Tag Archives: mind

Religion and Magic

July 2018 Credo

One of the most fascinating figures in Acts is Simon Magus, who made his appearance in Acts 8, where Luke gives an account of the founding of the church in Samaria. This enigmatic figure so enthralled the ancient world that his name is found even in the Gnostic texts, which tell extravagant and historically dubious tales about him.

According to Luke, when Simon saw that the Holy Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, ‘he offered them money, saying: “Give me this power also, so that anyone whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit’. Apart from the fact that Simon thought that the power of the Spirit could be monetised, and therefore bought and sold, he also believed that it is a force that can be transferred from one person to another.

This has led some to argue that Simon thought that the power the apostles displayed was no different from that of the master sorcerer. The figure of Simon Magus therefore raises questions about the troubling relationship between religion – especially Christianity – and magic.

In their insightful study entitled, Anthropology of Religion, Magic and Witchcraft Rebecca and Philip Stein define magic as the methods that ‘somehow interface with the supernatural and by which people can bring about particular outcomes’. Sir James Frazer, in The Golden Bough, describes magic as a primitive form of technology.

Although magic is profoundly distinct from religion, the two have sometimes been wedded together in a syncretistic mix, as many sociological and anthropological studies have shown. One clear example is the blending of Christianity and voodoo in Haiti.

Although evangelical Christians in Haiti have condemned this unholy marriage, evangelicalism in the West – especially in America – is not spared from similar toxic miscegenations.

Both Edward Tyler and James Frazer maintain that magic has to do with belief in impersonal forces. As a form of ‘technology’, magic seeks to harness the occult forces and channel them in such a way that the goals of the magician are served.

We find the same idea embedded in the concept of faith promoted by the teachers associated with the Word of Faith movement. Thus, Kenneth Hagin – the alleged founder of this heresy – could instruct his followers to ‘Have faith in your faith’.

Comparing spiritual laws with natural ones, Hagin writes: ‘Just as you get into contact with those natural laws or put them into practice they work for you. Over in the spiritual realm the same thing is true’. This means that faith, for Hagin, has nothing to do with God – it is reduced to a technique that will produce the desired results when properly employed.

Hagin could therefore conclude that with correct use of the technique even unbelievers would get the same results: ‘…I’d see unsaved people getting results. Then it dawned on me what the sinners were doing: they were cooperating with … the law of faith’.

Writing on Wiccan magic, Philip Stein describes how visualizations are often used by practitioners to awaken and concentrate power so that it can be ‘set to effect a particular goal …’

In his 1902 book, The History and Power of Mind (published by Occult Book Concern) Richard Ingalese provides arguably the clearest insight into the power of mental visualization when he writes: ‘If you desire success, social position, any spiritual, mental or physical thing, it can be gained by simply creating and holding the picture in your mind’. ‘The constant or frequent vibration which your thought causes sets the Universal Consciousness surrounding you and your picture into action’, Ingalese explains.

Accompanying the creative energies that come with visualisation is the power of positive confession, a technique used by magicians and Word of Faith proponents alike. This idea is nicely summarised by Essek William Kenyon – whom some regard as the true founder of the Word of Faith movement – who boldly declared: ‘What I confess, I possess’.

In New Thought Metaphysics, both visualisation and positive confession work on the principle of the ‘law of attraction’, which is a form of mental magnetism. Mind-power, according to proponents, is the most potent energy force in the universe, which when properly directed can bring about circumstances and realities that previously did not exist.

When this idea is ‘christened’ by faith teachers like Kenneth Copeland and Creflo Dollar, the concept of ‘creative faith’ is invented. We are created in the image of the Creator God. Thus, so the argument goes, we too have the power to create by our faith-filled thoughts and words.

The historian of metaphysics Catherine Albanese describes this as mental magic (as opposed to material magic) because it uses vision, imagination, and words believing that external events could be controlled by thoughts and words.

