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The Physical Nature of Christian Life: Formation and Flourishing

Warren S. Brown, Brad D. Strawn (with Response by Keith Edwards)


Psychologists Warren Brown and Brad Strawn on the psychology of the Christian life; Keith Edwards responds.

Evelyn and Frank Freed Professor of the Integration of Psychology and Theology, Department of Clinical Psychology, Fuller School of Psychology
Director of the Lee Edward Travis Institute and Professor of Psychology, Fuller Theological Seminary
Professor of Psychology at Rosemead School of Psychology, Biola University
July 3, 2019

Warren S. Brown and Brad D. Strawn on The Physical Nature of Christian Life: Formation and Flourishing

In this paper (as in our book The Physical Nature of Christian Life)1 we consider the impact of body-soul dualism on the church’s understanding of the nature and formation of Christian persons. By way of contrast to dualism, we describe the development, formation, and change of persons—particularly the formation of Christian persons—from the vantage point of human nature as physically embodied and socially embedded.

Neuroscience and Human Nature2

Since the middle of the twentieth century, psychology (arguably the central academic discipline for the study of human nature) has moved in its emphasis from behaviorism (focused exclusively on expressed action) to cognitive psychology (the experimental and theoretical study of the structures of the mind) to cognitive neuroscience and neuropsychology (study of the functions of the brain that undergird basic properties of mind) to what is now social cognitive neuroscience (study of brain processes involved in human social interactions). The latter development is particularly important in its impact on theories of human nature. While cognitive neuroscience dealt with basic properties of mind like perception, motor control, memory, executive function, language and emotion, social cognitive neuroscience has emerged based on the ability to ask research questions regarding brain activity involved in specifically human capacities such as social comprehension, understanding of the intentions and feelings of other persons (i.e., theory of mind), empathy, decision-making, moral regulation of action, virtue, and religious experience. The methodological advance that has opened the door to the study of these critical human capacities has been the development and availability of methods of observing the ongoing brain functioning in awake, normal, intact persons—methods such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and positron emission tomography (PET).

The outgrowth of these advances in social cognitive neuroscience is increased confidence in belief in the fundamental embodiment of human personhood. Any sort of mind-body dualism seems to be robustly denied by modern neuroscience. Although the science is, as yet, incomplete, human mental, emotional, and interpersonal actions and experiences are being shown to emerge from complex patterns of ongoing activity of the nervous system. The devastating effects on cognitive and social capacities resulting from even small areas of damage to the human brain make this conclusion difficult to deny.

This presupposition of embodiment extends also to the body-soul dualism of more traditional forms of theological anthropology. All of the capacities that at one time or another in theological history had been presumed to be the exclusive domain of the soul—that is, rationality, relationality, morality, and religiousness—are now implicated in an extensive neuroscience literature demonstrating their neural substrates and embodied nature. In each case, we find phenomena of brain disorders described in clinical neurology, and research studies involving brain imaging in normally-functioning individuals, that make a strong case that these properties of humanness are not the result of having a non-material soul, but are the outcome of the functioning of a highly complex brain. For example, there exists a strong body of research in neuroscience that supports the idea that religious experiences are outcomes of embodied processes in the sense that there are identifiable patterns of brain and body activity underlying these states and experiences.3

Augustinian-Cartesian Residuals4

Despite recent movements away from body-mind dualism by most neuroscientists, and from body-soul dualism by many philosophers, theologians, and Biblical scholars, there remains an implicit residual of dualism that is difficult to recognize and escape. This residual is constituted by the presupposition that everything important about human nature must be both internal and individual. Within dualism, the inner non-material entity (whether understood as a soul or a mind) is presumed to be that which is most clearly and uniquely human. We must therefore look within individual persons for the roots of all that is characteristically human. Even physicalists, particularly within neuroscience, presume that the brain (rather than the soul or mind) must be the source of all of human nature. Philosopher Daniel Dennett has argued that this merely substitutes brain-body dualism for mind-body dualism.5 In the end, all discussions of human nature focus on that which is resident within (in the soul, mind, or brain) and emanates out of individual persons—humanness is defined by that which is inward and individual. Despite the loosening of allegiance to dualism on many fronts, the residual presupposition of individuality and inwardness has a strong determinative influence on how we imagine human life, including our imaginations regarding the nature and function of the church and the roots of Christian life.

Dualism, Gnosticism and Modern Christianity6

For many centuries, the majority view of human nature, and thus of Christian formation, emerged from a philosophical and theological commitment to body-soul dualism—the view that human beings are a composite of a physical body and a spiritual, non-material soul. Most Christians have presumed that body-soul dualism is a central Christian belief. However, the origins of this view are not in Hebrew-Christian thought, but are found in the philosophy of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato. The Platonic, and thus dualist, view of human nature was elaborated and Christianized in early Church history by St. Augustine, and later asserted most robustly by René Descartes during the Enlightenment. While some believe this view of human nature is supported in the Bible, most modern scholars believe that body-soul dualism is not the view of the Bible. Rather, body-soul dualism has been taken as an a priori premise and read into scripture.

