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Ecology, Brain Science, and Theology

What's new in theology - then and now?

May 2010

One of the fruits of the Second Vatican Council was the awakening of the Church to the need for social and cultural analysis in order to ground its teaching and ministry in human reality. Awareness dawned that human linguistic, symbolic, moral, political, and economic structures profoundly influence the way we think about God and interpret our spiritual callings. The development of the human sciences (i.e. sociology, psychology, linguistics, etc.) were a major impetus to this awareness, and many people involved in ministry and theology continue to invest considerable energy in gaining enough expertise in the human sciences to integrate them credibly into their work. The core motivation usually is to align theology with movements that seek more inclusive, humane, and just social relationships at all levels of human society.

Almost fifty years later, yet another awakening is taking place. While the core motivation of more humane and just relationships remains the same, awareness is broadening to include the intricacy of human embeddedness in the complex webs of the natural world. With this comes increasing sensitivity to how technical interventions must continually be realigned with the motivation to enhance the quality of all relationships - with and among humans, other species, and God. People who care about the reign of God need expertise not only in the human sciences, but also in the natural and technical sciences. Only thus can God's desire for love and justice to be more fully known on Earth be realized.

Insights from brain science

There is an interesting relationship between the pattern of these developments and insights currently arising from studies of the evolution of the brain. Those who study the brain tell us that complex social intelligence was the first of the core characteristics of human mentality to develop among early hominids. Its primordial emergence means that interhuman social connectedness always remains foundational for us. It is not surprising that even in today's world, so distant from the savannas and tundras of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, this emerges first and remains our central concern.

Other core characteristics of human cognition, such as language, highly refined knowledge of the surrounding natural world, and sophisticated technical abilities, developed more slowly. Steven Mithen's The Prehistory of the Mind (Thames & Hudson, 1996) describes how each of these four kinds of intelligence (social, linguistic, natural history, and technical) originally appeared as "modules" isolated from the others. The crowning development that made homo sapiens what we are today was the arrival of the ability for thought to easily cross between and interweave all these types of mentality. This meant, for example, that for the first time a hominid could move back and forth between thinking about characteristics of an animal species and thinking about toolmaking, thus opening up the possibility of making tools with very specific qualities tailored to hunting that animal. Another example: being able to move back and forth between thinking about human social relationships and thinking about animals led to much more refined abilities to predict animal behaviors and movements. Of course, we can easily spot a potential flaw in this, since animal psychology is not exactly like human psychology; still, assuming an analogy between the two yields better results than having no concept of animal psychology. These kinds of ability to integrate different realms of knowledge directly underlie the explosion of human culture and technology, beginning about 40,000 years ago.

Psychologist Anne Benvenuti has recently suggested a theory of religion based on these insights. As the various cognitive modules became open to one another, the complexity and ever-changing character of the resulting consciousness led to an urgent need for a way to stabilize a sense of continuity and unity. According to this theory, this is the perennial heart of the religious quest. Religion is not just about social relationships, or language, or the natural world, or technical concerns; it is about longing for what underlies, unites, and gives lasting meaning to all of these. Religion, then, will not go away because the need for it is built into the character of the human brain.

Implications for human flourishing

What does all this mean for us? One implication is that while concern for more inclusive, humane, and just social relationships is foundational, it is not adequate to the fullness of our spiritual calling if it is not integrated with the other core dimensions of our mentality. Fostering the reign of God involves enhancing the movement toward unity and communion, not only of human beings among ourselves and with God, but also of human beings with all that God has created. This requires making use of and interweaving all the dimensions of our cognitive giftedness.

In these first years of the 21st century people all over the planet are discovering the urgency of the need to reawaken what has been least developed in our urbanized and technology-permeated modern world, namely, our innate capacity for sensitive participation in the natural ecosystems within which we "live and move and have our being." While integrating social and cultural analysis brought exciting freshness to ecclesial life in the latter half of the 20th century, it is likely that the exciting "new wave" of the 21st century will be integration of ecosystemic analysis and other aspects of the natural sciences.

Mary Frohlich, RSCJ, is associate professor of spirituality and director of the Master of Arts Program at Catholic Theological Union.

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