Through the influences of theosophists like Helena Blasvatsky (1831-1891) and Henry Steel Olcott (1832-1907) and New Thought advocates like Phineas Parkhurst Quimby (1802-1866), such practises have long taken root in esoteric sects and cults like the Swedenborgians and Christian Science.

They have also made their way into heretical movements associated with evangelical-charismatic Christianity in America such as like Latter Rain, Health and Wealth Teaching and the New Apostolic Reformation.

Syncretism is always a real and present danger in Christianity. Paul warned the Colossian Christians about this danger in a letter written almost two millennia ago (Colossians 2:8-14).

That warning has to be taken just as seriously by Christians in the twenty-first century who have to contend with a plethora of diverse and enticing expressions of religiosity and spirituality. A Christian who is not grounded in Scriptures and the fundamental tents of the Church could, like Simon Magus, very easily confuse magic (which has to do with harnessing occult power for selfish ends) with true religion (which has to do with glorifying God through humble obedience to Jesus Christ).


 

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.

Ghost in the Machine

March 2017 Pulse

One of the most puzzling questions that continue to plague philosophers of mind is the relationship between mind and body. In a philosophical ethos where physicalist accounts of reality seem to be the new orthodoxy, phenomena such as consciousness continue to fascinate and baffle our best minds.

‘How can there be such a thing as consciousness in a physical world, a world consisting ultimately of nothing but bits of matter distributed over space-time behaving in according to physical law?’, inquires the philosopher of mind, Jaegwon Kim, in his book entitled, Physicalism or Something Near Enough (2005).

Colin McGinn wrestles with the same problem when he asks: ‘How could the aggregation of millions of individually insentient neurons generate subjective awareness? We know that brains are de facto causal basis of consciousness, but we have, it seems, no understanding whatever of how this can be so’.

Modern discussions on the relationship between mind and body can be said to be mostly reactions and responses to Cartesian dualism.

The 17th century philosopher, Rene Descartes, drove a wedge between the mind and the body when he argued that ‘we clearly perceive the mind, that is, a thinking substance, apart from the body, that is, an extended substance’. By making the fundamental distinction between the res cogitans and the res extensa, Descartes is proposing a substance dualism, separating mind and body.

This has prompted the British philosopher, Gilbert Ryle, to describe Descartes’ dualism memorably as the ‘ghost in the machine’ in his book, The Concept of Mind (1949).

Cartesian dualism is of course not new. It may be seen as a modern version of the more ancient Platonic dualism that conceives of the eternal soul as a distinct substance from the temporal physical body.

Attempts to surmount or eradicate such dualisms have led, as mentioned above, to privileging the physicalist view where the mind is reduced to the brain and where mental states are simply attributed to neurons and synapses.

Dissatisfied with the solution suggested by physicalism, thinkers like Nancy Murphy have proposed another way of understanding the mind-body relationship that is rather clumsily described as ‘non-reductive physicalism’.

According to this theory, while mental properties are closely related to and in some sense dependent on physical properties, they should not be confused with them. Mental properties must be seen to supervene physical ones just as the aesthetic qualities of a painting (its beauty and elegance) can be said to supervene the physical ones (paint and canvas).

For reasons that I cannot discuss within the short compass of this article, both types of physicalism have been found wanting by some philosophers and theologians.

There is, however, another way of understanding the relationship between mind and body that avoids dualism on the one hand and physicalism on the other. Technically termed as hylomorphism (Greek: hule = matter and morphe = form), this theory can be traced to another ancient Greek philosopher: Aristotle.

Aristotle begins on the premise that every physical object is a compound of form and matter. The form, he goes on to argue, is the actualising principle that directs and energises matter, enabling it to achieve its true potential.

The soul therefore, as the principle of life, defines the existence and life of a being. (Aristotle believes that all living beings, including plants, have souls appropriate to their kind). While the physical body of the animal may change, the soul (or form) remains the same. The soul retains the integrity of the living being and enables the exercise of its faculties.

As University of Chicago philosopher Martha Nussbaum explains: ‘The lion may change its shape, get thin or fat, without ceasing to be the same lion; its form is not its shape but its soul, the set of vital capacities, the functional organisation, in virtue of which it lives and acts’.

