Attachment and Neuroscience: Loving God and Each Other With All of Our Minds

Posted on by Curt Thompson

April 30, 2011: Johns Hopkins University, Intervarsity Christian Fellowship


“Anyone who believes in God is a fool.”  Comments like could come from any quarter. They even come from pulpits. This one was uttered as the opening statement of a professor, welcoming his incoming students at a prestigious East Coast university to their first class in molecular cell biology. Naturally, there are at least two (and perhaps more) directions we could go as a follow-up conversation with our friend the professor.  We could enter into a dialogue about “God,” his existence or lack thereof, and the relative payload of foolishness one carries should you so choose to believe in him. That conversation and its topic would conveniently be about something outside of ourselves: We would talk about God as if he were a chair or a football team, a conversation the content and process of which we decide, with the chair making no reflections or asking us any questions. A conversation within which we take very few real personal risks.  We would speak of what we know, but provide little that would enable us to be truly known. In essence, we would not tell our story with all of its idiosyncrasies, vulnerabilities, and messes, but rather give our assessment of the data we have on God.

But there is another conversation we could construct with our academician. We could ask him to tell us the story of his life. We would eventually be introduced to the important relationships that have shaped his experience.  We would gather an awareness of his attachment patterns and learn the places and ways in which he has come to associate God with the emotion of shame. For certainly, if he understands the belief in God to be that of a fool, that fool necessarily would be foolish, the associated emotion of which is shame.

What does any of this have to do with the brain, the mind, or relationships? It was my privilege to meet with about thirty alumni, graduate, and undergraduate students from Johns Hopkins University chapter of Intervarsity Christian Fellowship to talk about the mind, and how Jesus is the lens through which we come to understand neuroscience, attachment, and other associated disciplines of interpersonal neurobiology (and, by the way, not the other way round).  Johns Hopkins is a place where, as it should be, knowing things is important.  In my conversation with the students, we explored how this way of knowing, however, is ultimately left flat and lifeless when bereft of the other way of knowing—the way of being known; when it is kept distinct from the way in which one’s mind is being transformed and integrated by being searched and comforted by, convicted and led by Another. I spoke of how this process of the mind’s integration is most fully realized in Jesus, and how we can follow his lead in the power of the Holy Spirit, and especially in the context of community.  I spoke of how the things we are coming to know (such as the elements of interpersonal neurobiology) are reflecting and energizing the story of the Bible, the story in which we are invited to be known by God.

And so back to our aforementioned professor.  Certainly, we desire to know as much as we can about cell biology, or any other academic discipline. I know I do, especially about the cells of the brain.  And we very much don’t want to be fools, immersed in a pool of shame.  We who follow Jesus believe that we live in a world in which being known by him delivers us from all shame. Being known by him integrates and transforms our minds.  Wherever our professor’s comment came from, it was not from what he knows, or the part of his mind with which he knows it. Instead, it comes likely more from his limited experience in being known.  My hope is that someday, someone will invite him out for a beer and ask him about his story.  Perhaps then, when he is known by Jesus, he won’t feel so much like a fool.

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