Spirituality and Mental Health: Renouncing Anti-Sleep Prejudice

The church of the São Pedro de Alcântara convent is decorated with azulejo panels depicting the life of the Spanish saint Pedro de Alcántara, born Juan de Garabito y Vilela de Sanabria (1499-1562). His extreme mysticism suggests a number of psychological pathologies, exacerbated by the practice of constant sleep deprivation. From Wikimedia Commons

How long will you lie there, O lazybones? When will you rise from your sleep?
A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest,
and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want, like an armed warrior.

(Proverbs 6:9-11)

It’s important to set the verse above in context: it follows an admonition about getting out of debt to a moneylender. It is not a condemnation of rest. Even so, there are frequent Proverbs about “laziness” being an obstacle to wealth, and there is a consistent anti-sleep prejudice in many religious works and traditions.

I think it’s important to set this kind of anti-sleep prejudice apart from the tradition of vigil-keeping and self-denial. Many observant Christians stay up all night for an Easter vigil, atoning for the way Jesus’s own disciples couldn’t stay awake to pray with him (Matthew 26:40). Occasional fasting from sleep is a form of spiritual discipline, and some forms of mystical sleep deprivation may be part of our spiritual growth.

What we have learned over the last few decades, though, is that “laziness” is not necessarily what it seems. Even procrastination and energy-conversation are not character flaws. They are often responses to trauma or indicate a brain dealing with a complex and contradictory set of goals. In fact, poverty and the fear of poverty are part of what create sleep problems. Worry about money keeps many of us awake! But in our capitalist society we often think it’s the other way around: laziness begets poverty.

Whether we see sleep as lazy or virtuous largely depends on our cultural frame of reference. In societies where afternoon naps are the norm, people often live longer and have a higher quality of life. Western white supremacy and colonialism has often described such siesta practices as lazy, but sleep science has shown that napping can boost creativity and well-being. A famous study of a Greek island that phased out its afternoon nap time saw rates of heart disease rocket upwards.

It is also important to remember that the Biblical proverbs about laziness were written 2000 years ago, way before the invention of the electric lightbulb. People likely slept much longer in pre-industrial agrarian societies. We have artificially lengthened the day with electric lights and glowing screens. While there is considerable debate about the best way to structure sleep (in one long chunk or divided into different cycles), it is hard to deny that many modern people are chronically sleep deprived, and that this deprivation compounds other mental and physical illnesses.

I think it is important for us to renounce anti-sleep prejudice for what it is: moralistic and colonizing. Regular, regenerative sleep is part of our incarnate life. All animals sleep in some way, and denying the importance of sleep is a way to deny our creatureliness. Theologically, anti-sleep prejudice is a misguided attempt to be God, to be “all-knowing and ever-present” by rejecting sleep, and it is driven by our fear of missing out and our fear of being unproductive.

For people whose identity is rooted in capitalism and doing, sleep represents a sin against our way of valuing human activity. We should take a page from Jesus, who had no problem simply being, and even took a nap in the back of a boat during a thunderstorm.

Prayer:
Forgive us, Creator of Sleep, for trying to be God.
Sing us a divine lullaby when we lay down our heads in peace.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Will the Church Care About Climate Change?

A few years ago, I was chauffeuring my teenage son and his friend to an event. They were in the back, telling stories and laughing about how annoying and hilarious young siblings and little children are. I was eavesdropping from the driver’s seat, but couldn’t help sharing an anecdote or two about my memories of my son as a toddler. We laughed and I concluded with, “What they say is that when you’re a grandparent, you’ll be able to enjoy toddlers for awhile, then give them back to their parents before they get annoying.” My son and his friend were silent for a moment. Then she said quietly:

Our generation isn’t going to have grandkids.

There was no sadness or despair in her statement. She said it patiently, as though she were having to explain to the adult in the car that Santa Claus doesn’t exist. There was something else in her voice—pity maybe? She had accepted it, but she was aware that I was still under the delusion that our human species has a future.

