Mike McHargue. Finding God In The Waves: How I Lost My Faith and Found It Again Through Science. Converent, 2016. (273 pages)
The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass God is waiting for you. – Werner Heisenberg, theoretical physicist and one of the pioneers of quantum mechanics.
So, do I think it’s OK not to know what you believe and still be a part of the Church? | Heck, yeah. In fact, I think that’s exactly what following Jesus is about. (2)
LOST AND FOUND
DINOSAURS IN SUNDAY SCHOOL
Humans are innately curious; our minds are driven to build models of the world that help us not only find food and shelter, but also predict the future. … Our survival is linked to this ability, and it creates in us a craving for certainty. (16)
Science textbooks offered me arcane knowledge my peers ignored–and so did the Bible. It was a potent drug, this feeling of greater knowledge, but it also had an unfortunate side effect. Sometimes, it turned me into the thing I hated most: a bully. (16)
We have experiences with God that are beautiful and moving, but over time, they just become things that make us feel superior to other people. (18)
In many ways, our pain and our way of coping with it define who we are. These experiences shape us and mold us, for better and for worse. They can compel us to help others or drive us to numb the pain in whatever way we can. (19-20)
My life became a sine wave of transgression, forgiveness, and redemption. I was crushed by guilt every time I “went over the line.” Each time I would swear it was the last, a resolve that was like a sand castle trying to stand against a rising tide. (20)
BINGE READING THE BIBLE
People don’t go to church as much as they used to. Every year, fewer and fewer people show up on Sunday mornings. I totally get it. Churches can be really crummy, judgmental places. Churches have hurt a lot of people, as in really, deeply injured. Plus, have you ever gone to brunch on a Sunday morning? It sure beats getting up early and putting on fussy clothes to sit in uncomfortable pews for an hour and a half.
| But at their best, churches provide incredible support for people in their times of greatest need.
| Church is a place where you are guaranteed to get a hug when you are hurting, where someone will tell you he’s sorry for your loss. It’s a place to hold hands, sing songs, and celebrate the gift of life and living. It’s a place to be broken and to heal and for others to tell you they are broken, too.
| I wonder what would happen if churches focused on those things, instead of websites, growth strategies, and building campaigns.
| Imagine a church that was safe instead of slick.
| Maybe we wouldn’t have empty pews. Maybe it would be standing room only. Again. (30)
I’m a nerd, and nerds view all problems as an opportunity to conduct research… (35)
A FOOLISH BET
Belief in things unseen is one thing; belief in things without evidence is another. (52)
Science doesn’t ask you for faith. It’s happy to show you its homework. (54)
Brains are energy hogs, and it would require enormous energy to ramp up your prefrontal cortex and your amygdala at the same time. This is one reason we thing of rational people as cold, and why people often seem unreasonable when they’re angry or sad. It takes too much energy, to be analytical and angry at the same time. Your brain doesn’t have the resources to pull it off. (64)
There’s a saying in neuroscience: “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” The reverse is also true. The connections among neurons weaken when the activity among them slows down.
| I didn’t know this at the time, but all those hours I spent researching and analyzing God were beginning to rewire the neurological network that made up my faith. If we think back to our brains as a large business or political organization, all my reading and studying was causing layoffs in the offices and departments of those whose job it was to make me feel the presence of God. (65)
Earth is a waterlogged pebble… (67)
“God, I don’t know why I’m praying. You aren’t even real.”
| In the time it took you to say those 11 words, I’d become an existential nihilist. (70)
SECRET AGENT MAN
More Americans than ever don’t identify with any particular religion, but there still exists a tremendous stigma to being an atheist. Many Americans tend to view atheists as immoral, dishonest, and even dangerous. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
| Studies have shown that atheists are generally more moral than believers. Some studies have shown that the happiest, most successful children grow up in atheist households. (75)
It’s not enough for our physical needs to be met or for us to find material comfort. We need to feel that our lives carry some greater significance, that we make some contribution to the human drama. Even though humans are born with an intense survival drive, research has shown that we will readily sacrifice our lives if we believe our death has meaning. We’ll override one of our most powerful instincts if it means there will be a powerful ending to our story before the credits roll.
