Summary: Neuroscience and psychology can be helpful to understanding our spiritual life.
After having read The Body Keeps Score on the science and psychology of Trauma, I wanted to read something similar from an explicitly Christian perspective and Anatomy of the Soul was recommended to me. (I also picked up This is Your Brain on Joy to read later.)
Part of the message of The Body Keeps Score is that our mental, spiritual, and emotional states impact our body and vice versa. The wholeness of our physical, emotional, and spiritual states matters. As Christians, especially as a Christian that is interested in the spiritual development of others, we need to think about how we can incorporate the knowledge of the physical into the practice of spiritual direction without attempting to be a psychologist or neurologist.
Anatomy of the Soul is broadly divided into two parts. The science and background about neurology, trauma, attachment, emotions, the prefrontal cortex, etc. and the shorter spiritual implications to our understanding of sin, repentance and forgiveness, and community.
Because I have more of a background in the later, the former was more engaging. I had just read an extended book on trauma which touched on each of the parts of the first section, but as an introduction, Anatomy of the Soul explains the science well to a non-scientist. It is part of the inevitable result of combining different fields, the field you are more informed about, you are going to be more critical of the presentation. There is not anything that I thought was bad about the spiritual implication sections. Thompson is clearly a gifted counselor and has more experience in counseling. But he is writing as a scientist in a field that is mostly dominated by mystics. I think there is great value in his writing as a scientist in a field dominated by mystics, but mystics tend to write differently then scientists do.
Broadly I think there is lots that is helpful in the early sections of Anatomy of the Soul. But I also think there are some broad statements that need more nuance to avoid being harmful (or hyperbole). One of the sections is trying to point out that God can be speaking to us through our bodies and the needs of our bodies. The accumulation of stress or physical pain or other body needs or messages can be part of what God uses to communicate to us. But the problem with this as a concept is that people that are not attuned with their bodies are also often not particularly attuned to God spiritually. So paying attention to their body can be interpreted as paying attention to their body’s desires without enough attention to limits of hearing from God through out body.
For instance, listening to our body does not mean fulfilling every bodily desire. Sex is a bodily desire, but one that has appropriate designs for expression. Eating is a bodily good, but gluttony is not. Fasting can be good, but that good is contrary to the basic desire of our body for food. I also fear that part of why people don’t listen to their bodies is that they have a hard time distinguishing healthy and unhealthy desires because they do not have a full understanding of what it means to flourish within God’s design. Which is part of why the book is being written.
Most of the early broad brushes are given more nuance before the end of the book, but I am always concerned that the introduction of an idea broadly sets the tone and people will dismiss the nuance that is introduced later.
I am now about half way through Beth Moore’s When Godly People do Ungodly Things, and her discussion of sin and spiritual attack I think would benefit from some of the neuroscience that is contained here. But I also think that the science here supports a lot of the spiritual wisdom of the Desert Fathers and Mothers and others within the historic church.
I think Christianity has a tendency to spiritualize physical issues. The message of these books is that there is a relationship between spiritual, physical and emotional issues, it is not just a one way relationship but a complex relationship that moves in multiple directions. Historic Christianity has maintained the wholeness of the individual and the physical resurrection of the body. I think the recent science is reaffirming that in ways that was not possible before now.
I do think that Christians interested in spiritual development and discipleship need to pay attention to the science, but also not become consumed by a pop understanding of the science. We need scientists to be scientists, even if they are interested in the spiritual issues and we need spiritual directors and psychologists and counselors to not attempt to be neuroscientists. All should attempt to be informed and allow the fields that are not their own to speak to the fields that are their own.
If you have not read much about neuroscience or trauma, I think this is a good introduction and I think the spiritual implications sections gives a good introduction to where counselors or pastors or spiritual directors should seek to incorporate the science.