Why Western Christianity Failed 2

In September and October 2009 Deeper Walk International brought an interesting series of webinars on the topic of “Why Western Christianity Failed.” The speaker was Dr. Jim Wilder from Shepherd’s House in California.

  • The first part was about a 300 year old philosophy that heavily influenced Western Theology (which I summarized here).
  • The second part looked at how medieval psychology influences us until today (see summary below).
  • And the third part explained how we ended up with a false dichotomy because of these two influences.

In this post I will give a summary of part two:

Many people don’t realize that our Western theology has been influenced by all kinds of things besides the Bible.

Among other things are:

  • rationalism – is about thinking the right things
  • voluntarism – is about making the right choices
  • Pietism – had the tendency to neglect the body
  • Northern European culture – influences people to live in survival mode, value stoic resolve, ignore pain and emotions

>> All these affect our theology.
>> All these even affect how we do Bible translation.
>> They influence what we think is important.

One major influence is the medieval psychology that divides human beings into two main parts:

Physical conditions, the body, emotions and anything related were considered of doubtful use for spiritual things. In contrast, the intellect and the will were seen as separate from the body. Today we know that intellect and will are tied up in the same body, and interact strongly with each other. They cannot be separated from each other as medieval psychology did.

Despite newer insights into how God created us (body and will interconnected), theology still uses these categories until today.

Our bodies are seen as something fallen and unable to please God, while the spirit and will were seen as more important because they can be affected by God, as something that God can transform. The will is fallen but can be empowered by God’s grace to make the right choices. The body and emotions are only causing trouble (implicit – they are beyond God’s power to transform). Therefore the body was left out of any teaching and considered unimportant. The soul was sometimes included with the body, and seen as causing trouble. The only hope was that God would transform the spirit enough to dominate body and soul. The solution to this problem is to have more “truth” (teaching, knowledge) to help the spirit dominate the body.

The result is a false dichotomy that influences our theology until today.

This made perfect sense in medieval psychology but not today!

It is in contradiction to what we know today about the brain:

Our brain is primarily relational. Any strategy that bypasses the dominant emotional and relational center of the brain, and emphasizes thinking and will, is not “Good News” at all. As a result we keep trying to think the right things, but we are still acting and reacting the wrong way.

Antonio R. Damasio in his book “Descartes’ error” pointed out that what makes the human mind run are our emotions not reason. For example, trauma recovery requires body awareness. The priority of our brain is to first ask what our body feels before asking what we think about something.

This has to do with our vagus nerve, which tells the brain what we feel like and influences our relationships and what we like. This vagus nerve does not sound very spiritual but influences everything we consider spiritual. It has two parts:
dorsal vagal – takes care of your own body
ventral vagal – regulates interpersonal relationships

Maybe it is more important to make our vagus nerve “Christian” more than our thinking!

The Old Testament refers to our “inward parts” (e.g. Jer 4:19, Lam 2:11) but they are often translated with ‘mind’ in Greek. In other places the Hebrew text speaks about the “bowels.” The translation of these verses often shows a lot of bias. Since the body is not important, bowels are sometimes translated as heart and sometimes as bowels and nobody cares if these are really referring to the same thing.

Conclusions from Voluntarist Philosophy

>> Western Christianity became about ideas and choice
>> Solution – all important life problems are corrected by truth and choice
>> This statement should feel true to you because your culture says it’s true
>> The Bible translations were made to fit that assumption due to language and culture.

Conclusions from Medieval Psychology

>> Choice is in the intellect
>> Will is in the reason
>> Intellect and reason are in the mind /spirit
>> Bible translation is made to fit those assumptions
>> The mind and spirit are changed by choices and knowledge
>> The body and emotions are not important for the spiritual life as will and choice.

Corrections to Medieval Psychology

>> What controls the brain, will, body and emotions is relationship not information.

Who you love or who you fear, will determine what you’ll choose, how your body responds to it and how you feel about it. That relationship is actually experienced in your brain, not your emotions, not your body, not your will.

>> We have more than one will and there can be conflict.
>> Emotions and related body responses are in executive control of the brain
>> Relationships based on love produce very different interpretations of the information in the intellect than the same information with fear.

For example, “your dad is coming” can produce two different reactions, depending whether your relationship is love or fear based. The same happens with biblical information – “God is watching you” can cause two different reactions.

Living with the Lord means having our “bowels” transformed.

We need a Christianity that transforms both sides of our character, our body not just our mind. We need to overcome this false dichotomy (more about it in part 3).

3 thoughts on “Why Western Christianity Failed 2

  1. One need not even appeal to contemporary discoveries about the brain to emphasize the importance of relationship.

    What is ultimate reality? It is found in God: three persons eternally in relationship to each other. God is love. Christ is our model of submission (to the Father) and of sacrificial service (to his bride). We have fellowship with the godhead and with each other through the Holy Spirit.

    We are personal beings because our Creator is personal. Not only are we made for relationship; we create, we know, we feel, we choose, we reason, etc. because we are like Him.

    Christ came in the flesh, which affirms our bodies as well.

    The rupture of human relationship with God has affected us in every part, but there is no part which is essentially bad.

    God has claim on every part of us, and salvation touches every part of us.

    By all means, let us “dethrone” the intellect, and let us emphasize that no human choice is made based only on facts. Let us however be careful not to de-emphasize God’s claim on our wills, even as we de-link it from reason alone.

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