Jesus Had a Brain (and Other Organs) [Questions That Haunt]

This week, Aaron Berkowitz challenged us with a question about the seeming conflict between modern psychology and traditional Christology. You can read the full question here, but here’s the money quote:

What does it mean in terms of neurobiology to say that Christ had both a human and a divine “will” if all thought is really just neurons firing?And if Jesus doesn’t have a brain that is noticeably different from you or I, how does his divinity interact with his thought process? I guess this is just a small piece of a larger issue relating to interpreting traditional notions of Christology in general in light of contemporary scientific and philosophical categories, but it definitely leaves me scratching my head…

The conversation under the question was robust, even if it got off track a bit. 🙂 (Don’t get me wrong; the tangent in the middle of the comment thread was a brilliant repartee between some of you who believe a bit and some of you who believe no longer.) But if you get through those comments, you’ll find a nice summary by Jonnie:

Ok, so aggregating where this is at…, the puzzle fundamentally seems to be: how can we make sense of the creedal statements of Jesus’ humanity and divinity, metaphysically, if the current insights of neuroscience/psychology are debunking ‘soul’ or Cartesian dualism talk? Historically (and crudely put), it seems to be the co-inherence of two intangible substances (or natures/or essences/or other metaphysical identity-bit) ‘inside’ Jesus that gave him the magic double 100 percent quota needed to be the God-man.

Without intangible natures where can the God-stuff be in Jesus? On the traditional model, it seems to necessitate Jesus having it, possessing it within him.

Thanks for the question, Aaron. Thanks for the summary, Jonnie. And thanks to Ric, who faithfully represented the position that he and I share throughout the conversation.

Let’s be honest, shall we? It’s going to be mighty difficult to be a person of faith after the death of metaphysics.

I’m writing this post from the patio of a coffee shop in Kuala Lumpur. I spent the morning with a man who converted to Christianity from Hinduism. I asked if he became a henotheist (one god above all other gods) or a monotheist (only one god exists) when he converted from the polytheism of Hinduism. He replied without hesitation: “I am a monotheist. All the Hindu gods are false.”

I asked him this because he came to faith in Christ through a mystical experience: his Christian aunt knew his exam scores before he told her, back when he was 15. This episode convinced him that her God was real. As I’ve written here dozens of times, I highly value the testimonies of those who experience God answering their prayers in personal ways, but I struggle to believe that God actually moves in that way.

What’s so daunting about Aaron’s question is that it names one of the elephants in the theologian’s study: orthodox Christology was developed during a deeply metaphysical age. This is among the most haunting of questions for those who maintain an orthodox Christology — and I count myself among that number.

When I say “orthodox” Christology, I mean that which was determined at the Councils of Nicaea (325) and Chalcedon (451). At Nicaea, it was decided that there is one essence of God, but three substances (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) share that essence. At Chalcedon, those who claimed that the logos that indwelt Jesus of Nazareth was co-eternal with God yet remained distinct from his human nature defeated the Nestorians, Eutychians, and other monophysites (those who argued that Jesus had one nature that was a combo of divine and human).

You’re slicing it pretty thin arguing that there’s a difference between a thing’s “substance” and its “essence,” and when you’re emphatically stating that a historical person had two natures rather than one. The church fathers go there by borrowing from such metaphysicians as Plato and Aristotle, guys who believed in things like essences and substances and natures and the will and…the soul.

The obvious place to house these Christological differences is in the “soul,” a magical and mythical part of every human that hovers somewhere among our humours. What I’m saying is that the soul doesn’t exist. You don’t have one, and neither do I. So the divinity of Christ must have indwelt Jesus of Nazareth in a different way than via his soul.

Jesus of Nazareth was fully human. He pooped (everybody does!), he had spirals of DNA, and he had gray matter in his skull. He was a material being, and I am a materialist Christian theologian; so far, so good.

I follow Nancey Murphy here. She argues for a “non-reductive physicalism.” That is, there’s no soul — there’s just the material that makes you up. But the mind, to take one example, is not synonymous with the brain. The mind is more than the brain. If they were a Venn diagram, the two circles would overlap a great deal, but the “mind” circle would be far larger. This blog post, for instance, is an extension of my mind, but thank god you don’t have to hold my gooey brain in your hands to read my thoughts. My hard drive and iPhone are both parts of my mind. Every sweet nothing that I’ve whispered in Courtney’s ear and every lesson I’ve taught my kids are likewise extensions of my mind. My mind has become dispersed, almost infinitely so, and it will live on after my physical death, albeit in a hazy and always diminishing way.

