the god-shaped brain

The God-Shaped Brain – Book Club #1

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I mentioned in an earlier blog post that I have been on a journey to better understand how we disciple people. As part of this I want to better understand how people grow and what kind of environment can we create to foster growth. This journey recently led me to read a book that has long been on my “to read” list. I forget exactly where I got the recommendation but I eventually got round to reading The God-Shaped Brain by Timothy R. Jennings, M.D. The subtitle for the book is “How Changing Your View of God Transforms Your Life”. Here is an Amazon link* if you want to take a look.

Why Read It?

What I found fascinating about the book is the way that it looks to bring together the world of neuroscience and theology. The author doesn’t claim to be a theologian as such but rather looks to bring his experience and training as a Psychiatrist together with his personal faith and stories of helping many Christians overcome issues.

In the last 10 years it seems there has been a lot more content around neuroscience and related fields. There have been countless TED talks and books as it appears that this area of science has come on leaps and bounds in recent years. I have nothing but a rudimentary understanding of most of it but understanding the way our brains work is certainly a fascinating area.

Personally I love to see where science and faith co-exist, support one another and build a fuller understanding of the world we live in.

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The Main Takeaways

1. Our Brains Are Wired For Love

The book begins with the theological assertion that God is love. Therefore all that he creates is designed to work within this context. The author refers to the Law of Love. That everything in creation is designed in a reciprocal way, where it gives and receives. We are designed to live in harmony with one another and love becomes the lens through which we are to understand God, ourselves and life.

From this place he goes on to explain, in what I assume is surface level understanding, how different parts of the human brain function.

The idea being asserted is that our brain function also follows the Law of Love. When the fear circuits in our brain (the Amygdala) trigger we simultaneously become less able to reason, empathise and make choices that are loving. When we experience love our brains stay healthy and we can learn more easily.

2. Our God Concept Either Heals or Hurts Our Brain

Not all concepts of God are equal, as one 2006 study that Jennings refers to reveals. Many who would call themselves Christians hold to a view of God that is authoritarian or critical. Their view of God is not primarily formed by a God of love. But does it really matter as long as they believe in God?

Again leaning on some research by a Dr. Newberg, Jennings points out that whilst all contemplative meditation has been shown to result in positive brain changes; meditating on a God of love, in this particular study, was shown to have the most positive impact. Growth was seen in the Pre-Frontal Cortex, where we make judgements and reason and afterwards an increase in empathy, compassion, sympathy and altruism were measured. In other words a focus on a God of love stimulates the brain to grow and heal, our thinking becomes sharper and our memory improves!

On the flip side, views of God that induce fear – images of a distant, critical or punitive God – can lead over time to chronic inflammation in the brain as parts of the brain related to fear become over stimulated. The results can mean long term illness and other complications, not to mention the potential for relational difficulties as a result. Some of the technical descriptions of what happens in the brain are included and how these inflammatory responses reduce cognitive function.

3. Lies and Fear Are The Enemy

Once there is an understanding of how our brains function and how love promotes health and growth in the brain it then becomes clearer what the enemy is.

Lies break the cycle of trust and love and in turn gradually damage the way our brain was designed to function. Jennings points out that it was a lie about God and who he was that first led to the fall of Adam and Eve. Ever since there has been a battle to misrepresent who God is and the result is sin and destruction. Similarly lies we carry in our minds take us away from a healthy brain.

Fear similarly creates doubts about God’s goodness and his love. The long term affects of such stress are well known.

Jennings tackles some big theological questions here, thinking about when we pray and people still die from illness, or thinking about the judgement of God. He doesn’t do a detailed theological investigation here but he does relate these topics to the neuroscience and the fundamental idea that God is good and that God is love must be held through all the mystery.

4. Embracing the Goodness of God

Having put the goodness of God as expressed in the fact that God is love, at the centre, Jennings now turns to how we apply this. He discusses the importance of letting the truth of God’s love impact our lives through forgiveness and ultimately through us learning to live lives of other-seeking love.

This section is full of stories that inspire and challenge to live fully in love, which is how we are designed to function, yes on a spiritual level, but also in the physicality of our brains.

I really enjoyed this section of the book. It wasn’t dense in theology, but I have other books for that. It was practical and it consistently brings us back to the core of our faith, to know love and to be love.

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My Reflections

In some ways this book wasn’t quite what I expected. I was braced for a lots of technical information and learning around brain science. Whilst the book did contain some of this, particularly early on, what I found refreshing was the number of real life stories of transformation. Pulling from years of experience Jennings tells countless stories of how people have been set free, healed from past trauma and discover hope through a process of changing their concept of God.

I really enjoyed these testimonies. They revealed the practical outworking of a theology of love. Whilst I’m not sure I agreed with every theological reflection Jennings brought I found him thought provoking and refreshing. Sometimes tackling the thorny theological issues from a different angle actually reveals something new.

In many ways this book served to reinforce a conviction that I already held. Namely that what we believe about God and about ourselves does ultimately change and transform our lives. It is not simply about learning truth in an abstract sense. The truth about God as revealed through Jesus has the power to change our lives and as this book affirms, it begins in our brains. Our beliefs do have the power to shape our future. Perhaps renewing our minds(Rom 12:2) has a more physical dimension than I previously thought.

I’d recommend you give this a read if you too are interesting in how peoples lives are transformed. Here is the link again if you want to check it out on Amazon.

LINKS

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