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Is there any hope for 'truth' and 'progress' in theological thinking today?

However, this heavy reliance on specific models is problematic—a point I will discuss further below. Thus, for example, from the starting point of brain lateralization, he proceeds via a fourfold heuristic for dividing mind input and output to discerning a similar asymmetry in Christian history and theology. From here, via a suggestion that—just as with the brain—when the two halves do not work properly together, the response generated is flawed and inadequate, he uses the model to analyze differences between the theologies of Eastern and Western strands of Christianity Ashbrook b , —78, — Similarly, Maclean's model becomes, via an eclectic range of material including the object relations theory of Donald Winnicott and interpretative readings of Michelangelo's creation scenes in the Sistine Chapel, and, under the influence of theological thinkers such as Augustine, Tillich, Kaufman, Hefner, and Whitehead, an analogue for understanding common perceptions about God.

Ashbrook's thesis is that the orderly structure of the brain reflects the universe from which it emerged and points to the nature of its ultimate reality—God Ashbrook and Albright , However, while acknowledging the important role that imaginative leaps play, relying solely on such is methodologically inadequate. Arguably, it leaves anything that Ashbrook builds on the back of such acts of faith and imagination essentially the greater part of his neurotheological output in a vulnerable position. There are a number of other important issues to note here: first the way in which the neuroscientific data are approached and appropriated.

While Ashbrook does not necessarily fall into this trap, his work does raise the issue of how, and to what extent, the nonspecialist can critically engage with and appropriate scientific data. Similarly, certain caveats need to be noted with respect to the theological inputs.

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Ashbrook draws on a variety of theological motifs such as analogia entis and imago De i. However, the assumption that these enable us to make larger and, ultimately, theological sense of neuroscientific data is simply assumed, never examined. An unquestioning normativity is also sometimes assumed for hermeneutic and theological elements used, such as the opposition of creation with redemption, or process theology.

Once again this raises the wider questions touched on earlier relating to the multiplicity of voices and perspectives within theology: how does one select a suitable dialogical partner from among the different possible theological voices—especially, if these stand in contradiction to each other? Is it possible to use motifs from the theological canon, which themselves, either historically or currently, comprehend a variety of different interpretations? In the following article, I will argue that using van Huyssteen's methodology, with its identification of specific intersecting trajectories and in its requirements of a critical stance toward material offered to dialogue, provides a way of addressing these dilemmas.

With regard to the results of Ashbrook's projects, his occasional ambiguities and sometimes rather opaque elaborations mean it is not always easy to discern precisely what some of his theses actually entail. However, as already indicated there are much bigger problems with respect to the durability and wider applicability of any resulting understandings that are rooted in the way he selects and uses his material.

The first issue is his use of extremely particular models of brain function on which to build complete neurotheological theses. There are a number of dangers with this type of approach. First, it may generate models or analyses that are simply inadequate: concentrating solely on one aspect of a complex system such as the brain, particularly as a basis for developing a unified account or exploring other complex psychological, sociological, or historical phenomena, runs the risk of producing etiolated models or simplistic analyses—as is arguably the case with some of Ashbrook's theses in The Human Mind and the Mind of God.

Second, in a field that is advancing rapidly, tying a thesis and the analytic development based on it to a particular model of brain function runs the risk of building obsolescence into the whole system if models become disputed, or are superseded and discarded, and with it the potential undermining or loss of those wider understandings developed from it.

Faith and Feelings

Thus, for example, while Maclean's tripartite model has retained support with some psychological and educational therapists, it has never been widely accepted and has had no enduring impact on neurobiology in marked contrast to his work on the limbic system. This absence of scientific currency calls into question the lasting significance of Ashbrook's neurotheological formulations predicated on the model. It also highlights the dangers in trying to focus theological analyses through this kind of neuroscientific lens, particularly against a background of exponential growth in raw experimental data and understanding.

Closely related to this is the issue, already hinted at earlier and becoming even more acute with Newberg's approach, as to whether conceiving neurotheology chiefly in terms of investigating and articulating spiritual experience and understandings in terms of brain structure and function is the most fruitful, or indeed the only, way in which the two disciplines can be brought together. This leads us to the second neurotheological approach being examined—that of Andrew Newberg, whose recent Principles of Neurotheology represents the first attempt to more formally describe and define neurotheology and suggest possibilities for its future development.

While the aim of comprehensively mapping out a substantive territory for neurotheology is laudable, the project actually fails to address fundamental issues as to where and how theology and neuroscience might intersect. While Newberg's own preferences for areas of research such as spiritual experience are clear, exactly how to identify suitable loci in all this potential territory is never clearly specified—though the implicit heuristic seems to be something akin to Mary Midgley's , —14 multiple maps metaphor.

In the light of the opening comments about the imbalances between excessive knowledge production and our ability to assimilate or utilize it, what seems to be urgently required is some mechanism for identifying those areas that offer the combination of potential usefulness and possible dialogical fruitfulness, at which to coordinate and concentrate engagement—something that I will address in the second article of this set Bennett b.

This lack of delimitation is rooted in what Newberg sees as a central topographical feature of the neurotheological landscape, viz. The stance toward theological and religious ideas which ensues focuses primarily on understanding the ideas themselve s in terms of their cognitive underpinnings, and locates their primary value as a contributor to neurotheology in being thus understood. But while there may well be potential value in improving our understanding of the underlying cognitive processes in assorted aspects of religious thinking, this value represents only one way of interfacing cognitive neuroscience and theology, and ignores the existence of other fields of an encounter, which may be equally if not more productive.

