© Jackie Porter 2009. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
August 16, 2009

Can We Talk about God? It's not a question that is asked very often in our UU congregations but God is a very old subject. There has been a belief in some form of God or Goddess in every culture of the world since ancient times, some belief in some God who has the power to alleviate some of our suffering.

I bring up the subject of God, this morning, because it is very important for me. I am a seeker, I have always longed to know God. How is it that I am now a member of a Unitarian Universalist church, where God is rarely talked about? A long-time colleague recently said to me, "I know you like your UU church but it seems a really strange place for you to end up."

But as I've thought about, it's not strange at all. So I want to talk about God this morning and give you a chance to do the same after the service. My idea of God has been slowly evolving over the years, as with many of you.

My early life was founded on a fervent and dedicated belief in God as interpreted by Jesus Christ and I became a professional and then a faithful member of the Christian church. It was during the turbulent and rebellious 60s that we left the church and began to explore our consciousness in the Creative Initiatives Foundation where we saw Jesus as a teacher of wisdom instead of someone who would save you. This was a challenging time for me. But nothing compared to when our son, James, died. That experience brought about my total surrender.

Who I thought I was and what I thought about God and the entire world, totally collapsed. In that despair, I experienced an awakening to a deeper level of my intuitive mind, thrusting me into mystical experiences which produced awe and terror, in the midst of grief. I had no way to understand and no roadmap to negotiate this new territory and so I turned for help in graduate studies in the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology in Menlo Park.

There I experienced the practices of several of the world's spiritual traditions from imminent teachers. I chanted with a Rabbi, loved my Sufi teacher, and practiced mindfulness with a prominent Buddhist teacher. I was teaching assistant for a Hindu mystic and poet, studied the Enneagram, and my personal advisor was a Basque shaman who taught me the ancient Tarot. It was an invaluable experience. I saw the wisdom in each of the paths and how each had been developed to transform our instinctual nature into a higher plane of spiritual consciousness.

I remained strongly dedicated to Jesus as teacher because this was culturally and intellectually the religion I knew and my mystical experiences had involved Jesus or the Virgin Mary. I became a transpersonal therapist and I spent the next 10 years professionally and personally exploring the Divine Feminine.

When we moved to Fremont, we found ourselves in an entirely new community where we knew no one. We wanted and needed a community and John found Mission Peak on the Internet. It fit our needs quite well; it didn't require belief in the conventional Christian dogma and was a community of open minds and caring hearts. I subscribed wholeheartedly to the 7 principles which guide our behavior, and we love our warm and friendly community. We pride ourselves on our openness to all religions though I have sensed here a hesitancy to talk much about Jesus or God. Our principles are mental constructs and I have been aware from time to time of my heart yearning for something which was seldom touched here.

Then in 2008 when Oprah introduced a contemporary spiritual teacher, Eckhart Tolle, to the world through her webcast, I was one of the 6 million who signed up. I recognized an awakened teacher who was living in a state of higher consciousness. I was excited to find some other Mission Peakers who were interested in his teaching and we formed Soup and Soul where we have met together this past year. So in addition to my Meta Practice from my earlier years, my spiritual practice this year has pretty much been in the Eastern tradition practicing awareness of my thoughts and noticing the tiny glimpses of the timeless present moment.

And then I went to the UU District Assembly in April this year. The theme of the program was "The Heart of the Matter" and the keynote speaker was Rev. Chris Bell, a dynamic UU minister from Santa Rosa and a practicing Buddhist. His message was God is Love for Everything. It was a show-stopping experience for me. I felt my heart opening up, I was deeply moved. Instead of dropping into Stillness, I had the remembered experience of feeling at one with the essence of the Holy which I call God, and being held within a never-ending universe of love. Mind you, I really believe those two places, Stillness and Love, are probably the same state of consciousness, but I experience them differently, and have a long history with God so it felt like coming Home.

I came back to Mission Peak very excited. I mentioned to a member of our congregation that the message at District Assembly was that we must put God back into our language and she said, "How will the atheists like that?" I said, I don't know. I mumbled something about the spectrum of consciousness and that we UUers had moved out of mythic Christianity and were now in a pretty rational stage, and, this is the normal movement along the spectrum of consciousness taught by the modern philosopher, Ken Wilbur. Then I added: "I sometimes, though, feel like something is missing." She paused for a moment then replied, "Magic!" I said, "Yes, magic and mystery."

And it isn't just us two Mission Peakers who miss something. In a recent issue of the UU World, Rev. Christine Robinson a UU Minister says that 76% of us report that something important is missing from our faith. 30% said it is intensity of celebration, joy and spirituality and 30% longed for greater racial and cultural diversity. Dr. Robinson says "We have a collective fear of the Spiritual, the deep roots in belief and dogma which we no longer believe and left after being wounded or upset by our experiences in the church." We UUs mostly have what a 20th century theologian calls "a wintry spirituality," shades of grey, and absence, being most clear about what we don't believe. Most of us are pretty sure of the things we don't believe. The most recent national survey which we in Mission Peak filled out last October revealed that 62% said we do not believe that God is involved in worldly affairs and 30% said we don't believe in God.

