Book Review: The Physical Nature of Christian Life

The Physical Nature of the Christian LifeThe Physical Nature of Christian Life: Neuroscience, Psychology, and the Church
by Warren S. Brown and Brad D. Strawn
Cambridge University Press, 2012
200 Pages (Kindle)

Available
Amazon
Powells

In September of 2011, I wrote an article for The Huffington Post in which I questioned whether evangelical theology can evolve with science (“Can Evangelical Theology Evolve with Science?“). I raised the possibility of two barriers between evangelical theology and scientific discourse—the idea of an historical Adam and the problem of personal identity in light of current neuroscience. The latter is the subject of The Physical Nature of Christian Life: Neuroscience, Psychology, and the Church.

While I often discuss religion (particularly in terms of philosophy and science) on this blog, I rarely review books intended as a theology. However, since I noted in that article that the possibility of a physicalist or materialist (or the like) view of the soul “has yet to pick up steam” among evangelicals, I thought it was incumbent upon me to immediately read this book by Warren S. Brown and Brad D. Strawn.

I was not disappointed.

I am fascinated by the adaptation of religions, and particularly Christianity, to our rapidly changing world. While we continue to do amazing things in space, we are possibly in (as some have referred to it) the golden age of neuroscience. For theologians to dismiss the discoveries of the field and what it may tell us about being human is to eventually turn theology in a form of medieval bloodletting. (Many would say it is already there, but that discussion is for another time.)

In The Physical Nature of Christian Life a Professor of Psychology and Director of the Travis Research Institute at the Graduate School of Psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary (Brown) and the Vice President for Spiritual Development and Dean of the Chapel at Southern Nazarene University in Oklahoma (Strawn) team up to examine the discoveries of neuroscience and what they tell theologians about helping others. As Brown and Strawn explain:

for many of us, spirituality is disembodied. It is about the state of the soul – a nonphysical thing dwelling inside, but separate from his body and behavior. Thus, his primary focus should be on the state of his soul – everything else is filtered through this individual, inner, disembodied lens. From this perspective, it is hard to get a clear view of the importance of community, or of the priority to be given to caring for those in need.

Christian theologians often view the person from a deeply-rooted form of Platonic dualism. Even those that see both body and soul as the whole person—and avoid placing the emphasis on the soul as the real person—are still hard-pressed to avoid some form of dualism (see my review of Rethinking Human Nature). Brown and Strawn believe that this perspective falls short, arguing that “one’s view of human nature is critical in understanding the nature of Christian life.”

The outcome of dualism is that it puts the focus on the inner-person, leaving the individual less concerned about the physical and material world around him or her and potentially creating a sanctioned Gnosticism.

Somehow we Christians have come to believe that we have bodies, not that we are bodies. We act as if the ‘real me’ is not our own body, or even our own behavior, but is something spiritual (not physical) inside – our mind or soul. Thus, it is considered possible to be spiritual inside without being religious in what we do – without participating in a communal religious life. We believe we can be good persons inside, even though we are often inconsiderate, unethical, or even immoral in what we do.

This focus on the immaterial side deluges the Christian world with books that emphasize a spiritual devotional method, seeking one’s inner-self, and for some, living a life of separation from others to purify the spiritual or soul in sanctification. Brown and Strawn are convinced that we are actually bodies, not a combination of the immaterial and material self. “When we are racked with the aches and pains of the flu, or half delirious with fever, we are pretty sure that we are a body. If, because of an auto accident, a friend is brain damaged, and his or her mental capacities, personality, or behavior is dramatically changed, we realize ever so clearly that we are a body.”

This is the clear problem that neuroscience poses. Many of the experiences that individuals claim as found in the spirit can be duplicated through lab experiments on the brain. Temporal Lobe Epilepsy can play a role in mystical experiences and trauma to the brain can change a personality entirely. One of my favorite examples of this is when the corpus callosum is severed to treat epilepsy. Neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran discusses one example of a severed brain leading to one side of the brain responding as a theist and the other as an atheist (see video below).

If the real person is the immaterial soul, why does the brain dictate everything about who we are? The inevitable conclusion, they argue, is that we are not immaterial, but rather we are embodied. Even this embodiment, however, is not the complete story.

“We believe that we are simply bodies, but made and designed that way by God. We want to explain how this idea really matters for how we live our lives and how we understand and participate in the church.” The social side of humanity is a key factor that cannot be ignored. “Human nature cannot be entirely explained by our embodiment,” they write. “It is also critical to take into account the social embeddedness of persons.”

Spirituality would be understood as an ongoing relationship with God who is spirit, but outside of the person, and not as the cultivation of a particular form of experience inside of the person. Christian life would not be about the inner ‘me,’ but about a bodily person in relationship to that which is outside of the person – God, my neighbor, and the community of believers.

According to The Physical Nature of Christian Life, human beings improve as Christians by being part of a community. It is in that relationship that individuals can better follow the example of Christ.

Since our brains are highly malleable in response to situations –which we commonly call learning – our ongoing interactions with our social world continually and progressively shape and reshape who we are as persons. Thus, a rich account of human nature also requires an account of the impact of families, social relationships, groups (churches), and cultures.

There are a lot of questions as to how these embodied and embedded aspects of humanity work within what theologians normally see as aspects of the spiritual side of humanity. Brown and Strawn do get into these. For example, regarding worship they write that “the goal of worship is not to cultivate something inside, but, in unison with those gathered, to worship God who is outside of us as individuals, yet present between us – in our midst. We do not gather in order for each individual to have some kind of inner experience or feeling, but for each person and the gathered church to be formed through the context of worship.” Similarly, each chapter begins with a type of case study that is normally connected to a conversation about the immaterial, which they later relate to the aspects of their embodied and embedded theology.

The authors also pick up on some important studies in brain science and their implications for theology, and in this way, it serves as a good primer on the subject. There are also other questions beyond the scope of their book. For example, are theologians really able to continually modify their theological opinions without losing what, at one point, made their theology originally Christian? Does continual modification of theology imply that theology is invented, not inspired?

These questions go to debates between the religious and non-religious. What is certain is that these authors are attempting to take seriously the discoveries of neuroscience with the goal of offering a practical theology, and this makes their book a rarity. Caring for individuals “is fundamentally physical, social, and communal,” they write. If you are a theologian and you share this concern, reading this short book is a no-brainer.

 

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