Applying this to human beings, Aristotle postulates that the soul is the form of the body. That is, the soul is the principle of life that makes the human being the kind of creature it is – it gives it integrity. For Aristotle, the soul refers to all living processes, including mental capacities.

In light of the modern mind-body debate, hylomorphism can be said to be a salutary alternative to dualism and physicalism.

In contrast to the dualistic view (Platonic or Cartesian), which sees the soul (mind) and body as two distinct substances, hylomorphism establishes the closest possible relationship between the two.

The great medieval theologian, Thomas Aquinas, who applies hylomorphic metaphysics to his anthropology states that ‘the body and the soul and not two actually existing substances; rather, the two of them together constitute one actually existing substance’. Thus, neither the soul by itself nor the body by itself have ‘the complete nature of its species’, according to Aquinas.

While hylomorphists agree with the physicalists (of both reductive or non-reductive varieties) that the physical aspects of the human are important, they reject the latter’s theory of supervenience, which postulates that higher mental properties are dependent on and even determined by lower physical ones.

Supervenience has led Christian philosophers like Nancy Murphy to see the traditional concept of the soul as no longer meaningful.

Hylomorphism is therefore able to present a more holistic conception of the mind-body relationship.

It prevents the mind and the body from drifting apart. It prevents the instrumentalization of the body (in the Cartesian sense of the body as merely the extension of the mind).

Significantly, hylomorphism provides a more profound account of the nature of human actions. Human actions are never seen as having either mental or physical causalities but as the agency of the whole person.



Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.

Discipleship of the Mind

Many Christians are familiar with the Great Commandment recorded in Luke 10:27: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with your entire mind. Love your neighbour as yourself’. This Commandment urges believers to love God with their whole being. Believers are commanded to love God not only with their hearts and souls; they must do so also with their minds. As James Sire has pointed out in his provocative book, Habits of the Mind, this means that ‘thinking is integral to our call to be what God wants us to be’. As Christians we are called to think, and to do so as well as we can with our God-given intelligence. When we apply our intellect in this way, we express our love for God and we glorify him.

Some Christians, however, fail to see this. They have adopted an anti-intellectualism, which, at first blush, may even sound pious. After all, was it not the Apostle Paul who wrote, ‘For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God … For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength’ (1 Cor 1:18, 25)? Such piety, however, is fallacious. The message of the cross is folly to those who are perishing because they approach it with distorted perspectives and from erroneous vantage points. Thus, when Paul speaks of the gospel as ‘folly’, he is being ironic. As Os Guinness has put it so eloquently, ‘Only in relation to a genuine folly foolish enough to pretend it is wise does true wisdom come to be seen and treated as folly’. The gospel, for Paul, is not folly but true wisdom!

Anti-intellectualism is the spiritual corrosion that will cripple the Church and compromise her witness in society. Writing primarily about the subtle but alarming changes in American evangelicalism that took place from the 1970s, theologian David Wells observes the disturbing shifts in emphasis from doctrine to life and from theology to spirituality. Wells laments that evangelical Christians in America have generally ‘lost interest … in what the doctrines of creation, common grace, and providence once meant for Christian believers’. He adds, somewhat despairingly, that ‘it is enough for them simply to know that Christ somehow died for people’. It would be a mistake to think that this observation has little to do with Christians in Singapore. A simple survey of the titles on display at some of our Christian bookshops would give a rough but not inaccurate indication of the theological literacy of Christians here. The displacement of theology in the life of the Church brought about by anti-intellectualism will severely weaken the Church.

Anti-intellectualism will also severely compromise Christian witness in society. The Church is commissioned to proclaim the Gospel to the world and part of this has to do with the Church’s prophetic engagement with society. Christians believe that the Gospel is public truth and as such it is not just relevant to a select group of people. The Christian faith therefore refuses to be privatized and shut off from the public square. A public Gospel therefore requires a public theology. Anti-intellectualism in the Church, however, can prevent Christians from engaging faithfully and meaningfully in public discourse. In fact, anti-intellectualism will severely cripple the Church’s confidence in participating in such engagements. And this will in turn seriously compromise the witness and influence of Christians in the public square.

