Christian Life/Personal Holiness: February 2009 Archives

First, an apology to Mr. Lehrer: having reached the end of the book, I found that he has as little use as I do for postmodernism and its errors. That said, the tenor of the book suggests a different philosophical error--materialism. While Lehrer specifically rejects all forms of reductionism within science, it appears that he thinks that Art and Science together explain it all. While that is a very enticing view for me, it seems to lack any element of the spirit and so I am uncertain. But here again, I must admit to reading into, and perhaps reading into incorrectly, so I apologize in advance if I have misinterpreted what is, admittedly, more a lack of evidence than any explicit or clear statement.

The book is wonderful from start to finish. It is provocative and delightful in the way that it weaves the discoveries of artists--A poet, four novelists, a painter, a composer, and a chef--into a narrative about modern discoveries about how the brain works. You learn about the reality of umami, the mystery of the self, the (in)persistence of memory, the structure of language, the structure of painting and art, and the meaning of freedom. All are fascinating. You learn how the act of remembering subtly alters the memories--much as Proust described in his magnificent opus. You find out that language has deep structures that, try as you might, don't really allow for violation--sense seems to surface. You learn why you may sometimes hate something upon first hearing it and then grow gradually to enjoy it.

Perhaps one of the most interesting and important lessons I will take away from the book is simple and appropriate for Lent. Reality is objective: our consciousness of it is, to some extent, our choice. That is, the human brain is limited. It can only absorb so much. So, there is a sense in which Emperor Fredrick in Amadeus is right. The human brain can only deal with so much and then it becomes "too many notes." We can see the tree as a whole, but only when we choose to focus on them do we become conscious of individual leaves. If we pick up a fallen leaf, we may observe the whole thing against a background that has become a blur. If we look more closely, the leaf falls away and we become aware of the veining structure. All of these things are part of an objective reality, but we choose what we will become conscious of. In a sense, so it is with God. He is the ultimate Objective Reality. However, we can choose to witness His works and His power here, or we can choose to see everything as a blur and not see anything of Him. That is our choice. Lent gives us an opportunity to focus our perception, to change our consciousness of things as they are and begin to participate in them as the Really Are.

Back to Mr. Lehrer's book--a fine, substantive work--at once a scholarly study of recent findings in neuroscience by a person of taste and understanding who reads literature as well as he studies science. A rare and much-to-be-valued skill in the world today. If you have any interest in the workings of the brain and the workings of literature, art, and even cooking, you could find no better companion that Mr. Lehrer to guide you through both.

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The Meaning of Lent

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I know that the liturgical year begins, rightly, with the season of Advent and the culminating celebration of Christmas. However, in a very real way, Lent always feels like the beginning of the year for me. It is such a bold and uplifting and powerful invitation to begin a new and truly joyous life, to break away from old habits that have closed me in and hidden me away from the gaze of the One who loves me.

Lent is, in some sense, like an invitation to a national competition--say swimming or surfing-- for me. I then have to prepare for the competition. I train, and I work out, and I eat or don't eat as I should, and I tune in to what my coach is telling me, and I practice, practice, practice. The goal is right there in front of me--I can feel it, taste it, touch it. But alone, I cannot attain it. I need the support of my friends, my family, and most of all my Coach--the one who wants me to win and succeed even more than I do. The competition is not, as many might think, the season of Easter, but the rest of my changed life. And the prize is the eternal crown that never fades.

That is, Lent promises me the possibility of change. I can't do it on my own, but change is possible. Indeed, given the desire and the will, change is even likely--for better or for worse--that's up to me. So, I look at Lent and see a season of discipline and hard work--but there is a purpose to it. Lent is also a season of inspiration--there is a reality to be grasped, growth to be achieved, a new life to attain. And God has already promised and committed His help through His son and directly in the person of the indwelling Holy Spirit who whispers and sometimes yells His encouragement directly to my flagging spirit.

Each Lent I read so much about the discipline, the sacrifice, the hardship. But, for me, Lent boils down to keeping or breaking training--do I really want the prize on the other side of the effort or am I only playing at it.

The metaphor may not work for all, but I hope it works to help you understand how I approach Lent, how I view it, why it is always a great burst of hope and joy for me. And this year, with God's help, I intend to keep training and to take the prize--and from there to move onward and upward--to do as He desires me to do and keep ascending because whether we like it or not we are all (or at least all who desire to) "climbing the stairway to Heaven."

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The Covenant


from Morning Prayer

It was because the Lord loved you and because of his fidelity to the oath he had sworn to your fathers, that he brought you out with his strong hand from the place of slavery, and ransomed you from the hand of Pharaoh, king of Egypt. Understand, then, that the Lord, you God, is God indeed, the faithful God who keeps his mericful covenant down to the thousandth generation toward those who love him and keep his commandments. (Deut. 8-9)

And something more: He keeps that covenant even with those who are faithless, calling them again and again to come home, reminding them in due season of His presence, lavishing on them all signs of His love. In a special way this is a season of solemn celebration of that sacrificial love--a time to recall our own faithlessness and to come home--prodigals all--to the loving embrace of a Father who will not call us prodigal, but rather, "My child, my only child." For that is how He loves each of us, as though we were His only child. Each of us cherished as an only child, together a family rejoicing when another has joined the ranks of those so loved.

That is the end of the covenant.

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Against Antineurogenesis


For those of us of a certain age, the truism was passed down that the human brain was more-or-less fixed at or short after birth. The neurons you had at the time of fixing were all that you would have your entire life and the brain was a rather obstinate and immaleable organ.

Jonah Lehrer recounts the work of Elizabeth Gould, who in 1989 began exploring the question of neurogenesis and discovered that, in fact, the human brain is a highly malleable organ with new neurons being generated regularly.

from Proust was a Neuroscientist
Jonah Lehrer

Neuroscience is just beginning to discover the profound ramifications of this discovery. The hippocampus, the part of the brain that modulates learning and memory, is continually supplied with new neurons, which help us to learn and remember new ideas and behaviors. Other scientists have discovered that antidepressants work by stimulating neurogenesis (at least in rodents) , implying that depression is ultimately caused by a decrease in the amount of new neurons, and not by a lack of seratonin. A new class of antidepressants is being developed that targets the neurogenesis pathway. For some reason, newborn brain cells make us happy.

And while freedom remains an abstract idea, neurogenesis is cellular evidence that we evolved to never stop evolving. Eliot was right: to be alive is to be ceaselessly beginning. As she wrote in Middlemarch, the "mind [is] as active as phosphorus." Since we start every day with a slightly new brain, neurogenesis ensures that we are never done with our changes. In the constant turmoil of our cells--in the irrepressible plasticity of our brains--we find our freedom.

The last sentence may be hyperbole (I'd have to give it more consideration that I have done), however, it is amazing to me that these insights should have been lilnked to the work of George Eliot. The human mind is capable of linking ideas that at first blush seem to have nothing to do with one another. It is this linking of ideas that moves us forward in science, the arts, and even civilization.

Someday, perhaps, we'll be able to make the logical, empathetic, and obvious link that a child in the womb is indeed a living creature separate from and dependent upon the mother for some period of time. Wouldn't it be marvelous if the implications of that statement could take hold of our collective hearts and minds and bring us out of the age of barbarism that we cast ourselves into in the name of some fictive freedom?

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Christian Life/Personal Holiness category from February 2009.

Christian Life/Personal Holiness: January 2009 is the previous archive.

Christian Life/Personal Holiness: March 2009 is the next archive.

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