Extended Christian Life and the Church

Brad D. Strawn and
Warren S. Brown and

Question: “What does a prosthetic limb, a continuous glucose monitor, and a cell phone all have in common?”

Answer: “They all extend human capacities beyond their normal limitations.”

An artificial limb enhances an amputee’s motility. A continuous glucose monitor monitors glucose levels in real time, allowing the wearer to make real-time, insulin-adjusting decisions acting like an external pancreas. And a smartphone provides access to information one could never know, remember, or consolidate with a few touches of the screen (or if you prefer, voice-to-text technology), as well as near-continuous access to a wide array of social interactions at a distance.

With the proliferation of wearable medical devices (think pacemakers, etc.) and the growing dependence of humans on various forms of technology, cognitive psychologists and philosophers of mind are asking: As the interfaces between technology and the human body become more fluid and transparent, where does a person’s body end and technology (non-body) really begin? Should we begin to consider our biology, motor actions, and thinking—perhaps even our personhood—as something that extends beyond our physical bodies?”

These amazing changes are leading some in the faith community to ask: What if any of this has to do with Christian life and religious community? This is the central question we take up in Enhancing Christian Life: How Extended Cognition Augments Religious Community (InterVarsity Press, 2020). It is our attempt to engage in integrative, interdisciplinary consideration of the problem of technology, personhood, and Christian life within theology, ecclesiology, and spiritual formation, influenced heavily by our primary disciplines of clinical, cognitive, and neuropsychology, as well as philosophy of mind. While some authors, both in and outside of Christendom, fear advances in humanity-extending technology and what it means for our religious lives, we see exciting possibilities for understanding how to better enhance one’s Christian life, literally supersizing it.

Embodied and Extended Cognition

All these changes and their mind-boggling possibilities come together in two central themes of recent development in cognitive psychology: embodied and extended cognition. Embodied cognition is an alternative to a perspective held for a long time in understanding the mind, namely, that humans think like computers. The computer model of cognition has suggested that the body is simply an input mechanism, whereas the real “thinking” goes on abstractly inside the “mind” like computer information processing. After the mind processes ideas, concepts, and experiences, it pumps that information back out through the body like a computer might send information to a screen or printer. But philosophy of mind and a growing experimental literature are demonstrating that humans think as bodies, not separate from them. The reality of our bodies impacts the way we process information and “think” our way through the world. Different bodies, and the experiences we have in those bodies, create persons in unique and distinctive ways. What is more, even when we are for the moment not doing anything, our thoughts are formed by simulations of bodily actions.

The second area of development is extended cognition. Not only do we think as bodies, but this thinking can also be extended beyond our bodies to include tools, artifacts, and even other humans. For example, consider problem-solving and memory. The brain is not very good at holding in mind and managing large amounts of data. Computers are very good at this. So, we humans extend our normal human limitations by interacting with computers. There are a multitude of tasks we simply cannot do without them. We’ve become so linked to our computers for all sorts of processes that cognitive philosopher Andy Clark suggests that when our computer crashes it is like having a small stroke. We lose not only our access to important information, but considerably diminish our productivity. Clark argues that the capacity to extend cognitive processes beyond the body is characteristic of humankind. He goes so far as to call humans “Natural-Born Cyborgs.”

There are myriad ways in which humans have become deeply coupled with artifacts that extend our thinking. But it is not just artifacts that are the object of cognitive extensions. The networks of our thinking can also incorporate other persons, interacting with them in a manner that forms a joint cognitive processing system. This is particularly important in child development. Human babies are born with much brain development occurring after birth. This means that the other persons and the artifacts that children interface with have a major impact on brain organization and become part of what allows the child to become a person. We don’t just think with our own bodies, even as coupled to artifacts; we also think with other bodies in interpersonal versions of extended cognition.