Despite its extra-Biblical origins, dualism has had a strong influence on the church in the form of the heresy of Gnosticism, fought by the early church fathers. The presupposition that the aim of Christian life is the servicing and eternal preservation of an internal, non-material, and hierarchically more important soul, easily leads to the sort of other-worldly orientation and inward focus that undergirds the search for special inner knowledge or spiritual experience that is characteristic of Gnosticism. Versions of this sort of Gnostic spirituality have hung around the church throughout the centuries, and continue to have a strong influence on modern religious life.

Based on a body-soul framework for understanding persons, and the Gnosticism that is fostered by this view, much of the focus of the life of the Christian church has been on the inner and individual experience of each believer as an index of the status of the soul. The private, inner experience of each individual believer has been privileged as the sine quo non of what it means to be a Christian, and Christian flourishing has been understood as an ongoing life of inward experiences. Harold Bloom writes in his book, The American Religion, “…the real American religion is and has always been in fact…Gnosticism. …It is a knowing by and of an uncreated self… and [this] knowledge leads to freedom…from nature, time, history, community, and other selves…”7

An example of the primacy of inwardness and individuality in the modern imagination about Christian life is the belief that the inner life of the soul is of first concern. Christian literature, both ancient and modern, includes a plethora of books aimed at helping Christians focus on and enhance their inner spiritual life. Such books have been particularly popular in recent years. About this genre of Christian literature, Owen Thomas comments,

In the tradition of writing about the Christian life or spirituality, commonly known as ascetical theology, down to the present burgeoning of this literature, a pervasive emphasis and focus has been on the inner or interior life as distinct from the outer, bodily, and communal life. … My thesis…is that this emphasis is mistaken philosophically, theologically, and ethically.8

Thomas believes that this modern Christian emphasis on inwardness poses “one of the greatest paradoxes of Christian history. On the one hand, the biblical tradition seems to emphasize the primacy of the outer—the bodily, speech and action—while, on the other hand, the Christian tradition under the influence of … Augustine and Dionysius, among others, tends to emphasize the inner.”9 Thomas argues that one of the negative outcomes of this view of Christian spirituality is the ethical problem created when the goal of the moral life is the perfection of the souls of individual persons. Moral behavior and Christian virtue become merely a means to an end.

Formation of Christian Persons

However, if body-soul dualism is not necessarily a Christian view of human nature, and if there are reasons both from Biblical scholarship and modern science to abandon this notion, what aspects of Christian and ecclesial life need to be reconsidered? Might Christian life be better understood and more robustly formed if we understood ourselves to be physical beings (embodied) that are deeply nested in formative social networks (embedded)?

To understand Christian formation from the point of view of embodiment, an important place to start is to focus on the mental and social development of children. It is obvious that child development is paced by the maturation of the physical structure of the brain. Children mature mentally and socially as the physical structure of their brains form and become more mature. However, because of the unusual, and to some degree unique, openness and plasticity of the developing human brain, social influences are particularly critical to the development of personhood in all its cognitive, social, and interpersonal manifestations. Development of newborn infants into fully adult persons is strongly influenced by interactions of the child with their physical and social environment. Most influential on the development of human persons are interpersonal interactions, including such interactive modes as imitation, shared attention, attachment, and empathy, as well as the formative nature of language and story.

The dynamics of continuing adult personality and character development are also critical to consider in understanding the potential impact of this view of persons on our understanding of Christian formation. Happily for all of us, it is not only children that are open to change and reformation. Adults are continually changed and transformed (for better or worse) as they experience life, although change is typically slower and less dramatic than that of children. However, as with children, these formative forces in adults are almost exclusively interpersonal. Many of the same formative social processes are at work in adults as in children: imitation, attachments, and life-forming narratives. What is at stake in ongoing adult development is the degree to which wisdom and virtue come to characterize persons.

We view both child and adult development from the point of view of dynamical systems theory. Ultra complex and highly interactive systems—from ant colonies, to biological organisms, to cities—have the capacity to self-organize in response to environmental events, particularly when there is a threat to the survival or flourishing of the system. Such self-organization is not a one-time event, but is an ongoing potential for formation and reformation. Systems are forced into reorganization by a catastrophe—that is, in dynamic systems language, a mismatch between previous patterns of self-organization and the current demands of the environment. Persons are changed and transformed as they experience new and challenging situations in life (continually so for young children, and occasionally so for adults). In the end, what is at stake from the point of view of Christian formation of persons is the degree to which Christian character, wisdom, and virtue come to characterize persons.

