Being Human 7 – Conversion and Community (RJS)

The fourth chapter of Joel B. Green’s book Body, Soul, and Human Life: The Nature of Humanity in the Bible deals with conversion and salvation. The emphasis in this book is that being human is a totally embodied experience – sin is an embodied phenomenon; so are virtue and conversion.  We do not possess a separable soul capable of overriding the impulses of our bodies, nor is it meaningful to talk about conversion as an individual “inner” experience. There is no conversion and no salvation without the church. By this he does not mean that belonging to the church saves, that some church authority has the power to confirm or excommunicate with eternal consequences. Rather, conversion is a reorientation of life in God’s direction and reordering of life in line with God’s plans requires being in community and in communion with God’s people. There is no alternative.

The concepts and ideas Dr. Green touches on in this chapter are so important that I am going to spend a few posts highlighting some key points. To focus the discussion of the biblical understanding of conversion Dr. Green concentrates on the narrative presented in the gospel of Luke and the book of Acts. These texts in Luke-Acts provide a window on a variety of conversion experiences during the life of Jesus and the growth of the early church. He then integrates the biblical models for conversion with the nature of human experience as it is increasingly understood from the observations of modern neuroscience.

In the next few posts I will break the discussion down into three parts:

  1. Insights from neuroscience relating to the conversion of persons.
  2. The nature of conversion as described in Luke-Acts.
  3. The consequences this has, or should have, for our church today.

What can we learn from science, especially neuroscience, about the nature of human conversion?

The longstanding argument regarding the supremacy of nature (genetic programming) or nurture (environmental and societal factors) on human behavior and ability, and on human flourishing, is off-base. We are  shaped by an interrelated mix of both our genetics and our history – both in infancy and in ongoing growth and development. The effects of nature and nurture are inseparable. There are a few aspects from the scientific study of human nature and the role of environment on human persons that bear consideration in any discussion of conversion and salvation.

Neural Plasticity. First we have the concept of neural plasticity. The brain and the connections within the brain are constantly shaped and modified by our experiences.  Our brains are sculpted as we grow and mature. Our brains are formed by what we do, what we see, what we think, who we associate with, how we are treated, and how we choose to spend our time.

Dr. Green highlights two studies as illustrations. The first is a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2000 (PNAS 97, 4398-4303, 2000). This paper reported the results of a structural MRI investigation of the hippocampus in London taxi drivers. The hippocampus facilitates spatial memory and London cab drivers must have good navigational sense.

Using structural MRIs, these researchers compared the brains of a select group of taxi drivers with those of matched control subjects who did not drive taxis. They found that the posterior hippocampi of the taxi drivers were significantly larger relative to those of control subjects. Moreover, hippocampi volume also correlated with the amount of time spent as a taxi driver. This led to the conclusion that day-to-day activities induce changes in the morphology of the brain. (p. 116)

The second involves the efficacy of psychotherapy (Acta Neuropsychiatrica 18, 61-70, 2006).  Psychotherapy works because it helps patients reshape and reform their neural circuits. Clinical improvements are correlated with empirical data showing specific regional morphological or functional changes in the brain. Before and after brain imaging is showing researchers how these therapies make observable changes in the activity of the brain.

It makes sense – as training will improve the ability to run or play a sport, so too will training enable the ability to act in a desired fashion. There is a plasticity in our neural structure that allows growth and change.

Believing is seeing. There is a common phenomenon in human experience of “filling in the blanks”. We live in a world of sensory deficit, so there is a tendency to fill in the blanks based on prior experience or teaching. This is seen in simple examples – things like recognizing shapes in the clouds. The same trend is seen in explicit and implicit prejudice against persons or groups. When there is no real knowledge of a person aspects such as race, gender, age, style of dress, cleanliness, and more become clues for categorization.

This tendency is also apparent in the approach people take toward politics and is demonstrated over and over and over on this blog.

In the U.S., for example, staunch Democrats and hard-core Republicans hear the same data but, predisposed to interpreting them differently, they walk away with opposing conclusions. In an fMRI study conducted at Emory University prior to the 2004 presidential election, Democrats and Republicans were given a reasoning task in which they were asked to evaluate damaging information about their own candidate. Notably absent among the subjects involved in this study was any activation of the neural circuitry implicated in conscious reasoning once they were confronted with the damaging evidence. The researchers concluded that emotionally biased reasoning leads to the “stamping in” or reinforcement of a defensive belief, associated with the participants “revisionist” account of the data with positive emotion or relief and the elimination of distress. The result is that partisan beliefs are calcified, and persons can learn very little from new data. (p. 119)

The study is interesting for both its insight and its lesson. One lesson, it seems to me, is that we must intentionally back off and try to think objectively. We will never succeed completely, but if we don’t try we will never succeed at all. The idea of neural  plasticity plays a role here as well. We can learn from new data … if we are trained to think critically.

