popular thought – easily reduced to nonsense. But some nonsense is more helpful than other nonsense. It’s easier to have compassion for someone when you understand that there may be a chemical/biological component to their life. So much of our existence is not choice. As Fr. A. Schmemann famously said, “Spirituality consists in how you deal with what you’ve been dealt.”

    I’m all for using terms that work, and not creating confusion. Perhaps “false self” is a better choice than ego. But I am a “popularizer,” writing to make stuff accessible to others as I am able. Too much popularizing is not helpful, however. I’ll think carefully about your caveats. You don’t lose what isn’t a battle. I’m kindly affectioned (to use a King James phrase)!

  19. Dino says

    SGH and others,
    the “cards we were dealt” concerning ‘bad or good brain chemistry’ is part and parcel of EXACTLY what we need to be saved… Can we constantly retain that Faith? Can we be grateful in such trust? Can we be aware of this knowledge?
    It is sometimes felt like a Cross by some, and they learn to “despair not” while patiently accepting this little “hell”, but if we cultivate more and more the conviction that God’s foreknowledge and grace is sufficient for us, for His strength is made perfect in weakness, then all is transformed…

  20. Noël Joy Plourde says

    I know Fr. Mel and am quite familiar with his work. I am also a psychologist, and have been a clinician for over 30 years. Once again, it might be a good idea to do some more research on maladies such as depression, for instance, to understand that there is extremely little known, truly, about etiology, and even less about what is curative. Psychiatric medications do not work for over 40% of the depressed patients they are prescribed for, and quite honestly, the research on serotonin as related to depression is not at all compelling. If so, then why are SSRIs no more effective than the older classes of antidepressant medications? This is not to say that meds are not helpful (I refer to and work with psychiatrists), but then, where is the line between therapeutic meds and ones that keep us from feeling and dealing with our character defects (and sins)? There is a huge danger here that people prefer to anesthetize rather than in moving through the distress, and allowing God into their symptoms and informing the process. God heals, meds anesthetize. Unfortunately, there are no psychotropic medications that are curative, but the moment we refer someone for psych meds, there is the danger that they will then not do the real work of the soul, and will take the easy route.

    The sin of pride (I am thinking of the way St. Silouan uses this term) seems to me to definitely be about inflation, about one’s sense of self importance and believing the delusion that we are more important than we really are. Is that not false ego? Another term I use is grandiosity, which is similar, and which I like because it hits both sides of false ego: “I am such a wonderful person” and “I am such a horrible person.”

    There is a huge danger in psychology that we pathologize, rather than look more deeply at how our afflictions are teaching and informing us, and where they may contain the seeds of transformation. This is why I talk about allowing God into the process of seeing through the symptom, and in gaining wisdom. My doctoral research, in fact, was in looking at the process of psychotherapy as icon veneration. It does not exclude symptoms and impairments, but allows a more comprehensive and, I believe, a more truthful modality of healing, which comes from God and NOT from us.

  21. Dino says

    I admit to enjoying this conversation hugely and ‘seeing’ the points (understanding) of both you Father Stephen and you Noël Joy Plourde… completely!

  22. Noël Joy Plourde says

    I’m glad, Dino. This is hugely important stuff for me to continue to grapple with clinically, as well as an Orthodox Christian. I think Fr. Stephen and I are probably more in agreement than it may seem, but defining terms and perceptions can be pretty dicey!

  23. Dino says

    Of course it is! Unfortunately a great deal of explanation is often required before using many terms, depending on the audience and depending on time too…
    I have, often witnessed some of the greatest and most discerning “connoisseurs” of exact terminology going for a very loose and carefree approach for the sake of retaining “lure and energy” (or for some other reason) in their speech too (Elder Aimilianos of Simonopetra is one I have in mind).
    He would sometimes knowingl use one term publicly (he had his reasons which were usually based on his rare pedagogic charisma) and another one privately too!

  24. mary benton says

    I have not been able to fully keep up with this discussion (life outside of the blogosphere occasionally interferes). I find myself agreeing and disagreeing with bits and pieces and my “false self” is tempted to want to write at length about it, e.g. how we define “ego”, etc.