Processes of adult human change and reformation are most readily visible in the context of those persons for whom prior development and formation have gone awry, often causing them to seek professional help. Personal transformation in psychotherapy is a particularly rich source to help understand the relational and social processes by which adults can change and be reformed in some measure. Persons often find themselves out of sync with their environment (or the properties of their environment that have become resident in their memories and habits) and are not able to flourish. Group therapy, for example, provides an important context for understanding the power of social interactions in aiding this process of change in ways that are not like what is usually encountered in the life of a church. Within psychotherapy of all kinds, the critical processes that induce transformation and change are related to the quality of interpersonal relationships.

Embodied Christian Formation10

Our view of human nature as physical and embodied—and the implications of this view for the formation of persons—leads us to a different understanding of the life of the church and its role in the transformation of persons. So much of contemporary congregational life and worship is rooted in a distinction between body and soul. However, from the point of view of embodied human life, there are different perspectives on both how individual persons are formed into the likeness of Christ and what sort of church is most transformative. What should churches be like if persons are, in their essential nature, physically embodied and socially embedded? Why do embodied persons need a church body in order to become mature—that is, persons of Christian virtue and wisdom?

Like the dynamic system of an ant colony or a family, humans are complex systems that can self-regulate in order to respond to internal and external stressors. We learn ways of being in the world based on our developmental histories, always striving for some equilibrium. However, it is catastrophe (a mismatch between the development of our selves and our current environment) that opens the possibility of re-formation and growth. All too frequently, however, we resist change and struggle mightily to stay the same.

So what makes us most open to the possibility of growth, and what encourages the Christian quality of growth? To answer this question, we suggest a focus on communal congregational (interpersonal) processes such as attachment, imitation, and shared narrative, but now in the context of persons who are members of a congregation. Strong interpersonal relations, mentors and role models, and a common understanding of the story we are trying to live together open persons to change and signal the critical direction. Understood this way, processes of change and formation of embodied persons are largely social and relational. Thus, group size and group-time are critical issues to consider in the hope for a transformative congregational life.

And in the end, what does embodied spiritual flourishing look like? It is our contention that when humans are viewed in dualistic and autonomous ways, spiritual flourishing leans strongly toward being understood as a kind of internal felt experience. From our perspective, too many of our congregants measure their spiritual health based on a feeling they have about the internal state of their soul. However, if humans are in fact bodies, then we must understand spiritual flourishing as a bodily and social state. Spiritual health is not an inward feeling state but an outward evidence of grace. We are not advocating “saved by works,” but rather a sense that “They will know we are Christians by our love” for which the “fruits of the spirit” give evidence. It is not primarily what we think or believe that shapes and forms us. Rather, it is the embodied practices that we engage in within our communities that will shape and form us into the image and likeness of Christ.

Embodied Formation and the Life of the Church11

The same processes that are at work within individuals to foster growth and formation are also at play in the formation of the body that is the church. First, just like an ant colony, there must be sufficient communication between individuals for the church to cohere as a genuine body (a dynamical system). This means there must be high quality and frequent interactions between individuals. For a church to truly become the body of Christ, and not just a loose association of the independently spiritual, there needs to form between congregants a sense of secure attachment to one another that buffers the anxiety of change and transformation. Such relationships also foster the transformative processes of reciprocal imitation and living together into shared story.

Second, a healthy church body must be flexible in its transactional patterns (i.e., organizational structures, worship styles, etc.) to be able to adapt (re-form) when faced with catastrophe. For example, significant leadership needs to be allowed to emerge organically as the congregation self-organizes and reorganizes to meet new challenges. Rather than recognizing only a rigid hierarchy of mostly clergy leadership, churches that become genuine bodies (complex dynamic systems) will find leaders emerging. There is no “one-size-fits-all” leadership model for dynamic systems.

Third, these processes must function to allow the church to face into catastrophes in growth-inducing ways. It is not likely that life in the Kingdom of God will become static. “Church growth” should have a much deeper meaning than an increase in the number of persons showing up for worship services.

In order to develop attachments and the opportunities to imitate one another (as all attempt to imitate Christ), attention must be given to issues of church size and group size.12 Bigger churches tend to foster autonomous and individual spirituality that focuses on inward “experiences” that serve to disembody both the church and the individuals attending. Body life disappears in a Gnostic focus on inward, private, individual experiences. For relationships in the church to become secure and for imitation to happen, individuals need numerous and varied opportunities to connect and share life together in small groupings: worshiping, playing, and serving. Attending one Sunday morning church service a week, sitting in isolated inwardness despite being surrounded by a large group of others, does not transform persons or foster the emergence of the church as a genuine body of Christ.

