“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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Choosing the Least (Psalm 8)

My wife Diana and I did something this weekend that we practically never do … something we only do when there is finally no other alternative than we must do it … something we have not done in over eight years. We bought a car.

If you are getting this devotional on the Monday that it is sent out and you read it in the earlier morning hours, you might pray for me that the car I’m trading in will indeed make it the last couple of miles to the dealership without conking out, as I go to take possession of our modest set of wheels.

We are not car people, but having said that, we also are very cautious about getting the very best deal for the dollars invested. A great deal of research went into this selection process, and the sales person did not likely do well in terms of commission per hour invested. We selected the best deal. That’s what we all do when we buy something.

When you got married – be it last month, last year, last decade, or last century – you did not settle for just anyone. You did not look to find the least attractive and lowest person imaginable for a spouse. No, you looked to get the very best.

If you own a business and need to promote a new person to a management position, do you look to find the individual with the fewest qualities and least talent, intelligence, and experience?  No, you look to discover and settle upon the very best and most capable person to fill the role.stars more

Choosing the best … it is the natural way of doing things.

But it is not necessarily God’s pattern when it comes to displaying his glory and greatness. Over and over in the Scriptures we read of God’s glory and grace being made evident in his choosing of the least, the despised, the lowest, the poorest, the worst.

The prophet Isaiah wrote of how we as God’s creation are nothing more than the clay in the hands of a potter: “Yet you, Lord, are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.”  (Isaiah 64:8)

Moses told the people of Israel that God had not chosen them to be his special people because of their awesome resume: “For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession. The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples.” (Deuteronomy 7:6-7)

And of the salvation of those in the early church in the city of Corinth, Paul wrote to these early Christians that they were not chosen because they were the winners of life’s material lottery, “26 Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him. 30 It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. 31 Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.” – 1 Corinthians 1:26-31

None of this is surprising if we reflect back to the very beginning of it all –  back to God’s creation and the pinnacle moment of it in the creation of man. One would expect something more magnificent than a human being to be placed by God on Planet Earth in order to rule over his creation. You would expect one of the previously-created heavenly beings like an angel to have the honor and achieve God’s highest personal affection.

Rather it is a lowly human, and a sinner on top of it all. The least. It is a story worthy of a song about how majestic is God’s name in all the earth.

Psalm 8

For the director of music. According to gittith. A psalm of David.

Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory in the heavens.
Through the praise of children and infants you have established a stronghold against your enemies, to silence the foe and the avenger.
When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?

You have made them a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honor.
You made them rulers over the works of your hands; you put everything under their feet:all flocks and herds, and the animals of the wild,the birds in the sky; and the fish in the sea, all that swim the paths of the seas.

Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!