    However, as I try to resist this temptation, I would like to make the point, perhaps obvious, that we cannot talk about brain chemistry and emotional/interpersonal struggles as though they are completely independent of one another, i.e. mental illness is caused by one or the other.

    As long as we inhabit these bodies, our experiences and reactions to them are continually interacting with our physical brains. Also, our physical brains are not all exactly the same. Not only genetically are we different, but early experiences impact how different parts of our brains develop. And later experiences can shape and re-shape our brains despite this, e.g. studies have shown the mindfulness meditation actual changes the structure of certain parts of the brain.

    Given this state of affairs, it is not surprising that it is hard to find consistent research findings regarding the cause or cure of “depression” – which itself is not a single entity. (e.g. Bipolar depression is much different than I-lost-my-job depression, though both feel bad).

    Guess I’m not too good at resisting temptation. My ego (in the Freudian sense) has been trying to negotiate between my id (I want the gratification of expressing my opinion and showing off my knowledge) and my superego (I should be humble and go to bed on time). Ah well… May God have mercy on this poor sinner.

  25. drewster2000 says

    Another excellent post, Fr. Stephen.

    Somewhat unrelated to the comment thread above, one thing that came to mind while reading the post was the question of whether or not we are just chemical reactions or there is actually some larger meaning to our existence. Though this may seem quite obvious, it seems to be yet another angle on the main question our Western world is struggling with right now:

    Is there a God or not?

    In the context of the post: what come first, the chicken or the egg? Are the chemicals the source, thereby creating our thoughts and feelings – and the cessation of those chemicals also meaning the cessation of right, wrong, love & all the other intangible things we believe in?

    Or do all things exist outside of us? Does God exist, and actually create us with those chemicals so that we can think and feel and make decisions?

    In this context I believe there is a sense in which Christianity is the call to “Get down on your knees, man!”, to ask the servants to humble themselves and stop trying to validate their master.

    It is where faith is required, but it does sometimes seem strange to use the word “faith” when one is talking about believing in the sun. It exists whether we believe in it or not, and it’s right there staring us so hard in the face that it causes us to flinch.

    But….perhaps the great cloud of disbelief that we’ve allowed to cover the sun for so long would actually make for our current condition of doubting such an evident truth. Ray Bradbury’s “All Summer in a Day” comes to mind.

  26. Yannis says

    It is not unusual for a technical term to be used in common parlance to mean something different to what the term means within its field. This is not misuse of the term; it is simply that some words serve both purposes (not to mention words that mean different thing in different technical fields).

    Forgive me Noël, but this is not a psychological blog, so the technical use of the word “ego” might not be particularly pertinent, any more that the botanical use of the word “herb” or the entomological use of the word “bug”, both of which do not mean the same as in common parlance.

  27. Noël Joy Plourde says

    I agree, Yannis, but the layperson’s use of psychological terms changes the meaning of it, and then it becomes less potent. This occurs with diagnostic/clinical terms frequently, but also happens with commonplace words that are misused, then become re-defined by their misuse. As I said to Fr. Stephen, I fight a losing battle in pointing such things out, because this occurs so often. I would prefer that the use of a psychological term not be used in blogs such as this, and that the spiritual term be used (as I suggested), rather than needing to be “contemporary” and misusing a term…

    All this being said, I also pointed it out because many people do not know the etymology of “ego” and I thought someone might be interested in knowing its origin. Truthfully, my false ego (!) is not engaged in my comment, and did not want to detract from the essence of Fr. Stephen’s post.

  28. dino says

    This is quite reminiscent of Fr. John Romanides’ words on the various “memory-systems” that all living creatures possess.
    We first have the two known memory-systems:
    1) “the cell memory which determines the development and growth of the individual in relationship to itself”. (the genetic code that literally defines everything in the human constitution).
    2) “the brain cell memory which determines the functions and relations of the individual towards himself and his environment.” (operation of the brain—being imprinted by all memories of the past as well as by human knowledge acquired through study and investigation—defining man’s relations with his fellow human beings).
    3) In addition though, according to Romanides, “there exists within every person a non-functioning or sub-functioning memory within the heart; and when activated through noetic prayer, it has perpetual memory of God, which contributes to the normalization of all of a person’s other relations.

