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By Stephen Green. (First Published in Christian Voice July 2006)
The word 'heart', in either its singular or plural form, occurs 946 times in 871 verses of the King James Bible. Every time the heart is mentioned, it is described or assumed as a thinking, feeling organ at the centre not just of our emotions but of our character and personality. This is the first occurrence:
And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. (Gen. 6:5)
And this the last:
How much she hath glorified herself, and lived deliciously, so much torment and sorrow give her: for she saith in her heart, I sit a queen, and am no widow, and shall see no sorrow. (Rev. 18:7)
HEART 'JUST PUMPS BLOOD'
The idea that one can 'think' in the heart or say something in the heart has been rubbished by atheists and assorted sceptics. It is part of their assault on the less than totally materialistic in general and Christians in particular. Here is an assortment of some of their offerings gathered from the internet:
'Obviously, the brain interacts with the body. But that does not mean that the heart thinks. My complaint is with the mind/heart dualism that is obviously rubbish, as the brain is the emotional and logical centre of the body.'
'Your heart pumps blood. While it may send some kinds of chemical signals to the brain, it is not the thinking part of the body. You could replace someone's heart with a baboon heart, and he/she would still have the same personality.'
'Until relatively recently, many societies believed that the heart was the centre for intellect. It's why the Egyptians were so careful in preserving it, while they scooped out the brain and tossed it away. In reality, Science (sic - capital 'S') has been able to determine that the heart just pumps blood and has no rational or intellectual capacity at all. So if 'morality' is to be 'written' anywhere, it is in the brain, which like a complex computer is the area in which people process ethical decisions.
'A heart does nothing in love. It just pumps blood. That's all the heart does. The brain is the one that causes all those feelings of love and stuff.'
'What you call your "heart" is in your mind.'
'The heart just pumps blood. It is not capable of worshipping anything.'
Well, talk about going out on a limb, burning boats, hostages to fortune and so on. The last quotation of course directly opposes the famous Hebrew 'Shema' passage in which we read: 'And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart ...' (Deut 6:5)
MISSING HEARTS IN THE GOOD NEWS BIBLE
Even modern Bible translators are sceptical of the heart's ability to think and feel. The Good News Bible, which is more of a paraphrase than a translation, one must admit, slashes the KJV's 946 references down to 295 in a mere 285 verses. The GNB renders Gen 6:5 into: 'When the Lord saw how wicked everyone on the earth was and how evil their thoughts were,' whilst the second part of Revelation 18:7 becomes: 'She keeps telling herself, "Here I sit, a Queen".' Not only are both of those laughably less poetic and dramatic than the KJV, they are also less faithful to the original Hebrew and Greek, both of which have the word for 'heart' ('labe' and 'kardia' respectively) plainly in the text.
Despite the sceptics, we somehow know the heart feels something. When we speak of a 'heartache', we speak of the reality of a feeling in that part of our chest. Is that just a referral from the brain? We talk of 'a broken heart', from which people even die. The Bible says: A merry heart maketh a cheerful countenance: but by sorrow of the heart the spirit is broken. (Pro. 15:13) Paul says of the Jews: 'I have great heaviness and continual sorrow in my heart.' (Rom 9:2) Is all that at worst fantasy and at best symbolism? Has the heart literally no influence on us? Does it really do nothing more than pump blood? In our heart, so to speak, we cannot believe that is all it does. We speak of 'the heart' as the core of a thing. Do we really say that for nothing? To be fair, some sceptics allow the heart some influence on emotion, but all agree, the Biblical insistence on people 'thinking' and 'saying' things 'in their heart' - Why reason these things in your heart?' (Mark 2:8) - is nonsense.
So, there the argument would have gone, round and round, the sceptics sneering, ordinary folk thinking, 'There must be something going on in the heart,' and Christians either defending the idea of a poetic approach to 'the heart' or trying to defend the literalism of the Bible by appeals to experience and reason or 'God says it, I believe it, that settles it.' It would have continued going round and round if it hadn't been for a trio of inquisitive scientifically-inclined doctors.
Professor Paul Pearsall met fellow transplant patients when he underwent a bone marrow operation. He discovered that the heart patients were suddenly reporting acquiring the feelings, memories, food preferences, fears and musical tastes of their donors. 'I met one woman who received the heart of a boxer,' he said. 'She was the most quiet, placid, easy-going person, and she hated sport. After her transplant, she started watching football and shouting and swearing at the TV.'
A DIFFERENT TYPE OF INTELLIGENCE
'The heart is a hugely energetic organ which is in constant communication with the brain. It produces electromagnetic signals 5,000 times more powerful than the brain. Maybe even though the brain thinks it is us, it isn't - the heart is. The heart has a different type of intelligence and we need to explore it,' he said.
Professor Pearsall published 'The Heart's Code' in 1999 reporting his findings, about the same time as Professor Gary Schwartz, a specialist in psychiatry and psychology, was researching feedback mechanisms, such as are found both in the brain and the heart. Seeing their common ground, the two collaborated on an article for a journal, looking at ten cases in which they found the strongest parallels between the donor and the post-transplant recipient.
