Hardwired for Faith

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I had the privilege of delivering the sermon at my house of worship (Unitarian Universalist) on Sunday, July 20, 2014. This was a tremendous opportunity to reflect on what I'm learning at the Boston College Graduate School of Social Work, and share my thoughts with a congregation of people I love. 


Good morning.

If you had a chance to ask me what I was preaching about, and I said something like, “How humans are neurobiologically and evolutionarily predisposed to spirituality, and how this can be demonstrated through brain science; It’s very similar to what we know about attachment theory and trauma theory.” 

I am really sorry. 

I started graduate school this year, and they try their best to make us talk like that.

I will talk about all that a little bit—but I promise I won’t talk like that. 

Mostly, I am going to tell you about discovering a definition of faith that speaks to both my intellect and to my heart. And why I believe that faith—by that definition—guides our healing from despair.


I study trauma—specifically, the trauma of interpersonal violence. I am interested in how we carry the pain that is visited upon us—in our brains, and bodies and behaviors, and also in in our relationships and communities. 

When I use the jargon “trauma theory,” what I mean to say is, “The amazing body of knowledge we are amassing about how violent experiences actually alter the ways that our brains work. And our even more amazing discoveries about the flexibility of brains to heal from these experiences, and what helps people access their powers of resilience, survival and recovery.”

Preparing for this service reminded me of the advice I’ve received from Reverend Janet Bush: “Every time you lead worship, you must remember that there will be someone in the Great Hall whose heart is breaking.” And I also thought of the words of the anti-violence educator Katy Mattingly, who taught me that there is no hierarchy of despair. “Because,” Katy says, “The worst thing that ever happened to you--is the worst thing that ever happened you.”

We are—every one of us—carrying the worst thing that ever happened to us. Maybe we carry the trauma of interpersonal violence; maybe we carry another kind of despair. If we live long enough, we will each have moments, days or even years when our hearts are breaking.  

Maybe this is one of those moments.

I think that faith has something to offer us in those moments—every one of us--even the most godless among us. Even more—we have something to offer one another. We can become each other’s faith.  And—here’s the kicker—it is in our nature to do so.


This year I had the privilege of pursuing academic inquiry into the questions: How does despair affect a person’s spiritual self? And how does spirituality serve an individual’s recovery from despair? For my research I examined the despair caused by interpersonal violence. I was especially interested in the role of community—How do we help one another’s healing and recovery?

I did a lot of my work in the attic of a friend’s home in a cohousing community.  This is a community of people who love one another perfectly and imperfectly—who cook one another meals, and care for each other’s children, who lend cars and carpet cleaners and camping gear, and give rides to the hospital. And who also hurt each other sometimes, who don’t always see eye to eye, on issues big and small, who can bring each other to frustration or even anger.

Maybe you also know a community like this? 

Maybe you are even blessed to be part of a community like this?

Up in the attic, I looked to the evidence-base to answer my questions about trauma, spirituality, and community.

And I was stunned to discover a terrible stinginess in the scholarship. I was not really surprised that the literature regarding religious and spiritual coping is—in the words of one researcher--“skewed towards those individuals whose spirituality is expressed through the religious observance of doctrine and ritual.” (Baetz & Toews, 2009, cited by Bryant-Davis et al., 2012, p. 312) This makes sense, given the pre-eminence of organized religion in American culture.

But in study after study, researchers examined extremely narrowly defined practices of religious coping. It was as if they thought spirituality served survivors only as an option on a checklist of adaptive strategies. “Believe in God?” – Check. “Participate in religious ritual?”—Check. “Do good works?”—Check. Transcendence and the essential, existential questions raised by the experience of violence—Why? Why me?—were scarcely addressed.

As a student, this wasn’t just confusing—it was painful. What hurt most was the way these frames erased my experience as a spiritual person. As well as those of my spiritual teachers and fellow seekers--many of whom I encounter in this congregation of “people of diverse beliefs,” where we engage in a “free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”

And then, finally, I discovered the work of George Vaillant.

George Vaillant is a Harvard research psychiatrist. In his book Spiritual Evolution, Vaillant calls spirituality “an essential human striving.” And he sites this striving in the universal experience of eight positive emotions—“compassion, forgiveness, love…hope …joy, faith, awe and gratitude”

Compassion. Forgiveness, Love. Hope. Joy. Faith. Awe. Gratitude.

Vaillant claims that these positive emotions “arise from our inborn mammalian capacity for unselfish parental love.” That’s the “attachment theory” I was talking about earlier. It’s a fancy way of saying how we bond to our ridiculously dependent offspring in order to keep them alive. We have evolved to love and care for one another, because if we did not, our babies would be eaten by predators.

Vaillant goes on to say that these positive emotions, “emanate from our feeling, limbic mammalian brain and thus are grounded in our evolutionary heritage. All humans are hardwired for positive emotion, and these positive emotions are a common denominator of all major faiths and of all human beings.” 

I could stand here all day and tell you about the neurological, and anthropological, and ethnological—that means, “study of animals”—evidence that supports Vaillant’s radical hypothesis. But I’m not going to, because I promised I wouldn’t talk like an academic. And besides, George Vaillant already wrote that book. 