In July Holly reported her experiences of General Assembly in a workshop in theology. Dr. Guengerich, minister of our All Soul's church in New York City talked about God and the need we have for this belief. Not the dogma of the old God in the Sky but the concept of Spirit which interacts and is a part of everyone and everything. When asked why he didn't use another less loaded word than God he replied that he didn't see why we had to give up God to the other churches. He suggested that we simply need to reinterpret the word God. I wish I had been there to say Yes! It is true that the mainstream Christian churches, long the bulwark of our country, are steadily losing ground. A study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life in 2008 found more than 1/4 of all American adults had left the faith they were raised in as children. But change is nothing new for us Unitarian Universalists. Our UU history chronicles a steady change from the narrow religious beliefs of our Puritan ancestors to our present faith where we espouse no dogma and respect the beliefs of all religions. Science and rational thought has nudged our beliefs out of the old Christian myth and more to honoring our own humanism.

But even though Nietzsche declared that God is dead, God did not die. Even in our fast-paced technological world, it is estimated that more than 70 % of Americans today still claim to believe in God. Two neural scientists believe that there is a good reason for this. In their book, Why God Won't Go Away, Dr. Andrew Newberg and Dr. Eugene D'Aquill believe they have found the reason for this in the deeper structure of our brain.

Their evidence suggests that mankind did not dream up religion to alleviate its fears of life and death; instead, the belief in God is based on common mystical experiences generated by the brain. They believe that our human brain is wired to provide these unitary experiences which we can interpret as God.

But God can be understood or interpreted in many ways. One French philosopher, who John has been reading, says: "I don't believe in God any more, but that doesn't mean I don't believe in spirit." Although membership in mainline churches is waning, there is a growing interest in spirituality, a term which includes a broad range of ideas about the sacred, not necessarily connected to the established churches. In the last 5 years the sale of spiritually-oriented books has increased by 800%. A noted spiritual author, Karen Armstrong, in her book The History of God tells us that "there is no existential deity out there alien to mankind. God is discovered to be mystically identified with the in-most self." Now, I grant you, it is hard to believe absolutely that there is another reality which is just as real as the material world without experiencing it, even if the mystics of every religion have been telling us about this reality for centuries. So how do we find this inner spiritual self? Chanting, meditation and prayer have long been the prescribed practices for this journey. But how do they work?

Well, the good news I want to share this morning, is that science, long a rival of religion, is providing help for us in this matter of spirituality. I want to introduce a team of neuroscientists. Dr. Andrew Newberg and Dr. Mark Robert Waldman, a transpersonal therapist, have found a way to investigate and shed light on our most intimate spiritual experiences. They work as a team at the Center for Spirituality and the Mind at the University of Pennsylvania. They have been investigating the neural mechanism of spirituality. Using an imaging technique called SPECT or single photon emersion computer technology, a camera scanning the brain, they have observed Tibetans monks chanting, Catholic Nuns praying, atheists thinking about God, and ordinary people practicing meditation.

Bright splotches of color show up on the scanner computer screen showing the parts of the brain which are stimulated during these experiences. They can see the neurological basis of our spiritual experiences which helps to develop a model of linking these experiences to observable brain function. I want to quote what Dr. Newberg says in his book, Why God Won't Go Away: "After years of scientific study and careful conclusions we believe that we saw evidence of a neurological process that has evolved in the brain which allows humans to transcend material existence and acknowledge and connect with a deeper, more spiritual part of themselves perceived of as an absolute universal reality that connects us to all that is."

In their new book, How God Changes the Brain, this team reminds us of the scaffolding of our brains which has built up sequentially over thousands of years of evolution. At the bottom is our old primitive Reptilian brain which governs our autonomic system of breathing and heart beat. It holds our ancestral memories and wants to repeat known behavior. On top of that is our Mammalian or Limbic brain, seat of our emotional intelligence and where the amygdala sits concerned with self-defense and survival, and then the Neocortex, our extremely complex thinking brain; and last, the Prefrontal Lobes. This is the newest part and the one which has been referred to as our evolving neural angel as it strives to integrate and harmonize our incoming perceptions and quiets our old fear reactions. Each of these brains has its own sense of time and space and its own memory. While other nerves connect them to each other, yet they seem to operate as their own system.