| This is the mechanism that drives soldiers to commit acts of heroism, firemen to rush into burning buildings, and terrorists to pilot airplanes into skyscrapers. We are desperate for meaning. And I’d lost mine completely. (77)
Humanists see value in humanity; thy see our species as full of potential and goodness. They seek solutions to life’s problems of suffering and need, concerned only with improving the conditions of human life.
| Humanism helped me salvage bits and pieces of my faith, such as those parts of the Bible that emphasized taking care of the weak and needy. Humanism made me feel more comfortable pretending to be a Christian on Sundays. Although humanists seek to solve problems through rational thought instead of religion, it seemed rational to me that religion was a particularly powerful way to motivate religious people to do good in the world. (79)
LOVE SEAT CONFESSIONAL
Atheism is making great strides in the West, and one of its most effective tools is rational debate. Prominent scientists make easy work of theologians, and atheists are well versed in taking apart religious rhetoric. Skeptics often known the theology and claims of Scripture better than rank-and-file believers do.
| On the other hand, most believers aren’t well versed in the claims of science, atheism, or skepticism. Plainly stated, atheists tend to win arguments, and humans enjoy winning. I knew plenty of atheists online who took great joy in breaking down religious people, dismantling their God into little LEGO bricks–a great monument to children’ toys.
| I did not have that zeal. It broke my heart to see good people lose God. (85)
Letting go of God had an unexpected benefit: I got better at science. It’s much easier to learn about quantum physics, infinite cosmic inflation, or the boundary of a black hole when you’re not trying to shoehorn it all through a God-shaped lens. (88)
But this delightful cognitive boost was offset by an emotional numbness. …transcendence withdrawal. (88)
But if transcendence had been my drug, astronomy was my methadone. When church lost its meaning, my cathedral became the night sky, my chosen worship instrument a telescope. It wasn’t as emotionally powerful as worshiping God, but my spine tingled more than once when I looked through the lens and considered that the photons striking my retina had left some start thousands or millions of years ago. (89)
Some skeptics are offended when people offer to pray for them. I never was. Sure, sometimes “I’ll pray for you” is a passive-aggressive quip. But more often, when someone says she’ll pray for you, she’s truly saying, “I care for you deeply, and I think about you a lot. I’m going to ask the most powerful force in the universe to help you.” (94)
NASA AND BACON NUMBERS
Explaining the physics, the chemistry, the biology, and the neuroscience of this moment is like projecting sheet music onto a movie screen instead of listening to the symphony.
| To explain the love I have for my daughter, I can’t ask the scientist for help. I need the poet or the painter. I need a song or a sonnet. Beauty can only be described with beauty–there’s no substitute. (103)
THE HORSE LEAVES THE BARN
If you’re a Christian who wonders what to do with someone who’s in doubt, consider these words carefully: Love and grace speak loudly. The first and best response to someone whose faith is unraveling is a hug. Apologetics aren’t helpful. Neither are Scripture references. The first thing a hurting person needs is to know they’re not alone.
Many of us can relate to this paradoxical experience.
| Have you ever prayed fervently while simultaneously wondering if anyone was hearing that prayer?
| Have you offered someone comfort in faith, while wondering if you believed anything you were saying?
| For all its bizarreness, the phenomenon of split-brain patients gives me strange comfort. Suddenly, I don’t feel so weird for identifying with both skeptical and spiritual people.
| There is an atheist in my brain who remains wholly incredulous about the idea of a divine being who once dwelt among us int he form of a man.
| There is a Christian in my brain who is indescribably and enduringly comforted by the idea and love of a supernatural Savior.
| I’ve stopped trying to deny, starve, or otherwise do away with either of them.
