A Slice of Humble Pie

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No one likes to feel stupid. We’ve heard from pastors that feeling foolish is one reason they avoid science. Science is complicated, especially for non-specialists, and they don’t want to get it wrong. Particularly from the pulpit.

I appreciate the sentiment. It is a risk any non-specialist takes engaging content outside their expertise. And it just happened to me.

Last week, I gave a presentation to a church centered on the What kind of God…? theme we have been developing over the last few weeks. I identified three areas in science to demonstrate why this is an interesting and worthwhile line of questioning for the church.

This week’s newsletter was supposed to build on one of the three, What kind of God… Mirror Neurons? But as I did more homework, I realized many of the claims I was using to make my argument were outdated, having been either discredited or unsubstantiated. The science around mirror neurons remains very unsettled.

While unsettled science exposes the church to great risk if we aren’t careful, it also demonstrates the virtue of humility in our work.

What Kind of God… Mirror Neurons?

My plan had been to tell a lively tale about the somewhat accidental discovery of mirror neurons and then to draw attention to some of the remarkable conclusions that were circulating 10-15 years ago. Mirror neurons were connected to many human social capacities such as learning, empathy, language, and how we infer the mental states of others.

Some went so far as to suggest mirror neurons were a key brain system to multiple aspects of human uniqueness. Mirror neurons were why we were so social, more compassionate than other species, and able to transmit culture. They explained our musical capacity and appreciation of art. They were key to better therapy and international diplomacy. Some believed they would lead to breakthroughs in our understanding of autism spectrum disorders. You can see why I was excited to tell you about the ways mirror neurons give witness to the God of creation.

But alas, nearly all of those claims are a decade old and most have been dismissed as hype or undermined by additional research. Outside of their role in helping us mirror the motor activity of another agent, not much else is clear about the role of mirror neurons.

We would need a psychologist or neuroscientist to properly navigate the claims and the critics around mirror neurons. Like most pastors, I am neither.

So, instead of telling you about a God who desires learning, gives us the capacity to feel the plight of others, and created us to be in relationship with one another—all reasonable extrapolations from the early claims around mirror neurons—I share a slice of humble pie with you. I unknowingly overstated the case for mirror neurons in that class.

  • This NOVA Science Now video introduces some of the basic ideas and claims around mirror neurons.
  • Were mirror neurons essential in the arrival of culture? In 2013, this neuroscientist claimed they were.
  • Look closer at the debates among neuroscientists about the exact role of mirror neurons, as well as this young researcher who believes the critics have come out on top.
  • A 2019 meta-analysis did not support any strong connection between mirror neurons and empathy.
  • This resource from Orbiter magazine can help you dig deeper into empathy.

Bold Humility

When I started writing weekly newsletters, I knew this would happen eventually. I would either misrepresent the science or direct you to a discredited claim.

This happens. It is a critical part of science. Consider the steady state theory of the universe or the so-called “love hormone,” oxytocin. Or more recently, facemasks. Science progresses through peer review, replication, and new tests collecting the data needed to confirm or disprove a claim. The history of science leaves some ideas in the dustbin (phlogiston theory), while others get nuanced and improved (what Einstein did for gravity and spacetime). It is unclear if the claims around mirror neurons will be discarded or simply nuanced. Time will tell.

When served a slice of humble pie, it’s a time to confess the error, but it is no reason to retreat from our efforts to help the church engage science.

Why? Why risk getting the church and our faith entangled in ideas that may one day be discredited? With the science always changing, is it worth it?

I am convinced it is. If the church is seen to be opposed to or silent about science, we will continue to lose ground to secularism. We will continue to be excluded from cultural conversations, especially those in scientific and secular communities. And then there is the exodus of youth and young adults from our churches. A church disengaged from science jeopardizes its public witness to the Gospel and its viability with future generations.

I do feel stupid for misleading that class. I could have done a little more homework, which would have helped me nuance what I said about mirror neurons. This is a good reminder to me, and to you, to use those scientists in our churches and communities to help us navigate these areas where we lack expertise. And it’s a reason we are building a resource page and are regularly posting science content on our Facebook page—resources intended to help limit such mistakes.

Nevertheless, I urge us to be bold in engaging science in our ministries. But let’s also model the virtue of humility that both science and our Christian faith extol. We will make mistakes, but we can use them to teach about the scientific process, to model confession and grace, and to create space for honest inquiry into the books of Scripture and of nature.

Why? Because honest inquiry into both books is the best way to answer the question What kind of God…? and to know the God of both creation and salvation.



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