Spiritual Development in a Physical World: The Importance of the Church Community

Paul N. Markham

Spiritual development is of critical importance to those active in theological education. Church leaders will face a variety of challenges as they seek to promote Christian discipleship in a culture inundated with so many competing ideologies. My aim will be to describe how spiritual development can be understood in a physical world. In doing so, I will be arguing for the importance of the physical church community. These tradition-specific, Christian communities provide the meaning and context for discipleship (a term that I take to be synonymous to spiritual development) to occur. Furthermore, I will mention the role of resistance as a key element of discipleship.

I have long been interested in theological and neurobiological considerations of religious moral formation and have spent significant time elsewhere drawing out the details of my argument (Rewired: Exploring Religious Conversion [Wipf & Stock, 2007). This essay will be less about articulating the details of my position and more about presenting ideas for the reader’s consideration. I take it that Catalyst essays are intended to spark conversation and debate among readership, so I hope that you find plenty to discuss in my brief presentation.

In Rewired, I argue that western religious traditions suffer from an incomplete view of Christian spirituality. This is particularly true within American evangelicalism, where a number of strict dichotomies have been nurtured—body and soul, heaven and hell, religious and secular, etc. Often times, spirituality is closely connected with a privatized and individualized form of religious experience that is primarily about self-transformation and the purification of the inner life. In this case, the “self” becomes an essence that lives inside of us, consisting of personal thoughts, feelings, and reflections.

Although I reject the notion that humans lack freedom in the sense of classic behaviorism, I do embrace the idea that we are socially determined selves—that is, there is no “me” without “you.” Such a conviction renders the Christian life less about proper belief and more about vital relationships. Going forward, it is important to understand the nature of beliefs, how they are formed, and what role relationships and context play in these formations. In order to address these concerns, I resort to insights from science (particularly the cognitive neurosciences) and theology (from a Wesleyan perspective).

Discipleship should be considered a process of moral formation that (1) involves normal human biological capacities, (2) is characterized by a change in socio-moral attitude and behavior, (3) is best understood as the acquisition of virtues intrinsic to Christian faith, and (4) should be viewed as the co-operant result of divine grace and human participation. To speak of spiritual formation as a biological process deserves further elaboration.

Many religious adherents commonly imagine a separation between the spiritual and the physical. Practical ministry experience led me to consider the effects that this strict dichotomy has on Christian life and practices. I asked myself what Christian discipleship would look like if there were no strict dichotomy between body and soul. I wondered what a truly embodied spirituality would mean for the development of my Christian community.


Paul N. Markham, Rewired: Exploring Religious Conversion (2007).

I soon discovered that many scientific insights could help me work through these questions. Research in the neurosciences is particularly interesting. In short, neuroscientists are, at a rapid rate, presenting data indicating that many of the faculties once attributed to the mind or soul can now be explained as complex functions of the human brain. There are a number of such examples available from within the field of neuroscience. Of particular interest here are neuroscientific investigations of moral attitude and behavior.

Human moral behavior—how we relate in a social context—concerns the religious and non-religious alike. At the center of the Christian faith rests a mandate for proper relation toward God and creation. Such “spiritual” relationships have traditionally been viewed as faculties of the soul. This area of human experience, once left completely to the realm of religious thought (and later included within the scope of psychology proper), has now been taken under investigation by neuroscientists.

Researchers are uncovering intrinsic links between biology and morality. Research from neuroscience has demonstrated that moral reasoning and behavior is dependent upon the proper function of various subsystems within the brain, particularly in the prefrontal cortex. This aspect of human functioning, once inaccessible to science, can now be investigated via various scanning techniques. Some neuroscientists believe that these new technological advances will unlock the deepest secrets of the human species and eventually render the insights gained from religion obsolete. The point of a neurobiological explanation of discipleship is not to argue against the existence of a soul per se, but rather, my aim is to emphasize the embodied nature of human existence.

In this case, becoming a Christian disciple necessarily involves the formation of socio-moral attitudes and behaviors characteristic of a particular tradition. In simple terms, discipleship is a visible process. This is a clear challenge to the notion that individual Christian faith is developed by adopting beliefs that then lead to an alternate form of social life. Discipleship, from a biological perspective, requires that disciples be formed through social contexts that literally—the literal matter that makes up our physical bodies, particularly our brains—form us.

This embodied view of discipleship dramatically affects the way we approach spiritual development in the Christian churches. Early in my ministry experience, I was taught that disciples were made by first coming to Christ (conversion) and then learning the principles of the Christian faith that would allow for effective service. I have now found a more viable approach to Christian discipleship. This involves the claim that the entire experience of discipleship be considered conversion. As we are exposed to a community that disciplines our socio-moral behavior, our physical neurobiology is changing (or converting) as a result. Thus we are becoming literally different physical beings than we were before.