Keith J. Edwards in Response: The Interior Life of the Embodied Soul

Science is limited to answering questions that can be asked within a particular world view; you cannot test the world view itself. … Statements such as “body and soul are one” (the monist position) or “the soul does not really exist” (the materialist position) are not, in our view, scientifically testable statements. They are the same order as the statement, “God exists.”13

In Warren Brown and Brad Strawn’s essay “The Physical Nature of the Christian Life: Formation and Flourishing,”14 (above) they argue that both neuroscience and the Bible support the conclusion that we are not physically embodied spiritual creatures with an eternal soul. They emphasize the physical, embodied, relational nature of human development and are critical of inwardly-focused spiritual practices. In my response, I indicate my general agreement with the authors that embodiment has significant implications for understanding the Christian life and that human nature is fundamentally relational and social. I disagree with the authors’ criticism of inwardly focused spiritual practices and their dismissal of the interior life of the person.

Christianity has always focused on the interior life of the believer as the primary context for the development of personal character and one’s capacity for moral choice and action. The term “soul” has meaning that captures both the embodied depth and spiritually transcendent nature of one’s interior life. Individuals are “living souls.” Whatever this term “soul” means, ontologically, it does communicate the spiritual significance of an individual life. God created individuals. Individuals sin and are morally responsible to God. Jesus died for individual sinners and it is individuals who are born again by the Spirit. The goal of spiritual formation (sanctification) is the development of the individual as a moral agent capable of compassionate emotion, belief, and behavior. Spiritual transformation refers to a process of change within an individual. Spiritual formation is the process of individuals growing in their capacity for pro-social action (love) within the context of their relationships and culture. I will argue that there is a sound neuroscientific basis for including the internal life of the individual believer in a comprehensive model of a physically embodied and socially embedded spirituality.

Belief in an Immaterial Soul and Spiritual Causality are Faith Commitments

Brown and Strawn argue that we do not consist of any immaterial, spiritual, causal essence (soul) which possesses the capacity to influence the functioning of our physical body-brain system. Their arguments that neuroscience makes belief in immaterial agency (soul) untenable implicate a larger issue in the on-going integration of Christian belief and the empirical findings of practicing scientists. The larger issue is the Christian belief in interactive, causally efficacious, spiritual agents and an existentially knowable, relational God. Even if the Bible can be interpreted to say that we are only physical creatures, scripture clearly describes human existence within a dualist cosmology—immaterial and material (God is a Spirit)—in which immaterial agent-causation is an article of faith.

Christians believe the Bible to be an historical record of spiritual-physical interaction/causation between our Creator God, the spiritual world, and embodied persons in a material world. Even if we accept that the Bible does teach that we are nothing but physical creatures (soul-less), the Bible does teach that Jesus was a physically embodied and culturally embedded spiritual being. The Bible also teaches that the Holy Spirit continually interacts with and influences the experience of embodied believers. If neuroscience makes belief in spiritual (immaterial) agent-causation untenable, what are the implications for the nature of Divine intervention and the ministry of the Holy Spirit?

Materialists view belief in God and all aspects of spiritual-material causation described in the Biblical record as mythology and dismiss Christian spiritual agent-causation beliefs as “spooky superstition.” Social cognitive neuroscientist have studied a variety of embodied religious or spiritual phenomena and describe them as “physical processes, nothing more.” If neuroscience is authoritative in making the belief in an immaterial, causally efficacious soul untenable, doesn’t it also make any belief in any spiritual causation problematic. Ultimately, all views regarding the validity of spiritual-material causation and the existence of embodied souls are faith commitments derived from differing worldviews.

Embodiment Matters

The challenge for those of us who believe we are embodied souls is to describe human, embodied functioning in a way that is consistent with common sense and systematic observations, and, at the same time maintains the spiritual significance of the embodied, embedded, socially interdependent individual. Brown and Strawn provided a detailed summary of the research on the development and functioning of the human body-brain system. We begin life totally dependent on the care of others for the developmental maturation of our capacities to function as socially interdependent individuals. Human, embodied maturation is a process of learning to be an increasingly adaptable, morally virtuous, and spiritually conscious embodied soul. As Brown and Strawn demonstrate, early failure of infant care-taking, neurological disease or physical brain damage can greatly limit or impair the individual’s capacity to function mentally and spiritually. If Brown and Strawn weren’t so assertive in their denial of the soul, their book could just as well be titled, The Physical Nature of the Embodied Soul.

