Sunday, July 17, 2011

What is Man, that Thou art Mindful of Him?

 There shall be . . . tomatoes

"The problems for humankind begin when myths are taken literally. In fact, one might go so far as to say that if myths and legends were not taken so literally, there would be far less trouble in the world." - Robert Buckman

               We’ve long known that there are areas of the brain that arouse us to action, and there are areas that moderate our actions, that say, “Hold on, mister. This is neither the time nor the place to submit to that urge!” We know the names of these parts of the brain and because our research tools are becoming more and more sophisticated, we are getting better and better at observing the anatomy of various human actions. We now know which areas of the brain are active during sex, during anger, during periods of peaceful well-being. We can observe the effects of hormones and pheromones on behaviour with a precision that is still relatively new. For instance—as Buckman points out—we have found through measurement of brain activity that the right temporal lobe is active in both ecstatic religious experience and in aggression. As Buckner points out, this proves nothing by itself, but does demonstrate our ability to view human behaviour in a much more specific manner than heretofore.
               My interest in this area of research arises partly from observing the mess Christianity has made of its dialogue on sexuality. Determined to describe this significant human behaviour using terms like sin, lust, fornication, adultery, and a whole host of pejoratives, Abrahamic religions have tried to cope with the reality of sexual lust and its potential danger to family, culture and community without one important piece of information, namely a precise and observable description of the biological functions inherent in human sexuality and the differences from person to person. Spiritual and cultural models of sexuality on their own just haven’t been able to reach a satisfying understanding of what it means to be sexual human beings, remarkably similar in this wise to monkeys, donkeys, lions and rattlesnakes. We’re shocked by the news of priests molesting children, evangelical pastors addicted to pornography, incest in conservative Mennonite communities, as we should be. But until we broaden our discussion and our views to include the current research on the biology of sexuality, expect the mess to get worse and worse.
               We’ve got to stop enforcing ignorance as a defense against doubt and apostasy. So let’s think of ourselves in broader ways for a change. For instance:
1)      Varying thresholds are observable in the human limbic system. Simplified, it means that Jake is more quickly aroused to anger and aggression--and also to fanatic highs--than Ben.
2)      The control system varies from person to person. Simplified, it means that Ben’s frontal lobes are bigger and more active than Jake’s and insert a stronger influence on his limbic system in times when “busting out” is a danger.
3)      Jake grows up a handful in school and later, is abusive as a husband. He is repeatedly repenting in tears and ashes, but falls into the old trap again and again. Ben is a gentle, amiable man, a valued church member.
4)      Describing their differences in spiritual terms without reference to their biological makeups opens the door to injustice and silly solutions.
I certainly don’t want to leave an impression that we are what we are because we can’t help it--end of story. Jake has got to stop abusing his wife, period. For him, a combination of sensitive counselling with a therapy that recognizes his biological weaknesses and builds his coping strategies might be the ticket. Altering the thresholds that trigger aggression with drugs may be standard therapy in the future, but for now, anger management classes might also be an answer for Jake. In any case, rejecting the biological side of our natures for some fantasy of what we would rather believe we are can’t be good in the long run.
               If God made us, he made all of us: biological included.  If nothing else, Buckman can help us take another step in understanding what that might mean.

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