Missiological Implications of a Holistic Anthropology

Michael Rynkiewich

Recent advances in neuroscience provide a critique of the modern dualist view of reality. Some neuroscientists are now telling us that Descartes got it wrong (cf. A. Damasio, Descartes’ Error [Putnam, 1984]), that emotion is as important to decision making as rationality (cf. J. LeDoux, The Emotional Brain [Simon & Schuster, 1996]), and that thinking, feeling, and acting involve at least the whole body, and, maybe even the whole community (cf. D. Seigal, The Developing Mind [Guilford, 1999]). What is emerging from neuroscience is an understanding of a layered cybernetic feedback system between the neurons and the rest of the body, between the brain and the mind, and even between the individual, the community, and the environment.

Let us sketch out some discoveries in neuroscience, then suggest a retro-theology of mission, and ask what the implications are for mission policymakers today. The implications for mission may give us a new paradigm that reflects an old missio Dei.

What Neuroscience Is Telling Us

At the most basic level, neurons and synapses are all we can see in a biological organism. However, these give rise to a biological system that not only senses, organizes, and responds to the world out there, but also, simultaneously imagines a self who is sensing, organizing, and responding. This view provides no warrant for the usual dualities: body/soul, brain/mind, material/spiritual. Perhaps holism, rather than monism, is a better way to conceive this alternative to dualism. The brain thinks. But, in doing so the brain is complexly connected to the rest of the body, so that senses, emotions, and values are an integral part of the brain’s cognitive processing.

This complexity is only now being mapped. For example, the body has pathways for perception, emotion, cognition, and response. LeDoux has shown that our sense perceptions of danger come to the amygdala through two different loops: one through the thalamus and the other through the visual cortex (see S. Johnson, “The Brain and Emotions,” Discover [March 2003] 33-39). Synapses traveling the second loop carry more information, and, therefore, take longer to make the trip. The importance of the first loop is that people can respond in a few thousandths of a second. Memories of danger are stored in both loops, but emotion intensifies memory in the first loop. This is good for a quick response, but bad if it leads the body to overreact, a condition called post-traumatic stress syndrome. The problem is that “the brain seems to be wired to prevent the deliberate overriding of fear responses” (38). This does not imply that we are slaves to our emotions; however, it does imply that our emotions are not completely under the control of our rationality despite what modernists proclaim.

How are these loops formed? Does it work the same in every culture and generation? S. Reyna has recently sketched a way of connecting synapses with culture, linking neuroscience with hermeneutics (Connections: Brain, Mind, and Culture in a Social Anthropology [Routledge, 2002]). Neurons and synapses appear to be working with current sensory impressions, and these are connected with short- and long-term memory. This system is shaped by experience, including learning language and culture. Thus, the overall system involves layers of interpretative frames that are connected to cultural schema, and all this forms our worldview. Indeed, a “neurohermeneutic system works through an interpretative hierarchy utilizing cultural memories of past realities to represent present realities in ways that form desires about future realities” (114).

What neuroscience is discovering is an integrated organism whose functions are multiple, interrelated, and interdependent. One result is that there is no such thing as a “rational” decision. We have not only an organism relating to something else in the environment, but also a brain that is aware that the organism is relating. Parts of the brain monitor the state of the environment, and other parts monitor the state of the body. The images that the brain provides enter into the process of reacting. In other words, a self is a feeling of a feeling (cf. Damasio, The Feeling of What Happens [Harcourt, 1999]), a knowing about the organism that itself is reacting to the environment. It is possible—persons with a certain kind of brain damage are like this—for persons to be perfectly rational but unable to make a decision. They are unable to make a decision because certain emotions are cut off from consciousness. Rationality is not enough. Thus, selective reduction of emotion—what is often recommended—is at least as prejudicial for rationality as is excessive emotion (41).

Findings in neuroscience move us toward a complexly layered monistic/holistic view of persons in community that has no room for modernist dualisms. Linguistic categories with culturally-specific content form part of a hierarchy of hermeneutics that links the organism to itself, to its community, and to its environment. So, what does this understanding of person and self mean for a theology of mission?

Theology of Mission

If we were to push back before creation, we would find God existing eternally in a reaching-out, self-giving, and other-embracing love. This is the relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. As J.D. Zizioulas reminds us, the Eastern Fathers refused to define God in terms of substance, essence, or personal attributes as did the Western Fathers. Instead, they placed priority upon relationship; that is, they understood God as communion (cf. Being as Communion [St. Vladamir’s, 1985]). And this communion, God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, is involved in mutually supportive missions within the missio Dei—that is, the mission of God as a whole.