She did not have to say any of these other things out loud. It was all in that one statement: Our generation isn’t going to have grandkids. Don’t you know we are living in the middle of an extinction event? That older generations lit the fuse, handed us the climate bomb, and waltzed off into the short story we call human history? That they got to name themselves the Greatest Generation, and Boomers, and other snappy terms for the ones that followed; but that the generations after ours will remain nameless?

I’ve been in ministry for twenty years. I answered the call to ministry because I was convinced God had put a passion in my heart to reach folks the church wasn’t already reaching, and that God wanted me to be part of a Reformation or an Awakening or a Great Emergence that was on the horizon. The vision wasn’t so grandiose (usually) to think that I would lead such a change, but that it was coming whether I participated or not; and wouldn’t it be better to be part of it? I’ve always been partial to the notion that some of the most dynamic, important, world-changing movements of the church have been on the periphery and the margins, or even outside of it, so that’s where I wanted to be, so I’ve often seen myself as a reformer and outsider. Yet her statement made me realize how entrenched and institution-bound my vision remained. Though addressing climate change has always been important to me, I couldn’t feel the existential threat that the next generation takes for granted.

I wondered: as a pastor, what do I have to offer my son’s friend? Certainly not Bill Hybel’s notion that “the local church is the hope of the world.” Not a parental figure’s patronizing cliché that everything will work out. Not a scientific assurance from Jeff Goldblum that “life finds a way.” And if I offer her Jesus, she’s likely to hear the name as institutional Republican Jesus who believes in “beautiful, clean coal,” puts immigrant children in cages, and builds oil pipelines through sovereign indigenous territory and over drinking water.

I retain this conviction that “God so loved the world, the cosmos, that God gave God’s only child.” The salvage project God has been working on since the beginning was never about humans only, but the whole created order. God’s movement both in creation and redemption is about self-giving embodiment, sharing with us the divine breath and walking beside us both in human and more-than-human form.

I’ve also taken to heart Gus Speth’s prophetic words: “I used to think the top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that with 30 years of good science we could address these problems. But I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy, and to deal with those we need a spiritual and cultural transformation, and we scientists don’t know how to do that.”

So when I heard the voice from the back seat say Our generation isn’t going to have grandkids, I heard God say to me, this is on you, buddy. Your job is spiritual and cultural transformation.

But this affirmation and valuing of creation is not the theology I see proclaimed and lived out in the institutional church. And I’m not just pointing the finger at right-wing pastors like John MacArthur who claim the earth is disposable. Instead, my home denomination is about to split over how people should be allowed to have orgasms. 81% of white evangelicals and over half of white mainline Protestants have demonstrated they have no problem with white supremacy and fascism. And although there are wonderful churches full of good people who help the poor and offer vacation Bible schools and tell wonderful heartwarming stories, most of them are too timid to acknowledge that a substantial portion of people under 20 don’t expect human civilization to continue.

A still from Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind

(For the record, I think my young friend’s view of human collapse is overly pessimistic, but not because I expect Christians to suddenly start loving the world the way God does. I think God’s plan for human survival has more to do with Jeff Goldblum’s quote than Bill Hybel’s. The Good Lord was crafty enough to make human beings tenacious about survival and sexuality, so I suspect “life will find a way.”)

Yet the institutional church is still too much enamored with the success of white male celebrity megachurch preachers like Hybels, who resigned under a cloud of sexual harassment allegations, or Chris Hodges, who recently had to walk back his affiliation with white supremacists and fascists, to address a difficult and politically divisive problem like climate change. In the face of declining membership and participation even before the pandemic, our denominational leaders decided increasing worship attendance should be our “wildly important goal,” language we borrowed from the corporate consultants and CEOs who have helped engineer the destruction of our ecosystems.

