In Washington DC, Church of the Advent has teamed up with The Trinity Forum to offer an exciting series of lectures exploring the synergy between modern science and Christian Faith. We are pleased to share the recent presentation given by psychiatrist Curt Thompson and philosopher James K.A. Smith. Together they discussed the process of Christian discipleship and spiritual formation through the lens of neuroscience.
In this 5-part video series, we started with Curt Thompson in parts 1 and 2. James K.A. Smith's presentation began in part 3, and it concludes here in part 4.
Summary of the second half of Dr. Smith's presentation
Now, what does this have to do with science?
Science to me is a cultural endeavor and constellation of practices that help us be attentive to matter. We need to stop thinking about science as a deposit of findings dropped from the sky. Science is a community that fosters ways for us to be more aware of the materiality of our world, including our embodiment.
Psychiatry, psychology, neuroscience, and cognitive science are cultural practices that help us attend to our embodiment. I think Christians have tons to learn from that, and we should be doing it. Now here’s why:
What if we thought about the bodily basis of holiness? Or the bodily basis of sanctification? By sanctification I mean, “To be conformed to the image of Christ”. What does it mean for our minds to be renewed and transformed? That is not the depositing of immaterial information into mind receptacles that just happen to truck around in bodies. That is a very bad, modern, Cartesian way to think about human beings—that’s not biblical at all.
Well, what is going on then? I think that we should see that God gets ahold of our whole person—as embodied souls (or ensouled bodies)—he meets us in our embodiment and converts our imaginations.
Thomas Aquinas, the medieval philosopher, had this great line, “There’s this interesting thing about the imagination. It lives off of images.” That means that you can’t have imagination if you don’t have senses. Imagination is the province of embodied creatures. Aquinas even thought you weren’t human if you were a soul without a body because you needed the body to make sense of your imagination.
Our embodiment means that we are fundamentally imaginative, aesthetic, desiring creatures. That means that we that we are primarily shaped—as Curt was already saying—more by stories than by dissertations. Our imaginations are shaped by the aesthetic, not the didactic. There’s nothing wrong with didactic—that’s how I pay the bills—but if I am really going to convert your fundamental orientation to the world, I have to capture your imagination.
Imagination is tethered to our embodiment, our physicality. This is why historic Christian worship practices haven’t just been about ideas that you hear, it’s stuff that you smell, it is stuff that you taste, it’s visions and images that you see. There is nothing more aesthetically powerful than the richness and fullness of historic Christianity. It’s a story, it’s a play, it’s a drama.
There is so much for Christians to be interested in neuroscience and cognitive science that would help us attend to the specificity of our embodiment. If you are going to be sanctified by the Spirit, you know what needs to happen? You need to transform your neural maps!
And that happens through being immersed in rhythms, rituals, practices, and liturgies that make a vision and story of the world seep into your consciousness and now govern your whole perception. But here’s the thing—there are competing liturgies that are also shaping your neural maps. And we need accounts of how to prioritize the Christian story as the perceptual framework that governs our imaginative being in the world.
If we appreciate this embodied way of how God has made us, it should transform the way that we think about the dynamics of conversion, initiation, and sanctification.
The final installment in our series is an excerpt from a fascinating conversation between these two scholars about the essence of Sin.