The awesome inner God of the human mind

Notes on the address by Dr Francis Macnab, December 7, 2014
John Abbate

There can be something working in you with a soft insistent voice, telling you your life is empty and meaningless, but there are chances of a new life waiting before the door of your inner self to fill its void and conquer its dullness. The Spirit within can give you the courage that says ‘yes’ to life in spite of the destructiveness you have experienced around you and within you.

—Paul Tillich

Rami, Swirling Spirit, 2009, Oil on Canvas

The mystery of dreams—their value and meaning continues to be debated among scholars of the mind. Whether we dismiss them as pointless, or struggle to uncover some deeper meaning in the mystery, each night our dreams take hold, projecting a flickering light into the darkest corners of our minds.

Is God a figment of the human mind or “is the mind a vehicle for a presence, a communication, coming from a source outside ourselves?” asks Dr Macnab. The Bible contains stories of messages from God hidden in dreams; surely a preposterous idea in our time. But if we are not too literal about things, the idea of a presence that occupies our thoughts and our dreams may lead to some valuable insights into the nature of our existence as thinking, social and spiritual beings.

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The sense of a powerful inner presence that speaks to us is not always positive. Guilt speaks in such insistent tones that psychoanalysts have given it the name superego. The damage that guilt does is not something we would wish for ourselves, so it is easy to think of it as speaking from a place outside ourselves, somewhere over and above the ego (hence, super-ego).

Guilt has long been associated with religion. Figures of religious authority have taken up residence in people’s minds, wielding power over them in the form of guilt and punishment for sin, spreading fear and lowering self-worth. Dr Macnab believes that the best religion can reverse this process, opening minds up to love and strengthening self-regard.

He poses the question, “Is the awesome inner presence a punishing, constrictive God, or is the awesome inner presence pointing us to a better way, a more enhancing way to be: the way of positive values, the way of loving kindness, the way of affirming the possibilities for our growth into more and more goodness; for forgiveness, for release and for resilience?”

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More and more studies show that a positive religious experience is a positive contributor to health and wellbeing. Is this imagination, some activity of the mind akin to the placebo effect, or could it be that our mind is part of larger phenomena that we don’t fully understand?

As we grow older, we begin to question whether our mind is functioning as well it once did. Two functions in particular come under threat from ageing: 1) the capacity to hold things together in mental coherence, and, 2) memory. As we age, both are likely to fade. Dr Macnab points to two psalms that he calls “confronting” on this point:

Time and again I struggle with the meaning of my life. I get caught with my own thoughts of where I have been, and I wait for some strong spirit to help me be sound and whole.

—Psalm 50

Do not abandon me in my old age.

—Psalm 71

“In such words we can hear that our mind is plugged into a greater remembrance,” said Dr Macnab. “We know that our mind is housing an awesome presence. […] That inner presence, whatever name you give it, is a powerful part of who you are and what gives meaning to your remembering.” At a wider level, the memory of the whole human family, its history and the accumulation of experience over the ages, is surely awesome. “What response will we give to this awesome gift?” asks Dr Macnab. Should we shrug it off, or “be like the psalmist and pause a while, and respond with words of song and praise?”

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