University Congregational Church
Feb. 4, 2018
“Shining a New Light: Is God Real?”
As many of you know, my husband, Eric, is a plane nut. No, not P-L-A-I-N nut. An airplane nut. He knows all things aircraft. And he loves that show “Why Planes Crash” on the Weather Channel. The show covers plane crashes from various times and places and lets the viewer in on the crash itself (complete with state-of-the-art recreations and visuals of the crash) as well as the investigative findings. Sometimes they include the voice recordings from the black boxes. You can hear the last moments before the crash and the exclamations from the pilots. These are words that come from deep within the soul – without intention or thought – and they usually include words like, “Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God!”
Because these words are spoken without deliberate purpose and without consideration of a hearer, they express the speaker’s profound horror. In fact, in this situation, “oh my God” is not intended to refer to any god or belief. It is an expression of feeling.
Conversely, if you go to an art museum or a botanical garden or someplace with incredible views of nature, you might hear people exclaim, “How magnificent!” They are not speaking about God, but their words may evoke a certain element of religious awe.
The fact is that human experience cannot easily be expressed directly in words. We sometimes invoke God’s name when we really aren’t making a statement pertaining to God. And we often express our thoughts without saying a word about holiness, yet we are speaking about something we experience as sacred.
We are continuing our sermon series today using articles from The Fourth R – the magazine published by the same group that started the Jesus Seminar. The article I am sharing with you today is by James Feist, entitled “Is God Real?” Next week concludes our series and is about an atheist’s “10 Suggestions”.
According to polls, there’s a 50-50 chance you have had at least one spiritual experience — an overpowering feeling that you’ve touched God, or another dimension of reality.
So, have you ever wondered whether those encounters actually happened — or whether they were all in your head? Scientists say the answer might be both.
If you’re looking for evidence that religion is in your head, you need look no further than Jeff Schimmel. The 49-year-old Los Angeles writer was raised in a Conservative Jewish home. But he never bought into God — until after he was touched by a being outside of himself.
“Yeah,” Schimmel says, “I was touched by a surgeon.” About a decade ago, Schimmel had a benign tumor removed from his left temporal lobe. The surgery was a snap. But soon after that — unknown to him — he began to suffer mini-seizures. He’d hear conversations in his head. Sometimes the people around him would look slightly unreal, as if they were animated.
Then came the visions. He remembers twice, lying in bed, he looked up at the ceiling and saw a swirl of blue and gold and green colors that gradually settled into a shape. He couldn’t figure out what it was.” And then, like a flash, it dawned on me: ‘This is Mary, the Mother of Jesus!'” he says. “And you know, it’s funny. I laughed about it, because why would Mary appear to me, a Jewish guy, lying in bed looking at the ceiling? She could do much better.”
Schimmel became fascinated with spirituality. He became more compassionate, less ambitious. And he wondered: Could his new outlook have to do with his brain? The next visit to his neurologist, he asked to see his most recent MRI.
“My left temporal lobe looked completely different from the way it did before the surgery,” he says. Gradually, it had become smaller, a different shape, covered with scar tissue. Those changes had sparked electrical firings in his brain.
Last week, Paul and I attended a workshop at Phillips Theological Seminary about how the brain works; specifically how worship and ritual affect the brain. One of the speakers, David Hogue, said: “Our brains react similarly in our connection with others as it does when we contemplate God.” Spirituality, after all, serves a vital human purpose. Numerous studies show that religious belief is medically and psychologically (not to mention socially) beneficial. Reports have shown that churchgoers live an average seven years longer than non-believers. They report lower blood pressure, recover quicker from breast cancer, have better outcomes from coronary disease and rheumatoid arthritis, and are less likely to have children with meningitis.
Patients with a strong “intrinsic faith”, (meaning a deep personal belief, not just a social inclination to go to a place of worship) recover 70% faster from depression than those who are not deeply religious.
Several brain researchers believe that religiosity is linked to dopamine activity in the prefrontal lobes. Studying nuns and Buddhist monks, brain researchers found that when religion is operating the way it ought, it strengthens the prefrontal lobes, which helps inhibit impulses better,” In other words, religious activities such as prayer, ritual, and abstaining from excessive alcohol, strengthen the ability of frontal lobes to control primitive impulses.
Additionally, religions give their followers the benefits of a supportive social network – since research has shown lack of social contact can be more harmful to health than obesity, alcoholism and smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Being part of a group is very important psychologically.
So, is God real? And how can we prove it? Much of the wisdom in our Bible presents people’s experience of God.
* Adam and Eve experienced God in a garden.
* Moses reported a time when he heard the voice of God coming from a burning bush.
* Abraham met God in three unexpected visitors when he entertained them.
* The prophets spoke of God’s anger and God’s plan for the future.
* Jesus preached about how humanity could change to bring about a better way of relating to one another – to bring about God’s kingdom.
* Paul reported a vision and new life direction because of a mysterious light on the way to Damascus.
We know God through experience. Often, we find language does not adequately describe those experiences. Instead we use metaphor, simile, story and hyperbole to tell about those experiences. Likewise, our brains and our bodies indicate changes when we have spiritual experiences. So, we name and attribute those experiences to God.
But what if God is the experience? What if God is the relationship? What if God is the energy, the love, the bond or the spirit of these experiences? I believe that one of the greatest modern mistakes of Christians is to treat our beliefs as superior and then discounting our spiritual experiences. What we experience as sacred is important. Because we cannot know God with certainty – only with faith – it is critical that our sacred experience is central to our beliefs.
So back to the question: Is God real? I would suggest that God is as real as our experiences of God. Or to say it more succinctly, God is as real as love. Love, like God, is an experience. It is difficult to prove on a strictly intellectual level. But it is a regular part of our experience. We know love is real because we have been loved and we have loved. We know God is real because we have felt a holy presence and known something beyond our own selves.
When we look to the Bible, we can confirm this. Before he was Paul – who was one of the main founders of the early church – his name was Saul. He had a profound experience of God on the road to Damascus. This experience changed his life and his name. After the experience, he was fully committed to teaching others about Jesus and leading them into the church community. Here is an excerpt of his experience… from Acts 9:3-6:
Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”
From that day on, Paul taught and preached and led people to God. He traveled around the Middle East and was imprisoned many times for his work. Yet, he drew on that one experience for the rest of his life. It gave him strength in adversity and hope when there was no hope. It gave him the power to sing while in prison. It led him into passionate belief. He kept on going until he, too, was martyred for what he believed.
• Have you had an experience that taught you, led you, helped you, or gave you belief?
• Have you had a moment of serenity in a time of hopelessness?
• Have you stopped to meditate and realized a new truth?
• Have you paused to consider the splendor of the earth?
• Have you been touched by the purity of a child’s voice?
• Have you experienced the miracle of healing?
• Have you felt a strong bond with a friend or several friends that cannot be severed by distance or time?
• Has your heart been strangely warmed by an invisible, yet palpable presence?
• Have you loved or been loved?
Then you know God.
www.npr.org “Are Spiritual Encounters All in Your Head?” May 19, 2009. By Barbara Bradley Hagerty.
Telegraph.co.uk “What God Does to Your Brain” June, 2014. By Julia Llewellyn Smith.
“Is God Real? A Linguistic View” by James Feist. The Fourth R. Volume 30; Number 3. May-June, 2017.