'The degree of coincidence in the strongest cases was too detailed,' said Prof Schwartz. 'A man aged 47 received the heart of a 17-year-old black man,' he says. 'After his transplant, he suddenly loved classical music and would often hum pieces he could not identify. It was only later he discovered that the boy had been a classical violinist and had been leaving a lesson when he was killed. That sort of information cannot be random.'
Meanwhile, Dr Rollin McCraty of the
discovered that the heart plays a part in our experience of emotion. His colleagues then found neurons - brain cells - in the heart, of a type which have been shown to have memory. These they found to be formed into a small but complex nervous system. They also found the heart registering a lightning-fast response to a disturbing stimulus and sending the message to the brain, which then prepared the rest of the body. It seems the brain does not have exclusive rights over information processing in the body. So the Bible is being more than merely symbolic. We really do think with our hearts.
THE HEART TEACHES THE MOUTH
The Bible says: The heart of the wise teacheth his mouth, and addeth learning to his lips. (Pro. 16:23)
Retired lorry driver Jim Clark had never written his wife Maggie anything resembling a love letter in 42 years of marriage. In fact, he was an unsentimental man who avoided writing anything, having left school with only basic English and with little grasp of spelling or grammar. Six months after a heart transplant, he started writing poetry. He sat for hours, putting down verse after elegant verse revealing thoughts and emotions he did not even know he had. When he made contact with his heart donor's family, they sent him poetry their relative had penned which was remarkably similar to his own. 'It just couldn't be a coincidence,' said Mr Clark.
Only about one in ten heart transplant patients have actually reported such personality changes, which might only mean that most people live fairly routine lives. But the stories of those who have reported dramatic changes certainly support the Biblical witness of the heart as a centre not just for emotion, but for reason and personality as well. All are referred to in these verses from the book of Proverbs:
... apply thine heart to understanding; (Pro. 2:2)
My son, forget not my law; but let thine heart keep my commandments: (Pro. 3:1)
Lust not after her beauty in thine heart ... (Prov 6:25)
A man's heart deviseth his way: but the LORD directeth his steps. (Pro. 16:9)
CREATE IN ME A CLEAN HEART
Heart transplants may now be routine but for some of us they have never stopped being ethically controversial. The problem is that the donor isn't dead when the heart is removed. The brain may have stopped functioning, but the heart remains beating. Relatives have to discount any possibility of the person regaining brain function and recovering in order to give permission for the transplant. The donor's heart keeps beating, except perhaps for a moment or two, throughout the process. It is the removal of the heart which kills the donor. Now we have the additional element from the recipient's point of view, that if the heart is the core of your being, as the latest research and the timeless scripture both indicate, the core of your being is removed and replaced by the core of being of a complete stranger. What part does the heart play in the depths of us? What influence does it have on our soul, that living, breathing identity we carry past the grave? If I have someone else's heart am I still me? Some transplant patients say they feel as if there are two people living in the same body.
But I am trying not to go there at the moment. Rather am I fascinated by the newly-discovered convergence of medical research and scripture. After all, King Solomon asked for an 'understanding heart' (1 Kings 3:9) and the Lord changed his heart within him. Medical science has short-circuited the process and changed peoples' hearts from outside. God is speaking of a fundamental change of attitude when He says, through the Prophet Ezekiel:
A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. (Eze. 36:26)
That is sort of what happened to Mr Clark. Years before Christian Barnard had the idea of a physical transplant, Ezekiel was talking about a spiritual transplant. How sad it is that it seems easier in some people to do a physical one instead. Even the priests and diviners of the pagan Philistines asked their countrymen:
Wherefore then do ye harden your hearts, as the Egyptians and Pharaoh hardened their hearts? when he had wrought wonderfully among them, did they not let the people go, and they departed? (1 Sam. 6:6)
Just imagine that one of us was in an accident, and our unbelieving relatives agreed for our heart to be used in a transplant. What kind of heart would the one whose heart is failing receive from us? Would it be a God-honouring heart of flesh or a hypocritical stony heart? I am certainly not arguing for Christians to offer themselves as heart donors. I am merely suggesting that we ought at all times to make sure nothing comes in to harden what should be a joyful, God-centred, Holy Spirit-inspired, Christ-worshipping heart of flesh. It seems the heart really can learn, and that it can learn to be good through God's grace and by the same token to be bad through worldly lusts. But the good news is that God can clean up a bad heart.
THE ABUNDANCE OF THE HEART
In his great penitential psalm, David cried out:
Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me. (Ps. 51:10)
The Apostle Paul tells us:
For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. (Rom. 10:10)
The Lord Jesus stated emphatically:
A good man out of the good treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is evil: for of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaketh. (Luke 6:45)
We saw precisely that in the case of the woman given the boxer's heart. How uncanny to have such a modern literal confirmation of the word of the Lord. Science and religion are often caricatured as being in opposition to each other. It is never true, as science and religion have different jobs to do. But not for the first time, in this matter of the thoughts of the heart, science is not not merely not opposing religion, but actually supporting it. What more can I do than make melody in my heart (Eph 5:19) and what more can I say than this:
Therefore my heart is glad, and my glory rejoiceth: my flesh also shall rest in hope. (Ps. 16:9)