It has become increasingly clear to me that the church can either pursue its dream of Great Awakening or Reform or Renewal for itself, or it can join God’s project of passionately loving the world and salvaging what we can. It cannot be about both. If we are going to be in a different relationship with our planet, we cannot do so without the help of non-Christians, of people well outside what we normally think of as “church.” If we are to love the world with the self-giving love of God, we will have to submit to learning from indigenous people who have been practicing reciprocity with the more-than-human world far longer than we white Christians been practicing our various forms of extractive capitalism.

Yes, it may be possible that in losing our institutional life we will save it. That sounds a bit like our gospel, after all. But whenever progressive Christians speak hopefully about this Great Ecological Awakening, they sound the most Asleep.

Confronting climate change means confronting — well, everything. White supremacy. Patriarchy. The way capitalism doesn’t actually pay for the real costs of energy and resource extraction, but only shifts the burden of paying for them onto the shoulders of the poor and of future generations. For the American church, these taboo topics are more sacred than God. We Christians don’t mind saying “YHWH” out loud, but these other things must be only whispered in church, never spoken from the pulpit.

I’m still following the call of God, but a young prophet spoke the Word of God to me from the back of my car: Will the church care about climate change? Will you love the world so much that you will give yourself for it?

Our generation isn’t going to have grandchildren. I pray that we will hear this young Jonah and repent. Maybe God will spare us after all?


*(I am grateful to Susan Bond for the giving me a new metaphor for understanding “salvation” as “salvage” in her book Trouble with Jesus.

*I am grateful to Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book Braiding Sweetgrass for such a wonderful description of reciprocity, and to David Abram (whose work I have not yet read) for the notion of the “more-than-human world.”

*I am grateful to Leah Schade for her research and practical work on Creation-Crisis Preaching.)

Spirituality and Mental Health: Faith and Narrative

Painting by Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato

Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn
(Luke 2:4-7)

This is a hard Christmas for a number of reasons. We are simultaneously going through an economic recession, a pandemic, climate crisis, and an unstable political season. It is not unusual for us to experience a “Blue Christmas” during normal times, but this one is particularly fraught.

This is one reason why the Christmas narrative provides comfort. It tells the story of a turbulent, messy time: Mary delivers Jesus in a guest room away from home. The family has to flee as refugees and live for a time in exile. Re-telling the whole Christmas story from both Matthew and Luke (and not just the happy bits) reframes our own experience of an unpredictable world.

It’s also worth noting in the story that whenever supernatural beings show up to announce God’s activity, they start by saying, “Don’t be afraid” (Luke 1:13, 1:30, 2:10; Matthew 1:20). The message once again reframes the context: you are not alone. Though the world may be scary, there are divine beings in our corner.

“Reframing” is also a technique used in therapy, helping folks see a situation from a different perspective. I listened to one therapist do it this way: A woman said she had a tendency to date problem men, that she would initially be attracted to them but eventually find that they were emotionally immature or lazy. She wondered what was wrong with her. The therapist said, “It doesn’t sound like you have a problem picking men. It sounds like you are brave, that you know what you want, and that you would rather end a relationship than settle for misery. It sounds to me that you are actually very good at picking a partner. Have you ever thought of yourself as brave?”

Faith narratives help us reframe life problems in a similar way. We see in our own lives the same crises faced by epic heroes. The personal is often political, spiritual, and cosmic: our lives are echoes of the divine drama.

I said above that this reframing provides comfort, but it does more than that: it is a well of spiritual power and healing. This present crisis is revelatory, both personally and politically. It reveals relationships that are important and social problems that need to be fixed. It exposes hidden intentions and systemic failures. When we see our own stories as reflections of the divine story, we connect with a cause that is larger than ourselves. Reframing it this way helps us recognize our own power that we can exercise together. We may not feel brave, but we are making brave choices all the time.

