Voices
Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Psychology today

What should Christians make of neuroscience?

Issue: "Syria's pain," Sept. 8, 2012

Octavious Bishop, 37, did not need a television to learn about gangsters, pimps, and prostitutes: He only had to look out his window. Growing up without a dad in poor areas of Milwaukee, Memphis, and Houston, with gangs all around him, prisons or coffins were his likely resting places.

But he had two things going for him: a belief in a big God and a coach who believed in a big player. Bishop grew up going to church and kept growing, hitting 6 feet 5 inches and 320 pounds by his senior year in high school. He became an offensive tackle on The University of Texas Longhorns and had brief stints with the Oakland Raiders and the Atlanta Falcons, until a broken leg cut short his career.

Now he has an NFL alumni plaque at his office in a suite of the Austin-based NeuroSensory Centers of America, where he is doing research that will be the basis of his Ph.D. dissertation. Here he faces a different kind of challenge: How to integrate his strong Christian beliefs and his sharp scientific inclinations.

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Bishop introduced me to Kendal Stewart, chairman and chief medical officer of the company. Stewart has been looking at neuro-immune disorders that include migraines, anxiety, depression, ADD, and post-concussion syndrome. He believes that methyl folate, dopamine, and other chemical deficiencies are major culprits. Other researchers have different explanations, but Stewart provides evidence that if we get the right pharmaceutical combination, we can go far.

Stewart's theories are one indication of how psychology has changed over the years. In the 18th century Jonathan Edwards preached about anxious adults rightfully depressed about their sin. In the 19th century Dwight Moody evangelized depressed adults who needed a spiritual boost. In the 20th century Sigmund Freud and his pupil Carl Jung emphasized the need to confront the negative thoughts embedded in us early on.

As Jung put it, "It is not by looking in the light that we become luminous, but by plunging into the darkness." Freud asked patients to look into the darkest reaches of their childhoods and discern why they felt guilt or shame. Those who were too obstinate or lazy to pump out the darkness would drown in it as they projected their own faults onto others.

Later in the century, Erich Fromm, Carl Rogers, Abraham Maslow, and Rollo May further developed humanistic psychology. Fromm studied the Talmud but moved away from Orthodox Judaism when he was 26. Rogers, once an altar boy with a Pentecostal mom, emerged at 20 with a degree in doubt. May graduated from Union Theological Seminary. Paul Vitz's Psychology as Religion: The Cult of Self-Worship (1977) critiqued those theorists and the way their beliefs functioned as alternative religions.

But by the mid-1990s a new ideological sheriff had come to town: neuroscience. The Society for Neuroscience jumped from 1,000 members in 1970 to 26,000 in 1996, the year Tom Wolfe published an essay that would become famous, "Sorry, But Your Soul Just Died." The idea he reported was the essence of materialism: The thoughts that concerned Christians as well as Freudians were merely the product of brainwaves that could be pharmaceutically adjusted. The brain is a piece of machinery, and neurosensory experts have the reset button.

The battle of various theories may seem ... well, theoretical, but they become concrete when it comes to helping depressed individuals. Depression over the centuries has often led to spiritual breakthrough, as God turns our wondering about what's wrong into a search for what's right. One example: Martin Luther, depressed about issues of salvation, broke through to an understanding of how the just shall live by faith. One question: What if a pharmaceutical adjustment provides the temporary fix so that the individual doesn't get the benefits of depression?

And yet, what if some people are so sunk into clinical depression-so closed in on themselves-that they are unable to think. This doesn't mean God can't break through-He always can-but what if neuroscience can help bring a prone person to a place where he can sit up?

Octavious Bishop has to sort all this out. It's a hard task, with pressures on the one hand to be unnecessarily separationist, and on the other hand to accommodate Scripture to current scientific theory.

Pray for graduate students at secular universities.

Email molasky@worldmag.com

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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