The Correlates of Change: On Conversion and Worldview Formation

I just finished reading Body, Soul, and Human Life: The Nature of Humanity in the Bible by Joel B. Green and am especially grateful to Mary Elizabeth Fisher of Sydney (formerly Asbury Theological Seminary) who referred me. Without question, Green’s book is a key source when considering a robust biblical anthropology. Although one may not align with the thesis of Christian physicalism — that humans are made up of one integrated whole — readers will surely be informed by the depth of analysis and the even-handed treatment he offers in relation to the alternative view of Christian dualism — the notion that humans are made up of two ontologically distinct parts, material and immaterial or body and soul.

One section in the book that especially intrigued me involved the mechanics and nature of change or personal transformation; namely, “persons and not parts of persons” are transformed (p 115). [Warning: This post is long and thick, so do bear with me.] Thus, in keeping with his physicalism (see previous post), Green would likely put forth that when persons experience change, the brain changes and vice versa. This is not to reduce persons to mere brain states, neurons, or what have you, but it is to say that brains are involved and indeed impacted by behavior and vice versa. Persons are units or one integrated whole, not merely a composite of blended though distinct parts, thus change or transformation affects and effects the whole person.

Illustrating that “neural transformation in response to environmental factors” intersect, he appeals to the now famous and fascinating study of the London taxi-drivers to show that “day-to-day activities induce changes in the morphology of the brain” (p 116). This factor alone has been teased out in relation to spiritual transformation by the formidable N. T. Wright (see my “Habituation and Life in the Spirit“).

Not only does the brain participate in our transformation but so also does our social conditioning have a significant impact. Green states that our genetic makeup biases our dispositions and character so that “the neuronal systems and pathways responsible for much of what we think, feel, believe, and do are shaped by learning,” in which he takes “learning” to be social in nature. He writes:

If [or rather “Since] the neurobiological systems that shape how we think, feel, believe, and behave are forever being sculpted in the context of our social experiences, then in a profound sense we must speak of personal (trans)formation in relational terms. Our autobiographical selves are formed within a nest of relationships, a community.

(p 116)

Because of this ebb and flow of incoming information via social interaction and experiences and the continual evolving of the brain in response to these stimuli, we seem unable to “unambiguously interpret” the world-an-sich (world as it is). Our interpretive capacity continually changes and is handicapped, as it were, causing a “deficit” of all the necessary information we need to see the world as it is. Consequently, our “cortical networks fill in. They make their best guess, given incomplete information.” And so, we “find a human face in the full moon, recognize Beethoven playing his piano in a cloud formation…or prejudicially categorize people by any number of criteria” (p 117, emphasis his). This process is what is known as imagination formation whereby a conceptual schema is constructed from which we interpret our world and our experiences.

As a result, the mechanics of worldview formation are born. Green states:

Our hermeneutical equipment, then, is formed at the synaptic level, is capable of reformation, and is even now providing the conceptual schemes or imaginative structures by which we make sense of the world around us. My “perception” of the world is based in a network of ever-forming assumptions about my environment, and in a series of well-tested assumptions, shared by others with whom I associate, about “the way the world works.” Ambiguous data may present different hypotheses, but my mind disambiguates that data according to what I have learned to expect. That is, embodied human life performs like a cultural, neuro-hermeneutic system, locating (and, thus, making sense of) current realities in relation to our grasp of the past and expectations of the future.

(p 118)

This is large on so many levels. But without spending more time on unpacking implications (the book adequately puts forth some), one other most important agency is utilized in personal transformation and in our identity construction. This agency Green labels “narrative formation.” Where “lesions to the neural network responsible for the generation of narrative” is found on a human brain, persons appear to “suffer a loss in their grasp of their own identities.” In fact, “so pivotal is narrative to the formation of identity, including the formation and articulation of beliefs, that in the absence of memory humans will create stories by which to make sense of their present situation” (p 120). Coordinately, “brain lesion studies have demonstrated that damage to the emotion-processing center of the brain impedes real-life rationality and decision-making” (p 121).

If my take approximates Green’s findings, then we can say that conversion is not an intellectual enterprise alone nor an emotional one. It does not just happen inside me. Instead, conversion is a physiological, relational, emotional, intellectual, moral, and environmental event as well as an ongoing process that affects and effects who I am as a whole person. Moreover, my worldview, that interpretive lens whereby I make sense of myself and the environment, is continually being shaped and reshaped by the social nexus in which I find myself, by those pathways carved in my neuro-biological correlates, and by a narrative that I and others write to define who I am in relation to myself and in relation to the world-as-it-is. Put differently, worldview is not merely a conceptual construct filled with presuppositions isolated from the entire existential experience of the human who holds it.

Given the Christian physicalism laid out by Green, we might say: We are what we are becoming and we understand what we are continuously understanding.

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