While we’re making parallels between evangelicals and Catholics, why not do the same for evangelical and Orthodox thought (as represented in First Things)? Here is David Hart on the God helmet (which only subscribers will have had the pleasure of reading).
Now, in fact, there really would have been no great problem for believers in the supernatural had Persinger’s [God helmet] really worked, or had the theory behind it been true. Even if it had turned out that religious states of consciousness have their physiological concomitants in a particular part of the brain that could be stimulated artificially by magnetic fields, that would have had no religious implications at all. After all, practically no one is so thoroughgoing an idealist or dualist as to imagine that the human mind is not an embodied reality that operates through a physical brain. It may well be the case that there are certain brain events necessarily associated with experiences of the spiritual world; but, then again, there are certain brain events associated with hearing the music of a piano, or seeing an open lotus blossom, or tasting wine. So what? . . . Anyone familiar with that [classic spiritual] literature knows that the experiences supposedly induced by the God Helmet were quite unlike real religious experiences (with the possible exception of certain sorts of mantic states at the margins of cultic practices). . . . One thing common to almost all great contemplative literature is an insistence upon the lucidity, clarity, and continuity of spiritual experience.
And here again is Christianity Today editor Mark Galli making just the same point:
When I make love with my wife, some parts of my brain are deeply engaged in this extraordinary erotic experience. Then again, I also know that if I look at pornography, those very same centers of the brain are activated. It’s also true that a neuroscientist could artificially stimulate that part of the brain while I lie on a table in a hospital, so that I again would experience sexual passions. But I don’t know by what calculus one could say these three experiences are the same simply because the same parts of the brain were stimulated, or that the experience of making love to my wife is merely something happening in my brain. To be fair: Christians have known for a very long time that one can have experiences that seem spiritual but are just abnormalities of the body. Spiritual directors are alert to diet, sleep, and adrenalin—to name three factors—that can lead to experiences that seem spiritual but are not. We call it the discernment of spirits. So there seems to be no definitive scientific grounds for outright dismissal of near-heaven experiences. But given the church’s experience, there’s no reason to take each one at face value either.
But however dissatisfying neuro-reductionism can be, there is the occasional breakthrough. Galli cites one bestselling neurosurgeon’s description of God (uninspiringly referred to as “Om”) that resulted from a near death experience. “Yes, God is behind the numbers, the perfection of the universe that science measures and struggles to understand. But—again, paradoxically—Om is ‘human’ as well—even more human than you and I are. Om understands and sympathizes with our human situation more profoundly and personally than we can even imagine.”
God is human? I heard there is a religion that teaches that.