On the basis of the first of Jesus’ commandments, we must say, quite simply and directly that anti-intellectualism is a sin. In refusing to use the minds that God has given to us as part of our praise to him, we have disobeyed this commandment. We have simply failed to love God fully, with our whole being. Beyond all excuses, evasions and rationalizations, Christians must recognize anti-intellectualism for what it truly is. Only then will Christians be able to address the problem. But even here, an important qualification must be made. In rejecting anti-intellectualism our goal is not academic or intellectual respectability, but faithfulness to the commands of Jesus. The discipleship of the mind is not about intellectualism (the sin on the other extreme end of the spectrum!) or intellectual snobbery. It is about loving God with our minds by allowing God’s Word to govern our thinking.

The command to love God with our minds, then, presents a two-fold challenge for Christians. In the first place, it emphasizes the importance of the intellect. Put differently and quite simply, the command challenges Christians to think. But more importantly, this command challenges Christians to think Christianly, that is to think theologically, to allow Scripture and the tradition of the Church to inform and shape their thinking. This is what the discipleship of the mind is all about! It is about being so immersed in the worship, life and doctrines of the Church that our perspectives, our worldviews and our values are entirely molded by the Gospel. It is about not conforming to the ‘pattern of this world’ but being transformed through the renewal of the mind (Rom 12:2). It is about developing a habit of mind that sees the world through the lens of the Gospel.

To think Christianly therefore requires the Christian to be grounded in Scripture and in the doctrines of the church. But thinking Christianly does not only mean thinking about Christian topics. It has to do with allowing the Word of God to govern our thoughts on every possible aspect of life – education, career, raising children, politics, medicine, science, the arts, entertainment, leisure. Thinking Christianly therefore engages the whole person in the whole of life. As such, it is more than just an intellectual activity.

In addition, to think Christianly is to conduct our lives in obedience to God. The Christian doctor who knows that the Bible teaches the sanctity of human life would refuse to perform an abortion or euthanize his patient. The Christian politician who understands the biblical demand for justice would oppose policies that would marginalize certain sectors of society. There is a profound relationship between thought and life, thinking and doing, worldview and ethics. The challenge for Christians to think Christianly is therefore always a challenge to radical discipleship. This is because thinking Christianly is always premised on the fear of the Lord that is the beginning of wisdom.


Dr Roland Chia


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. 
This article was first published in Trumpet (TTC).

Christian Spirituality in a Time of Resurgent Spirituality

August 2015 Feature Article

There was a season in world history when excessive confidence and trust was conferred on science, technology, and the place of the mind.  At the same time, suspicion and cynicism was directed at spirituality, subjectivity, and the place of the heart.

The mood of that season has since given way to a new season where the resurgence of spirituality is evidenced.  The age of globalization characterized by movement, change, disruption, and displacement has fueled spiritual thirst as well as increasing the number of options to satisfy deep spiritual longing.

In this article, I will present two growing stands of spirituality which have been observed.

The first strand which is readily discovered in popular secular culture affirms spirituality decoupled from God and religion.  The second strand found in growing numbers of churches is shaped by consumer oriented desire to be culturally relevant.  Both strands pose a challenge to historic Christian faith.

Finally, a third stand which focuses on the commitment to follow Christ is presented as the basis of authentic Christian spirituality and the aspiration which Christians should strive toward.

Spirituality decoupled from God and religion

The first strand of spirituality that is growing in prominence in a world of global flows is a form that is decoupled from God and religion.

Within this strand of spirituality is a yearning for spiritual experiences which exclude God and religious institutions.  Both the growing secularization of society as well as the loss of confidence in traditional religious institutions have contributed to the move toward this strand of spirituality.

A significant aspect of this stand of spirituality lies in its commitment to a particular understanding of transcendence.  The experience of transcendence is the sense of mystery and wonder when in union with something much larger that the human self.

