“What my blood whispers:” Are we wired to believe?

“Instinct is a marvelous thing,” writes Agatha Christie.  “It can neither be explained nor ignored.”  Christie, of course, is a writer of mystery stories, but human instinct is a mystery unto itself.  Within each of us lies a stirring, a sense that even the ruins of our world are haunted by goodness and beauty that point to a still greater source.  It’s what another author referred to as “the teaching my blood whispers to me,” and it’s perhaps the surest proof we’ll ever find for the existence of the soul.

Are we wired to believe in God?  Do we possess a “God instinct?”  Not long ago it was assumed that the scientific revolution would bring an end to such nonsense—that religious belief would be crushed by the wheels of human progress.  Yet today religion seems to be thriving.  Even our western emphasis on “spirituality” testifies to an inescapable yearning for something more.  Centuries ago, the Protestant reformer John Calvin affirmed that “within the human mind” there is “an awareness of divinity.”  Calvin believed that human beings possess a knowledge of God that runs as deep as our “very marrow.”[1]  He called this instinct the sensus divinitatis—Latin for “sense of the divine”—and if he were alive today he would probably be unsurprised by how much modern science only affirms what instinct has always whispered.

THE MEANING INSTINCT

The Hebrew scriptures tell us that God “has put eternity into man’s heart” (Ecclesiastes 3:11).  If we’re reading that verse in the original Hebrew, we might also hear the word as “ignorance” or even “darkness.”  It’s what the mathematician Blaise Pascal would later characterize as “the blind and wretched state of man…left to himself with no light…lost in this corner of the universe.”  For Pascal, this brought him to “terror” yet also pressed him to search out “whether God has left any traces of himself.”[2]

God seems to have designed the human mind as a meaning machine.  Recent research has revealed that the human mind is uniquely suited not just for meaning, but for deep, religious experiences.  In the last ten years, Andrew Newberg has been a pioneer in the field known as “neurotheology.”  Neurotheology, strange as it sounds, looks for the links between the human brain (that’s the “neuro-”part) and religious belief (that’s the “theology” part).

According to an article from NPR, the findings thus far have shown that regular religious practices can actually shape the way our brains are put together:

“Newberg describes one study in which he worked with older individuals who were experiencing memory problems. Newberg took scans of their brains, then taught them a mantra-based type of meditation and asked them to practice that meditation 12 minutes a day for eight weeks. At the end of the eight weeks, they came back for another scan, and Newberg found some dramatic differences.”[3]

This doesn’t prove that God exists, of course, but it does reveal that our brains are adaptable to religious practice.

THE AWE INSTINCT

Related to this quest for meaning is man’s capacity for awe and wonder.  Consider what David wrote in response to the created world around him:

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
4 what is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him? (Psalm 8:3-4)

When confronted with the immense beauty of the universe, David could only shrink back in Godly fear and humility.  And just to think: David’s perception was limited by the naked eye.  Consider the incredible wonder that we have beheld through the lens of high powered telescopes—or microscopes.

Though she is not a believer, Andrea Gopnik talks about this “spiritual intuition” as being common to man—even the educated elite:

“One classic kind of spiritual intuition is awe: our sense of the richness and complexity of the universe outside our own immediate concerns.  It’s the experience of standing outside on a dark night and gazing up at the infinite multitude of stars….I think all scientists…are also moved by this kind of pure amazement at how much there is to learn in the world.”[4]

We seem instinctively aware that of something greater, something more.

THE MORAL INSTINCT

Finally, we have the moral instinct.  When Paul wrote to the people of Rome, his repeated emphasis was on righteousness, the moral character of God.  And, according to Paul, even those outside of God’s people can—in some small way—reflect this righteous character:

14 For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them 16 on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus. (Romans 2:14-16)

It’s tempting to assume that the human conscience is only a product of our cultures.  After all, every culture establishes their own standards of what’s right and wrong.  But it’s not that simple.  Sure, cultures differ with their exact rules regarding such things as sexuality, human rights, etc.  But no culture is neutral on these issues.  All cultures draw strict lines around what they consider “taboo.”  It’s why moral psychology has labeled such concerns the “ethics of divinity,” because this moral instinct appears to be so universal.

What’s more, young children seem to possess an almost in-born sense of right and wrong.  Paul Bloom of Yale University describes how this was revealed in some of his recent experiences:

“Not long ago, a team of researchers watched a 1­year­old boy take justice into his own hands. The boy had just seen a puppet show in which one puppet played with a ball while interacting with two other puppets. The center puppet would slide the ball to the puppet on the right, who would pass it back. And the center puppet would slide the ball to the puppet on the left…who would run away with it. Then the two puppets on the ends were brought down from the stage and set before the toddler. Each was placed next to a pile of treats. At this point, the toddler was asked to take a treat away from one puppet. Like most children in this situation, the boy took it from the pile of the ‘naughty’ one. But this punishment wasn’t enough — he then leaned over and smacked the puppet in the head.”[5]

A child that young couldn’t possibly be operating out of some cultural assumption.  Could it be that we really are moral beings created in the image of a moral Being?  Our insistence on morals points toward the existence of a God whose moral character hasn’t been completely eradicated by the stain of human sin.

MADE FOR ANOTHER WORLD

The testimony of the human mind doesn’t “prove” that there is a God—at least not totally.  But our “God instinct” is certainly consistent with the idea that there is a God who has placed His image onto His creation.

C.S. Lewis famously said that our desires only make sense when they may be fulfilled.  Hunger, he says, makes sense only if there is food to satisfy it.  Romantic desire only makes sense if love exists.  Even a duckling’s desire to swim only makes sense if “there is such a thing as water.”  So, he concludes, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”[6]

The beautiful message of Christianity is that this other world intersects with our own.  We call this “revelation,” the act through which God reveals Himself in His creation and in His Word.  What our “blood whispers” is answered back with God’s own voice, and it is equally the voice that calls His children home.

[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 43, 45-46.

[2] Blaise Pascal, Pensees, 198.

[3] NPR, “Neurotheology: This is Your Brain on Religion,” NPR, December 15, 2010.  http://www.npr.org/2010/12/15/132078267/neurotheology-where-religion-and-science-collide

[4] Andrea Gopnik, The Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life. (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009), 130.

[5] Paul Bloom, “The Moral Lives of Babies,” The New York Times, May 5, 2010. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/09/magazine/09babies-t.html?_r=0

[6] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, Bk. III, chap. 10, “Hope”

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