When I taught mass comms at Benedictine, I used to tell the kids sometimes you can do pretty darn well for yourself by doing good. I thought it fit our mission as a faith-based college, and, besides, I believed it. Now comes Lisa Miller, a psychologist at Columbia Teachers College, with a study offering scientific evidence that you can do exactly that. Her headline (or that of Church Times, an Anglican magazine published in the UK):

‘How doing good does you good’

[Summarized in Christian Century, “Century Marks,” Sept. 22, 2021, p. 8., with this lede: “Neuroscientist Lisa Miller studies innate spirituality, our innate capacity to experience love, connection, unity and sense of guidance by a higher power. […]” I think the editorial staff at Christian Century more or less inadvertently hit on a good working definition of spirituality.]

***

Verbatim excerpt from original in Church Times (UK),

I AM a scientist, not a theologian. Faith traditions have a lot to say about ontological questions — the nature of reality, why we’re here, the existence and guidance of God or a higher power. As a scientist, I don’t address these issues. I look at how humans are built and how we develop over the life span. I’ve discovered that the awakened brain is both inherent to our physiology and invaluable to our health and functioning.

The awakened brain includes a set of innate perceptual capacities that exist in every person, through which we experience love and connection, unity, and a sense of guidance from and dialogue with life. And, when we engage these perceptual capacities — when we make full use of how we’re built — our brains become structurally healthier and better connected, and we access unsurpassed psychological benefits: less depression, anxiety, and substance abuse; and more positive psychological traits such as grit, resilience, optimism, tenacity, and creativity.

The awakened brain is the neural circuitry that allows us to see the world more fully, and thus enhance our individual, societal, and global well-being. When we awaken, we feel more fulfilled and at home in the world, and we build relationships and make decisions from a wider view.

We move from loneliness and isolation to connection; from competition and division to compassion and altruism; from an entrenched focus on our wounds, problems, and losses to a fascination with the journey of life.

***

In 2016, I received a generous private grant to research universal dimensions of spirituality, and my team (with elegant translation and data acquisition design by doctoral students Clayton McClintock and Elsa Lau) started by studying 5500 participants in India, China, and the United States.

Among our participants, who represented the most populous world religious traditions — Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism — as well as the category of non-religious, secular, or spiritual-but-not-religious, we found that people shared five common spiritual phenotypes:

1. Altruism
2. Love of neighbour as self
3. Sense of oneness
4. Practice of sacred transcendence
5. Adherence to moral code

Across humanity we find magnificently vivid and diverse expressions of spiritual life, told in varied languages, stories, and symbols, and experienced in ceremony, ritual, transcendent practice, and other sacred ways of coming together. This rich diversity in spirituality stems from the two-thirds of our spiritual contribution that is passed through the teachings of generations and learned through the environment.

Lisa Miller is a professor in the clinical psychology programme at Teachers College, Columbia University. Her bio at Columbia lists the following interests: “Spirituality, Mental Health and Thriving: basic science and clinical science on spirituality, neural correlates and biological correlates of spirituality, spiritually integrated treatment and wellness interventions, depression and substance abuse, related risk factors and protective factors, wellness and mental health, deepening education at K-12 and University levels.”

Is Hebrews really supersessionalist?

[Also worth reading, and probably rereading, an article Jesper Svartvik, “The New Testament’s most dangerous book for Jews,” in the Sept. 13 issue of Christian Century — a couple of quotes to follow up on …]

Both the historical Jesus and the historical Paul are now firmly situated within late Second Temple Judaism, and it’s understood that the post–70 CE writers of the New Testament form their theology and write their texts in the wake of the destruction of the temple, when all branches of Judaism had to cope with the fact that the sanctuary was no more. A growing number of scholars now understand Judaism not as the gloomy background from which Christianity had to be removed in order to glow and grow but rather as the matrix one must restore in order to appreciate the New Testament texts more fully.

In this endeavor to uncover an early Christian, non-supersessionist hermeneutics, Hebrews seems to be an exception: scholars, preachers, and people in the pew all seem to agree that Hebrews is a supersessionist text. But in my opinion, it would be anachronistic to find in such an early text—it should reasonably be dated to right around 70 CE—the supersessionist theology that was developed only later, when it became possible to consider Judaism and Christianity as two sharply defined religions. Have we sufficiently reflected on this as a text written before they were perceived this way?

Perhaps one thing that has contributed to this text being read timelessly—by which I mean anachronistically—is that we know so little about its historical context. I think Hebrews was originally a sermon, noteworthy for its elegant Greek and rhetoric, that eventually was edited in order to fit the format of an epistle, but that is far from the only suggestion. We can’t be sure by whom, to whom, when, where, or why it was written. Origen famously stated that “who wrote the epistle, in truth God knows.” Introductory essays tend to suggest that it was probably written between 60 and 120 CE, and that it has something to do with Italy (see Heb. 13:24). But that is all.

This lack of a minimum of historical knowledge has probably contributed to the mainstream interpretation: that the text is the first example of the Christian supersessionism that later would determine so much of Jewish-Christian relations. In other words, Hebrews is more often presented as the first volume in Christian dogmatics than as one of several enigmatic New Testament texts.

***

The New Testament texts also emphasize what has already happened. In the Pauline epistles we read about the ingathering of the gentiles—they, too, are now covenantally embraced by the God of Israel. In the synoptic Gospels we encounter numerous texts that proclaim that the kingdom of God is at hand. In the Fourth Gospel we find the influential theological line of thought that the presence of God is in Jesus Christ: the shekhinah of God tented (eskênousen) in him, John writes in his prologue. (Shakhan in Hebrew and skênoun in Greek both mean “to tent”—one of few such etymological connections between the two languages. Perhaps the words for the divine presence in our world comprise the strongest link between the two parts of the Christian Bible.)

[Bold type is mine — pe]

Jesper Svartek is a visiting professor in Boston College’s Center for Christian-Jewish Relations (yay for the Jesuits!) who has long concentrated in the subject. According to his bio at Boston College, he held the Krister Stendahl Chair of Theology of Religions, which included teaching and research both at the Swedish Theological Institute in Jerusalem and Lund University.

Works Cited

Lisa Miller, “How doing good does you good,” Church Times (UK), Aug. 20, 2021 https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2021/20-august/features/features/how-doing-good-does-you-good.

Jesper Svartvik, “The New Testament’s most dangerous book for Jews,” Christian Century, Sept. 13, 2021 https://www.christiancentury.org/article/critical-essay/new-testament-s-most-dangerous-book-jews

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s