What does it mean to be created in the image of God? Are there real-life implications from the fact that Christians’ bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit? Does scientific evidence support the presence of a soul or spirit within us? In his new book What Your Body Knows About God: How We Are Designed to Connect, Serve, and Thrive, award-winning journalist Rob Moll seeks to show that science does prove that our bodies are spiritual, that spiritual practices actually change us, and that we are most fulfilled when we are loving God and others through service. Moll observes:
The Christian way heals, provides meaning, gives hope, and offers a path to a good life by connecting us to God and other people. The fingerprints of our loving Creator are evident in our bodies, and our desires for connection and communion are not simply physical necessities but gifts from a God who desires our company. (199)
Since research in the field of mind/body/soul connection continues to increase, What Your Body Knows About God will undoubtedly catch the interest of readers in this area. The book begins with citations of studies showing that young children exhibit, even from infancy, a capacity for and propensity toward faith. In fact, Moll’s description of prayer being “our brain on God” (34) could be the subtitle for the entire book. Our spiritual relationship with God is traceable through the mapping of neurons and visuals of brain scans. We are “born connectors” (36), he contends, hardwired to seek after God and community.
To parents and youth workers concerned about how to pass on to their children a faith that sticks, Moll encourages them that it’s much harder to stamp out faith than some more popular books might suggest. Moroever, our need for touch, social connectedness, and belonging suggest an inborn longing for something bigger than and beyond ourselves. Throughout the book, Moll supports his assertions with interesting and often poignant scientific and physiological research. In the end, he encourages the reader to find strength and hope in weakness, arguing that the frailty of our bodies reminds us of the brokenness of this present world. With this awareness, we can draw closer to God and rest in his grace.
Worship Is Good for Your Health
The second part of the book focuses on the power of spiritual disciplines to change our brain and body. Moll quotes Stanley Hauerwas: “Christianity is to have one’s body shaped, one’s habits determined, in such a manner that the worship of God is unavoidable” (113). Scripture speaks to the active “renewing of our minds” (Rom. 12:1–2), and Moll demonstrates that prayer, fasting, and meditation actually change our brains as well as our bodies. We are beings created for worship; indeed, the “richer and more complex the experience, the more powerfully worshipers experience the meaning and the theology attached to it” (131).
Have you ever had an experience where you felt particularly aware of God? If God is real, and we are created in God’s image, then it makes sense that our minds and bodies would be designed with the perceptive ability to sense and experience God. Scientists are now discovering ways that our bodies are designed to connect with God. Brain research shows that our brain systems are wired to enable us to have spiritual experiences. The spiritual circuits that are used in prayer or worship are also involved in developing compassion for others. Our bodies have actually been created to love God and serve our neighbors.
During worship the brain releases oxytocin, the chemical that produces in us good feelings about being with other people. Our defenses decrease and our trust levels increase when oxytocin is released. Unsurprisingly, then, Moll suggests worship can have an addictive quality given the neurological effect on our brains. “Beliefs become alive in us when worship combines the emotions of a social experience with a multisensory package of meaning,” he writes (140). In short, we are created for worship, and our bodies and our biochemical makeup prove it to be true:
God has created not only a biology that allows us to communicate with him in prayer and worship, but also a biology to pursue him through spiritual practices, to connect to other people, to love our neighbors as ourselves, and to reach out in compassion to those who are suffering. (196)
Moll states that we are “hardwired for compassion,” and science provides evidence that we are most truly ourselves when in community and serving others. Acts of service and other spiritual disciplines produce visible changes in our brains and our bodies. We even read that “a lack of religious involvement has an effect on mortality that is equivalent to 40 years of smoking one pack of cigarettes per day” (177).
Refreshing to Read
What Your Body Knows About God is an easy and encouraging read, yet I hoped for even more detailed and documented research to support the book’s overall thesis. I don’t think anyone would argue with Moll’s findings based on the feelings we often have when we pray, worship, and serve others. But the most fascinating aspect of the research in this area is the traceable, evidenced-based proofs for why we feel what we feel when we align ourselves with our Creator.
As a clinical psychologist, I witness firsthand the intricate connection between a person’s spiritual and emotional life and its many manifestations in their physical bodies. I see people on a daily basis who describe the experience of this connection, whether they are aware of it or not. I’ve often felt that as Christians we tend to bifurcate our physical and spiritual selves in reaction to Eastern or New Age philosophies and practices, so it’s refreshing to read a book from a Christian worldview that values the scientific evidence of this mind/body connection.