The Prophet Who was an Ancient Neurobiologist and Didn’t Know It


Daily Office Readings for December 20, 2019:


AM Psalm 40, 54; PM Psalm 51

Zech. 7:8-8:8; Rev. 5:6-14; Matt. 25:14-30


In our reading today from Zechariah, the prophet is speaking to the Israelites who have returned from exile and are busying themselves rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem.  He’s not talking about that, though. He’s cautioning the people that rebuilding the people, as well as the temple is not an either/or dichotomy. They are to Render true judgements, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor.”  Human nature being what it is, they promptly ignore his instructions, and they discover there is a reckoning with God about that.


I suppose all of us have heard the voice of a friend or loved one, at one time or another, in the middle of a bad decision where we’ve chosen selfishly at the expense of another, saying, “Someday you’re going to have to account for that.”  And, of course, we chose selfishly anyway. Perhaps we rationalized it, or leaned into the false notion that we deserved something for ourselves at the expense of another. Or perhaps we chose to simply not hear the cries of those in need, keeping them off our radar and out of our minds, in the way we can all ignore barking dogs or a regular schedule of trains going by the house.  


Similarly, we are no strangers to this when it comes to the poor or people who don’t look or seem “like us” at first glance.  It becomes far too easy to subdivide people in these groups as “deserving” or “not deserving”, the possession of things like a car, a TV set, or a smartphone often being the dividing line with the poor, or country of origin/skin color serving as the dividing line for the immigrant.  We all have biases, and to some degree, escaping them is difficult because they are embedded in our human nature; yet at the same time, when the choice is whether or not to go the extra mile for someone in need, it’s easy to lean into our subconscious biases and never consider cultural factors like embedded racism or any other “ism” as affirmers of those biases.


Also, to be honest, the more intelligent and sophisticated we are (or think we are), the easier it is to pooh-pooh notions of a God of equal parts justice and mercy, especially when we are dealing with the God of the Hebrew Scriptures, who too often sounds a little more like a mercurial alcoholic parent than anyone we’d want to respect, let alone revere, as God.  “God’s judgment” sounds a little more like threatening people with the boogeyman than any credible reason to change our behavior towards an already oppressed group of people. We think of ourselves as savvy enough to stave off any problems later with that whole notion of accounting for something down the road in what’s nebulously called “God’s judgment.” We are way more likely to wish God’s judgment on others, and God’s mercy for ourselves.


Yet…our own life experiences often affirm that there is a reckoning when we’ve sided with the lower aspects of our human nature.  We forget that prophets both speak to the people in the present tense as well as the future tense…and that perhaps when judgment appears for those errors, it’s as much in the here and now as it is the future.  In our own cases, perhaps our own neurobiology is the sentence we are rendered.


Here’s what we know.  Kind and generous acts release serotonin and dopamine in our brains, contributing to an overall sense of well-being.  Generosity also stimulates the parietal and temporal cortex in our brain, which increases our ability to network our experiences and associations with the world around us.


We also know that these neural networks are not fully established until we are in our 30s, and even then, established ones can be reconfigured to some degree, although not with the pliability we had in our youth.  When we are generous as young people or were taught kindness and generosity, we give ourselves our best chance at the happiness that comes with that rush of serotonin and dopamine. Even if we were not taught it, we still have some time for the maximum effect by conscious acts of generosity.  Even if we’re past the peak age of maximum effect, we still can recreate avenues to feel some degree of happiness…and if we can consciously teach our children generosity, we’ve multiplied the generosity in the world with their more pliable brains.


Conversely, the lack of parietal cortex activity allows the insular area of the brain–one of the deeper parts of our reptile brain, the “fight, flight, or fright” part of our brain–to take over more executive functioning in decision making.  Working relatively unopposed, our reptile brains can conflate our needs as being “necessary for survival”–so we become stingier. Seeing a homeless person receive a sandwich somehow makes us feel we won’t have enough to eat, when this part of our brain is in control.


Scripture describes stinginess and oppressing others as “hardening our heart”–but in reality, we’ve hardened our brains.  Brains too hard-wired can’t move very far in the direction of generosity. In effect, it’s a judgment imposed by nature, nurture, and day to day conscious choices, in a vehicle–our brain–that was supposed to be a good piece of God’s creation.  If we suppress generosity, we hard-wire ourselves further into stinginess. I suppose this could be part of the sentence of the things we account for later. Some people might call it a roundabout form of God’s judgment–but in the here and now, not later.  At the same time, becoming more generous can be seen as a positive rendering of that same judgment. However we choose to view the here and the hereafter, for those of us who believe in some sort of divine power we call God, the reckoning may be as much in the here and now than later, and the agent may well be right between our two ears.


How has moving to a more conscious form of generosity changed your life, your attitude, and your overall sense of well-being?  How has it changed your relationship with God?


Photo: Migrant mother, pea-picking camp, Nipomo, California, 1935.  Photo by Dorothea Lange, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


Maria Evans splits her week between being a pathologist and laboratory director in Kirksville, MO, and gratefully serving in the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri , as the Interim Pastor at Christ Episcopal Church, Rolla, MO. 

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