Thus, although my children are material beings, just like me, they have absorbed some of my mind — it has become one with their minds. Our minds are overlapping Venn diagrams. The same thing goes for your mind and mine, since you read this blog; all the moreso if you leave comments that I read (i.e., please leave comments so that I can absorb your mind!).

Does this seem esoteric? It doesn’t to me. It seems like exactly what Gadamer was writing about when he spoke of hermeneutical horizons, and how when your horizon meets my horizon (say, when we argue about Christology), both of our hermeneutical horizons are changed and expanded as a result.

So here’s my Christological proposal: Jesus of Nazareth had unique access to the mind of God, so much so that he shared God’s mind; he was one with God. Indeed, he was God.

I do not know by what mechanism this happened, but Jesus shared the hermeneutical horizon of God. Not the omniscience of the triune God, but the horizon of the logos, of one of the three members of the Trinity. Jesus was unique among all human beings every in this. It enabled him to avoid sin. It allowed him to know the movements of and partner with the Holy Spirit in a way that no one else ever has.

Some will read this and think that I am stopping short of saying that Jesus was God, but I’m not. I’m saying that Jesus was God, in toto. But it’s also clear from the synoptic Gospels that Jesus of Nazareth did not fully grasp his divinity, and that what grasp he did have developed over time. (When I was in seminary, Miroslav Volf called this the theory of “personal interiority.” He likened it to looking in a mirror: you can’t see your back, but you know it’s there. Similarly, Jesus’ divinity was “behind” his humanity.)

Jesus was God by sharing God’s perspective. God indwelt Jesus of Nazareth uniquely, enabling him to see and do things that only God could do.

I’ve just developed this materialist, Gadamerian Christology on the fly, right now, in light of Aaron’s vexing question. I’m sure that I’ve left something out or made mistakes of illogic. Please weigh in — am I onto something, or am I cracked?

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  • I like it Tony. We get so wrapped up in questions about whether a thing “exists” but usually fail to notice the limitations of our definition of “existence”. Similarly we argue about what can be “known” while working within a very narrow definition of “knowing.” When dealing with the metaphysical/spiritual there is a very real sense in which things both exist and do not, are known and yet are not, at the same time and I think your illustrations here do a great job of helping make this truth more clear. In the end, unity with Christ is similar to his with God; different, I think, only in degree not kind. As the horizon of God’s mind crosses ours (in awareness of the power within another’s act of selfless, sacrificial Love for us) the process of unification begins. Unfortunately we are often so bent on expanding the horizons of our mind that we fail to notice that God’s has already enveloped our own. I believe that Christ alone has lived in full awareness and full freedom to cease chasing his own horizon.

  • Tony, you’re essentially describing theosis. And yes, of course you’re cracked (jk). But yes, you are also on to something.

    • That’s what I thought too R. Jay, Theosis, which was what my comment was about in the inital question post–theosis, mixed with John Cobb. I do like the Gadamer angle though.

      Mind absorb initiated!

  • Ayin

    Tony, let me say this first. What you have offered is one the freshest and most interesting “takes” on Christian theology that I have read in a loooong while. Bravo!

    But, let’s take your concept of interacting minds and extend it a bit further, shall we? As I sit here typing at this keyboard, I am extending a bit of my mind toward the minds of my fellow commenters and towards yours, Tony. By reading my comments, you people are absorbing a bit of my mind. But, it’s not quite that simple. You’re also absorbing my mother’s mind and my grandmothers, the minds of my friends and enemies. By reading my comments, you’re absorbing a bit of the minds of people as diverse as Barack Obama, Jesus Christ, and Tony Iommi. How? All of these people have extended a bit of their minds to me, through various media, and I absorbed what they extended to me. When you interact with me, you absorb what they have left behind.

    Now, for another step up in complexity. When you access the mind-tendrils that others have left in me, you cannot do so with any purity. Let’s take Tony Iommi, guitarist for Black Sabbath, as an example. I’m a heavy metal fan and a guitarist myself. Iommi is largely to blame for that. The mind-tendrils that I have absorbed from him through enjoyment of his guitar work have had a rather large influence on me. Yet if you had a conversation with me about how Iommi has influenced my own guitar work, you wouldn’t be accessing Iommi’s mind directly. The bit of Iommi’s mind that I have absorbed would be filtered through my own mind. And, my mind is also influenced by a lot of other musicians: Angus Young, Alex Lifeson, Viv Campbell, etc. So what you’d get is: how Iommi has influenced me, while I’m also being influenced by Young, Lifeson and Campbell. And, for yet another step up in in complexity, consider that Iommi, Young, Lifeson, and Campbell don’t exist in isolation by any means. They are continuously being influenced by (that is absorbing the minds of) each other, other guitarists and musicians, family members, fans, anyone else that they know.

