Friday, November 21, 2014

The Universe and the Human Brain

The July 2013 issue of Liturgy, guest edited by Taylor W. Burton-Edwards, offers four essays on recent research in neuroscience and how the findings might inform liturgists, worshippers, and scholars about what is happening in worship. Here is a peek at the contents through Burton-Edwards’ introduction.

Neuroscience and cosmology may seem an odd pairing for a journal on liturgy. . . Neuroscience tends to focus on how brains, bodies, and environments interact to generate consciousness, memory, learning, and, in some species, the sense of self. Cosmology addresses the origins and destiny of the universe as a whole, from “big bang” to “big stretch.” The vast differences in the scope of the two may seem to lead them to talk more past each other than to be in meaningful dialogue with each other, even if . . . neural networks and the structures of the universe may actually look remarkably similar.  . . . 
 Christian worshipers need neuroscience. We need it to help us sharpen our understanding of how worship forms worshiping communities and individual worshipers, as centuries of experience show it does. We also need it to help us refine some of our doctrinal or practical approaches to worship that may not have had or may no longer have the formative effects we had believed or assumed they would or should have. 
 Baptism for us is nothing less than an initiation into resurrection and new creation. The Eucharist is our proleptic participation by our gathered communities here and now in the life and feasting of the age to come. Even the act of prayer, personal or corporate, embodies an implicit cosmology. We need the scope of scientific cosmology both to remind us of the boldness of our own claims, confessed or enacted, and to keep us epistemically humble about our capacity to make claims about the cosmos, given what appears to be our supremely limited time and place within it. 
 The four essays in this volume remind us of our time and place, as well as of the ways we inhabit or may better inhabit them through our worship. Brad D. Strawn and Warren S. Brown invoke James K. A. Smith's definition of human beings as “liturgical animals” to explore how neuroscience reveals the ways the liturgies of culture, including Christian ritual, may form or malform us in the image of the Triune God. 
 Christopher Demuth Rodkey takes their work several steps further to explore both the neuroscience behind what he describes as “The Synaptic Gospel” and how these insights have led in practice and may lead in principle to a dramatic increase in empathy across the generations of a typical congregation, starting with children. 
 Allan R. Bevere invites us into physicist John Polkinghorne's theological dialogue with scientific cosmology to consider how our own celebrations of Advent and Eastertide and our theology and embodiment of the sacraments . . . may provide credible witness to our cosmological hope. 
 Finally . . . my essay . . . calls us to reconsider what the ideals of “full, conscious and [actual] participation” in the liturgy may look like and how they may be better achieved in local practice . . .  
– Taylor W. Burton-Edwards is the Director of Worship Resources for the General Board of Discipleship of the United Methodist Church, Indiana.

Read further to find out what these ardent researchers have to teach us. This issue offers an excellent avenue for keeping up with some of what scientists are discovering that impinges on even our lives of faith.

Taylor W. Burton-Edwards, “Neuroscience, Cosmology and Liturgy: Introduction,” Liturgy 28, no. 4 (22 July 2014): 1-2.

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