October 17, 2010
The Twentieth Sunday after Trinity
Fruit flies and sea slugs. There’s a chance these creatures may improve your own cerebral output. Research on these organisms promises to provide us with a number of innovative medicines to enhance the memory, including what some are calling “Viagra for the brain.” Although, not a very church polite term it would seem.
Two renowned scientists, and the biotech companies they founded, are planning on it. Dr. Eric Kandal, Professor of Columbia University and the 2000 Nobel Prize winner for his study of cellular mechanisms of learning and memory, first started his research on sea slugs in the 1950s, when many people discounted any practical results. The founder of Memory Pharmaceuticals, Kandal firmly believes that within a few years there will be a pill that will dramatically improve one’s memory and lead to other medications that significantly alter the brain chemistry.
Tim Tully and Jerry Yin in Cold Springs Harbor laboratory in New York have demonstrated that fruit flies injected with a protein called CREB (c-AMP Response Element Binding protein) have shown a remarkable ability to retain memory. In the early 90’s Tully, who is a genetic scientist and the founder of Helicon Therapeutics, teamed up with his colleague Yin, to produce fruit flies with photographic memories. Since that time they have produced similar results in mice. Tully’s Helicon and Kandal’s Memory Pharmaceuticals are engaging in scientific competition to discover those genetic breakthroughs that will lead to improvements far beyond memory.
This is the advent of what others have called smart pills, or brain boosters. Biotech firms are racing to have smart pills on the market, and not only for persons suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. The real target is middle-aged folks, the boomers who are always looking for an edge to keep the process of aging at arm’s length, particularly the normal forgetfulness that comes as one gets older.
Some are skeptical. Writing in Forbes, Robert Langreth cautions, “But a pill popped by millions of healthy people looking for a mental edge could pose serious risks. Forgetfulness is an important part of proper mental function.” It’s like, what is life without the ritual of hunting for lost car keys? Or, as in my case, walking from one room to the other and forgetting what you were to walking to the room for in the first place.
Notice the nomenclature. These new drugs are called “smart pills,” not “wise pills.” Perhaps there is a drug in development that will enhance the memory. But there’s no correlation between upping your dosage of brain boosters and suddenly gaining wisdom.
The apostle Paul understands the nature of wisdom. In his pastoral letter to Timothy, he advises his young pastoral colleague that there will be times when people will not “put up with sound doctrine” but reject the foundations of the Christian faith, grabbing anything that satisfies their particular curiosities. It would cause them to wander away from the foundational teachings of Scripture and tradition, the teachings considered to be reliable guides to knowing the God of Jesus Christ; they will latch on to teachers who give them what they want or cause to wander toward myths that satisfy their curiosity.
This is a startling indictment of the anti-intellectual setting that has emerged in the early 1980s and continues today in American culture, beginning with New Age tomfoolery including harmonic convergence, crystals, pyramid power, The Celestine Prophecy, Ram Dass, Marianne Williamson, The Course in Miracles, to the Left Behind series, and even The Da Vinci Code.
What are we to make of a culture where millions of people, including Christians, embrace a well-written mystery novel that weaves history and fantasy without any regard for the question: Is this stuff true? No, any first — year church history student in seminary can spot the errors just flipping pages. It is a novel, after all; it isn’t meant to be true, though the author claims that some of it is. The DaVinci Code makes the wildly outlandish suggestion that leaders in the Roman Catholic Church have conspired for centuries to keep secret the marriage of Jesus and Mary Magdalene and the child born of their sexual alliance. This would be fine, as long as it was made clear that there is not a shred of historical evidence to substantiate this claim. This book is a novel! Well written and filled with tantalizing riddles woven around fiction written as history, the book is a great read. But that’s all. The less discerning, however, are seduced by it.
Those who are led astray by books like The DaVinci Code or The Celestine Prophecy and other quasi-Christian proclamations are the ones who either have no serious knowledge of Scripture or the historic teachings of the church, or who have simply decided that the facts in the Scriptures have been contorted and thus they want the truth. It doesn’t matter that the scriptures have remain virtually the same since they were written a little under 2,000 years ago and survived test after test, and church council after church council. This is precisely the reason that the apostle Paul encourages us to be proficient in the knowledge of Scripture, so that we have minds and hearts that are capable of recognizing those teachings that sound vaguely Christian or spiritual, that titillate our imagination, but do not make us wise persons in the ways of God, because they are not really biblically or theologically true.
Paul seemed to recognize that we have an infinite capacity to believe speculative ideas that will satisfy our personal whims. This may be why he cautioned us to stay grounded in the Scripture that contains what is necessary for righteousness or what we might call wise living. Reading novels (thought to be a scandalous and idle entertainment in the 18th century, incidentally) can be a profitable escape from the day to day. I like a good novel myself. Novels are good entertainment. But for wise living, we turn to Scripture. Today’s text states, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work”.
This is not to suggest that simply knowing Scripture by memory is the point or that we shouldn’t read anything other than Scripture or refuse to address questions that challenge the faith. That kind of anti-intellectualism disguised as Christian piety leads to a rigidity that is unable to engage anyone who thinks differently. We have to have enough exposure to many trains of thought, to remain able to think for ourselves. All roads lead Rome, some say, though we know it not to be literally true. The same applies to heaven; all roads lead to heaven is also not true. As Jesus stated, we are to follow the road less traveled. All this said, we need to be open to various thoughts on God, but not all of them will lead you to heaven.
What Paul had in mind was the ability to live so well in the narratives of the Bible that one comes to know intimately the living God. With the mind shaped by Scripture through a living relationship with God, one can confidently address challenges to the teaching of Scripture with discerning intelligence that would actually persuade people of an excellent way of life, grounded in wisdom and prepared for good works.
Paul’s advice to Timothy is embodied in the five imperatives, or five smart pills if you will: Proclaim the Word, Be persistent, Convince, Reprimand, and Encourage.
We come to know Scripture not to be mindless religious robots but to be lovers of Jesus Christ, faithful disciples in a culture that offers up one remedy after another, each promising a better life, holding out the prospect of satisfying the deeper hunger of our hearts for God with a new religion or a new drug.
An English preacher of the 19th century describes studying a beech tree one afternoon. As a skilled naturalist he noted the color of the leaves, the texture of the bark and the intricacy of the branches. Such study was, for him, a form of grateful prayer to God as rich as any study in the library. On this particular day, he noticed a squirrel running up the branches, leaping from one to the other, playing in every nook of the great tree. The squirrel moved among the branches as if the trunk were Main Street and the smaller branches country lanes or alleys; somewhere among the branches was his house and daily food.
As he reflected imaginatively on this inquisitive, frolicking squirrel, so wonderfully at home in the beech tree, he draws this analogy to our relationship with Scripture. “The way to deal with God’s word is not merely to contemplate it, or study it, as a student does; but to live on it, as that squirrel lives on his beech tree. Let it be to you, spiritually, your house, your home, your food, your medicine, your clothing, the one essential element of your soul’s life and growth.”
This being “at home” in Scripture is certainly an alternative to the seemingly endless quest for novel pill or new philosophy that is going to fulfill one’s every desire. Jerome described the Bible as a lake, where one may stay on the surface or choose to explore the infinite depths of truth contained within it.
A daily smart pill might increase your memory, but a day spent studying Scripture with an open heart and a searching mind will increase your love for God, make you a wise person, and enable you to discern false teaching the next time it comes to the box office or the bookstore.
God Love You +
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, Ca.