Prayer:
Though we are afraid, Lord, give us courage in the midst of our fear. Reframe our stories in light of the cosmic narrative you are telling.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

A Changing Spiritual Ecosystem

I do not think most people in the majority-white institutional church have any idea what is coming. Things are going to be radically different post-COVID, and not just because Trumpism has exposed white evangelicalism for the sham it is. Climate change is going to force a reckoning with the toxic theology of creation promoted by Christian colonizers and crusaders. The role of clergy is going to change because both economic reality and the mission of the church will make our jobs increasingly tenuous. New research into the nature of consciousness and religious experience is revealing the wisdom of non-Christian traditions that church leaders have shunned and condemned as heresy. As in the Great Reformation, people are claiming their own spiritual power and authority and the validity of their own experience outside of the church. The Southern Baptist church rejects critical race theory the way certain church leaders rejected the heliocentric model of the solar system, but the message is the same: white Christian men ain’t the center of the universe.

I felt a call to ordained ministry nearly 30 years ago, and answered it with the understanding that part of my role would be to reach folks the church wasn’t already reaching, to provide alternatives to the dominant and dominating theology of the South, to help people meet Jesus in community and in their neighbors in new settings. In many ways, the change that is coming has been one that I have been advocating for my whole life.

And now that it is here, I greet it with fear and trembling. I’m having to rethink my own ministry and how to keep doing the things I feel God calls me to do. I do believe that what is being born will be a better version of “church” than the capitalist suburban Americana we’ve been taught to expect. But the spiritual ecosystem is changing, and what will emerge is anyone’s guess.

Spirituality and Mental Health: Staging Family Holidays

By Dietmar Rabich, from Wikimedia Commons

Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother”—this is the first commandment with a promise: “so that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth.” And, fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord..
(Ephesians 6:1-4)

For most of us, when we think about how our family will spend holidays, we think about traditions, memories, and the kinds of experiences we want to share with loved ones. I remember gathering at my grandparents’ house for Christmas Eve. The kids would complain that dinner was taking way too long (because we were eager to get to the presents). We would be shuffled into the back bedroom for “Santa’s visit.” We would hear the sleigh bells ring, and then the adults would bring us back into the family room to see what Santa had delivered.

I say this as though it’s something that happened every year, but the reality is that it may have happened a handful of times. In my mind, it became iconic: this was what Christmas “should” be like. It was magical and exciting, and it’s the same kind of experience I wanted to share with loved ones.

I’ve just shared what this experience looked and felt like from the inside, as a participant. But if I view the same experience from the outside, as a sociologist or an alien from another planet, I look at it as a set of practices, rituals, and values. In research on families and holidays, sociologists talk about how family practices are “staged,” or how family is “done.” There is no “right way” to do Christmas or do family, but for participants who value the holiday, there are certain things we want to get out of it. We stage Christmas—we perform it. (And there are certainly practices and rituals we miss in this time of pandemic.)

The process of staging can lead to stress and fatigue. Every year preachers lament the commercialization of Christmas from the pulpit, and we tsk-tsk about missing “the true meaning of Christmas.” There are tropes in movies and TV about spending time with family we can barely stand. We are frustrated when the holiday doesn’t meet our expectations, and delighted when it delivers moments of meaning or spiritual insight.

Family conflict can intensify around holidays. When we are with family more, there are more opportunities for conflict, just as there are more opportunities for bonding. I think it can be helpful to think about how we “stage” family, and how we “perform” celebration of the holidays, and to acknowledge that logistical problems are simply part of this mix. Especially in a time of pandemic.

It can be useful to switch perspectives, viewing the holiday from both “inside” and “outside,” valuing the memories and experiences the holidays bring, but also seeing it as a set of practices and rituals that may or may not meet our expectations. I think if we are honest and explicit about our own expectations and disappointments, our own values and what we want to share with family, we can be more open to receiving whatever good experiences fall into our laps.

In the above scripture, I’m struck that the writer notes that “honoring father and mother” is the first of the ten commandments to come with a promise: “so that you will live long in the land.” The author points out that there is something about family bonding that creates stability and a good quality of life, and they quickly add that parents likewise have an obligation to children.