| I let my atheist question and examine. I let him check my motives and search for ideas that can be proven. Atheist Mike contemplates ethical issues from all angles, where right and wrong emerge not from ancient texts, but from the relation between our actions and the suffering or consent of others.
| Christian Mike views the world through a lens of great compassion, seeing pieces of God in all His creations. My Christian side suffers with those in pain and finds reason for hope in everyone. Against all reason, Christian Mike believes it’s never too late for redemption and that salvation is always at hand.
| Christian Mike wants to drop his fishing net and follow Jesus. So I let him.
| And Atheist Mike tags along for the ride. (133-134)
GOD IN SCIENCE
HAPPILY EVER AFTER?
In these chapters, I want to show you how I’ve learned to let go of certainty. How I shift at will between different frames of viewing the world, depending on which is needed in each moment. This approach allows me to learn and follow science without having to surrender any line of evidence to suit my theology, but it also allows me to connect with God in worship and prayer–to know and contemplate that which seems impossible in the viewpoint of science. (140-141)
When someone says, “I believe in God,” they’re being vague. It’s a necessity because when people discuss God, they’re often working from a false assumption: that we all mean the same thing when we say God. It’s a reasonable assumption. (144)
The Initial Singularity (the predecessor to the Big Bang) is an unfathomably compressed state in which our entire universe–every galaxy, star, planet, molecule, atom, photon, and quark in every direction as far as we can see with any instrument–fit in a space smaller than a sugar cube. (146-147)
Over three years after losing my faith, I had finally arrived at an answer to the question, “How do you know God is real?” I know God is real because I see the work of God via telescopes, space probes, and particle accelerators. Instead of fighting science or trying to filter science through my understanding of God, I discovered that you can begin by accepting scientific evidence–and, therefore, scientific accounts of how our universe came to be–and still see the face of God. (149)
So I decided to boil down my understanding of God into a short phrase I could memorize.
God is at least the set of forces that created and sustained the universe.
It’s not unscientific to admit the limitations of one’s knowledge–in fact, the willingness to do so is key if you want the scientific method to work. (150)
We often think of science as an all-knowing view of reality, but that’s not how science works. Science relies on a trial-and-error approach that’s dependent on failure–on being wrong but admitting it. Key to its effectiveness, science requires its practitioners to admit what they don’t know as readily as they proclaim what they do. (152)
THE GOD WE CAN KNOW
Either way, in most brains, God is not an idea. Instead, God is a set of experiences and feelings attached to an “object” or notion that is closely associated with one’s identity. Many people today are dismissive of the whole idea of God and question its relevance to modern society. Some atheists go so far as to deem religion a harmful force in the world. This claim is an overreach that fails to accommodate differences in spiritual beliefs and motivations. It’s a rhetorical argument poorly supported by science.
| That’s because when we look more deeply at the different neurological conceptions of God, we see both the validity of atheists’ critique of faith, as well as the real, positive effect faith has on people. (157)
Neurotheology shows us the folly of viewing the battle between faith and skepticism as a war of ideas. More than that, it shows us that most critiques of faith tend to be about the effects of authoritarian systems built on an Angry God model. When atheists criticize oppressive religious systems, I stand with them. But to paint all faith with the same brush is to oversimplify the matter, and this view ignores the insights of neuroscientists and anthropologists who find merit in healthy spiritual expression. (160)
But when you scan the brains of believers, you find that their understanding of God is nonverbal, more akin to a feeling or experience than a set of ideas. This is why Christians are usually stumped if someone asks them, “What is God?” Contrary to what some skeptics say, it’s not because these people’s beliefs system is unsophisticated or simplistic. Instead, it’s that their experiences with God aren’t primarily associated with the language center of the brain. (163)
God is at least the natural forces that created and sustain the universe as experienced via a psychosocial model in human brains that naturally emerges from innate biases. Even if that is a comprehensive definition for God, the pursuit of this personal, subjective experience can provide meaning, peace, and empathy for others.
