Albert Schweitzer once quipped regarding the search to uncover the real, historical Jesus from behind the mythic cosmic religious background that “Once one peers back down into the well of history, one generally finds ones own face reflected back up.” It’s a well remarked upon issue in the study of the Gospels that any attempt to find the “true” image of Our Lord inevitably ends up looking like an idealized savior that appeals to the beliefs of the researchers.
Now some scientists think they know why. A study reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences says that as people’s beliefs about the world around them change over time, so too does their image of God. In fact they’ll tweak both their beliefs and their image of God so as to keep the two in agreement.
“The team conducted seven studies in the US, including four in which they surveyed people about their own beliefs on controversial issues such as abortion and the death penalty. Participants were also asked about what they thought God believed, as well as famous people like Bill Gates and President George Bush [Sydney Morning Herald]. Scientists then asked the participants—all of whom believed in the Abrahamic God and most of whom were Christians—to do things that might change their minds, like writing an essay about the death penalty from the opposite viewpoint of their own. When participants changed their own opinions, their ideas of God’s opinion changed too, though their opinions of what other people thought remained the same.
Finally, the team used fMRI to scan the brains of volunteers while they contemplated the beliefs of themselves, God or ‘average Americans.’ … In the first two cases, similar parts of the brain were active. When asked to contemplate other Americans’ beliefs, however, an area of the brain used for inferring other people’s mental states was active. This implies that people map God’s beliefs onto their own [New Scientist].”
The article does point out that these changes in the image of God in a person’s symbolic universe do not take place quickly, but seem to be made up of small tweaks made over time that end up nudging people’s thinking in one direction or another.
This isn’t terribly surprising. Anyone who’s ever done any scientific research or engineering work knows how easy it is to decide in advance what the correct answer is to a question and then to selectively choose the data that fits one’s presupposition. The observed value of the charge of the electron was off slightly when first measured by Michael Millikan in his oil drop apparatus. People who repeated the experiment tended to discard observations that gave the correct value and keep the observations that corresponded to Millikan’s published result. It was only over time that the consensus settled on the value we use today.
That’s why the scientific method works though – by insisting that people publish their data and their methodology – their work can be repeated and their personal errors and/or biases removed.
It seems obvious to me that we need to do the same thing in religion. The Bible functions as a collection over a long period of time and in many different contexts of humanities interactions with the Triune God. The variety of time and authors helps to remove any individual biases. It’s why the fact that there are contradictions in the Gospel accounts have never particularly troubled me.
I think the Episcopal Church’s insistence on gathering for Common Prayer using forms created through the workings of the broadest possible committee has the same effect for our human worship. Using the historical, consensual text of the Prayer Book keeps us from worshiping our own personal image of God and forces us to confront new ideas that cause us to tweak our understandings.
Hopefully, like the now accepted value for the charge of an electron, we too will begin to move toward a truer image of the God who created us and who was revealed to us in the person of Jesus.