Being Human 7 – Conversion and Community

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 you have comments please visit Being Human 7 – Conversion and Community at Jesus Creed.

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