It follows that we, too, are defined by relationship. The human person is a body-in-relationship. We invite persons to know God in personal relationship, and this is the heart of salvation: healing and reconciliation for the whole body and ultimately for the whole community (cf. J.B. Green, Salvation [Chalice, 2004]). This is the driving force of mission: to invite bodies—and all that is connected to neurons and synapses—to enter into a life-giving relationship with the Triune God and with other persons in community.

It follows that if there is only body-mind-community, and within it neural networks that link to personal and cultural hermeneutic systems, then it is impossible to be in mission to the soul without being in mission to the body. Consequently, if our pathways are affected by development, diet, and damage, and clearly they are, then how can we expect people to change their minds—repent and believe—unless we also work toward repairing damage and building healthy bodies, brains, and community? This is what it means to be reconciled to God and to live an abundant life.

In light of the whole story of God’s personhood and God’s mission (creation, redemption, kingdom), we need to continually rethink our theology of mission. Western social science and theology have assumed the ontological priority of persons over and against the priority of relationship. Western missionaries share these assumptions about personhood and sociality, and they tend to concern themselves with conversion and growth of the individual while disregarding local constructions of personhood and community. What we have learned recently from the neurosciences and biblical studies, though, shows us that the Euro-American construction of persons, community, and salvation that has developed over the last two hundred years has been quite cultural; therefore, it has been local, and not universal. The Enlightenment did not always bring light. Thus, “the fundamental doctrine of the person changed from dependence on God to independence from any higher authority. It also changed from being relational to being avowedly individual. Because the dependent relationship with God had been severed, there was now no ontological basis for community” (E. Storkey, “Modernity and Anthropology,” in P. Sampson et al., eds., Faith and Modernity [Regnum, 1994] 139).

Other cultures have other persons and other communities. Notice that we have had to use other languages (missio Dei, imago Dei, hypostasis) and other cultures and times (Greek Orthodox, early church fathers) to discover a biblical construction of persons that differs from the Western view. When there is a different conception of person and relationships, what does conversion mean? Is there an autonomous individual out there who can make a purely rational decision, raise her hand, and walk down the aisle alone? Is that what God wants, or does salvation also include body, relationship, and community?

Might conversion mean a new construction of self in relation to both God and community? Paul’s metaphor that we “put on Christ” is instructive here. Does conversion involve only the acquisition of new knowledge for the self? P.G. Hiebert suggests that “orientation toward God” is a more helpful metaphor for understanding conversion (cf. “The Category Christian in the Mission Task,” in Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues [Baker, 1994]).

For over a hundred years, the Western cultural juggernaut has overcome other cultures with a theology founded, among other presuppositions, on a dualistic construction of persons and a compartmentalized view of life. Now neuroscience brings into question this foundational presupposition. What else might be questioned as more a presupposition of modernity than a tenant of the Bible? R. Clapp suggests that “evangelicals move from decontextualized propositions to traditional, storied truths; from absolute certainty to humble confidence; from mathematical purity to the rich, if less predictable, world of relational trust; from detached objectivist epistemology to engaged participative epistemology; from control of the data to respect of the other in all its created variety; from individualist knowing to communal knowing; and from once-for-all rational justification to the ongoing pilgrimage of testimony” (Border Crossings [Brazos, 2000] 32).

To make this move in mission theology and practice involves listening to different cultural streams within the Western tradition, but also to other theologies of other cultures in other places. M. Adeney suggests that “one underlying theme (of non-Western theologies) is holism: between the natural and the supernatural; between mind and body, theology and economy; between the individual and the group; between proposition and symbol; and between system and uncertainty” (“Mission Theology from Alternative Centers,” in C. van Engen et al., eds., The Good News of the Kingdom [Orbis, 1993] 183).

There is a cry from below for the recovery of a lost wholeness, stolen by the Western advance, whose propagandists included missionaries. This call to Christ is not a call to individualism, but a call to see what Christ does for the whole of society; indeed, the whole of creation. This call is from a relational Triune God to be redeemed and reconciled in relationship through the person and work of Jesus Christ, empowered by the previous, present, and continual work of the Holy Spirit. This call relates Christ to the person, however constituted. This call offers hope, not for some ethereal soul, but for the material, the social, the economic, the political, the spiritual, the intellectual, the dispossessed, the oppressed, and the lost: the whole person, community, land, and creation. God has responded to human needs, not spiritual needs. The ultimate purpose of God is the redemption and reconciliation of all things in Christ; the purpose of humans is to use everything good that has come from God to play our part in redemption and reconciliation of all things in Christ.

Posted Feb 01, 2005