Zygon: Journal of Religion & Science

James B. Ashbrook: Pioneer in Neurotheology

by
David Glover

James B. Ashbrook led the way in the study of neurotheology. Having studied neuroscience and theology he took what he learned from his study of neurology and moved beyond and through the science to theology by way of analogy. His groundbreaking studies correlated the structure of the brain to our understanding of God. “Just as the mind reveals the human meaning of the brain, so God discloses the religious meaning of the mind.” (The Human Mind and the Mind of God [1984], xviii) The brain’s left/right duality and its cortical-limbic system interplay informed his theology. Mind-states that he categorized as naming, analyzing, immersed, and imaginative informed his understanding of how God speaks, acts, creates, and re-creates.

In his thought, Ashbrook was at the forefront of the study of how neuropsychology contributes to humanity’s self-understanding of God. He explored the mind-brain and how it transmits knowledge through both genetic and cultural mechanisms as well as the process of how the mind-brain creates meaning from these patterns of knowledge. He wrote extensively on the topic; several of his articles where published in Zygon (highlighting his work in its September 1996 and March 1999 issues) as well as publishing two reviews of his longer works.

Through his work Dr. Ashbrook came to understand that in one sense what matters most to humanity is the human mind-brain. Our minds create and use the symbolic thoughts and speech by which we live—exploring, categorizing, and manipulating the physical and cultural environment in which we find ourselves. It is because of our mind-brains that we know of, and can begin to understand, the vast universe around us. Through the processes of our mind-brain we are aware of the world—and aware of our own awareness of the world. As such, the human mind-brain is truly an important part of being human.

But Dr. Ashbrook did not see the mind-brain as being the only thing that mattered most to humanity. In another sense what matters most to humanity is the source of the environment, that which we did not create, in which we finds ourselves. This source of the universe matters most, for it is the ground of our being—that to which we must respond. It is this to which we must respond because it is the source of all that we did not create. For Dr. Ashbrook this source of all, this ground of being, is called “God.”

It was through an analogy between what matters most, the mind-brain and God, that Dr. Ashbrook shed a light on theology that was responsive to science—and the very leading edge of science at that. From all of the research in the 1980’s pointing to the orderly complexity and interrelatedness of the physical brain and the conscious mind Dr. Ashbrook saw an analogy for understanding God. “The hyphen says the two words belong to one reality. ‘Mind’ identifies the human meaning of ‘brain’ even as ‘brain’ designates the empirical referent of ‘mind.’” (1989a, 75, emphasis in original) And it is “together [that] brain-mind provide(s) a neurotheological basis of meaning. As an analytical metaphor, the concept of the working brain or human mind holds together imaginative, intentional, emotional, rational, natural, aspirational, and empirical referents and values.” (1997, 316) Similarly, God is the foundation for the meaning of each thing that we encounter. And we know God through these everyday life experiences. The mystery of how the physical matter that is the human brain engenders the whole host of human cognitive processes actually provides insight into “the way things really are.” “For not only are we humans observers and logicians, but we are embedded in the larger reality; and as we strive to make sense of it all, we become both Homo sapiens and Homo religiosus.” (1999a, 7)

Dr. Ashbrook thoughtfully pursued the “yoking” of science and religion promoted by Zygon. In his work he brought neuropsychology and religion into conversation with one another. The result was that he found that through the mind-brain “wise humanity” and “religious humanity” have a common ground.

Ashbrook, James B. 1984. “Neurotheology: The Working Brain and the Work of Theology.” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 19 (September): 331-350.

———. 1989a. “The Whole Brain as the Basis for the Analogical Expression of God.” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 24 (March): 65-81.

———. 1989b. “The Human Brain and Human Destiny: A Pattern for Old Brain Empathy with the Emergence of Mind.” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 24 (September): 335-356.

———. 1992. “Making Sense of Soul and Sabbath: Brain Processes and the Making of Meaning.” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 27 (March): 31-49.

———. 1993. “From Biogenetic Structuralism to Mature Contemplation to Prophetic Consciousness.” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 28 (June): 231-250.

———. 1994. “The Cry for the Other: The Biocultural Womb of Human Development.” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 29 (September): 297-314.

———. 1996a. “Toward a New Creation of Being.” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 31 (September): 385-399.

———. 1996b. “Making Sense of God: How I Got to the Brain.” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 31 (September): 401-420.

———. 1996c. “A Rippling Relatableness in Reality.” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 31 (September): 469-482.

———. 1996d. “Interfacing Religion and the Neurosciences: A Review of Twenty-five Years of Exploration and Reflection.” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 31 (December): 545-582.

———. 1997. “‘Mind’ as Humanizing the Brain: Toward a Neurotheology of Meaning.” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 32 (September): 301-320.

——— and Carol Rausch Albright. 1999a. “The Humanizing Brain: An Introduction.” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 34 (March); 7-43.

———. 1999b. “Religion and Science Conversation: A Case Illustration.” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 34 (September): 399-418.


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initially prepared May 19, 2008

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