It’s Your Brain! Be Friendly To It!

Notes on the Sunday address by Dr Francis Macnab, 31 July 2016.
By John Abbate.

Be more friendly with your own brain, and the rewards will be enormous.

—Dr Francis Macnab

The human brain is an uncommonl topic for a sermon. Yet, as Dr Macnab points out, the brain is the organ tasked with “interpreting the stresses and events of life.” Can there be a theology of the brain? This is the question at the heart of the address today.

For Dr Macnab, there is a simple equation between psychology and religion: “Psychological treatment is about finding a positive fantasy of the future. Basic to our religious faith is to have a positive fantasy of the future.”

Our fantasy of the future must compete with our memories, with the pull of the past. Sometimes the past overwhelms the fantasy of the future. “That is the brain at work,” said Dr Macnab.

The brain is disproportionately powerful for its size, even by the standards of our most advanced, miniaturised microprocessor technologies. The brain registers and sorts our experiences, giving meaning to thembut there is nothing simple or straightforward in that process. As the brain interprets events, those events become entangled with feelings and emotions.

“The brain is part of a large family of conscious thinking, unconscious influences, the context in which events occur, the various communities in which we have active and dormant belonging, the concerns of our fantasies and our dreams — it’s your brain…both knowable and controllable, and it is an expansive mystery at the same time.”

What relevance has religion for understanding the brain? What might a theology of the brain look like? Dr Macnab offers four signposts to guide that discussion:

  1. Theology should stand for an informed care of the brain.
  2. Theology should stand for constructive resilience.
  3. Theology should stand for a sustained belief in human dignity.
  4. Theology should stand for an integration of the mind, brain, and spirit, in relation to the self, to others, and to the world.

“The brain that comes alive and gets connected with goodness, with the outer world—to improve the outer world—with a faith that carries  religion [that] helps us to think, and to dream, and to act in terms of a better world—that is what we’re looking for.”

We can all lose touch with a good brain. The brain can become “a partner in vast destruction, in negativity, in a wasted life.” Our goal must be to make friends with the brain, to surround it with vital supports that will encourage it to respond, to come alive with “a readiness to join forces with inspiration, and the energy of a life at its best.”

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