I find the political discussions on this blog a waste of time because so many react to the material rather than reason through the material. The problem is exacerbated by a tendency, in the absence of data, to “fill in the blanks” by placing others in camps rather than engaging in conversation and listening to what a person actually writes or says.  This is generally true in political discussions, but it is often true in theological discussions as well.

We need to practice reason and critical thinking and it needs to be intentional.

Narrative hermeneutics. The ability of humans to make sense out of their lives and surroundings in a narrative structure is a core feature of human experience and human culture. Dr. Green notes that “in the absence of memory humans will create stories by which to make sense out of their present situation.” (p. 120) This is seen in people with amnesia and brain damage as well as in normal human society. In fact it seems to be a normal feature of human society. A narrative understanding of the world is human-forming and meaning-making.

Summary. The major points from this section of the book can be summarized as follows:

  • Moral formation and transformation is embodied – there are physical and functional changes in the brain.
  • Relationships and community are important in moral formation.
  • The formation of individual and community identity is based in a narrative of the world.
  • Behavior is an outcome of neural formation.
  • Habits and practices play a central role in moral formation, transformation, and reformation.

Dr. Green puts forth the idea that conversion does not entail a rational intellectual assent to a proposition – it entails a reordering and reformation of one’s brain and one’s life. The next post will look at a biblical view of conversion in Luke-Acts that fleshes this out in more detail.

What do you think? Any surprises or insights from this brief look at the neuroscience?

If you think about it honestly, is there a subject where you tend to respond by reflex rather than reason?

How could we discuss politics on this blog or any blog in an edifying manner?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net

If interested you can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.

  • Scot McKnight

    RJS, on the brain vs. proposition — is it an either/or for Green or is it a both/and? It seems to me that the consideration of a new idea — as when a Jew begins to consider if Jesus is Messiah, or an atheist/agnostic considers faith in God — may open new pathways in the brain that is “flooded” or suddenly in use, and the brain then rewires itself to accommodate or adjust to that new idea, and then the brain begins to work in light of those developments… etc.

  • Rick

    I appreciate the emphasis on community and its importance.

    However, I am not seeing a strong connection between the “church” community and the work of the Holy Spirit. He seems to be describing any social club that might impact its members.

    Likewise, I am uncomfortable with the line:

    “conversion is a reorientation of life in God’s direction and reordering of life in line with God’s plans requires being in community and in communion with God’s people.”

    There seems to be a mixing of justification and sanctification.

  • http://communityofjesus.wordpress.com/ Ted M. Gossard

    Interesting post, RJS. Yes, we’re whole creatures, just as scripture seems to emphasize.

    Openness is difficult for us, because we live in a super charged society where battle lines are drawn, and people are committed to one side or another (or, the other). So that if one suggests something different than that, they are often not taken seriously.

    Instead we need to see ourselves as those who are in formation, and seek to do so in sync with what we believe to be God’s kingdom transformation in Jesus for the world.

    So it’s inevitable that those who seek to live outside the norm will often be misunderstood and counted irrelevant or outside the camp.

    Instead we need a commitment to continuing on in our calling in Jesus both generally and specifically as to our unique callings. Challenging the status quo. Jesus most certainly did.

  • Tom

    Aside from the politics of this, how should we be looking at salvation? Do we physically change? Are some physically more prepared than others to respond? Can we really talk someone into Christianity or expect a real life change in someone that has had very negative experiences with Christians or life? Are we truly free to make the choice or are we programed in our hard wiring to our destiny? How does God judge that? How do we look at that as a church and what should we do going forward?
    I find it interesting, in light of this type of study that most people come to Christ at a very young age. Very few change and repent as they get older.
    I think we have bought into the Greek seperation of body and soul in the past and now we are seeing that we are really more of a unified being than we thought. There are different levels of change that people are capable of and we need to be more open to that reality and respond in a more loving and accepting way. I’m not sure what this looks like on a practical level.
    Very interesting material. Thanks for posting this.

  • rjs

    Rick,

    The next post, probably next Tuesday, will look at conversion in Luke-Acts. The role of the Holy Spirit is unavoidable in any look at the book of Acts.

    Conversion in relationship includes relationship with God through the Holy Spirit – but I think Green would say that conversion is a process, not a moment.

    Justification and sanctification – this opens another can of worms. Isn’t justification an act of God – God declaring us righteous? Atonement is also an act of God. How would you define sanctification?

    Conversion is in relationship with God, and inseparable from God’s relationship with us … but it is much more a process requiring an intentional reordering of life.

  • rjs

    Scot,

    I don’t think it is entirely either/or for Green. But the idea that one simply assents intellectually to a proposition and is “converted” isn’t right – there is more to it than this.

  • http://kingdomroundtable.blogspot.com Dru Dodson

    Seems that adult conversion always (?) involves some level of dissatisfaction/disillusionment with one’s current narrative. Doesn’t have to be dramatic, but some increasing sense of doubt about your current orientation or belief set must be in play for a conversion to happen. It may take a Damascus road vision to disorient you, or simply reading some blog! Does this ring true and wondering if addressed in the book?