TEACH US, NEUROSCIENCE, TO PRAY
Psychologist Viktor Frankl calls this a “redemptive perspective on suffering,” and research has backed up its effectiveness. Somehow, when we see the good that can come from suffering, we suffer less. (172)
Studies have shown that people who pray to God about problems in this way achieve a positive emotional effect, similar to if they’d seen a therapist. Prayer helps us grieve what we’ve lost, grieve those who’ve hurt us, and maintain a positive outlook on life. Intercessory prayer is useful and beneficial in helping people surrender to and process their emotions, and heal from trauma. (174)
When you believe God loves you and loves others, it’s easier to take risks and to forgive people. It’s not enough to simply believe in God, because only prayer and meditation will turn that belief into a neural network that changes your outlook and behavior. Even when the news cycle is depressing or a situation in your life seems hopeless, you can hold on to the knowledge that God is with you and that the overall arc of life will work out for good. (177)
Prayer is the most essential practice for cultivating a God network in human brains–even for those who doubt God’s existence. In other words, if you want to know God, prayer doesn’t come after you’ve answered every one of your nagging questions. It comes before. (177)
Prayer is at least a form of meditation that encourages the development of healthy brain tissue, lowers stress, and can connect us to God. Even if that is a comprehensive definition of prayer, the health and psychological benefits of prayer justify the discipline.
Just as both kinds of people will get stronger with exercise, it’s also possible for anyone to increase her or his propensity toward spiritual experiences. Through consistent meditative practice, each of us has the potential to make our brain more spiritual–even to the point of increasing the probability that we will experience something truly mystical. (179)
Here are four exercises you can start with as you build a prayer and meditation practice in your own life. I recommend these because they satisfy two conditions. First, they’ve been studied and validated by scientific research as being effective. Second, each of them has a long history within the Christian tradition itself. (181)
BASIC PRAYER: TALK TO GOD
BASIC MEDITATION: FOCUS ON COMPASSION
CENTERING PRAYER: MEDITATION MEETS PRAYER
PRAYER WITH SCRIPTURE: LECTIO DIVINA
Research tells us that meditation and prayer work best when you prepare your mind by understanding four core ideas. (185)
If a car company made vehicles that were destined to crash regardless of the driver’s steering, we would blame the company when those cars crashed–not the vehicle or the driver. But penal substitutionary atonement makes humans liable for God’s creative action. (194)
In all our need for an eye for an eye, I have to wonder sometimes if Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross is an answer not to God’s wrath, but to ours. I have to wonder if God, having listened to us cry for blood, decided to offer his own. (196)
Jesus didn’t hold up a sword in response to a sword. He took the sword into His side, and in doing so, revealed our brutality for what it was. (196)
[via: This segment reminded me of the work of René Girard.]
God’s perspective has to encompass space-time not as a series of moments, as we see them, but as an interconnected set of coordinates that always exists.
| But when I think about God in this light, I am faced with something so incomprehensible that such words as being, consciousness, and free will become nonsensical. … God’s perspective is so foreign to me that I can barely call it a perspective at all. (197)
If there’s one thing I’ve come to believe about this hand-wringing over atonement theory, it’s that it misses the value of Jesus Christ. The value of Jesus Christ is in our admirable but flawed attempts to understand divinity from a reference frame we can approach. It’s in a God we can know, a God who walks with us, talks with us, and can empathize with our pain. (198)
Jesus is at least a man so connected to God that He was called the Son of God, and the largest relent in human history is centered around His teachings. Even if this is all Jesus is, following His teachings can promote peace, empathy, and genuine morality.
