In ’03 there was a small Indy film, Dopamine. The story involves a young computer programmer who is part of a small tech start up in the Bay Area developing an artificially-lived computer character. The cartoon-like bird, can “hear,” “see,” and “interact,” with the user. The tech company manages to place its prototype in a children’s classroom. The programmer develops a relationship with one of the classroom teachers. The situation raises interesting questions for him:
Are human beings essentially different from the computer-generated bird? Are we only very sophisticated chemical systems that react to others in an equally sophisticated manner?
To raise the level of poignancy, the young man also has a mother suffering from Alzheimer’s. He sees a once beautiful relationship between his parents disappear as his father is reduced to the role of caretaker. His initial take on life is indeed that we are no more than complex chemical reactions – his mother’s loss is tragic but still only as a shift of chemicals. However, he begins to discover (perhaps to hope?) that there is something more that cannot be quantified. It is a story of modern love as well (by analogy) as a story of the modern search for God.
The more we understand of our world, the more troublesome becomes our thought about ourselves within the world. If my experience of the world is inherently mediated by chemicals (via neurons, etc.), and that same experience can be significantly altered by altering the chemicals (increased serotonin, norepinephrine, dopamine, etc.), am I anything more than the sum-total of the chemical cocktail in my brain? What is the place of the self, the soul? Where is God in the chemical equation? Is there a chemistry of religious belief (and unbelief)?
Of course, there is nothing new in these questions. Materialism in one form or another (“the material universe is all there is”) has been an live option since the birth of philosophy in Greece. What is new is our increasing understanding of the workings of the material world and the sense of cogency that accompanies it. Materialism seems yet more cogent (sensible and plausible) because we can increasingly use only material arguments to account for all that we see.
Christians can easily become disquieted at this turn of events. The growing materialism of the modern world feels quite threatening for some. Many simply choose not to think too much about these things or grasp at every scientific straw that might lend support for the faith. My own thought is that the clash between materialism and the Christian faith is the result of bad theology and the failure to understand some very foundational aspects of the faith.
St. John Chrysostom, in the prayer of the Anaphora, describes God as “ineffable, beyond comprehension, invisible, beyond understanding, existing forever and always the same” (ἀνέκφραστος, ἀπερινόητος, ἀόρατος, ἀκατάληπτος, ἀεὶ ὢν ὡσαύτως ὤν). God is uncreated, utterly unlike anything created. But we believe that the Uncreated became a Creature in the Incarnation of Christ. This is the primary revelation of God: “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father,” Christ says (Jn. 14:9). We also believe that it is possible to perceive God, to recognize His work, to know and understand His presence and His action (“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” Mat. 5:8 NKJ). This latter reference notes, however, that such perception is also related to an inner state (pure in heart). This perception can be generous in the extreme (the “wise thief” sees Christ and understands everything “in a single moment” despite his criminal life). But such a generous perception is not at all the same thing as a material object, or within the category of material objects. God does not present Himself as an object – thus not in an objective manner. The human experience of objects (and “objectivity”) is not an example of evidence, reason and acceptance. The human experience of objects is that we take them or leave them, ignore them, use them, abuse them, lie about them, etc. Were God to present Himself as an object among objects, the fate of such a presence would differ in no way from that of other objects. The Incarnation is a case in point. God is objectively present in Christ – and we killed Him. Thus it is not at all true that God could make the case for His existence in a manner that would be salvific if He but accommodated Himself to our objective requirements.
In the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16), the Rich Man cries out to Father Abraham to let the poor man, Lazarus, return from the dead and go to his brothers and warn them.
Then he said,`I beg you therefore, father, that you would send him to my father’s house, `for I have five brothers, that he may testify to them, lest they also come to this place of torment.’ “Abraham said to him,`They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.’ “And he said,`No, father Abraham; but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ “But he said to him,`If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.’ (Luk 16:27-31 NKJ)
This parable sees something of a literal fulfillment in Christ’s raising his friend, Lazarus, from the dead. What we are told is that it is precisely from the time of the miracle of Lazarus’ raising that the leaders sought to kill Christ (Jn. 11:53) and that they sought to kill Lazarus as well (Jn. 12:10).
But God is merciful. The flow of a life between unbelief and belief is something of a dance and a journey. He gives us Himself in accordance to the ability of our heart. He draws us to Him, often imperceptibly. Even in the life of belief, the dance and journey continue. For there, we are told, we see Christ “in a mirror, dimly” (1Co 13:12 NKJ). The “dimness” of our present perception is a reflection of our heart and not of the quality of the revelation. As the continue in the journey, the mirror becomes yet more clear.
But what of the chemical mix, the brew within our brain within and through which we experience the world? Would an increase of dopamine or serotonin change our perception of the mysterious God? My own experience in life says no. My brain has been “all over the map” in the course of my lifetime. My perception of God has sometimes been more clear during times of great depression and quite dim when it was otherwise. And the opposite has been true as well. The perception of God is, in the teachings of the spiritual fathers, not driven by our emotional or mental states. It exists both within and beside these states.
There is a perception, a “seeing” that is beside the seeing of the mind. This is the perception of the heart. The tendency of our mind (thoughts and feelings) is to fragment everything. We see details. We are overwhelmed with details. We experience the world as a cacophony of the senses. Repelled by one and attracted by another, we stumble through life like a drunken man, pushed and pulled by the things around us. This is a description of the passionate life. With increased purity of the heart, however, there comes the increased ability to perceive the whole. To see one thing, not only as itself but in its relations as well, is the beginning of knowing the logos of something. Were we to perceive everything in such a manner, we would perceive the truth of all things. For nothing is as it is in itself, but only as it is in relation (including most especially its relation to God).
If there is a strength in our modern way of seeing, it is in the power unleashed by the focused seeing of one thing. The so-called scientific view breaks the universe into component parts and in all things seeks for causes and effects. Knowledge of one thing (more or less) splits the atom. But the failure to see all things and the logoi of their existence turns such power into sheer destruction. We know a great deal while knowing almost nothing. The question: where is God in the chemical cocktail, is the question of the scientist – it is to look for God as an atom among the atoms.
As a modern man (inescapably), I have most often found God at the borders and edge of my existence. Overwhelmed by the fragmentation of my own mind, I begin to know God in my not-knowing. It is to take my reason to the boundaries of its ability and allow myself to see just beyond that. It is also to step back and refuse to see all things as fragments. To see all things in relation is also to cease to be an observer (in some manner). For if all things are in relation, then I am in relation as well, not as observer but as participant. To see myself as participant is itself a small form of ascesis, or spiritual training. It is a requirement of love – for love has no objects, only participants.
In the film I referenced at the beginning of this article, the young man is thrown into confusion by the contradictions of his experience. Either life is nothing more than the chemistry of his brain, and thus no more significant than the digital programming of a computer model, or there is something unquantifiable, something “ineffable, beyond comprehension, invisible, beyond understanding,” etc. within our experience and just beyond the edge of our knowing. His choice lies between the fragmented mastery of the chemical equation and union with the Joy that extends beyond.
Belief in God makes a choice that is not dissimilar.
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