However you are staging Christmas this holiday season, I hope that you will be gentle with yourself and others. This COVID Christmas will not likely meet our expectations of Christmases past. But if we are able to release some of those expectations and acknowledge our disappointment, it may surprise us with gifts anyway.

Prayer:
Lord, hallow our days and let them truly be holy-days. Help us to find beauty and meaning in unexpected places, and give us memories of our beloveds that we will treasure.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Spirituality and Mental Health: Day 15—Seasonal Affective Disorder

A sun pillar forms as the sun rises over the Arctic plain, by Harley D. Nygren, from Wikimedia Commons


Then the people stood at a distance, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was.

(Exodus 20:21)

You may remember “rods and cones” from high school biology. These are the photoreceptors in your retina that absorb light and transmit signals to your brain. You can think of them like the pixels in your eye camera. Rods absorb low light and let us detect brightness. They are most effective for our night vision, and when you walk by the light of the moon, you see everything in shades of silver and gray. Cones detect color and more subtle differences; when the sun rises, the world is crisper and colors pop.

In addition to rods and cones, your retina contains the melanopsin system. Melanopsin is a photopgiment that was first discovered in light-sensitive frog skin, before we discovered receptors in our eyes that use the same chemical. It is crucial to the function of clusters of nerves called “intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cells” (ipRGCs).

These nerve clusters transmit directly to parts of your brain responsible for your circadian rhythms, interrupting the production of melatonin (which makes you sleepy). One of the odd side effects of this system is that some people who are image-blind can still regulate their sleep cycles to the sun! In other words, they can’t “see” images, but their brain knows when the sun is shining.

There has been a lot written about the way light—natural and artificial—affects our sleep cycles and moods. We are spending more time inside, not only because of the change in the weather but because of the pandemic. Human biology evolved to be outside, and many of our modern psychological problems are made worse by exposure to screens. As our physical activity level goes down (and it’s usually lower in the winter), we get fewer opportunities to produce natural mood boosters. We are not sleeping as well. We are stressed. We are in brain fog. And the darkness exacerbates all of it.

A lot of this seasonal moodiness is natural. Our bodies are responding to a change in the seasons, telling us to conserve energy because wild forage will not be as abundant. We feel more drawn to carbohydrate-heavy foods. We want to snuggle with loved ones, not just for warmth but for comfort. All of this is natural and helped our ancestors stay alive. But it becomes a “disorder” when it makes it hard for us to function.

I think it’s important not to pathologize these natural experiences of being human, but at the same time to recognize some of us are especially sensitive to this seasonal change. There are some things we can do to help, and you may be familiar with them: getting outside, especially in the morning, to let the morning sun regulate our melatonin production. Staying off screens a few hours before bed. Using special bright lights to give us an artificial “sunshine boost” —again, especially in the morning. We purchased a “happy light” last year and I think using it makes a difference.

But I think it’s also helpful to reframe the darkness, to see it as a friend. There has been a trend in theological circles lately to rescue “the dark” from its religiously negative connotations. In the passage above, and in several Psalms, the authors describe God as dwelling in “thick darkness,” a darkness so deep you can feel it. These mystics describe the darkness as the place of germination, where buried seeds send out their first tender filaments to probe the rich, dark soil. It is the darkness of the womb, where we first hear our mother’s heartbeat. It is a place that forces us to rely on other senses besides sight. Darkness can be healing. Darkness can be welcome. It is in the “valley of the shadow of darkness” where the author of Psalm 23 says God guides us with rod and staff, giving us comfort.

If you feel thick darkness around you this season, in this winter of COVID, remember that it’s in the darkness that God does some of God’s best work.

Also, put on a coat and get outside.

Prayer:
Dweller in Darkness and Source of All Light, walk with us in both night and day.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Spirituality and Mental Health: Day 14—When I’m Sick of Gratitude

Signs of gratitude for firefighters fighting the Grizzly Creek Fire, by White River National Forest (U.S. Forest Service). From Wikimedia Commons.