I agree with Brown and Strawn that practical theologies and lay-person accounts of embodied human functioning often overestimate the causal, agent-powers of the embodied soul to activate or change emotions, thoughts or behaviors. Religious accounts of personal responsibility and free-will often claim “extravagant metaphysical powers” for the soul. The history of how some religious persons and systems have “explained” mental illness as spiritual problems (personal sin) over the ages demonstrates how primitive and damaging such beliefs can be. Explanations of personal agency (responsibility) that incorporate spiritual entities are vulnerable to superstitious explanations that can be psychologically, culturally, and spiritually harmful.

Subtle forms of superstitious thinking about the soul as the source of autonomous moral agency continue to influence some contemporary religious teachings about emotional problems and mental illness. Christians suffering from mental illness or emotional distress are reluctant to take medication or seek psychological counseling for their conditions. They have been taught that their problems are spiritually caused (sin) and, thus, require spiritual solutions. Such teachings are, as Brown and Strawn observe, a modern form of Gnosticism that disregards the functioning of the material body-brain system.

We live in a physical and social world. As embodied souls, the physical character of the body-brain system matters for our understanding human development, psychological functioning, and behavioral actions. Jesus’ life and death demonstrates that physical embodiment of a spiritual being has emotional, mental and behavioral consequences. Even the embodied, sinless Son of God experienced temptation and learned from suffering (see Hebrews 4-5). He went through a developmental period where he learned to function in close relationships in a specific culture (Luke 2). As a baby he had to be protected from Herod by his parents, who moved to keep him safe. In his crucifixion, he experienced pain and suffering, physical deterioration, and death (the loss of embodied consciousness).

In their book, Brown and Strawn provide an excellent summary of the findings of developmental social neuroscience. They also provide an overview of how the organized church could be structured to facilitate the maturation of embodied individuals and enhance the effectiveness of the body of Christ. But do we need to give up our belief in the soul to endorse a model of human functioning and transformation that is truly “physically embodied and culturally embedded?” Ian McGilchrist, author of The Master and His Emmisary, made this observation:

Everything that goes through human experience has its brain correlates, but of course it doesn’t mean that that’s all there is to it. So, is the concept of the soul a redundant idea now that science has made us see it as a superstition, or are we actually turning our backs on something very important, simply because we can’t satisfy demands for precision and proof; and in fact are we making a category mistake?15

In other words, is the denial of the existence of the soul an example of “throwing the baby out with the bath water?” I believe it is. McGilchrist goes on to argue that the concept of the soul has transcendent significance and that something spiritually important is lost when we dismiss it from our vocabulary. Embodiment matters a great deal for how we understand human functioning. The concept of the soul matters for our understanding of our spiritual identity and significance to God.

Does Anyone Really Believe What Brown and Strawn Say They Do?

While the main focus of Brown and Strawn’s paper and book is a dismissal of the concept of an immaterial soul, they are equally dismissive of any model of the person that includes any entity of internal causation such as the self, the mind, or even the brain! They state that any idea of any internal, causally efficacious entity is a form of “implicit residual of dualism” that we must “recognize and escape.” Here is an extended quote from their paper:

This residual is constituted by the presupposition that everything important about human nature must be both internal and individual. Within dualism, the inner non-material entity (whether understood as a soul or a mind) is presumed to be that which is most clearly and uniquely human. We must therefore look within individual persons for the roots of all that is characteristically human. Even physicalists, particularly within neuroscience, presume that the brain (rather than the soul or mind) must be the source of all of human nature. Philosopher Daniel Dennett has argued that this merely substitutes brain-body dualism for mind-body dualism. In the end, all discussions of human nature focus on that which is resident within (in the soul, mind, or brain) and emanates out of individual persons—humanness is defined by that which is inward and individual. Despite the loosening of allegiance to dualism on many fronts, the residual presupposition of individuality and inwardness has a strong determinative influence on how we imagine human life, including our imaginations regarding the nature and function of the church and the roots of Christian life.16 [Emphasis added]

It is challenging to attempt a nuanced response to the authors’ position since the form of their critique is so polarized. I’ve italicized some of the words that strike me as polarizing and problematic. They appear to be dismissing any form of spirituality that is inwardly focused and individual. It is in Brown and Strawn’s dismissal of any internal agency (Self) and the internal life of the person with which I most strongly disagree. I want to argue that the internal life of the Self matters and it is in the experience of one’s internal life (sensations-emotions-perceptions-impulses) that the individual is most “soulish.” In the remainder of my comments, I am purposely shifting the language away from the “soul” to that of the “Self.” I do this not to equate the two but I want to use a concept of identity that does not raise metaphysical concerns. I want to make the case that there is a neurologically sound psychology of the person that gives an important role to the internal life of the Self.

