Jonah Lehrer’s book, Proust was a Neuroscientist, is a delight for anyone interested in questions of intersection between science and art. As the title suggests, he considers the work of brilliant thinkers through the lens of modern scientific discoveries. He states his thesis in the introduction, “When it comes to understanding the brain, art got there first.” By the end of his book, I was convinced of Lehrer’s claim that art can indeed inform science and, as a result, I am challenged to consider the ways in which these two disciplines can inform and instruct our faith.
Consider the example of Walt Whitman. The great poet understood that, “The spirit receives from the body just as much as it gives to the body.” He declared, “I will make poems of materials, for I think they are to be the most spiritual poems.” Lehrer demonstrates that the best neuroscience has affirmed Whitman’s poetic hypothesis that feelings do begin in the flesh. For example, fear causes our pulpits to dilate, our palms to sweat, and our breath to quicken. Our emotions are as much as result of our physical sensations as our intellectual activity. This insight can change the way we talk about theology.
Popular theology suffers from an ancient heresy, Gnosticism, which entails the split between body and soul, material and immaterial, corporal and eternal. Many sermons, especially at funerals, speak of salvation as flying away from the body and this world, finally freed of bodily pain for an eternal home in the sky. Sometimes they mean well, but in effect, this theology negates the physical world as nothing more than a trial to be endured.
Conversely, Whitman wrote, “Come, said my soul / Such verses for my Body let us write / For we are one.” Just as science has adapted to this perspective, people of faith can benefit from the idea that our experience in this world is relevant and meaningful. We are not souls trapped inside bodies, but creatures made in the image of God (Gen 1:26).
I was intrigued by Lehrer’s perspective of what is commonly known as the “nature vs. nurture” debate. The writer, George Eliot, intuited what is now defined as the brain’s “plasticity.” Rather than thinking of the individual as a pre-programmed robot, Eliot said: “We are a process and an unfolding.” While it was once thought that the brain was essentially a fixed machine incapable of change, scientists have documented that our mind is an active and evolving organism. Lehrer cites examples of people with brain injuries who have relearned abilities, such as speech, by making new neuropathic connections. (For more please read Norman Doidge’s book, The Brain That Changes Itself.)
Perhaps this new information can finally put the old image of God as master puppeteer to rest. As a pastor, I hear such fatalistic talk all the time: “Everything happens for a reason.” Even if this statement is true, we still have the ability to adapt and grow. Just as the brain’s composition can change after trauma, we can make the best of difficult situations. Perhaps we could even imagine that this is the work of the Holy Spirit, our divine comforter (John 14:16) who works within us (Ro 8:16).
It seems to me that the most helpful aspect of Proust was a Neuroscientist is that Lehrer suggests a middle way between over-technical and over-simplistic language. “How” we speak is important. At my church, people’s eyes start to glaze over when I mention words like incarnation or phrases such as the duality of Christ’s nature. Not everyone is interested in reading clinical neuroscience reports either; yet they struggle to understand their faith on a daily basis. They wrestle with the idea of being created in the image of God and God’s role in their lives. We, too, should seek inspiration from the likes of Whitman and Eliot for, not only do they speak of truth, but they inspire comprehension. Perhaps our artists are our best theologians.