In brain scans, many Christians show the characteristic brain activity of people who view the world as basically safe. Jesus is compelling because he produced this psychic shift away from superstition and fear in people millennia before we understood what that meant for the brain. (201)
From this perspective, I didn’t necessarily invite Jesus “into my heart,” as the saying goes. Instead, Jesus lives in my anterior cingulate cortex, the seat of compassion. He reduces my tendency toward selfishness, anger, and fear. He teaches me a more patient approach to life–as He’s been teaching those who follow Him for over 2,000 years. (202)
Sin is at least volitional action or inaction that violates human consent or produces human suffering. Sin comes from the divergent impulses between our lower and higher brain functions and is accelerated by our evolution-driven tendency to do things that serve ourselves and our tribe. Even if this is all sin is, it is destructive and threatens human flourishing.
In this light, Christianity’s dire warnings about sin’s consequences and the necessity for salvation aren’t absurd. The issues Christians preached against in the first century–imperialism, violence, racism,-are the ones we’re still working on today. (203)
The universe itself exists in an eternal pattern of life, death, and resurrection. (205)
TAKE ME TO CHURCH
A holy commission to go out and make disciples is twisted into a call to make others into enemies in a culture war. (213)
When we look at the human brain, we can see how a church would be well suite to nurture people’s spiritual growth. A church represents an embodiment of two primal human needs: an urgency to belong to a community and a desire to experience God. This synergy is powerful, but this power must be handled with great care. What can we do to ensure that it is? (213-214)
If you’ve ever felt hurt by a church, you’ll have to grieve that loss to be healthy. The deeper the wound, the more time you’ll need. (217)
The more painful a story is to tell, the more we need to tell it. … When people attempt to shortcut or disavow the sorrow of emotional wounds instead of expressing it, they might unconsciously harbor hostility or helplessness instead of forgiveness. They may experience more psychological harm. Experiments show that our intellectual, emotional, and even physical performance can be affected by emotions denied breathing room. (217)
…if you don’t process your own emotions and come to forgiveness in a necessarily slow, natural progression, your brain will spend its energy ruminating over that hurt and robbing you of relief. (217)
Because of our individual weakness and collective strength, evolution has shaped our brains to devote incredible resources to socialization. … We thrive in cooperation and fail when we’re on our own. That’s why we’re naturally terrified of isolation–for our ancestors, loneliness could mean impending death.
| Thus, humans have an incredible incentive to behave in ways that secure a place in their tribe, and spirituality itself played a significant role in the social cohesion and governance of the earliest human societies. We humans are primed to believe what those around us believe, and since our beliefs often drive our behaviors, we have a great incentive to hold values consistent with those of our tribe–a process sometimes called groupthink. (219)
The Church is at least a global community of people who choose to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ. Even if this is all the Church is, the Church is still the largest body of spiritual scholarship, community, and faith practice in the world–and this practice can improve people’s lives in real, measurable ways.
I’ve come around to the need for multiple church denominations for this reason: The fact that Catholics, Baptists, charismatics, and Methodists don’t have to share the same space every Sunday may well keep them from strangling one another. The myriad of Christian denominations is more blessing than curse in other ways; it means there’s almost certainly an entire stream of Christianity you’ve never tried that could be perfect for you.
| When it comes to finding a congregation you can serve as a part of, there are two things you have to look for: a church that is safe and a church that will challenge you. You should find a church that can share or accept your views on evolution, same-sex marriage, social justice, and environmental concerns; that’s part of what makes it safe. Your church should affirm you and accept you exactly as you are, should celebrate how you were made and how you’ve grown, and should tend to your wounds and love you as you heal. But I can’t stop there.
| Your church also has to challenge you to become all you can become. It should comfort you, but it shouldn’t let you get too comfortable. The people of your church should challenge rote thinking and decision-making and prompt you to put your ideas into loving action–to embody the gospel with hands made dirty by work in the world. The congregation should empower you to serve the world with Grace and to see that world with ever-more-loving eyes.
| I’d go so far as to say it should make you become more like Jesus, but don’t tell anyone I said that. (223)
THE GOOD BOOK
Over the last two years, I’ve learned that my problems aren’t with the Bible at all. All the anachronisms, contradictions, and similar stumbling blocks I found in its pages aren’t flows in the Scripture. Instead, they are flaws in the assumptions I hold as I read the Bible. (228)
When I let go of the Bible as an inerrant document and embraced it as a multi-party discussion about God, all of a sudden, I began to see a book I could appreciate on its own terms. (233)
I’ve learned to approach the Bible again by making use of a secular understanding of its text, while allowing the religious response to its contents to direct my faith journey. (233)
The Bible is at least a collection of books and writings assembled by the Church that chronicle a people’s experiences with, and understanding of, God over more than a thousand years. Even if that is a comprehensive definition of the Bible, study of Scripture is warranted to understand our culture and the way in which people come to know God.