There has been an on-going debate within psychology on how important the interior life of the person is to understanding human functioning. Skinner’s behaviorism is on one extreme where the interior life was of no interest. On the other extreme, Freudian psychoanalytic models were primarily focused on the internal world of intrapsychic processes and structures. The current version of the internal versus external debate has centered on the concept of the Self. Some authors view the Self as an “illusion” while others see it as an important concept for understanding human experience. I am endorsing the position that the Self is an important psychological reality. There are a number of psychologists, philosophers, and neuroscientists who hold this position.

The Self is ontologically relational and social. Our body-brain system’s essential function is to engage with and adapt to opportunities and challenges of the external environment. Our body-brain system is innately social. We are designed for social engagement and cooperation. I do not know of any psychologist that discounts the importance of the external world of culture and relationships and solely focuses on the internal life of the person. Nor do I know of any sound biblical Christian theology that does this. Brown and Stawn’s characterizations of anyone who believes in the soul (or an internal causal agent) are so extreme as to seem like “straw men” that can easily be toppled by an elementary understanding of developmental psychology and neuroscience.

Inwardness is Not the Problem, the Interior Life of the Person Matters

The authors claim that belief in the soul fosters spiritual practices that are “solely” focused on the inward life of the individual to the exclusion of concern for the believer’s behavior in relationship to other believers and the culture. Even if you believe that we are embodied souls, I think you would agree that the New Testament clearly teaches that a self-preoccupied and inward focus on subjective experience without concern for virtuous action in relationship with others and the culture is not God’s intention for our lives. I think that most believers today would agree that we are relational creatures created by God to be in relationship with one another and with Him. We were created as individuals to live in community.

Relationality, interpersonal virtue, and social concern are clearly central teachings of the New Testament. If the practices in the church have failed to maintain the centrality of love in our spiritual and practical theology, then the problem isn’t the belief in the soul but inadequate exegesis and praxis. Trying to dismiss the concept of soul through “guilt by association” with clearly un-Biblical practices (Gnosticism) seems to throw the baby out with the bath water. A central issue in the author’s argument is the nature of the “baby,” that is, the interior life of the person. And it is in this regard, the nature of human interior life and its relevance for spirituality, that I substantially disagree with the authors. Both biblically and psychologically, each of us is a Self-in-relationship where the Self we are has a rich interior life that is both affected by and affects our external world.

The Inner Life of the Embodied Self

Affect is the most fundamental element and background field of the mind and brain of humankind. Like the physical elements of gravity, wind, and lightning, emotion has force and direction.—David Garfield17

Emotions are fundamental powers of the human mind that play a role in all consciousness. The self is not just a product of the cortex.—Jaak Panksepp

The model of the Self that I find helpful in approaching consciousness and spirituality is that of an apprentice. The human infant is born an apprentice Self with innate capacities for subjectivity and agency. Affective neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp cites research that suggests infants have innate emotional systems that generate both primary emotions and body activation. Different emotions generate differential subjective feeling states and differential action tendencies that embody a feeling of intention in action. The basic emotional tools for feeling and living are not created by lived experience. They become associated and integrated with experience and thoughts through various learning and memory processes. The structure of the innate emotional systems gives an overall coherence to the bodily activation (agency) and corresponding feeling states (subjectivity) that Panksepp calls the core SELF.

Antonio Damasio, in his recent book, Self Comes to Mind, declares,

There is a self, but it is not a thing, it is a process. This process is internal and it constitutes the inner sense of being a Self, an ‘ I ‘. … Few things about our biology are as seemingly trivial as this commodity known as consciousness, the phenomenal ability that consists of having a mind equipped with an owner, a protagonist for one’s existence, a Self, inspecting the world inside and around, an agent seemingly ready for action.18

In regard to the existence of consciousness, Damasio says, “I privilege the self.”

A British developmental researcher, Colwyn Trevarthan, has made the following claim based on his research involving the systematic observation of infants:

Our evidence shows that the baby has a well-integrated self at birth, an effective self. But it has to work out what to do with this motivated life it has, and one of the first things to learn is the meaning of the world: to learn the meaning of other older persons’ actions.19

Antonio Damasio makes several observations about emotions and the Self that parallel Panksepp’s view. He also identifies an innate system within which emotions automatically provide organisms with survival-oriented behaviors. Virtually all human actions, both physical and mental, are accompanied by emotions. While learning and culture alter the expression of emotions and give emotions new meanings, emotions are biologically determined processes, depending on innately determined body-brain systems. Development and culture shape the inducers of a given emotions, they shape some aspects of the expression of emotion, and they shape the cognition and behavior which follows the activation of emotion. But it is the subjective experience of bodily arousal and emotion that dominates the internal life of the Self from birth. As the infant’s cognitive capacities mature, this rich internal world of subjectivity becomes experientially associated with the images and symbols of culture. The maturing Self learns to use symbols and language to connect internal subjectivity to the external world, and, eventually, to the transcendent, spiritual realm in which God dwells.