This team reports how they are able to see and record how spiritual practices affect the emotional and cognitive and experiential processes of the brain and see that each of these experiences leads to a different notion about God. A Baylor research study concluded that Americans tend to see God in four ways: as authoritarian, critical, distant, or benevolent. Half of us believe in a critical or authoritarian God. About a quarter of us believe God to be distant, more like a cosmic force; and a quarter believe in a benevolent and loving God who responds to prayers. Each of these beliefs activates a specific part of the brain. An authoritative God will activate the Limbic area that generates fear and anger, and the strongest advocates of this God call themselves "God's Warriors." People who believe God to be distant show weak stimulation in the emotional circuits, so God has little meaning for their lives. This was verified in their research with atheists. When you perceive a benevolent or loving God, the anterior cingulate is stimulated. It sits in between the Limbic and the Prefrontal cortex and they call it the "heart" of the brain because it generates feelings of empathy and compassion and suppresses the impulse to anger and fear.

These scientists report that they have found an additional personality for God, one not identified by the Baylor report. It is a mystical God, which they define as an "emotional presence, not a personal separate entity yet a force that permeates everything. This God did not create the universe, this God is the universe." And they report that they have "found nothing in science or reason to refute the concept of a higher mystical reality."

I resonate to this notion of God and I am wondering if they found this mystical God by scanning so many people who practice meditation. For years the existence of this mystical reality was only confirmed by other mystics. Dr. Newberg states "our work suggests that the spiritual union that mystics describe feels at least as solidly and literally real as any other experiences of reality."

For me, this is exciting information: our brain is continually growing, we can participate in its growth and the benefit of contemplative practices was been confirmed. We can strengthen our prefrontal lobes with its higher consciousness, and decrease our own fear and anger reactions by focusing on loving thoughts.

These folks ARE scientists and they suggest that you can try this out for yourself. Hold an image or thought of something which you value, like compassion or peace, in your mind as you breathe deeply and relax. As Mark Waldman explains, you don't have to use religious thoughts, they can be secular as long as they are of great value to you. Do this for 12 minutes a day and in a matter of months you will have built and strengthened a new neural circuit of compassion or peace in your brain. The result? You will behave differently in the world. Pretty exciting! Every spiritual tradition has developed contemplative and meditative practices for this purpose. It does not matter which path you choose, they all strive to unite us with a timeless, non-dual consciousness in which we each can experience being a part of the universal web and One with everything. The important thing is to choose a practice and do it daily.

We are living on a very beautiful but small and fragile planet. We know we must stop killing each other and learn how to love one another. We can understand this on a cognitive level and even vow to do this, but as St. Paul said in his letter to the Romans in the New Testament, chapter 7: "I do not understand my own actions. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want but the evil I do not want is what I do." Our neural scientists are giving us help with this. We have the best of intentions but we operate out of our egoic consciousness where we have that ancient amygdala sitting down there in our Limbic brain. For 150 million years it has been on ready alert with fear and aggression to defend ourselves against any one who is different or to any perceived threat, reacting like a vengeful god. But we also have a neurological angel waiting in our younger Prefrontal lobe which is kind, compassionate, and empathic. Our newer Prefrontal lobes are neurologically vulnerable and slow compared to the reactive amygdala but we now know something we can do to change that.

I found an interesting picture created by an artist who notices that Michelangelo's painting of God resembles the size and shape of our human brain, even down to the dangling brain stem and spinal cord. Science will never solve the question of whether there is a God or not, but they know it is our brain which envisions and creates own personal understanding of God. They have shared with us how to strengthen the highest structure of our brain and transform our consciousness from one of self-protection and fear to one of love. The Christian mystic Meister Eckhard tells us: "We must all give birth to God. He is waiting to be born."

We can no longer afford to see ourselves as separate and fear-based. It is time to seriously consider upgrading our consciousness so we are led by love instead of being dominated by fear. Research now shows what the mystics have always known: A daily practice of meditation can transform our lives. It can change your brain. It can change your life. It can save the world.

I know we Unitarian Universalists respect all religions. I hope we can begin sharing our spiritual beliefs and practices, supporting one another in our spiritual growth as we work together for peace and justice.



I highly recommend the book which I have shared a tiny bit and quoted from this morning, Dr. Andrew Newberg and Dr. Mark Robert Waldman's How God Changes the Brain. It has the 8 best ways to keep your brain healthy, and much more information. I have spoken to Mark Waldman, one of the neuroscientists, and told him I was sharing their book. He sent me material with which we have the opportunity to participate in their brain research. For those who wish to, we will meet for a talk back session following the service. We will begin with this interesting research exercise which takes about 10 minutes and then talk a little about God. Children are invited to stay at least for the research part if they are interested.


From Each in His Own Tongue by William Herbert Carruth:

Like tides on a crescent sea-beach,
When the moon is new and thin,
Into our hearts high yearnings
Come welling and surging in,--
Come from the mystic ocean
Whose rim no foot has trod,--
Some of us call it longing,
And others call it God.

Life is short. All we have is now. So be swift to open yourself to love, hasten to love and gladden the hearts of those who travel the way with you.

"Hideaway" by Inga Nielsen - also known as "Sunset at the North Pole"

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