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A Neuro-Theology Perspective
For this week’s edition of Theology & Therapy I offer you some reflections on the healing power of prayer in light of modern neuroscience.
Psychological health and well being has been described as integration, the differentiation and linkage of mind, brain and relationships (Siegel, 2012)1. The idea, articulated from the field of interpersonal neurobiology (IPNB), uses a spacial metaphor to explain psychopathology as the disconnection of various aspects of self when one experiences and adapts to disruptions in development. A simple example would be the disconnection of explicit memory from conscious awareness in traumatic experiences in an effort to minimize pain, confusion, and relational disruption. If the problem is defined as disconnection, a disintegration or loss of cohesion, then the solution is defined as reconnection, integration, bringing together disparate parts and aspects of the self, both at the mental/psychological level as well as the neurological/physical level.
Biblical anthropology is much more robust in highlighting the ultimate importance of the divine-human relationship. This relationship, which transcends the resources of creation grace, is certainly the heart of prayer. Nevertheless, the holistic understanding of integration in IPNB is an example of common grace affirming special revelation, for the Bible testifies to this dialectic of disconnection and reconnection. For example, Psalm 86:11,
“Teach me your way, O LORD, that I may walk in your truth; unite my heart to fear your name.”
David would not pray for his heart to be united if it were not divided.
Or consider where James speaks of the “double-minded”, or literally, “two-souled” man:
“If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double- minded man, unstable in all his ways.” (James 1:5-8)
Later on James gives us the divine treatment for this internal divided, disconnected self:
“Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double- minded.” (James 4:8)
He uses the same word, “double-minded”, and shows us that the solution is through cleansing and purification which appears to result from a combination of prayer (draw near to God) and action (cleanse and purify). Dan Doriani (2007, p. 91) observes that “The double-minded lack integrity”. Note the similarity: integrity and integration have the same Latin root, integer, meaning “whole”.
Dan Siegel has proposed mindful awareness practices, or “mindsight” (Siegel, 2010), as an evidence-based means to facilitating healing through integration. The basic idea of Siegel’s Wheel of Awareness practice is linking different regions of the mind/body/brain through intentionally attending to those different regions as a practiced, ongoing exercise (Siegel, 2018). The practice moves through attention to the 5 senses, bodily sensations, mental activities, and relational interconnection.
There are certainly limitations and weaknesses in this practice with its influence from secular and Eastern psychotherapy. Still, as a Christian counselor I value the integration metaphor and integrative exercise, and find support for the connection between mindfulness and integration in the Christian tradition.
Substituting the term mindfulness for prayer and meditation, I came across an unexpected source for the integrative nature of prayer in a 19th century writing on prayer by Presbyterian minister and theologian Benjamin Palmer.2 In his book A Theology of Prayer as Viewed in the Religion of Nature and in the System of Grace, Palmer often returns to this theme:
“Prayer is an act of worship, in which all the constituent elements of our complex being are distinctly united and exercised.” (p. 168)
He outlines a range of spiritual/psychological faculties which are exercised in prayer: intellect, conscience, heart/affections, will. Not only that, he also discusses the use of the body and the five senses in prayer, since we are “corporeal” beings, and the body “is not only the abode in which the spirit finds its home, but it is the organ through which it executes all its purposes” (p. 171). Combining all of these together,
“No constituent element of man’s complex being is withheld in this supreme act [of prayer], in which every faculty of the soul and body is embarked.”
Prayer integrates the human mind/body/soul as it exercises all of these elements in relation to and with God.
“No act in which we can engage so gathers into itself all the faculties of the human soul, as this of prayer. The understanding which perceives, the reason which compares, the judgment which concludes, the memory which recalls, the conscience which directs, the heart which loves, the imagination which gives form and life, the taste which feels the beautiful, the will which decides – all the faculties which make up the complement of a rational nature, are drawn into this holy act of prayer to God...If, then, one should aim at the perfection of his own nature...he cannot afford to disengage himself from the office of prayer.” (p. 347-348)
This is why I value the contributions of mindfulness theory which emphasize the mind/body connection, such as the Wheel of Awareness which combines breath awareness, sensory grounding, and body scan. They are limited in and of themselves, and misleading when disconnected from Christian prayer and biblical doctrine. However, Christians have struggled with balancing the mind and the body, the spiritual and the physical, ever since the early gnostic heresies of the early church. Viewing prayer as a holistic act of the human self, constituted as embodied soul or ensouled body, corrects such disconnections. Engaging in holistic practice as found in various traditions of Christian spirituality restores prayer to its proper biblical position and transformative potential.
Quote from Ole Hallesby
Not until we have come apart from those things which divert our attention to outward things, are our souls free to engage in inward activity…Many who pray are not aware of this. As soon as they enter into their secret chamber they begin at once to speak with God. Do not do that, my friend. Take plenty of time before you begin to speak. Let quietude wield its influence upon you. Let the fact that you are alone assert itself. Give your soul time to get released from the many outward things. Give God time to play the prelude to prayer for the benefit of your distracted soul. Let the devotional attitude, the attitude of holy passivity, open all the doors of the soul leading into the realm of eternal things.
Why not give this a try? One way to “give God time to play the prelude to prayer” is with two simple practices: mindful attention to the 5 physical senses, and scanning the interior of the body. Dan Siegel’s audio recordings do a good job with guiding through those exercises, but I recommend turning to properly Christian prayer when he gets to the 3rd segment (awareness of mental activities). With practice, those 2 exercises can be done in 5 minutes or less (although it can be helpful to do them slower and longer at first).
Daniel M. Doriani. (2007). James. P&R Publishing.
Benjamin Palmer. (1894/1980). A Theology of Prayer as Viewed in the Religion of Nature and in the System of Grace. Jas. K. Hazen, reprinted by Sprinkle Publications.
Daniel J. Siegel. (2018). Aware: the science and practice of presence. TarcherPerigree.
Daniel J. Siegel. (2012). The developing mind: how relationships and the brain interact to shape who we are (2nd ed.). The Guilford Press.
Daniel J. Siegel. (2010). The mindful therapist: a clinician’s guide to mindsight and neural integration. W. W. Norton & Company.
Ole. Hallesby (1931/1994). Prayer. Augsburg Fortress.
As Fred Sanders explains, Palmer was “a Southern Presbyterian theologian who sided with the Confederacy and defended slavery. That his Trinitarian theology could be so good (in the work cited and in a large book he wrote on prayer) is a standing warning about how we can compartmentalize our orthodoxies” (The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything, p. 278). I would much rather cite a different author than Palmer on the integrative power of prayer, but I have not come across any theologian who explains this.