Important Self-skills

Embodied Awareness

The body-brain can be viewed as consisting of three interacting subsystems: the somatic, the emotional, and the conceptual. In order for individuals to function as integrated wholes we need to be able to feel and experience a balanced flow of communication between all three systems. Inwardly focused spiritual practices such as mindfulness meditation, contemplation and centering prayer can enhance embodied self-awareness. In the systematic use of such practices, the individual can develop balanced flow of energy between the three systems working to enhance self-integration and consciousness.

Emotion Regulation

The awareness of and ability to process emotional states is one of the linchpins both of effective self-development and of living a vital, resilient life. The primary function of attachment relationships in early childhood is to develop the infant’s capacity for emotional self-regulation. The child quickly internalizes emotion-regulation capacities and the related self-awareness skills. self-awareness and self-constraint allows the developing individual to tame and befriend or emotions so that he or she may be guided by them.

Through embodied self-awareness, we can tune into our emotional undercurrent before it becomes an out-of-control emotion. As people learn to master their emotions, they can begin to harness the underlying impulses to effective action. For example, underneath the emotions of rage and anger are the impulses of assertion. Healthy assertion is about protecting ourselves and those who are close to us. The tools that allow us to develop emotion-regulation skills are the twin sisters of internally focused attention and awareness.

Awareness and Attention

Awareness is conscious monitoring of the internal and external environment and attention is the “process of focusing conscious awareness.” Whatever we attend to increases our awareness of that thing. Attention is a central self-process that can enhance self-awareness and self-transformation.

In his book, Anatomy of the Soul, Curt Thompson makes the statement that, “attention is the ignition of the mind.” I would propose that attention is the “key” and awareness is the ignition. Thomas notes that paying attention is a skill:

It is one thing to pay attention to something. It is quite another to pay attention to what we’re paying attention to, especially the activity of the mind itself. It requires a deeper activation of the mind to select and attend to those things that we are not practiced at attending to, especially the very activity of the mind itself.20

He goes on to describe a patient who began therapy anxiously focused on her dad’s behavior toward her. She had been focusing her attention on something outside of her own mind. Therapy involved her increasingly directing her attention to what she was sensing within herself—to her own feelings, physical sensations, and thoughts. This inward focus increased her self-awareness which then led to decreases in anxiety and acting out behavior. Guided attention is a central self-process in a number of religious and spiritual meditation practices.

Attention and awareness are highly related dynamics of the Self. Inward spiritual practices that focus our attention can increase our awareness. Becoming aware of something can focus our attention. Here’s what William James, the father of modern psychology, had to say about skillful attention:

And the faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention over and over again is the very root of judgment, character, and will. No one is compos sui [master of one’s self] if he have it not. An education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence.21

Attention and awareness are two active mental processes the Self uses to facilitate growth mentally, behaviorally, and spiritually. Attention and awareness are two important components of spiritual practices across a number of the world religions. Sustained, focused attention to internal self-experience has been shown to facilitate neurological changes. There are also many instances where sensitivity to psychological, somatic, and environmental cues is crucial to the operation of healthy regulatory processes including choice and restraint.

Inwardly-Focused Attention and Awareness are Beneficial

When I attend to my bodily sensations, feelings, and thoughts in the present moment, it is my internal life that is center stage. I am inwardly focused. We can all immediately turn our attention to our internal experience. Religious practices like prayer and meditation involve an inward focus. Contemplative practices such as centering prayer also facilitate the process of an inward focus. Such practices promote self-regulation, more accurate perception, and more response flexibility in stressful situations. These internal practices have very beneficial behavioral and relational consequences.

Mindfulness meditation is one form of guided attention that has been shown to be of substantial benefit to personal well-being. Mindfulness is an internal process of paying attention to one’s conscious awareness in the present moment without judgment.

The regular practice of focusing one’s attention on present, moment-by-moment experience with an accepting attitude has profound personal benefits. Directing one’s attention to one’s internal life with curiosity and acceptance enhances one’s attunement to one’s experiential Self. This has two benefits. The first benefit is that practice in mindful attention enhances our capacity for present-moment awareness of both our internal state and external cues. Such awareness is the basis for more effective self-regulation as well as constructive responding to others and to situations. The second benefit is that we can, over time, make the implicit nature of our experiential selves more explicit. We can increase our degree of self-knowledge and self-understanding.

To navigate a relationship skillfully, the individual must develop self-skills that enable mood-regulation, self-soothing, response-flexibility, empathy and attentiveness. The neural mechanisms that enable such aptitudes cannot be willed at a moment’s notice, but hundreds of studies suggest that they can be strengthened through the practice of mindful, experiential, inward self-focus. A practice of focusing one’s awareness on internal experience increases the capacity for self-regulation.

