Neuroscientist, psychology professor speaks on evangelical virtues


Stephen Sammut, who received a doctorate in neuroscience and is an associate professor of psychology at Franciscan University, gave a talk on “Living a Life of Poverty, Chastity and Obedience” on March 18 in the International Lounge.

Sammut admitted that a topic on the evangelical virtues in relation to a layman’s life is a little odd as these virtues are typically associated with religious life.

“That’s exactly why I picked them,” he said, describing that these are virtues people should consider whether they are a father, student, child, etc.

Sammut explained his background in neuroscience, saying that in his research before coming to Franciscan University, he observed two sets of people: the atheist who refused to see God in creation and the Christian who saw science as something evil.

“The reason I left is because I wanted to share the beauty of what God created and the logic that exists in nature and to encourage other young people to consider these fields,” he said.

He continued his talk by describing the evangelical counsels by using different vocabulary: chastity as temperance, poverty as service and self-renunciation and obedience as being childlike.

Chastity, explained Sammut, includes apprenticeship in self-mastery.

“Being disciplined does not make us slaves, it gives us freedom,” he said.

The neuroscientist went on to share that the limbic system, the emotional part of the brain, is not stimulated only during intense situations such as sexual intercourse or drug use. It is stimulated when one eats a good meal, sees a movie, texts compulsively, browses the internet and even prays, he explained.

Sammut said that one’s prayer should not remain at the emotional level, and a person should ask himself if he is praying because it feels good or for the glory of God.

“If I ask that, I’m no longer at the limbic part of the brain,” said Sammut, encouraging his audience to take prayer to a deeper level.

Sammut also challenged the students to consider not merely physical chastity but emotional chastity as well.

Sammut said that Christians are responsible for what they do in front of God and neighbor. He cautioned against situations that could result in scandal and gossip amongst others.

In regards to the virtue of poverty, Sammut said that one practices poverty when he serves another.

“It’s giving up what we could do so easily,” he said, saying that this could include giving up one’s own time to be with a friend.

“In a way,” he continued, “it’s letting go of control.”

He said that the final evangelical counsel, obedience, is living one’s vocation now.

“A man knows he has found his vocation when he stops thinking of how to live and begins to live,” said Sammut, quoting the Trappist monk Thomas Merton.

The professor cautioned that the devil always tempts with the question “What if?” God always asks to consider what is now.

Student Amanda Kenney said it was this part of Sammut’s talk that stuck out to her the most.

“We can be so stressed out about the future,” said Kenney, describing herself and the situation of many other college students. She emphasized the importance of simply focusing on the present and making the most of it, leaving everything else to God.

Sammut’s talk was a part of the “How Faith Meets Reason” series sponsored by the Hildebrand Project. Because faith and reason are at the heart of the Hildebrand Project, Sammut’s topic was a perfect one to present, Hildebrand Project student fellow Veronica Buehnerkemper explained.

“It’s such an important topic for our generation,” she said.

Student fellow Joseph Rooney shared that the words Sammut used to describe each of the evangelical counsels (temperance, service and self-renunciation and being childlike) made these virtues possible for a non-religious person to practice.

“A change in vocabulary allows us to make them applicable to a layman,” Rooney said.