The Religious Brains exchange, part 2: ‘All God-talk is metaphorical, inexact and incomplete’

November 25, 2015

Rabbi Ralph Mecklenburger is the leader of the Beth-El Congregation in Fort Worth, Texas, an adjunct faculty member at Brite Divinity School and has served as the Jewish co-chair of the Texas Conference of Churches' Jewish-Christian Forum. Rabbi Mecklenburger was ordained at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, which also awarded him an honorary doctorate degree in 1997. Prior to coming to Beth-El, he served congregations in San Francisco, California and Ann Arbor, Michigan.

This exchange focuses on Rabbi Mecklenburger’s book Our Religious Brains: What Cognitive Science Reveals about Belief, Morality, Community and Our Relationship with God (Jewish Lights, 2015). Part one can be found right here.


Dear Rabbi Mecklenburger,

In your book, and in your first answer, you did not shy away from talking about 'our relationship to God’ in the context of our brain activity. You also mentioned that some of what you discovered would be controversial to many religious people.

Perhaps part of the reason for the controversy is the fear of the reduction of religious experience to mere human reaction to linguistic or emotional stimuli. On a certain level, these neuro-reactions could not be accepted as the heart of the matter for many religious people, but, on the other hand, it seems that’s all we can really examine. Does a neuroscientific examination of religion not necessarily entail a certain (possibly reductive) view regarding what ‘the religious experience’ actually is?




Dear Shmuel,

A wonderful question!  Let me answer in two parts.

Our biblical ancestors recognized that the universe, and thus its God, are so much greater and vaster than we are that we cannot wholly understand them. That is the message, for instance, of Psalm 8 and of the Voice from the Whirlwind in chapters 38-40 of Job. By our era we have learned a great deal more than our ancestors dreamed possible, yet we remain in awe not only of the vastness of the universe, but also now of its inner complexity (molecules, atoms, sub-atomic particles, etc.)  We can know and try to understand what reaches us via our senses, plus we have access to (some of) our own thinking. In the process of trying to understand both self and world, millennia ago we sensed—or thought we did—a Presence beyond us, a universal God, a Creator.

I suggest in Our Religious Brains that we can explain why we are more comfortable, as people, thinking of God in personal terms—a Father and King Who loves or hates, creates, and rewards and punishes. We personalize our experience and think what goes on in our lives and our world is about us—which sometimes it is, but far from always.  We have long known that God-as-person is a metaphor, for God has no body. Elsewhere in the Tanakh God is referred to as a Rock (Psalm 19:15) and as a “Fountain of living waters.”  (Jeremiah 2:13). None of the metaphors or names should be taken literally. We do the best we can with the tools, language and metaphor, that we have. All God-talk is metaphorical, inexact and incomplete.

So to recognize that we know God only through what our senses bring to our brains and, via the wonder of consciousness, by our ability to “read” and manipulate our own thoughts, is only to state the obvious, not to limit our sense of what God may be. Recognizing how our brains deal with the limitations of thought and language is quite the opposite of reductionist. It frees us to experiment with other metaphors which also help to express various aspects of our experience of the divine, among them God as Being Itself or the Structure of Being—the rules, the software, if you will, of the universe. For Medieval Aristotelians like Maimonides God was “First Cause” and “Prime Mover” Who knew universal concepts, but not you and me (here is that word again) personally. For kabbalists of the Zohar God was better understood as a set of interacting forces. For modern theologian Mordecai Kaplan God was Process-in-history or a Force-making-for-goodness. Recognizing that our brains can conceive of the same reality in multiple ways expands the possibilities rather than limiting them.

But of course there are those who deny that there is a God at all.  Do they not believe in physics—that the universe has structure and operates by rules?! If they do, they are not truly atheists, but merely people who do not like the personal metaphor for God. 

This brings me to the second part of my answer. Can we have personal experience of God? For several decades now, in the Jewish world and beyond, much fuss has been made over “spirituality.”  I vividly recall a Cincinnati rabbi visiting with my rabbinic school class in the early ‘70s telling us that he knew what doing mitzvot was and he knew what social action (today we’d say tikun olam) was, but what was this new-fangled “spirituality” everyone was talking about?! It was garbage!, he insisted, a warm and fuzzy feeling but not substantive and not Jewish. Here we are, some four decades later, and there is even more talk of religion being about spirituality, which I take to mean the direct sense of God’s presence. People crave it!  But is there anything to it?

In reviewing neuroscience literature in my chapter, “Mystical and Spiritual, Neurological and Theological,” I demonstrate that certainly mystical states, and probably the more down-to-earth sense of holiness we get lighting candles for Shabbat and holy days, wrapping ourselves in a tallit, blessing a child, touching the kotel, and so on are real brain-states.  Far from being “garbage,” they are an important part of religious experience. There is a major emotional input that our brains add to the feeling, but the sense of God’s presence at the very least leaves open the possibility that Something is “out there.” 

That is scarcely a scientific proof of God. But science, in this case neuroscience, far from debunking religion, makes religion more believable by showing that spirituality is not an illusion. Faith for moderns must not contradict evidence, but it can carry us beyond evidence. When we have a spiritual moment, could it be that we are actually in touch with the divine? Or must we say that it is a trick our brains are playing on us? Since we believe God is universal and ever-present, the trigger for our spiritual moment may simply be alerting us to the God Who or Which is always present, though we are too busy much of the time—our brains literally filtering out distractions so we can pay attention to our daily activities—to notice.  “Surely God is in this place and I did not know it!” (Genesis 28:16) exclaimed Jacob. 

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