    As Metropolitan Ierotheos Vlachos says:

    “the Saint—the bearer of Orthodox spirituality—possesses all three of these memories, which act and function simultaneously…he is the most “natural of men”. He is conscious of the world, involved in various concerns, yet -because his ‘nous’ has attained to its natural function- “he lives on earth but is a citizen of heaven”.
    …the centre (of Orthodox spirituality) is the heart, within which man’s nous must inherently operate. The energy of the soul -(the nous)- must return within the soul’s essence—(the heart); and thus by uniting these powers by the grace of God acquire unity and communion with God the Trinity. Spirituality outside of this perspective is not orthodox but moralistic, pietistic, abstract and rationalistic.

  29. Noël Joy Plourde says

    Excellent quote, Dino, by Romanides. What I like about it is that it denies neither nature nor nurture, but leaves room for both. The “brain chemistry” theory (and it is theory, not scientific fact) falls flat for a number of reasons,but primarily because there is no possible way to prove that 1) brain chemistry is the problem (since there is no way to actually measure the amount of chemicals in the brain, and what that even means) and 2) There is no explanation as to why, if the chemistry is altered, it is so. Do learned behaviors impact the brain chemistry, or biology?

    To look at this on a cellular level is much more appealing to someone like me who is non-pathological in approach, and believes that God is present with us on a cellular level, and that the nous holds within it the “perpetual memory of God.”

  30. mary benton says

    “It is to take my reason to the boundaries of its ability and allow myself to see just beyond that. It is also to step back and refuse to see all things as fragments. To see all things in relation is also to cease to be an observer…For if all things are in relation, then I am in relation as well, not as observer but as participant…It is a requirement of love – for love has no objects, only participants.” (Fr. Stephen)

    This is a profound observation because our culture tends to examine so many things in a fragmented way. Food comes to mind as an example. Some study says “X” will increase your chances of getting a disease. So we try to re-make the natural food so that it doesn’t have “X” in it, often creating something that is actually worse for our health than the natural food was. Looking at nutrition from a fragmented perspective, we make ourselves sicker (and created additional industries to make us well from the sicknesses we give ourselves).

    I suspect that if we could heal the fragmentation in our perspective, we would be more loving. And if we were more loving, we would see things with less fragmentation.

    We long for “union with the Joy that extends beyond” – but are so used to our fragmented view that we often are unaware of its influence.

  31. dino says

    Mary,
    this is very to the point,

    the world tends more and more towards a scholastic, scientific, as in fragmented approach, (always bereft from the authenticity we value in Orhtodoxy), which fails to see the superiority of the wonder that is direct encounter with the Truth revealed (before the analysis has had time to set in and spoil what the “right Hand” of God is doing with the observations of our “left hand” of critical analysis and scholastic reasonings try to explain)

  32. fatherstephen says

    Mary,
    Indeed. This is from Fr. Dimitru Staniloae (who is discussing St. Maximus):

    Sense perception isn’t preoccupied in finding ties between the logoi of visible things, or even of viewing something in its unitary integrity, fully placed in its own logos; but it limits its interest to a partial aspect, drawn by the pleasure which this aspect promises it. It doesn’t work with a broad horizon, but it always sees only one aspect and forgets all the rest. The result is obvious. In this way, by the feeling led by pleasure, the world is divided into numberless, unrelated aspects without a tie between them. Each one is tied, too much so, only by the feeling which has gotten hold of it at the moment. By this, feeling contributes to the disorganization of the world itself. The mind which serves feeling is itself bent toward various singular aspects, and isn’t concerned with the relationships between them, instead of seeing the unitary system of the reason which penetrates the world, and by this system the one God; the mind too in a conscious way, always remains one and the same. Every moment it forgets what it already knew, being divided into unrelated acts of knowing, because every moment it has received the impression of something isolated from everything else. This is the so-called scattering of the mind from which the guarding of the mind, recommended by Christian asceticism, must deliver it.

  33. Anna says

    Great piece, great comments! I especially appreciate the discussion on the mental health issues. It’s something I’m trying to understand from a personal standpoint.