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.)

Neuroscience and Christian Scripture

Let’s apply neuroscience to scripture!  Yay!  I love cross-disciplinary discussions.  

I’m guessing that most people just clicked away after the first sentence.  But for the 3 of you left:

You know that Scripture is a dicey topic.  My published researcher PhD sister Rebecca reminds me the science community thinks all Christians are probably Rick Santorum.   This is not a compliment, but rather evidence for why we (people of the Christian faith) must be nutty.  

Do folk of other religious traditions get the same bad rap?  Somehow, I suspect not.  Because you don’t see many – any? in the Jewish faith claiming “intelligent design” is a viable scientific theory deserving of public school resources.  And that’s just one example.  Maybe because their flock is more intelligent?  (To my friend Rabbi Jill:  What say you?  See her work at http://www.ravjill.com/the-jewish-mindfulness-network/)

On the other hand, many, if not most, Christians dismiss science as irrelevant to faith.  In spite of how neuroscience supports the power of prayer, or how quantum mechanics supports a theological perspective on creation, or any of the other amazing intersections of faith and science.  

And few Christians of whatever brand can agree to what our shared text means.  That, at least, is universal: Whatever sacred text we read, we all miss the point a lot of the time.  We just differ in the humility of our claims. But that sure doesn’t stop us from getting into lots of fights about it, and people can’t run away fast enough, assuming there’s nothing of value in the Christian Bible.

But, well, my number one job responsibility is to figure out what to say on Sunday mornings, using one of the four scheduled scripture texts of the common lectionary.

Preaching:  I love it; It’s a burden; I hate it; I’m astounded by it; I dread it:

Be inspiring! Don’t be boring!  Be practical!  Make God/divine love come alive for us!  Make us FEEL the Spirit!

It’s quite a job description.

So, I thought, why not see what new angle my (admittedly limited & simplistic) study of neuroscience might reveal in the text?  Maybe other folk would be interested as well!  Even though the science community isn’t thrilled to talk with a “person of the cloth,” neither is the institutional church all that excited by the implications of scientific research on the practice of faith.  O well. To me, it’s a fun exercise.  So my goal is to offer a “neurological” perspective on one of the lectionary passages on the weeks I am preparing a sermon.  Which is most weeks.  

Maybe it will help some preachers.  Maybe some who find the Christian Bible “yucky” will be pleasantly surprised.  

Let me know what you think!