Group brainstorming and problem-solving is an example of how we think with others in ways that enhance our limited individual capacities. The solution is seldom what any one individual would have been able to come up with alone. Furthermore, some of human thought and problem-solving throughout the centuries gets compiled in what has become called “mental institutions”—that is, the collected wisdom of a community as it relates to a particular area of life, such as the law or cuisine or construction or even theology. No lawyer can know all there is to know of the law, but over time it has become collected in case studies, reports, and precedents, most of which lawyers can readily find, extending their legal capacities by the mental institutions that have become part of the field.

Supersizing Christian Life

Perhaps you can sense where we are headed with all this. Our concern is that especially in Western evangelicalism, Christianity has become an individualistic, private, and inward issue of the heart, disassociated from our bodily actions and from communities of believers. Many western evangelicals conceptualize spiritual practices as something private that one does alone in order to feel more religious or spiritual (e.g., close to God). But if embodied and extended cognitions are true, it implies that these solo forms of Christian spiritual life are shallow, puny, not all they could be. We argue that we will grow beyond our normal human limitations even religiously by more purposefully recognizing our embodiment (the outward action-implications of our religiousness) and engaging in the extension of Christian life into the lives of other Christians in the body of Christ.

Embodiment suggests that how we worship and practice our faith matters. If we think as bodies then our worship, rituals, and practices should be purposefully and consciously embodied. Instead of thinking we can feel our way toward closeness with God or holiness in some private, inner arena, we should practice our way toward it. We can behave ourselves toward new ways of thinking and feeling. By engaging in practices that cultivate the fruits of the Spirit we may become persons of character and virtue in deeper and more profound ways. Just as a pianist doesn’t become a virtuoso by sitting around thinking about playing, we as followers of Christ can’t just fill our heads with abstract ideas of God and the Christian life, but we must get out and practice our Christian “music.”

But bodies are always in relationship with other bodies, so our spiritual life can be augmented and enhanced as we choose to extend our lives into the lives of other Christians. This is our central argument for the value of, and need for, Christian community. Individual spirituality is puny and limited, but when we extend our lives into others, we literally supersize our Christian lives. By engaging with others in the faith, our religious life is expanded and enriched, becoming deeper and more robust. Just like group problem-solving or apprenticeship, by being cognitively coupled into the minds and hearts of other believers, and as we unconsciously imitate one another, we each exceed our spiritual capacities as individuals to become Christ-like. The whole of us together becomes greater than the sum of our individualist parts.

Furthermore, the life of a church allows us to extend our selves in the mental institutions of the church universal. Just like the law, the church contains narrative scripts that include theology, rituals, practices, and oral traditions of how Christians are to live. To try to orchestrate one’s Christian life in solo ways would be akin to trying to sail around the world alone and without the benefit of centuries of map development—perhaps someone has done it, but most likely it would end in disaster. Rather, when we extend ourselves into the institutions of the church, what we think of as Christian “mental wikis,” we become more like a ship that depends on centuries of knowledge of navigation, and maps drawn by countless others, as well as the contributions of numerous sailors operating navigational equipment, to sail a correct path.

Extension and the Reign of God

It is important to remember that, although humans are wired to extend and the outcome of the extension is in some way enhancing, the outcome may not be the enhancement of a good end. There may be ways in which extending ourselves into certain forms of technology that result in negative outcomes (think of the incivility we see in social media, even among believers), or consider being socially extended into a crime family. While we are always embodied and always extended, we have the capacity to decide where we will choose to extend our lives. We urge believers to consciously extend themselves into a Christian community that embodies the narrative of the kingdom of God. While this narrative is complex and multilayered, it certainly includes bodies caring for other bodies, especially the poor and oppressed. Sadly, not all Christian communities embody this narrative. Today, too many evangelicals have embodied and extended into “mental wikis” of Christian nationalism or capitalism, or implicit white supremacy. But when we do become coupled with, that is extended into, a community that expresses the kingdom narrative, we begin to deepen and enrich our collective Christian life—that is, we supersize it—for the sake of the world.

Posted Apr 21, 2021