But while the attitude is commendable, no clear guidelines as to how such a dialogue is to be instigated and maintained are ever offered. This is not to say that discussion of methodological matters is absent; indeed Newberg himself explicitly links the establishment and flourishing of the discipline to the development of sound methodology Newberg , But the focus of this is on practical experimental issues of study design and data interpretation , —46 and he does not address the actual dialogical mechanics of any neurotheological projects.

Thus, for example, a statement that the assumptions of neither discipline can be privileged as normative in advance of any analysis Newberg , 55 has no accompanying methodological suggestions for how an a posteriori decision about the direction of any causal arrow is actually to be made. It is thus difficult to see how any distinct neurotheological interpretation can be arrived at, offered, or defended. Given the important place that studies of brain activity hold in Newberg's overall project, this lack of any methodology for guiding interpretation of data is all the more striking. The claim that utilizing such skepticism will help in either exploration or in determining which approaches and lines of questioning will be most fruitful Newberg , 56 seems meaningless in the absence of either a methodology or a specified larger framework against which to do this.

Newberg's general claims for neurotheology as a discipline implicitly suggest that the generation of new insights rather than, e. The net result is that ultimately the project fails to generate the distinctively novel neurotheological insights or discourse, which are part of its avowed aims Newberg , In summary then, both the form of neurotheology practiced by Ashbrook and that envisioned by Newberg encounter problems in each phase of the dynamic of engagement. Many of the identified issues can potentially be remedied with the employment of a suitable methodology and they do not therefore fatally undermine the attempt to conjoin religion and neuroscience in the ways envisaged by Ashbrook and Newberg.


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However, such approaches do not exhaust the possibilities of neurotheology and I want thus to propose a distinctively different way of bringing together the two discourses and combining their insights. I will therefore conclude this first article by briefly sketching an alternative vision for how neurotheological exploration might be conceived and executed, which I will then explore in the next article Bennett b. By clearly identifying both purpose and locus of engagement, and through adopting a robust methodological approach and generating a distinctive discourse, this approach seeks to address some of the issues highlighted above as problems in Ashbrook and Newberg's projects.

Once again I will structure this brief outline according to the threefold heuristic of encounter, exchange, and expression. The proposed locus for this neurotheological exploration is in the area of health—more specifically the link between the experience of human relationality and health outcomes. As suggested in my critique above, one way of improving the chances of a fruitful encounter between neuroscience and theology is to look for areas of intersecting interest between them. In this instance, there is a wealth of evidence from both epidemiological and PNI studies to suggest a strong connection between the number and nature of social relationships and health outcomes.

How to Process Your Emotions

The aim here is not the development of a Christian apologetic on health and healing, but to bring together various neurobiological and theological perspectives on human relationality and health as a way of expanding understanding of the connection between them. Another major criticism raised in the mapping of neurotheology above is the absence of a robust methodology for engaging theology and neuroscience. I have also suggested that such methodologies are available, and in the following article I will draw on one of these—the transversal space dialogue developed and utilized by van Huyssteen in his Gifford Lectures.

From a basic philosophical stance of postfoundational rationality, this takes the notion of shared tools of rationality as the basis for the mutual acceptance of epistemic and intellectual parity, and as such offers a very different way of addressing the issue of disciplinary equality. It also opens a way to dealing with some of the other issues that have been raised, for example, the delimitation of territory. The problem, concisely stated, can be put this way.

If God exists as the perfect, loving, omnibenevolent being that theists have generally taken God to be, then God would desire the best for his creatures. However, many people, both non-theists and sometimes theists themselves, claim to have no awareness of God. Why would God remain hidden and elusive, especially when individuals would benefit from being aware of God? John Schellenberg has argued that the hiddenness of God provides evidence that God does not in fact exist. Using a child-parent analogy, an analogy which is often used in the Abrahamic traditions themselves, Schellenberg notes that good parents are present to their children, especially when they are in need.

But God is nowhere to be found, whether one is in need or not.

So God, at least as traditionally understood, must not exist. Schellenberg offers several different forms of the argument. One version can be sketched this way. If God does exist, then reasonable nonbelief would not occur, for surely a perfectly loving God would desire that people believe in God. And if God desires that people so believe, God would work it out so that persons would be in a reasonable position to believe. However, reasonable nonbelief does occur. There are persons who do not believe in God, and they are reasonable in doing so.

Professor of Christian Theodicy

Even after studying the evidence, examining their motives of belief, praying and seeking God, they still do not believe and see no good reason to believe. But a perfectly loving and good God, it seems, would ensure belief in God by all such persons. God would make himself known to them so that they would believe. Since there is reasonable nonbelief, then, we have solid evidence that God, as a perfectly loving, caring being does, not exist. The argument can be stated concisely this way:.


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  6. Various replies can be made to this argument. While not a common move by theists, one could deny the first premise. Dystheists maintain that God is less maybe much less than omnibenevolent. Another reply is to deny premise two, and several reasons might be offered in support of its denial. First, it may be that those persons who do not believe are, for one reason or another, not ready to believe that God exists, perhaps because of emotional or psychological or other reasons.


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    So God hides out of love and concern for the person. A third reply is to deny the third premise. Some theists have, in fact, maintained that any nonbelief of God is unreasonable—that every case of nonbelief is one in which the person is epistemically and morally culpable for her nonbelief. That is, while such persons do not believe that God exists, they should so believe. They have the requisite evidence to warrant such belief, yet they deny or suppress it; they are intentionally disbelieving. For many philosophers of religion, these replies to the issue of divine hiddenness are unsatisfactory.

    The elusiveness of God continues to be a problem for both theists and non-theists.