This is radically different than the Enlightenment-inspired notion that we can acquire principles leading to a reasoned decision to execute this or that moral judgment. In that case, discipleship is contingent upon possessing a particular knowledge that guides our decision-making. Without wanting to discount the importance of individual decisions, I nevertheless assert that, following Wesley, the Christian life is less about moral decisions than holy tempers that predispose us to act in particular ways automatically.

The majority of our daily lives are spent doing things automatically, that is without focused attention (habits, for instance). If we can drive, type, get dressed, etc. with a high level of automaticity, is it beyond the scope of reason to imagine that we can develop habits that predispose us toward certain moral attitudes and behaviors? This is not only possible, but it comprises the very goal of discipleship—being formed in such a way as to respond “instinctively” in ways characteristic of the Christian faith. With this embodied model such formation is not a matter of “making up one’s mind” to be a disciple; rather, the development of these habits supervene on the creation of certain neurobiological states. Herein, morality is not an idea, it is an anatomy.

All of this is to stress the importance of the shared life that we call “church.” This community is all too often considered to be a helpful gathering for the convert to learn the vital teachings of the Christian faith and to exercise post-conversion fellowship. These are certainly important points, but I am stressing the role of the church in the conversion process itself. This is certainly not a new idea given the third-century assertion extra ecclesiam nulla salus—“outside the church there is no salvation.”

Regarding the evangelical church in North America (the context in which I am rooted and thus most qualified to discuss), serious questions arise concerning the possibility of a contemporary church’s offering the context necessary for proper discipleship to occur. This is because cultural/national traits are generally more determinative than our religious commitments. There is little doubt that consumerism in America has given us a unique form of religious faith. The distinctive form of desire characteristic of advanced capitalist societies like ours makes the sacrificial nature of Christianity particularly difficult to grasp on the practical level.

This raises the problem of resistance in the discipleship process. By “resistance,” I refer to the ability of Christians to recognize that they are indeed “strangers in a strange land” and that this recognition mandates a particular form of life. The salient point is that the church is not the only “game in town” when it comes to discipleship. Human nature predisposes us to continual moral formation; our neurobiology is constantly being reoriented based on psychosocial context and interaction. In this sense, the issue is not whether we will participate in discipleship, but whose disciples will we become?

Culture-at-large offers a continuous stream of morally formative experiences and it has traditionally been the church’s role to stand against those forms of moral discourses and experiences that negate the Christian faith. Given this understanding, it is critical that the church community live in such a way that its collective desires are not co-opted by cultural consumerism.

How does this idea of resistance relate to neurobiology and an embodied view of discipleship? If we assume that Christianity is a way of life made possible through participation in particular communal practices, then the nature of those practices become critical. The process of becoming a Christian disciple necessarily involves active participation. What I am challenging is the notion that discipleship is ultimately driven by intellectual assent—that is, that proper belief leads to proper action.

This conviction is primarily motivated by my understanding of the physical nature of humans. In an analysis of ethical training, John Bickle asserts that “ethical training in a behavioral vacuum (other than speech production and comprehension) is likely not to have much effect on people’s behavior…. Better to get people to practice planning and executing the specific motor sequences desired, rather than training them to construct more sophisticated moral narratives…. One must perform the appropriate actions repeatedly to acquire the moral virtues. Theory and argument—narratives, both internal and verbally expressed—will not suffice. Our increased knowledge of the diverse neural mechanisms that underlie speech production and comprehension on one hand and planning and motor execution on the other puts us a step ahead of Aristotle toward understanding why theory and arguments (narratives) are less efficient for inculcating virtue than is practice (actually performing the planning and acting)” (“Empirical Evidence for a Narrative Concept of Self,” in Narrative and Consciousness: Literature, Psychology, and the Brain [ed. G.D. Fireman et al.; Oxford University Press, 2003] 82).

In essence, “beliefs” are most often implicitly adopted following instantiation into a set of practices that makes belief intelligible in the first place. Our wonderful biological selves make experiential learning critical to moral formation, so action leads to belief that then leads to further action, etc.

So then, the nature of the action must be characteristic of the Christian tradition to which the disciple is being formed. A commitment to embodied discipleship requires that the church be the church—that is, it must necessarily be countercultural, thus making the way of resistance possible for its members. This presses the church to pursue means of actualizing abstract notions such as peace and love. What does it mean to act for peace in a time of war? Can we truly love the poor without serving them? Of course, these are not questions for individuals, but for Christian communities who are interested in spiritual development in a physical world.

Posted Nov 01, 2008