    At this point, I start to imagine mind interactions as working a bit like a game of billiards, with the billiard balls (mind-tendrils) all playing off of one another, changing one another’s vectors in ways that cannot be predicted. Only, the reality is far, far more complex than that. And far more elegant. The interaction of our minds may be nothing less than the macrocosmic equivalent of the human brain. Just think the the mind-tendrils as analogous to neurons firing.

    To bring this comment back to the topic of Tony’s post. I believe that the Supreme Being is a part of this web of interacting mind-tendrils. Thus we can communicate with the Supreme Being (prayer) and the Supreme Being can interact with us (intuition). But, the Supreme Being is more that just a part of the web. The Supreme Being, unlike the rest of us who are part of the web, is able to see and comprehend the entirety of the web at all times. In other words, the Supreme Being is the only one who completely knows what is going on. Why yes, I am a panentheist. Why do you ask? 🙂

    As for Jesus, I agree with Tony to an extent. Jesus is someone who gained access to the mind of God. But, please be aware, I no longer consider myself a Chirstian and thus entertain many heretical ideas. I believe that many great spiritual teachers (Muhammad, the Buddha, etc) have attained access to the mind of God. I am not convinced that any of them achieved *perfect* access, however.

    • Curtis

      ” I believe that many great spiritual teachers (Muhammad, the Buddha, etc) have attained access to the mind of God.”

      That may be. But how many connections to God does a person need?

  • Well, you’re not cracked, but I’m not sure exactly what you are on to. I’m not that good at picking out illogic, so I could easily just say how much I love the answer, but what’s the fun in that? Seriously, it seems pretty tight and acknowledges modern thinking as well as how we got to this point historically.

    One discussion point I see is this “mind of God”. You don’t spend much time explaining that. I don’t see anything here that gets a material brain to reach that horizon, especially if we stick with a traditional view of an all powerful God. But if you allow for some redefinition, and I think you do, we could get there. If we change “God” to mean “all the experiences and all the memories of all people through time melded into one harmonious vision” maybe we could get there.

  • Curtis

    This meshes well with the notion, from the gospel of John, that Jesus is not only God incarnate, but, more specifically, Jesus “logos” incarnate. That is, word, or discourse, or, as you put it, “God’s mind” incarnate.

    “God’s mind” is the discourse of God. The Word of God. It is a discourse that has taken place in the Trinity for all of eternity. Through Jesus, that same discourse can now take place between and among humans and God. Through Jesus’ emptying of himself, taking the form of a slave, Jesus extends equality with God to humans, making it possible for humans to participate in discourse, logos, “God’s mind”, as well.

  • Jonnie

    I like where you’re tracking Tony…and not just because it seems very close to what I was getting toward in my replies. 🙂 If we’re hoping for orthodox Christology though, I think you’re exactly right that the puzzle is: by what mechanism Jesus “shared” in God’s hermeneutical horizon. I think there is an unavoidable adoptionism here (which might not be a huge problem). I like the materialist conception that our minds are diffuse relational things, the processes (not in the Whitehead sense) of our actions in our environments–the products of all of our physical and relational histories. But, in the case of Jesus’ being God in this way, it must necessarily have been something that ‘developed.’ On a Murphy model, a materialist framework, it seems categorically impossible for me to HAVE something (hermeneutical horizon or other ‘stuff’) aside from developing as a creature getting feedback from the world. What was inborn was merely the potential for this full participation. Tracking with me here?

    There cannot be anything inherent to me (which I possess as ‘me’) before I emerge or process into my mind and whatever it participates in. I know Nancey isn’t fond of emergence, I just don’t think we can avoid an emergent divinity of Jesus here.

    • Curtis

      The Gospels allow that there was a process involved before Jesus was fully connected to God. It is related in the various stories of Jesus’ baptism.

      • Jonnie

        Right. The Gospels ‘allow’ all kinds of things precisely because they don’t commit us to any particular metaphysic (though they are written from within one.. or a few). The process of becoming ‘fully God’, as best commits us to some sort of adoptionism or emergence over a lifelong bearing of ‘Godness’ by Jesus from the very beginning. That’s all I’m saying. I don’t have a problem with it, just the creeds since early on do…

        • Curtis

          I don’t have a big problem with dissing a creed. Creeds are approximations, at best. I’ve always wondered what the purpose of Jesus’ baptism was if Jesus was already “of one being with the Father” before he was baptized. If Jesus was already fully God, what is the point of baptism?

          I think the existence of a baptism for Jesus clearly indicates that Jesus was, somehow, in some way removed from God, and in the process of being reconnected with God. Otherwise, what is Jesus’ baptism for?

          • Jonnie

            Well said

  • Kyle

    I’m in over my head with the psychology stuff, but might Balthasar’s concept of mission-identity help here?