  • Susan N.

    Very interesting…pretty much what I would hypothesize to be true of what shapes us (nature + nurture).

    Romans 12 came immediately to mind as instructive for responding rightly to our “flesh” nature and new environmental/experiential “input”, particularly as it puts the “unity in community”.

    I recognize that my make-up, or “bent” predisposes me to think a certain way about theology and politics. Listening and taking care in formulating respectful responses are helpful in avoiding bitter disputes. Keeping the main question or point in focus, as opposed to being diverted onto false dichotomies and arguments is a goal I strive to pursue in conversation.

    I am reminded of a phrase that grabbed me from Patrick Mitchel’s ‘Transforming the World’ series last week: “Conversion of imagination.” We/I need a big dose of that, imho. I think that is where the Holy Spirit comes in :-) Praying for the capacity to receive such incoming data!

    I was thinking of the Jews (Jewish leaders) of Jesus’ day, too. There the Messiah was, right before their eyes and to their listening ears, and yet they could not recognize or accept Him. Yet they were in a community of faith. Community has the potential to help or hurt our ability to think outside of the box, it would seem.

  • rjs

    Scot (#1),

    New ideas do open new pathways and thought processes. These take a while to develop and lead to change. Your book on Finding Faith, Losing Faith is interesting here – because one of the take home messages is the importance of community. Leaving an old community and joining a new one is hard for many. The tendency to react against the less desirable features of the old in self-justification of the decision is another unfortunate common factor.

    This is part of the reason I think we need to understand the importance of community and relationships much better than we often do. In the realm of losing faith – is the church open to the exploration of hard questions in an atmosphere of Christian community, or must these questions be explored and addressed in community with skeptics? This is something of a tangent from the original post, but it is one of the things that I was thinking about as reading the chapter.

  • http://www.facebook.com/wyatt.roberts Wyatt Roberts

    This is fascinating. Thank you for this review…I just put Dr. Green’s book on my Amazon Wish List.

  • Rick

    RJS #5-

    The emphasis on process clarifies things. Thanks.

    The importance of community on that process then should have a huge bearing on how we practice discipleship within the church, and how we reach “unbelievers” outside the church.

  • rjs

    Rick,

    I think you are right – and that is why I want to focus on church in the third post on this chapter.

  • Scott W

    Scot-
    It seems to be that in the embodiedness vs. propositional issue you brought up,it appears that in the stories Jesus told and the message of the Reign (Kingdom) of God,implicitly and explicitly the emphasis is on embodied change, either stories which force people to see and contemplate YHWH’s ways in the concrete world or actually challange people to change their way of being in the world.

    And the traditional spirituality of the Church, based in monasticism (askesis)is predicated on spirituality and Christian formation as being totally embodied: there are practices and a “program” that one works out with the help of a spiritual father and mother. This is the context in which God the Holy Spirit works. This has been been my own personal experience of God in Christ. In ths I think much popular Protestant Evangelical approaches to spiritual theology (theology of Christian formation) and praxis is flawed and incomplete.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    Nice post. This is one of the reasons I responded to a post last week on the habits people should adopt with my strategy for changing habits. I try to change something at least once a month. The way I shave, shower, path to work, diet etc etc. I believe we can cultivate the ability to learn new things and recognize value in new approaches through training.

  • Joe Canner

    According to this preacher: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JYV0M6Y41Go a person’s DNA changes after they are saved. This parallels other theories I have heard that propose that Adam’s DNA changed after the Fall (the origin of Original Sin and the reason why it is passed down to all of us).

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    Joe Canner#15, that was hilarious. I loved the end quote “I’m not talkin about joining the church, I’m talkin about becoming a Christian”.

  • Steve Loosley

    RJS – When I put down Chapter 4, I kept wondering if the traditional rigid ordering and categories of salvation were compatible with a monist/materialist anthropology. Green repeatedly uses the word “organic” to emphasize the nature of embodied existence, which seems uncomfortable with an enlightened worldview that screws the order of salvation down to laboratory precision.

    Good work!!

  • http://www.soulation.org Dale Fincher

    Sorry I haven’t been following the series of discussions, though I did read this one…

    From the back of the book, it seems the author relies heavily on Scripture and neuroscience… but does he have a strong background in philosophy of mind? For philosophy of mind is where the real issues are. Neuroscience is a second-order discipline in this area of the soul. Even atheist philosophers of mind acknowledge neuroscience is inadequate to get at the “mind” phenomenon’s we face today. This author claims to not be a dualist (unless he’s an emergentist in materialist clothing), but neuroscience operates outside the realm of mind and only deals with brain matter. But there is more to a human and brain matter. Does he deal with the phenomenon of “free-won’t”… which is a phenomenon of something outside the brain that actually gives it the ability to re-map itself?

    I’ve taken two graduate courses on philosophy of mind (and have friends who teach it) and know how easy it is for Christians to slip into the assumptions of philosophical naturalism unawares.

    Those are my $.02.


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