But I hope you get a sense of the researcher’s buzz that I got when I discovered it. It felt true to me in my gut. It knocked out the stingy, inadequate definitions of spirituality that would exclude me, and my friends and teachers. It put words to the feelings I have in this Great Hall and in the heart-breaking and sacred moments of my life. These feelings qualify me as spiritual, according to Vaillant, even if I didn’t check the right boxes.

Compassion. Forgiveness, Love. Hope. Joy. Faith. Awe. Gratitude.

And—because of science!-- it also felt true to my demanding, inquisitive, persistent intellect. We are biologically predisposed to these emotions. Our evolution as a species has selected in favor of these capacities. These emotions exist within—and outside of—all the world’s major religions. They are indications of our humanity, and they help our species to survive. 


I want to tell you a very short story.

My wife and I once engaged a color consultant to help us figure out how to paint two adjacent rooms in our home. This woman stood in the liminal space between them, held her palms open, and did a little dance side-to-side, to show us how the colors had to evenly weight the two rooms.

This is exactly how I felt when I read Vaillant. Like my two sides, the mystical and the humanist, the broken hearted and the intellectual, were dancing together, perfectly balanced. 


It was George Vaillant’s definition of faith, finally, that satisfied the question at the center of my inquiry: How does trauma affect the spiritual self?

Vaillant writes:

"Faith…involves basic trust that the world has meaning and that loving-kindness exists. Such faith should be our human birthright. An atheist may have faith. The absence of faith is nihilism, not atheism, not disbelief in a lexical God."

Vaillant defines faith as meaning and connection. And this relates so closely to the experience of interpersonal violence that I got another of those scholarly buzzes. Because what trauma does is interrupt a person’s fundamental ability to trust that the world is a safe, predictable, orderly place. It interrupts an individual’s capacity for trust, and therefore, for connection.  

“Faith…involves basic trust that the world has meaning and that loving-kindness exists. Such faith should be our human birthright.” By this definition, I think that grief calls faith into question as well. How can the world make sense when the one we love is gone? How can loving kindness exist when this, specific love, has been taken from us? By this definition, any experience of despair that shakes our sense of order, that causes us to feel “radically separate” (Sinclair, 1993, cited in McBride & Armstrong, 1995, p. 8)  —any of our “worst things”—is essentially a spiritual experience. Not just cognitive, not just clinical, not just emotional. Spiritual. Even for those of us who did not check “Yes” next to “believe in God?” on the study questionnaire.

And therefore, we cannot consider ourselves recovered from grief, from trauma, from despair, until these two pillars of faith—meaning and connection—are restored.


There are times that I can feel the interdependent web of life shimmering all around me, when I am so humbled by gratitude for the opportunity to wear these body clothes (Oliver, 2006, p. 1) and walk in the presence of love and compassion, that my heart breaks with the joy of it.

And there have been other times--rare, terrible times--when I have felt so shattered, so “radically separate,” that my heart has broken under the weight of that grief.

In those times, faith reminds me that I find meaning in the balance between that which is knowable and that which is unknowable. And faith reminds me of the existence of kindness, my witness and experience of loving kindness.

We don’t need to study brain science and evolution to see that love is how we endure and make sense of and finally survive our worst things. We each hold private gratitude for the love that blesses our lives.

Community is not just making each other meals and watching each other’s children and lending each other camping equipment. It is also irritating and injuring one another—most often by accident, but sometimes on purpose. And we may never be able to answer why.

But cruelty is, in fact, the minority experience. Human beings are hardwired for connection. And we are evolving towards more cooperation, more compassion, more love. Science says so.

Grief breaks our hearts. But we grieve only because we relentlessly turn toward one another. If our lives are marked by loss, it is because we love, we love, we love.

Community is not just making meals and watching each other’s children, but that is what is happening most of the time. And in doing those small kindnesses, we weave a pattern of kindness in which we can have faith.

We become one another’s faith when we help each other. Whether or not cities are burning. (Tippett, 2014) When we love each other, perfectly and imperfectly. 



Bryant-Davis, T., Ellis, M.U., Burke-Maynard, E., Moon, N., Counts, P.A., & Anderson, G. (2012) Religiosity, spirituality and trauma recovery in the lives of children and adolescents. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 43(4), 306-314.

McBride, J.L. and Armstrong, G. (1995) The Spiritual Dynamics of Chronic Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Journal of Religion and Health, 34(1), p. 5-16. 

Oliver, Mary. (2006). “Messenger.” Thirst. Boston: Beacon Press.

Tippett, K. (Host). (February 20, 2014) Paul Elie: Faith Fired by Literature. [Radio broadcast episode.] In K. Tippett (Executive Producer), On Being. Minneapolis, MN: Krista Tippett Public Productions. http://www.onbeing.org/program/paul-elie--faith-fired-by-literature/transcript/6155

Vaillant, G.E. (2008) Spiritual evolution: A scientific defense of faith. New York: Broadway Books.