The Neurobiology of Screwtape
In his book, “The Screwtape Letters”, C. S. Lewis claims to have captured a number of letters written by Screwtape, a highly placed assistant to “Our father below”. These letters contain the “highly confidential” teachings of this senior tempter as he instructs his nephew and fellow tempter, Wormwood. In his book, Lewis addresses some of the difficulties involved in finding and holding onto your faith. He also addresses the question; does “the father below” exist?
Lewis introduces his intentions in the first few paragraphs of the book, “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race falls about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe and feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.” God wired you for faith. Let’s look at how these communications between Screwtape and Wormwood line up with with present day theories of your neurobiology and your faith.
Your subconscious mind has been with you all of your life. It has recorded everything you were ever exposed to. It has created thousands of simple and complex habits which initiate, guide and shift every thought, feeling and action you have. It senses, it labels, it reacts, it stores information and looks for what it expects to find. Your conscious mind is largely unaware of its existence. Like any fish in water, it is so immersed in subconscious mind’s influence that it fails to see it. In any moment, you are consciously aware of the very limited information contained in your working memory and yet, you are subconsciously responding to thousands of bits of information within you, between you and others and beyond.
You can use your working memory to search through your memory banks for more information about a specific topic. A funny thing happens when you do so. Your working memory is limited and drops information as you “dig down” into any subject. It isn’t easy to take in the big picture while dealing with your daily struggles. This would take a distinct view of what the “big picture was” and then a lot of practice. It is not easy to ask “WWJD”, “pray continuously” or “walk with walk of faith” while you are talking business, struggling with your teenager or surfing the internet late at night.
Screwtape tells Wormwood to avoid arguing for or against any existential belief. “Draw him into the stream of immediate experience. Fix his attention to this stream of information. Teach him to call it “real life” but don’t let him ask what he means by “real”.” Distraction is a primary impediment to find or grow your faith. Subconscious mind asks for a point of view that will organize all of its efforts. Conscious mind is only able to respond to apparent immediate needs and points of view. Subconscious mind’s voice is subtle compared to the immediacy of day to day distractions. Screwtape refers to God’s use of subconscious mind’s “still small voice” with, “you know how one can never quite hear what God says to them.” Your conscious mind struggles to believe in, hear and connect with all that subconscious mind has to offer.
Faith and the Brain
My brother and I recently returned from a Friday morning Bible study where Fred Corey left us with “You have to surrender fully to Christ to be victorious.” This left us with the question, “How do you know if you have fully surrendered?” Earlier a comment in the Bible study suggested when you feel you are alone, without the father above, you are left to the devices of “the father below”.
When you walk knowing God loves you, you know that more than what’s contained in your conscious mind exists. As you listen for God’s “still small voice”, your subconscious mind is given a unified purpose. When you know Jesus died for you, you know how vulnerable you are to letting God’s instructions for your life go. You are aware of your ability to make critical, relationship-ending mistakes, so you practice communicating with God by “praying continuously”. This habit allows you to let go of the dominance of your feeble conscious mind (Purveyor of the “father below”) in favor of a new creation that sees and senses all that God has for you.
Faith changes the brain as it changes you. As you change your brain, your perception of all that God has for you, for your relationships and for the world, expands. John 10:10 says it well:
“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life and have it to the full.”
A purpose-filled life is the greatest inducer of brain growth, and a successful life!