I am no expert in prayer and I am no scientist. So I really don’t know what to think about “neurotheology” or attempts to study brain activity during religious experience. I guess I would rather think of prayer as a necessary absurd (HT Kierkegaard) or as a mystery yet to be revealed (HT X-files). But when my sister posted this NPR story on facebook recently, I was struck by this summary by UPenn neuroscientist, Andrew Newberg:
"The more you focus on something — whether that's math or auto racing or football or God — the more that becomes your reality, the more it becomes written into the neural connections of your brain."
This, it will come as no surprise, is taken for granted by many scientists who study memory. Memory is encoded in typical patterns (and therefore evolves and distills in typical patterns). In my Historical Jesus, I introduce a few different ways to think about memory, but I do very little with neuroscience (for good reason!). I do, however, work toward resetting a few default assumptions about human perception in this book. Building from analytic philosophy, sociology, and memory theory, I argue that perception is shot through with interpretive filters from the very start. I write:
But, as the parental example suggests, the honing of perception is much more common than we generally think. I offer several examples throughout the book that suggest that our perceptions of the external are constantly being filtered and appropriated in typical ways.
In the same way that a geologist must look at a mountain differently than us novices, the ancient perceivers of Jesus (those who filtered his words and deeds through the lenses of first-century culture[s]) must have looked on him differently than we moderns. I must admit that I will never be able to see the world in apocalyptic categories like Jesus and his contemporaries did.
I have often wondered if we moderns are simply ill-equipped to measure how the apocalyptic mind would have made sense of Jesus' teaching about and/or actions in the Jerusalem Temple. The best that I can do as an historian is to immerse myself in the literature of Jewish apocalyptic and project my historical imagination with care.
The danger in describing this scene in overly literary terms is that my own interpretive filters are at work. I have immersed myself in literature, so I am bound to see literary motifs, themes, types, etc. I also must acknowledge that Jesus' first audiences had an altogether different (deeper, wider, more complete) relationship to the apocalyptic categories by which Jesus was framed. In short, they saw Jesus differently than I (an alien to their culture[s]) would have seen Jesus had my eyes, memories, language filters, etc. been present. My perception of reality is shaped differently in ways that I can only begin to imagine.
Anthony Le Donne (PhD) is the author of The Historiographical Jesus: Memory, Typology, and the Son of David.