I give you thanks, O Lord, with my whole heart;
before the gods I sing your praise;
I bow down toward your holy temple
    and give thanks to your name for your steadfast love and your faithfulness;

for you have exalted your name and your word
above everything.
On the day I called, you answered me,

you increased my strength of soul.
(Psalm 138)

During the month of November, we are bombarded with admonishments to “be thankful.” Sometimes I find the constant barrage of sanctimonious advice irritating. It can actually put me in a foul mood: I don’t want to be thankful, and I don’t particularly want to be reminded and told and preached at by greeting cards, shared memes, and news articles on the mental health benefits of gratitude addressed to everyone and no one in particular. This year, in the midst of a pandemic, reminders to be grateful grate on my nerves!

This irritation is actually a reminder of how gratitude works, because gratitude is a function of attention, and in our advertising-saturated world, our attention is commodified. Billionaires like Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg make money by manipulating our attention, capturing our eyeballs and measuring our attention in milliseconds. Facebook and Twitter and Instagram know exactly how fast you scroll, and use algorithms to make you linger over advertisements. Advertisers may use the word “gratitude,” but they make their money on our restlessness, boredom, and dissatisfaction.

The irritation I feel at having a multibillion-dollar company tell me to slow down and smell the roses is more than mental anger at its hypocrisy. My frustration is biological. My Grinch-like attitude is the function of a distracted mind.

It doesn’t change the truth of the importance of gratitude, though. David Steindl-Rast says that gratitude is the foundation of spirituality. In order to be thankful, to feel gratitude, we have to refocus our attention. It is difficult to be grateful when we are in a state of distraction.

This is why simple disciplines like meditation and keeping a gratitude journal are so effective. They are the complete opposite of the endless scrolling of social media. They are tools that help us to refocus our attention on the simple pleasures of being alive: I woke up today. I can take a deep breath and smell the air. I can see beauty in a fallen and decaying leaf which leaves behind a fragile, skeletonized system of veins.

The author of the psalm above says that an answered prayer “increased my strength of soul.” We don’t know what the prayer or the answer was, but pausing to be grateful, to focus our attention on the goodness of the gifts we receive—bidden or unbidden—makes our souls stronger. Gratitude increases our resilience and helps us make it through tough times.

If we want to feel grateful, it helps to go somewhere quiet and away from screens. I invite you to do it now.

Prayer:
Giver of all gifts, Source of all grace, I am grateful.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Spirituality and Mental Health: Day 13—Religion and the Brain

image by Mikael Häggström, M.D.

I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.
(Psalm 139:14)

I’ve been interested in the neuropsychology of religious experience since I first read William James in college. As a pastor, I’ve talked to plenty of people who wonder if their mystical experiences, transcendent visions, or sense of calling are “genuine” or simply “all in their heads.” “Did God really speak to me, or am I going crazy?” is a common question.

It doesn’t help that so many mental health problems are related to religion. People do have religious delusions. Sometimes their anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder attaches to a religious idea, and they fear that they might accidentally sin or incur God’s judgment. People who are depressed may feel that God hates them or is out to get them. LGBTQ people have been subjected to so-called “conversion therapy” that leaves lasting trauma.

But religion can also be associated with good mental health outcomes. People who have supportive religious communities are often more resilient in the face of trauma. Adolescents have lower probabilities of risky behavior. LGBTQIA folks who have supportive religious communities often report high levels of life satisfaction. And William James pointed out that having “saints” and mystics to emulate and aspire to benefits humanity as a whole.

There are certain ways that religious practice changes your brain. We know from studies of Buddhist monks and Carmelite nuns that contemplative prayer and meditation—what the researchers call a “self-stimulating brain reward system“—can alter the function and even the physical structure of the brain. Mindfulness meditation is often prescribed as an intervention for anxiety and depression.

