If there was ever an illustration of the truths of Romans 1:18-23, this latest news item from National Public Radio is it:
Jesse Bering’s mother died of cancer on a Sunday, in her own bed, at 9 o’clock at night. Bering and his siblings closed her door and went downstairs, hoping they might somehow get some sleep.
It was a long, hard night, but around 7 a.m., something happened: The wind chimes outside his mother’s window started to chime.
Bering remembers waking to the tinkle of these bells, a small but distinct sound in an otherwise silent house. And he remembers thinking that those bells carried a very specific message.
“It seemed to me … that she was somehow telling us that she had made it to the other side. You know, cleared customs in heaven,” Bering says.
The thought surprised him. Bering was a confirmed atheist. He did not believe in any kind of supernatural anything. He prided himself on being a scientist, a psychologist who believed only in the measurable material world. But, he says, he simply couldn’t help himself.
“My mind went there. It leapt there,” Bering says. “And from a psychological perspective, this was really interesting to me. Because I didn’t believe it on the one hand, but on the other hand I experienced it.”
Why is it, Bering wondered, that even a determined skeptic could not stop himself from perceiving the supernatural? It really bothered him.
It was a very good question, he decided, to take up in his lab.
Bering says that believing that supernatural beings are watching you is so basic to being human that even committed atheists regularly have moments where their minds turn in a supernatural direction, as his did in the wake of his mother’s death.
“They experience it but they reject it,” Bering says. “Sort of override or stomp on their immediate intuition [cf. Rom 1:18–“who suppress the truth in/by unrighteousness”]. But that’s not to say that they don’t experience it. We all have the same basic brain. And our brains have evolved to work in a particular way.”
You can read the full article or listen to it here. Sadly, but predictably, when the article tries to come to some resolution on the matter, it basically throws up its hands by saying such answers are “As unknowable — ultimately — as God himself.”
Let’s listen to Paul again in Romans 1–
18For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, 19because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. 20For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. 21For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. 22Professing to be wise, they became fools, 23and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.
Our brain has evolved to give us all sorts of intuitions, but not all of them are accurate.
Intuitively it seems that the Earth is flat and unmoving. It doesn’t seem like a massive ball of rock and molten iron almost 25,000 miles around. But we have learned to *override our intuition* and believe that Earth is a huge sphere orbiting an even huger Sun.
When we watch a 3D film, it seems that the fanciful CGI creatures are extending out of the screen. But we learned to *stomp on our intuition*, rather than run screaming from the theatre like an early Lumiere Brothers audience running from a moving image of a train. When we look at certain optical illusions, a pattern printed on paper can move before our very eyes, even though we know that it can’t possibly be moving.
So our intuition is not always the truth. To “override or stomp on [our] immediate intuition” is not the same thing as to “suppress the truth in/by unrighteousness”.
Our brains build mental models of our loved ones. We anticipate their thoughts and preferences. And (painful as it can often be) these anticipations persist after they pass away. Because we are social creatures, and our ancestors had to be wary of predators, we have evolved the tendency to attribute movements and sounds to living things, even when it’s just the wind. Perhaps that’s why Jesse Bering’s fallible intuition made him feel that some windchimes being moved by the wind could have something to do with his mother.
We can accept that our intuition is wrong sometimes. We accept that Earth is a sphere and that the creatures of Avatar aren’t real. If we are strong enough, we can accept that our intuitions about our loved ones surviving death may also be wrong.