Every one of these stories is more powerful, not less, when viewed as a document penned by humans. | The Bible should be read in the same way we’d read any work of ancient literature. No one mocks Plato for his celestial spheres, even though modern science reveals them to be false. Instead, we put that idea in the context of history and see how it contributed to humanity’s growing understanding of the world. (234)
Dropping our assumptions also lets us glimpse something far more fundamental–that the Bible isn’t science or history. The Bible isn’t a legal document. | The Bible is art. (235)
We’re asking the wrong questions about the Bible. Accepting the Bible for what it is, a library of books written by man about God, seems at first like a profound demotion for the Good Book. But I believe this approach solves the problems doubters face when they approach the pages of Scripture – all without evicting God for those pages. (238)
FINDING GOD IN THE WAVES
So, yes, I sometimes use new metaphors for God, blending the words of the ancients with the insights of our times. But it just so happens that doing so plants me deeply within the biblical Christian tradition. (243)
The God in my axioms isn’t superior to the God I once found in the Southern Baptist faith and message. Somehow, overtime, we humans seem to find the image of God we need in order to serve and grow and face that often challenging task of existing as a conscious entity. I’m done saying I found the right one – mysticism tells me that these are all metaphors, all symbols, pointing to a single God who is beyond anything I will ever be able to imagine. (245)
I keep finding God in the waves – the waves of the Pacific, the waves gravity, the waves of electromagnetic energy, and the waves that move through our brains. I find God in the sound waves of ancient hymns, children laughing, and in the quiet sobbing of those who say under impossible assault, “I can’t breathe.” (245)
Only a poet or a painter can do the work of sharing this truest of all things. Love. (246)
I’m finished trying to let my faith, my theology, my reading of the Bible trump humankind’s crowning system for uncovering facts about the physical world. I’ll never do it again. There is absolutely nothing as effective for learning about physical reality as the sciences, and I love them for it.
| But my faith gives me something else. A sense of meaning belong, and purpose in the midst of all those facts. It gives me hope that all things will work out for good, that love is the basic reality of our existence, because God is love. These ideas don’t have tremendous empirical merit, but they change my life when I hold them in an open mind.
| Science gives us fact. Faith gives us meaning. (246)
[via: This is very much in tune with rabbi Jonathan Sacks.]
These two lenses, so often set up in opposition to each other, are most powerful when used together Somehow, life becomes more clear–and dear–when I refuse to water down one stance for the sake of the other and, instead, dive deeply into both streams of experience and feeling, collecting the truth that flows from each.
| We don’t have to choose one or the other. Beauty and mystery surround us in every moment. They’re easy to miss and easy to crush in the grip of our desire to control them.
| But if we open ourselves up to receive both, we’ll be surprised by what we find.
| And God will meet us there. (247)
— via —
A really fun, inspiring, intriguing, educating, and sobering read. Fun, because it’s “Science Mike.” Inspiring because there this current era hosts the emergence of a wide diverse set of Christianities, and this book represents, what I would guess, is some of the best of what the Christian faith can offer in this new millennium. Educating because of the research and references to a wide (not so deep) set of sciences. Sobering, because I feel an overwhelming sense of smallness, yet again as the universe continues to expand.
I commend this to anyone who finds dissatisfaction in the false dualisms of which our brains so often condemn us to choose. Instead of being “two,” may we be “one” (אחד) as God (אלהים) is one.