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Fingerprints of God

NPR reporter Barbara Bradley Hagerty uses journalism’s tools to explore the intersection of spirituality and science.

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“‘God’ may not be, as the atheists have it, a delusion – but perhaps a conclusion driven by the math of the universe,” she says. “[R]ather than dispel the spiritual, science is cracking it open for all to see,” she adds. “It seems to me that the instruments of brain science are picking up something beyond this material world.”

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While the book’s scientists and religious seers have engaging stories to tell, the most powerful narrative is that of Hagerty herself, laying bare her own spiritual journey. More than a decade of soul-searching took place before she was willing to write it, she says. Her story begins at a time of depression and physical illness in which she turns away from the religion of her childhood and young adult years, Christian Science. Though she doesn’t end up back inside that church home, she finds herself standing on its threshold and gazing inside admiringly.

“Without realizing it at first, I had looped back to the faith of my childhood,” she writes in the book’s conclusion. “I found myself staring squarely at [Christian Science founder] Mary Baker Eddy’s definition of God: ‘Principle; Mind; Soul; Spirit; Life; Truth; Love; all substance; intelligence.’ ”

She recounts physical healings experienced by her mother and grandmother, both practicing Christian Scientists, through prayer alone. At one point she calls on a Christian Science practitioner to pray with her to locate several minidisks with her research notes for the book that had been lost in the mail. A few weeks later a Postal Service manager phones to say they had been found.

Christian Science, she says, is “a religion that is, perhaps, a hundred years ahead of modern science – a religion that relies wholly on the power of thought to alter the body.”

The transcendent experiences she shares are not denominational, though they are intriguingly similar. No matter what their religious backgrounds, people who’ve had life-changing spiritual encounters – whether through a dramatic life event or consistent daily meditation and prayer – say they feel “a loving presence, infinitely intelligent and gentle,” she says. And “often, an overwhelming sense of unity with the universe – and, always, light.”

According to University of New Mexico researcher Bill Miller, she says, people’s priorities change after these profound spiritual experiences. “Before the experience, men ranked their top personal values as: wealth, adventure, achievement, pleasure, and being respected.... After the experience their top values were: spirituality, personal peace, family, God’s will, and honesty.”

Hagerty describes what she calls her own modest spiritual encounter as reminiscent of the words of British Anglican minister John Wesley: “My heart was strangely warmed.”

Hagerty writes with touching candor and honesty, but also with a journalist’s skeptical eye that demands facts and data. She worries that her religious upbringing, or perhaps even her genes, are influencing her conclusions. But in the end, she can’t help thinking that she’s onto something real that science is only beginning to understand. Something that people feel intuitively.

“Belief in God has not gone away, no matter how secular society has become or how much effort reductionist science has exerted to banish Him,” she says. “God has not gone away because people keep encountering Him, in unexplainable, intensely spiritual moments.”

Gregory M. Lamb is a Monitor staff writer.

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