God Wired Us for Love: My Conversation with Leonard Matheson

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One of our hopes for every congregation—and certainly for you our newsletter readers—is that a pastor and a scientist collaborate and find that beauty of bringing the resources of science to church. It’s the essence of what we call The Standard Model.

When that happens, it’s an amazing experience. One of the gifts that’s come to my pastoral ministry at Bidwell Presbyterian Church is neurorehabilitation psychologist Leonard Matheson. You’ve already heard from Len in an earlier newsletter, “The Neuroscience of Christian Formation.” He and are I also collaborating on a symposium at Chico State, September 16 on the “neuro-biblical approach” to love.

I sat down with Len at Tres Hombres, the Mexican restaurant across from Bidwell Pres (where we talked for the previous newsletter, by the way). I turned on the mic, and—as waiters came and went with chips and salsa and other diners talked in the background—I recorded the conversation. Here are a few excerpts.

A New Approach to Medicine

Len and I began by talking about a “biopsychosocial” approach to medicine.

I asked, “Len, is that actually a mode that medical students are trained and have been trained in for decades?”

Len responded: “That’s right. We used to speak of the person as ‘holistic,’ but we realized that that was getting away from some pieces of it that we really were learning a lot about in terms of how the biological, psychological, and social all interact. In the past 15 years or so, some of the medical schools—like Washington University School of Medicine in Saint Louis where I retired from—are starting to add in the spiritual piece. That means not proselytizing any particular religion, but saying we need to respect the spiritual foundations of our patients because so many of them depend on spirituality as a source of hope. And anybody who’s been in this business as long as I have, since 1970, recognizes that spirituality is an important part of us.”

  • You can join our event online on Sept. 16. It starts at 9 a.m. Pacific, and here’s a link to sign up.
  • There’s more we discussed that I couldn’t include, and so here’s the full audio of our conversation.
  • Sue Carter along with many collaborators wrote a fascinating article, “Is Oxytocin ‘Nature’s Medicine’?”
  • Another leading voice in neuroscience and a Christian, John Medina, at the University of Washington, wrote the bestseller Brain Rules.
  • Here’s Len’s book, Your Faithful Brain: Designed for So Much More!
  • Christianity Today Pastors asks the provocative question (behind a paywall), “Can Neuroscience Help Us Disciple Anyone?”
  • BioLogos has some great resources on neuroscience, and we have our own resource section on psychology and neuroscience.

The Natural Love Drug

At one point in our conversation, Len found he needed some highly technical language. “Love is a big deal.” Yes, I thought, and love is key to Jesus’ teaching. He told us that the greatest commandment is to love God, and that is tied intimately with loving our neighbor (Matthew 22:37-40). And though, there was a good deal of discussion about Leviticus 19:17-18 in the first century, in my research to date, Jesus is the first person to put together those two commands and defined “neighbor” as the one who showed love (Luke 10:29–37).

“So, love is important for cooperation and procreation, right?”

Len brought me back to the neuroscience and particularly oxytocin. “Oh, absolutely. Actually, for cooperation before procreation. Oxytocin bonds the mother to the infant, who is helpless, and the mother to the partner, through their sexual activity. Oxytocin is an ancient neurochemical—probably the first one. We think it’s about 500 million years old, so it predates mammals, and it’s recognized as one of the really important pieces of our social engagement system. I can point listeners to two people they should pay attention to: Sue Carter and Stephen Porges. For example, Sue focuses on oxytocin and vasopressin, as two neurochemicals that are in in a system together that has to do with our social health, our social development and social strengths.”

It’s almost like God wired us for love and for bonding. Len then added one more Jesus-component. “One of the things I tell my clients is Jesus didn’t say love your cousin as yourself. He said love your neighbor as yourself because your cousin has some of your neurobiology. Because there’s a genetic relation between you and the cousin. There’s not a relationship with your neighbor. And so, you really need to take action to develop that relationship. And that’s possible—it’s triggered by a handshake with your neighbor that you don’t know… or a hug, or a shared meal. The oxytocin that’s generated by all those activities begins a bonding between you and a person who’s quite different and not genetically related. And that oxytocin bonding makes it much more likely for you to support each other through tough times. That’s what neighbors have if they care about each other. They support each other.”

The Healthy and Happy Hippocampus

Colossians 3:12-14 unveils a transformational approach to love, “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity” (NIV). This leads to what Len calls the “healthy hippocampus exercise.”

Let me exemplify this through a story described in chapter four of Your Faithful Brain. Len talks about Carol, who had a traumatic childhood, marked by a harsh, and even abusive, father and a similarly abusive work situation. She was confused about “Did I cause this?” He reminded her to return to the goodness of God through positive brain work, like good sleep, prayer, relaxation, creating healthy goals (or what Len calls “goaling”), and the happy hippocampus exercise, (which brings healing to a part of the brain thought to be intimately involved with emotion, memory, and the autonomic nervous system). Gradually, she returned from a state of depression and dis-integration to wholeness. She particularly learned by meditating on the person of Jesus. “Thinking about how some of his character had rubbed off on me was pretty neat. I really saw how Jesus had been influencing me more than I had imagined.”

We’ll be teaching about the healthy hippocampus on September 16. And one big takeaway is this: we love because we are loved by God. Whether it comes through Scripture or is given specificity through neuroscience, that indeed is good news.

A black and white headshot of Greg's face with the words Greg Cootsona, Contributing Editor

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