The prefrontal cortex, responsible for attention, is one of the places most clearly affected by prayer and meditation. Some areas of the parietal lobe respond differently: they relax. These areas are responsible for the distinction between ourselves and the rest of the world, the barrier between “self” and “world.” When this area relaxes, it may help us feel connected to the rest of the universe or to God. Attention and connection are two areas of our brains we can train with practice.

Moreover, prayer and meditation seem to quiet the “default mode network,” the systems in our brain that are often responsible for the story-telling function of our brain. The DMN is what keeps us thinking about the future and the past and often keeps us ruminating or worrying.

When stimulated, the temporal lobe sometimes creates a sense of presence, as though someone is in the room with us. People who are about to have seizures sometimes report this feeling. It’s not clear to me that this is necessarily a particularly religious experience, but it certainly could be.

Certain neurotransmitters are also associated with mystical-type experiences. DMT (dimethyltryptamine) is a psychedelic compound that appears to be produced naturally in our brains. It may be responsible for some of our more trippy spiritual experiences, but it, too is associated with changes in our default mode network, feelings of connectedness, and heightened attention and fascination.

So when people ask me about whether their religious experience is “real” or “all in their heads,” I shrug. ALL spiritual experiences are also brain experiences—at least for human beings. We cannot imagine having an experience without our brains. When you see a beautiful painting or fall in love, your brain gets involved. You may even feel it in your body, as a warmth or pressure in your chest, or goose bumps on the back of your neck. It is a biological as well as a spiritual experience.

We still have so much to learn about spirituality and the brain.

Prayer:
Creator of the Cosmos and my brain, I give you thanks that I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Spirituality and Mental Health: Day 12—Being Outside

Two Paths Diverged… by Ché Lydia Xyang. From Wikimedia Commons.

On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.
(Revelation 22:2)

The pandemic has forced more people to stay at home, but it has also forced more of us outside. We are going outside to lessen the monotony of being indoors. Meeting others outside lessens the chances of passing on covid-19. The sun disinfects us.

Collectively, we are experiencing the benefits of being outside at a time when a flurry of research is pointing to how nature-deprived we are. It turns out we needed this healing for a long, long time. Covid-19 has forced us to confront it.

Below is just a sampling of the recent research into the physical and mental health benefits of being outside. We’ve learned that bacteria in the soil and aromatic aerosols from trees affect our brains and bodies. We’ve learned that forests communicate and act as one large organism. We’ve learned that interacting with that organism gets us out of our patterns of ruminating and into our sense in the here-and-now. We’ve learned that being outside and getting our hands dirty lowers our heart rate and stress levels. We’ve learned that walking in forests boost our immune systems, increases our ability to pay attention, and even fights cancer.

All of these mental and physical health benefits are important. Most of us could benefit by spending more time outside. But nature is not just something that we take, like a drug, so that we can increase productivity and be more effective indoors.

As we intentionally spend time outside, a more profound shift can happen in our state of being. We begin to understand that human beings and nature are not separate. Our culture tends to think of “human beings” and “nature” as two distinct realms, in part because of the way we objectify the earth and conceptualize our place in it. But the truth is we are part of both a tamed “human world” and a wild “more-than-human world.” This term, coined by author David Abram, helps us consider ourselves in relation to the rest of the planet.

I am currently in training to be a Nature and Forest Therapy Guide, in part because I believe it is my responsibility as a pastor to help the 21st century church turn away from a toxic theology that treats the earth as if it were disposable. I take very seriously these words about protecting life on this planet:

“I used to think that top global environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse, and climate change. I thought that with 30 years of good science we could address these problems, but I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed, and apathy, and to deal with these we need a spiritual and cultural transformation. And we scientists don’t know how to do that.”

Gus Speth

Spiritual and cultural transformation is my job. It’s what I’ve been called to do. And too often, Christian pastors have scorned the creation God loves. This toxic theology has practical consequences, leading not only to terrible policy that harms the planet, but to a population of people who increasingly feel sad, alone, and hopeless.

