Why We Need James’ Message (the one from the Greek Bible) to Overcome the Brain’s Wiring

James 2:1-13 one of the four Christian Bible passages suggested for preaching this week.  (Spoiler alert to all in my congregation:  I’m preaching again from James.)

James is famous for his insistence on the integration of faith with deeds, and much can be said about that, neuro-spiritually speaking.

But this passage specifically speaks against stereotyping, and it’s something we need to hear over and over and over again.  Because our brains are wired to stereotype.  What our brains do, it’s not inherently evil.  Our brains are just going along their merry way, trying hard to conserve energy and find shortcuts.  (Remember, our brains consume 20-25% of our calories.  Sadly, your brain won’t necessarily burn off  the extra delicious calories that come from ice cream or m&m binges, even if you think really really hard about this blog.)

So, our brains are wired to stereotype, because it’s a shortcut, and it saves energy.  What is unfaithful, or unreflective, or irresponsible, is to allow our brains to dictate our lives.  Contradictory, I know.  But:  Just because our brains stereotype to save energy, doesn’t mean we sit back and let them be lazy.  No, God gave us this gift of a brain, to use.  We 21st century human beings are called to a higher standard; we’re called to engage our prefrontal cortex.

What does that look like?  Thinking about our thoughts, because

1. We are not our thoughts.

2. We can change our thoughts.

3. Unthinking action leads us into trouble.

4. Our often unconscious bias needs to be dragged out into the open for evaluation, and often more than once.  It didn’t get there overnight, and one good overhaul won’t fix it permanently.  Those new neural pathways take time.

The good news?  We carry the tools we need around with us all the time!  Our brains have the tools to change how they are wired.  Crazy, huh.  But because of our brains, we can take responsibility for how our brain is wired today, and can be changed with our intentional help, for tomorrow.

(And the reason meditation is such a hot topic, and why it is similar to prayer, is that in that quiet time, we can become aware of, and think about, and evaluate, our thoughts that we didn’t even realize we were thinking.  Because our brains are also sneaky little buggers.)

Dipping my toe back in: Neuroscience and Free WIll, or Does science prove Calvin was right?

Why did you decide what to eat – or not eat – for breakfast this morning?  Or, to make the stakes a wee bit higher, why does someone decide to kill another person?

Yes, it’s been a year since I’ve written or posted on fb.  That’s for another day.  Can we just say, “My brain made me do it?”

Because that’s the answer, and a very hot topic these days:  How culpable are we for our deeds and misdeeds, if our brains made us do it?  Implying that our brains are somehow separate from our selves, but in control of our selves.  Are we are just puppets, because our unconscious brain is in charge?  How accountable do we hold someone accused of a crime, if neglect and abuse shaped the earliest years of their brain?

If we’re born with a genetic pre-disposition to alcoholism, and we grew up in a home with alcoholic parents – Is it fair?  No.  Is it right?  No.  Does it explain how hard it is to resist certain patterns of thought and behavior?  Yes.  Does it then excuse our own addictive behavior and let us off the hook?  No. The brains of every one of us arrived pre-wired, then grew, with certain tendencies and characteristics.  There are folk whose brains don’t function well enough to hold them accountable.  But if you can read this, that isn’t you.

From one perspective it seems brain science proves Calvin right:  All is pre-determined.  But science also supports free will.  With your prefrontal cortex, how will you live with the brain you’ve got?  The self, the soul, the heart of who we are can rise above the influence of our reptilian impulses.  We have self-agency, and a responsibility to care for our brain just like we’re to care for our body, our children, our world.  No excuses for neglecting your center of compassion.

But what do you think?  How much of who you are and how you live is determined by your brain’s unconscious patterns and drives, and how much can you be held responsible?  I’m curious how you answer the question …