    • Kyle

      or “mission-consciousness,” rather

  • Jubal DiGriz

    So there’s some interesting implications here. If Jesus could be material but have identical properties as God by virtue of sharing the complete mind of God, then that means that God is wholly mind.

    If God is wholly (holy) mind, that means any creation of God must be a subset of that mind. Therefore the cosmos and God’s mind are interchangeable- or to put another way there is nothing in God’s mind that is not within the cosmos, and there is nothing in the cosmos that is not within God’s mind. And voila, omnipotence and omniscience have just been folded into one property.

    What this also means is that every person is an emanation of God. Actually every bit of matter and energy is, but by having a subset mind people have a much large share of God then non-thinking stuff. This places us on a spectrum with Jesus, not an inseparable division.

    There are other implications- the nature of sin, nature of faith, what salvation means, function of prayer… but I’ll leave that to the professionals.

  • I got nothing.

    • (Not that I got nothing from the post, but I have no response.)

  • Regarding Jesus’ identity as God, what helped me the most was in chapter 5 of N.T. Wright’s “The Challenge of Jesus”, where he explains “Jesus is God” in terms of Jesus’ *vocation*. He’s got a really beautiful paragraph that is almost poetic, really, in how he describes how Jesus “knew” he was God. I think that chapter is my favorite in the whole book, actually, and I go back to it time and time again.

  • Now that we are coming to understand more about the physical aspects of the mind and consciousness, about the particle-like behavior of energy in the brain, about how language and the physiology of the brain are so enmeshed, your theory about “sharing minds” seems to me to be supported by the small amount I know about studies in cognition. Communication affects–or rather, creates–the physical substance of the brain. I wonder what the implications would be, if instead of saying, “The Word became flesh,” we said, “The language of God became a brain?”

  • TimHeebner

    Doesn’t part of this discussion need to bring in the virgin birth?

    Tony says: “Jesus of Nazareth was fully human. He pooped (everybody does!), he had spirals of DNA, and he had gray matter in his skull. He was a material being, and I am a materialist Christian theologian; so far, so good.”

    There’s several angles, the first being, was it really true or just the way the gospel writers chose to emphasize their purpose in writing about Jesus. But let’s assume that it was true. From a metaphysics perspective, how does that change the conversation? Was Jesus fully human? If yes, then was he a special full human, making him distinct from all before and after. And if so, are we able to really answer this question about how he was able to know the mind of God?

  • ME

    What’s the rationale for the non-existence of a soul? I’m not asking to prove a negative, but, I believe at least the Catholics believe in the existence of a soul. Why the confidence in the non-existence of the soul?

    • Curtis

      As we understand more about neurology and biology, the question arises: If the soul exists, then where does it reside? So far, there is no physical evidence of it anywhere. Perhaps the soul resides as some neural map in the brain, like one’s concept of “self”?

      • ME

        I wouldn’t expect there to be any physical evidence. Isn’t the soul that part of us which is not flesh but spirit?

  • Joseph

    I don’t believe that a postmetaphysical approach means that one just renounces the use of all metaphysical concepts and language. That’s not possible. Rather a postmetaphysical approach examines & critiques our presuppositions in our necessary engagement with metaphysics. To say that Jesus had unique access to the mind of God is every bit as metaphysical as saying he shared one substance with the Father. I respect the language & concepts of the Greek fathers to the degree that they wrestle with the paradox of the intersection of humanity & divinity in Jesus & ourselves. It’s one thing to say that Jesus has both a divine & human nature, or that God is three persons & one essence as a way of evoking paradox & mystery. It’s another thing entirely to make these propositional statements of faith.

    I wrestle with the question of Jesus’ theologically dissociated humanity on a regular basis. The tragedy of Chalcedon was that, despite the creedal statements, the Monophysites won. Jesus became an idol of divinity suitable for the Emperial Church. The Antiochian school (so called Nestorians who were not monophysite), was driven into exile. I don’t think we can walk away from the problems or language these old political/theological struggles but we can revisit them with a critical eye.

  • You stated: ”

    So here’s my Christological proposal: Jesus of Nazareth had unique access to the mind of God, so much so that he shared God’s mind; he was one with God. Indeed, he was God.”

    I would have argued a similar point many years ago, but Aron’s questions forces us to go deeper than this. How could Christ have become fully human and experienced as we experienced if he was in any way unique? Hebrews 2:17 has to be thrown out of the Bible unless we realize the deeper implications of the story of Jesus’ divinity . It just doesn’t make sense, not matter how many theological hoops we try to jump through. In my opinion, no one has answered Aron’s question sufficiently, and it is a darn good questions.