If we want to develop a public health policy that takes mental health seriously, I believe we need to help people fall in love with this planet and with the more-than-human world. I think the authors of the Bible knew that the leaves of trees could heal the nations.

Prayer:
Creator and Lover of the World, we tell the story of how you so loved this creation that you would even enter it yourself. Help us to do the same thing, to enter creation fully and bodily, so that it can teach us how to be more human and more alive.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Are You Religious?

I’m teaching a class at UAB called “America’s Religious Diversity.” One of the themes of the class is that it is difficult to define religion. Not all religions have scriptures. Not all have supernatural beings. Not all have dietary laws. Not all have clergy. Not all focus on beliefs. Not all focus on practices. It is unlikely to find a definition of religion that accurately encompasses them all.

This becomes clearer as you study world religions through history. Before contact with European colonizers, most indigenous people in the Americas and in West Africa didn’t think of what they did as “religion.” It was/is simply part of culture. It’s what your people do. Have a life question? Visit the wise woman and consult your ancestors. Have an ailment? Consult the herbalist for physical and spiritual medicine.

On contact with colonialism, many of those religions were forced to adapt, to re-organize themselves in order to gain legitimacy in the eyes of the dominant culture. Even “Hinduism,” some argue, is an invention of British occupiers of “Hindustan,” the Persian name for residents of that country.  

There are two important points here. First, “religion” is an idea, a framework, a mental model or a lens we use to look at culture—especially a culture different from our own. Like imagining light as a wave or a particle, what you see will depend on what you are looking for. Second, you can practice a religion *without ever recognizing it as a religion.* To you, it’s just your way of life, one you share with your community.

This is why I find it fascinating that among both conservative and liberal folks today, “religion” is almost a universally negative term. “I’m spiritual but not religious,” is the phrase preferred by many who don’t go to church. But someone who does go to church is likely to say “Jesus is about relationship, not religion.” Stephen Prothero writes that “One of the most common claims among Hindus of the West is that ‘Hinduism is a way of life’ rather than a religion,” but what I observe is that nearly every sincere religious practitioner would make the same claim about their own beliefs and practices. People don’t practice their religion in order to be religious. They practice in order to find God, or enlightenment, or meaning, or connection.

If I’m following a typical progression of human faith development, by the time I’m an adult, I don’t do things just because my parents or neighbors did them. I do them because they are meaningful to me — not to someone else.

In other words, “religion” has come to mean what OTHER people do—people whose beliefs and practices don’t hold sway over me. Calling something a religion is a way to delegitimize and mock it, as Michael Pollan does in his book Second Nature when he describes the absurd cultural symbolism of American lawns: “Think of nature as Spirit, the collective suburban lawn as the Church, and lawn mowing as a kind of sacrament.” This tremendous waste of energy, he says, reflects an aesthetic and cultural belief in democracy. We all have to pitch in and work to create this unbroken fake prairie that is the American lawn.

I often do the same thing when I compare sports to religion. At sporting events, we have collective singing and chanting, rituals and superstitious practices offered to the gods of chance and fairness (like the coin toss), animal-headed gods (mascots) who function as symbols for our team (just like the ancient Egyptians), and the sport itself, which echoes the ancient Greeks and Aztecs offering their ritualized combat to the gods.

But I think both of these things—sports and lawns—DO represent a civil and cultural religion. It’s just not one we question or regard through a religious lens, because alien colonizers haven’t shown up on our doorstep and told us how strange these practices are. They haven’t told us what we do is quaint, or primitive, or backwards, or barbaric.

So while I think “religion” is a particularly Western and colonial idea, I also think it is practically inescapable. It is a trap we have created for ourselves. We want to believe our particular rituals, practices, and beliefs transcend our culture, that they have universal significance; but it’s so easy to see other people’s spiritual striving as mere religion.