My Neurons Made Me Do It: Neuroeducation at the Intersection of Religion and Science
(This is an excerpt from the full 2011 article published in the Journal of Unification Studies)
The cornerstone of the Divine Principle is its emphasis on the original ideal of God and the subsequent ontological understanding of men and women. The first chapter outlines the basic principle that guided the creation and interrelatedness of all life forms with God and provides a clear description of our ultimate purpose of life as God originally intended. An important component of that principle concerns the description of human beings as having a spiritual body and a physical body. Divine Principle further explains the process of growth and development for human beings as envisioned by God and describes how and in what way these two “bodies” interconnect.
A related theme emphasized in the Principle and in the teachings of Rev. Sun Myung Moon is that of fallen nature, and the need to separate from that state as a necessity to living as a devoted son or daughter of God. This is not particularly unique within theological circles. Spiritual growth and the hope of transforming one’s essential nature to become a better person has always been a concern of clergy, theologians and religious educators alike. On any given Sunday or Sabbath, one would be hard-pressed to not hear a sermon or homily devoted to this topic. One can also find numerous books and articles addressing these themes of spiritual growth and the eradication of one’s fallen or sinful nature. So what really is the issue here? The issue is that even after hearing the most inspirational sermon or taking part in the most insightful class on spiritual growth, we are still faced with our inability to change—to grow and develop spiritually, to separate from our fallen nature, and to live out of our original, God-given nature. It is this dimension of the Principle that has both intrigued and challenged me the most this past year.
I say “intrigued,” because perhaps it is so elusive. If given the option, I believe that most people want to say that they have grown spiritually or that they are trying to change each day and are gradually becoming a “good” person. However, the reality is that we find ourselves confronted by our own sinful and fallen nature when we least expect it. It is not unusual for us as human beings to question why we struggle so much with our bad habits. Certainly, individuals who feel they are faithful or who actively follow a spiritual discipline of some type find themselves reflecting on a regular basis as to how to practice their faith more sincerely. Yet, we wonder why it seems we just cannot follow through with the inspiration we may receive after a particularly stirring sermon. Or we lament as Paul did when he stated, “When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members.” (Rom. 7: 21-23)
Those of us who are religious educators also find ourselves questioning at times why it is that our students appear to struggle with living the lessons we teach; especially when it seemed that the student understood the depth of what it was we were hoping to bring to light. Then in turn, we question ourselves and our pedagogical skills. Can it be that the problem is “us?” Are we ineffective teachers? Is there something more we can do to help our students make that deeper connection between knowing and doing? Or is the problem that we don’t understand the content well enough?
Now that the initial generation of members of the Unification movement has grown and become parents, a common concern and topic of debate within the movement is that of the education of succeeding generations. We spend endless hours discussing what should be taught to our children and teens, how it should be taught and in what context we should be teaching the doctrinal concepts of our faith. In addition, we continue to look for new and better teaching aids and resources when it comes to teaching adults—both within the movement as well as the general public. So these questions have application across the entire spectrum of our work in the movement.
A visualization of neurons and synapses.
These are questions that I often asked myself after teaching sections of the Divine Principle or specific themes such as spiritual growth and development. I questioned everything, from my understanding of the content to the pedagogical methods I was using to the ability of the students to learn. But regardless the answer, nothing seemed to solve the problem of seeing well-meaning men and women of God—regardless of their age—have a profound learning experience yet, at the same time, struggle so much with following through with what they were learning and take it into their soul. That is, until I learned to ask a different set of questions, questions that led me to the new fields of study called Neuroscience and Neuroeducation.
Neuroscience is the field of study that focuses on how our brain functions and how we learn. While early theories and researchers generated a mix of fact and myth, the field has matured tremendously over the last five years with numerous specialties forming under the umbrella of the neuroscience label. Two of these specialties are Neuroeducation and Neuropsychology. Both have the potential to shed new light on our understanding of original human nature and the challenge of separating from one’s fallen nature. For this article, I will focus on Neuroeducation.
Perhaps the overarching significance of the new developments in neuroscience is that we are now seeing the beginning of the reconciliation of religion and science, as discussed in Exposition of the Divine Principle:
Just as people attain perfection of character only when the mind and body are fully united, the two worlds of essence and phenomena must join in perfect harmony before the ideal world can be realized.
In order for us to even begin to develop that type of “ideal world,” it is important for us to understand the nature of the growth process as envisioned by God, our Creator. But when I talk about understanding this process, I am not talking about simply knowing what is written in the Divine Principle. If that were the case, then spiritual growth would be easily accomplished. What I will discuss in this article is how the world of “phenomena,” as explained through science, can now shed more light on the total process of spiritual growth—thanks to this new field of neuroscience. More importantly, Neuroeducation and the whole field of brain-based teaching and learning can now help guide us to not just “know” and “understand” spiritual and theological concepts, but can help facilitate spiritual growth and development based on insights concerning the total learning process, that which involves both our physical and spiritual minds and bodies.
I invite the reader to take a journey with me as we consider these two fundamental teachings of the Divine Principle and Rev. Moon: that of our original human nature and how we, as God’s sons and daughters, are meant to thrive spiritually and develop into mature men and women, and the challenge presented by our fallen nature when it comes to reconciling with our original nature. We will see how the new insights offered by Neuroeducation illuminate both these teachings.→
[This is just the introduction. To read the full article on UTS’s Journal of Unification Studies site, click here]
Dr. Kathy Winings is Vice President for Academic Affairs, Director, Doctor of Ministry Program, and Professor of Religious Education and Ministry at UTS. She is also the Vice President of the Board of Directors for the International Relief Friendship Foundation.