Moral Decisions, the PCUSA, and Marriage Equality, from the Brain’s Perspective

Right now, Presbyterian delegates from around the country are debating marriage equality at the PCUSA annual meeting.

(So you know where I stand:  I’m for it.  For anyone who questions the right of two people to marry, I ask this, “Whom shall the little transgendered child in our church marry in adulthood?  Male?  Female?  Another transgendered person?  Or because of a quirk in the different alignment of brain and physical anatomical development, no one?”)

However, as I peruse my notes from the book “Braintrust:  What neuroscience tells us about morality,” I realize the challenge facing all the delegates when it comes to this vote on same sex marriage. 

Morality includes (but is not reduced to) a complex tangled web of emotions, social relationships, neuropeptides, neurotransmitters, reward/punishment circuitry, memory, experience, and knowledge.  If I were to poll any one delegate, regardless of which side of this issue they stand, (including myself,) we will all have VERY WELL-THOUGHT OUT, LOGICAL reasons for what we think is right. And maybe we do.  But we came up those reasons AFTER OUR BRAINS had already reached a conclusion based on “what feels right.”  

I know we don’t like to hear that.  It makes us sound as though we have less choice, and we’re easily manipulated, and susceptible to the “squishy-touchy-feely stuff,” and not as rational, as we like to think ourselves. “O, that may be true for HER, but I’m different,” our brains tell us.  Well, sorry, but no.  It’s one of the most pernicious blind spots of our brains.

Below the surface of awareness, our delegates’ brains will be constantly assessing – Other delegates, the vibe in the room,how they feel, the friends they’ve made, the friends back home, even if they think they already know how they will vote.   But if we are truly a people of faith, then it’s okay:  We Presbyterians put a lot of faith in the Spirit to bring us in line with the Gospel when we gather for prayer.   (At our worst, we just give it lip service, and aren’t open to change, but that’s our anxiety, not the Spirit’s fault.)

We learn from childhood through rewards and punishments and mimicry what is right and what is wrong.  The pain of disapproval and the threat of ostracism keep us “in line.” As adults, we think we’ve chosen this for ourselves, but remember, our minds are made up and THEN we gather our arguments.  (I know – you’re brain is arguing with me right now.)  Plus, our long-term relationships hold sway, and strengthen our moral fortitude.

But we know society shifts – And sometimes at lightning speed – Like, for instance, with same sex marriage.  How does that happen? If you’ve read Sue Monk Kidd’s book “The Invention of Wings” (and if you haven’t, get on your library’s wait list NOW) then, what made those two historical sisters risk everything to fight for abolition and then women’s rights?  Even at the cost of their family, friends, hometown, income, status?  

I don’t think neuroscience has completely answered this yet.  But, I think relationships with people different from us is the catalyst.   Those who say, “This is not right,” have somehow managed to connect with the “other,” outside of their original tribe.  They’ve imagined life in “the other’s shoes,” and that connection starts to chip away at what we’ve taken for granted about morality.  Even as those relationships outside our kin risk our relationships with our kin.  In Braintrust, connecting with those considered of “low status and unworthy…… is taken by others as a sign of (our) poor judgment…(p161.)  (To me, this sounds like Jesus.)  The connection with the “other” becomes more powerful, so that our feeling of their pain and wanting to alleviate that becomes greater than the fear of our own pain if we’re shunned.  

O, and more simply, sleep deprivation, and hunger, and social stress, (does this describe the Presbyterian delegates?) all negatively impact our ability to attune to the “other,” as our brain’s energy becomes more self-survival focused.  

Sometimes what I learn about our brains’ functioning inspires me, and awes me, and other times, I HAVE to trust in God, because our brains seem so limited and fallible, surely it takes the Almighty to bring justice, ever, in spite of ourselves.  

In the meantime, I shall hold all delegates, PCUSA churches, and all of us, in the light of God.


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