Church is our Classroom VII: Mass in Washington National Cathedral

A very boranj report to get some thoughts out.
Washington National Cathedral

Went to DC to attend a wedding of an old roomate and friend Jack Holloway, and also to check out mass at the Washington National Cathedral. Just some brief notes about the experience. A notable thing about the wedding was the pamphlet found in the entrance to the building, criticizing same-sex marriage (in the slideshow).

The pastor of the ceremony stated that prayer gives us two things, “great courage, and the humility to accept what god’s gifts come to you.” I like thinking about humility and it’s relation to loss of self in the Buddhist sense; have been thinking a lot about how ‘having faith’ can actually, on a chemical level, provide less negative feedback than lack of faith, on the path to spiritual enlightenment in humans. Courage exists in action, and in the mind: its progresses, its realizations and its trust or ‘faith’ in future progress. It is amazing that this faith can actually chemically empower an individual to make more progress at something, whether or not the rational explanation for the faith has any lending towards reality!

The Washington National Cathedral is a seriously imposing building. The second largest cathedral in the US, sixth in the world. Most Sundays before Mass they conduct an open forum; Bartelma and I had the pleasure of it being Tim Shriver, the chairman of the special olympics.

Arguably more potent than the mass following it, the forum with Shriver, available in audio and video formats on the website, focused on how we can learn from all persons. Alternately inspiring and critical of religious separation [more ecumenical in nature], he focused almost entirely on service in faith. To him, “the challenge of our faith is to love one another.” I’ve never felt those words crisply as when coming from him. A couple other great lines:

“Do you go to a homeless shelter because Jesus told you so, or because Jesus is on the other side of that table?”

He seemed very explicit about the connections between religion/faith and the loss of self/ego and focus on species-level issues, reminiscent of Buddhism. He seemed to connect the finding of Christian faith to the conscious shift in our (typically) unconscious.

“I go to church not to be a better catholic but to get in touch with the divine.”

The mass was largely uneventful, but a couple nuggets:

“We begin as always, with quiet.” - bracketing of the experience.

The climax of ‘Song of Praise’ is “death is conquered, we are free.” Talk about an explicit mention about how religion exists to conquer the fear of imminent and certain death! Talk about Terror Management Theory!

I am hit by the extent to which we, as a general scientific community, approach the religious community with negativity. We would get a lot of mileage out of approaching the church with a completely open mind. The recent neuroscience seems pretty clear that we’ve evolved a religious mindset for a purpose, one that definitely functioned for a long time, and may function still. We learn in the cognitive neuroscience papers that emotions influence thought, on most levels. ‘Emotion’ comes from ‘to move’ - feelings exist to move us. So why do we work so hard to try to use rationale to convince a religious person their reasoning is wrong, instead of trying to figure out how to offer the same emotional experience to the person, and to ourselves? The rationale is moot!

Buddhism seems extremely pragmatic to me, moreso on a daily basis. Lately I think of Jesus as some dude who lived about 2000 years ago [it is likely that a man named Jesus existed, less likely that he was the son of an anthropomorphic god who created the universe 6000 years ago], who wore awesome robes and found spiritual enlightenment (which seems more and more to neurobiologists to be a real neurobiological condition) and was misinterpreted and idolized, when all he did was act selflessly. In some sense, whether the rationale has any grounding, Jesus can function as a data point for spiritual ascendence, which speeds up the feedback loop of progress. When you know another skateboarder has done the trick, it’s much easier to learn the trick. When you know enlightenment is possible and some people in our culture have experienced/lived it, then it becomes easier to ‘have faith.’ To use that knowledge to allow the brain to let itself move forward, and put aside its anxieties. The faith can accelerate the process!

Science should be a tool that, like faith, can help accelerate our transcendence. One that explicitly studies how this process works in other human beings. Believers are some of the best data points we’ve got to bringing us all forward to the next place in human species evolution. We’ve crossed the genetic-cultural boundary. Our species can become fundamentally collaborative, transparent, open source, and theoretically it can do this in one generation! All our ideas can be shared at all times; I am convinced that this is the long-term optimal solution for the planet. But how do we get there, how do we get each other to all be selfless, knowing that it is the best answer to the overall differential equation of our lives?

Can the scientific community start treating evolutionary enlightenment as a real neurological phenomena, potentially the biggest scientific quest we’ve ever faced, and can we start working on it? Or is that just a pipe dream?

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