Below is the first in a series of book reviews of works by Ephs, or otherwise of interest to the Ephblog community. As a quick perusal of the “Life of the Mind” section of any Alumni Review will reveal, Eph authors are (not surprisingly) sufficiently prolific that no single reader could hope to keep abreast of more than a fraction of the new releases. So don’t let me crowd out the field — write your own review. Even if it’s just a couple of sentences in “Speak Up!”, we’ll all be better off for it.

Fingerprints of God, Barbara Bradley Hagerty ’81.

Cover of "Fingerprints of God"

The subtitle of this riveting book is “The Search for the Science of Spirituality,” but the detached and impersonal phrasing doesn’t quite do justice to the part-memoir, part-serial feature contained between the covers. Noted Eph journalist Bradley Hagerty, best known as a Washington-based correspondent for National Public Radio, embarks on a journey to understand her own spiritual experiences and those of others in the context of the perceived disconnect between modern scientific supremacy and personal conviction.

The remainder of the subtitle is accurate: Bradley Hagerty makes clear from the outset that she wants to distinguish subjects for which science has something to offer: human experiences such as our own experience, such as encounters with God, the power of prayer, and understanding the end of life. In her account, these are distinguished from religious topics about which science has little to tell : the nature of God, for example, or whether an advisor to the Pharaoh led a migration of Israelites to the Holy Land some four thousand years ago.

Fingerprints of God interweaves the author’s experiences and explanations of her motivation with a series of interviews and encounters with scientists and their subjects. Consciously following in the footsteps of William James, who famously catalogued the Variety of Religious Experience early in the 20th Century, she takes the reader inside biochemistry, psychoneuroimmunology, quantum physics, and genetics in turn, pairing leading scientists in each field’s investigation of spiritual phenomena with real-life individuals and their spiritual experience. Bradley Hagerty deserves credit for introducing the reader not only to agnostics such as Dean Hamer (author of The God Gene) and sympathetic scientists such as Francis Collins (head of the Human Genome Project and author of The Language of God), but to tunbelievers such as Michael Persinger, whose magnetic stimulation of the temporal lobe can simulate a religious experience and others who are outright hostile to religion.

At times, the stories Bradley Hagerty tells are, as she concedes, “intensely private,” and there are places where she conveys an implicit plea that others who have been equally reticent about sharing their experiences step forward. As she notes, a major reason that “God has not gone away, no matter how secular society has become,” is that “people keep encountering him.” Although these experiences are often remarkable and help personalize her inquiry, her book is at its most compelling when it discusses scientific observations, particularly measurements of changes in the brain associated with intense spiritual experiences. These, the “fingerprints” of her title, are a key part of the tapestry that she weaves in support of her thesis that science can tell us something important about the spiritual. And it is ultimately the similarities among Tibetan monks (encouraged by the Dalai Lama himself to collaborate with scientists), Catholic nuns, and those touched by one-time religious experiences that lead to her ultimate destination: a pro-God but nonsectarian perspective in which science and faith define her views.

Unfortunately, readers hoping that Bradley Hagerty will relate some spiritual experience from her days as an economics major back in Purple Heaven will be disappointed – she doesn’t even treat us to a trip to one of Berkshire County’s Christian Science congregation (her faith from childhood, one which she describes her experiences with on several occasions). In the acknowledgments, however, she does allow that “One person has inspired me for nearly thirty years,” identifying Shakespeare professor Fred Stocking as a key influence on her writing: “He urged me to consider not only whether the story I am telling is accurate, but also whether it rings true.” By that metric, Fingerprints of God is a great success.

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