A host of inwardly focused practices have been developed in the burgeoning area of Positive Psychology where the goal is to foster virtue and character growth. One of the most well-known and widely researched is gratitude meditation, developed and popularized by Robert Emmons, a social psychologist on the faculty at UC-Davis who is a professing Christian.

A number of inwardly-focused spiritual practices have been developed over the centuries that foster a Self-God relationship. Spiritual meditation, scripture reading, and prayer are some specific examples. It is often in this internal space that the Christian experiences intimate encounters with God. So I am confused by Brown and Strawn’s dismissal of an inward focus on the Self when it is clear that Self-Self and Self-God relationships involve such a focus. It is true that such practices can become the sole focus of one’s spiritual practices to the exclusion of developing virtuous character through interpersonal and social relationships. But such abuse is not a basis for saying an inward focus is unwarranted.

When an Inward Focus May Become Problematic

I can think of two conditions under which one’s inward spirituality can become dysfunctional. The first is when spirituality becomes a search for a subjective, spiritual high. In these cases, the spiritual experience is pursued as an end in itself.

Experiences identified as spiritual have a strong positive subjective quality. They are often identified as moments of transcendence and deep personal meaning. An individual can experience these moments of transcendence during religious practices such as prayer, meditation, and worship services. Moments of spiritual transcendence can also be experienced in contemplating works of art, music, or nature.

It is challenging to comment on the potential dysfunction of such experience because we know that such experiences can produce personal and interpersonal benefits. It is when such experiences are pursued for the emotional high they produce that they can lose their power to enhance the individual’s capacity for virtuous action in their spiritual communities.

A second condition under which inward spirituality may become dysfunctional is when a person retreats from difficult life situations to the safety of the internal life. Again, it is challenging to comment on the potential dysfunction of these types of experiences. Individuals experiencing difficult physical challenges such as terminal cancer often find inward experiences of spiritual contemplation to be a resource for coping with their physical challenges. The same is true for individuals experiencing difficult emotional or relationship challenges. Inwardly focused practices can strengthen the person’s ability to cope.

However, inward spirituality can become dysfunctional when the individual uses these internal spiritual experiences to avoid reaching out to others and sharing his or her difficult experiences in community. Strong feelings of vulnerability and shame can inhibit individuals from reaching out to others for understanding and support.

From my point of view, the individual’s internal life of spiritual contemplation is an important resource for spiritual growth and development. It has a place in a Biblical framework of spirituality that includes relationships and community. I believe it is a mistake to dismiss inward spirituality because it can be misused or become dysfunctional.

Will an Inward Focus Undermine Social Concern?

A post by Jill Suttie, Psy.D., from the Great Good Science Center addresses this very issue in regard to mindfulness meditation.22 Suttie expresses some initial reluctance to embrace the practice. She asks, “Will mindfulness disengage me from world problems? Does it make one inward and unconcerned for others?” She also notes that others might ask, “Isn’t it a cop-out to focus inward when there are so many problems in the world that need attention?” Or, “Won’t mindfulness make me tune out the suffering of others?” She goes on to point out, however, that, “actually, the research on mindfulness shows that as we tune more into ourselves, we become more able to tune into other people.” In other words, the inward practice of meditation makes individuals more likely to take compassionate action.

There is less research on inwardly focused spiritual practices but what little there is suggests that it is also beneficial in supporting and empowering an individual’s expression of social concern.

Embodiment Matters and Belief in the Soul is Inevitable

As I indicated above, I value the information and principles about human functioning identified by Brown and Strawn in their book and essay. The important message they bring is that embodiment and cultural embeddedness matters in the Christian life. They provide a number of thoughtful and specific suggestions for a spiritually transformational ecclesiology.

I do not agree, however, with their argument that belief in the soul has fostered an unhealthy, inward focus on internal subjectivity. I would argue that the causal sequence is actually the other way around. I would argue that one’s subjective (phenomenological) self-experience of a robust, internal, individual, emotional, conceptual life fosters the belief in the soul.

I don’t agree with the authors that we need to abandon belief in the soul to incorporate their message into our practical theologies and ecclesiology. All Christians, soul-full or soul-less, need to deal more effectively with the implications of the embodied-embedded reality of the physical life for spiritual formation. My concern is that Brown and Strawn’s direct assault on the soul will diminish the impact their book might have on spiritual practices. The more complex challenge I believe we face is to recognize and moderate the tendency of the human mind toward superstitious thinking about immaterial causal agency. This is the real challenge of Gnosticism.

About the Authors

References