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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