While traditionally the experience of transcendence has been associated with union with God up there, this strand of spirituality gravitates toward union with the world down here.

Spirituality in this strand therefore celebrates without any reference to God, the exponential growth in understanding of the natural and supernatural world, the strength and tenacity of the human spirit, the breathtaking affordances and enablement of new technologies, the global diversity and multiplicity of human perspective, the awesome wonder at the universe’s mysteries, and even the angst of the world of complex human existence.

It presents a non-theistic vision of spiritual life and highlights the nature of the search for spiritual meaning in an increasingly secularized society.

Together with the secularization of society, the increasing lack of confidence in traditional religious institutions has also contributed toward the movement toward a spirituality which is decoupled from God and religion.  The unfortunate reality about traditional religious institutions is that they often grow powerful, exercise authoritarianism, are slow to address issues of abuse and injustice, remain inward looking, and are slow to adapt to changes in culture.

Kinnaman and Lyon’s study of outsider perceptions of Christianity revealed six points of skepticism and objections raised.  Christians were thought of as hypocritical, too focused on getting converts, antihomosexual, sheltered, too political, and judgmental (Kinnaman and Lyon 2007).  Likewise Kinnaman’s later study revealed reasons why Christian youth were leaving the church.  The reasons include the church being overprotective, shallow, antiscience, repressive, exclusive, and didn’t allow room for doubt (Kinnaman 2011).

While the studies were conducted in the United States, the sentiments are often echoed in many other parts of the world with deep implications for families, churches, schools, and Christians in the marketplace. 

Both the secularization of society and a lack of confidence in religious institutions have thus fueled the growth of this first strand of spirituality.  Faith, hope, trust, and wonder remain, but are arrived at without an appeal to God or religion.  While skepticism toward spirituality has not been lost, a new skepticism toward Christianity is evidenced and proliferated within institutions of higher learning, in the popular media, and by influential cultural elites.

Spirituality shaped by cultural relevance

The second strand of spirituality that is growing in prominence in a world of global flows is a form within churches that enthusiastically and unreservedly seek to move with the times.  In a fast changing world, the race toward relevance has resulted in significant changes not just of the external forms of church, but also in the inner nature and character of its accompanying spirituality.

A metaphor that aptly describes the church in a changing world is “a young person with white hair.” For the church to remain relevant in every generation, its external form needs to be renewed and adapted.

Equally, for the church to remain faithful to its roots, it cannot lose fundamental aspects of its character to the forces of change.  In their quests for relevance however, some adaptive churches have began to take on a character that is best described as “young person with colored hair.”

The slowness to recognize the extent to which cultural influences have become mixed in and rooted in the church today is paralleled in the way coffee is served and drunk today.  In its most basic and unadulterated form, coffee is served black.  In many popular coffee chains however, coffee is served as flavored Frappuccinos.

In the contemporary consciousness, coffee is an appealing beverage only because of the sweeten flavors of Frappuccino, and not because of the coffee per se.  Presented with the alternatives of a cup of black coffee and a Frappuccino containing only coffee essence, it would not be surprising if some insist that the Frappuccino was proper coffee while at the same time rejecting the real thing.

This muddle finds parallel in the church today and is observable in many successful, fast growing churches and their fan bases.  In David Wells’ words, these churches “appear to be succeeding, not because they are offering an alternative to our modern culture, but because they are speaking with its voice, mimicking its moves.”

Quite unlike the first strand of spirituality described which challenges the church from without, this second strand and its growing popularity challenges the church from within and is rooted in a consumer-driven posture of the heart.

Spirituality shaped by commitment to follow Christ

If the first strand of spirituality is decoupled from God and religion while the second an embodiment of trending socio-cultural influences, a third strand is marked by a deep commitment to know and follow Christ.  In a crowded, noisy world with a supermarket of spiritualities on offer, this strand stands apart and requires special attention and intentional cultivation.

The call to follow Christ is always issued amidst rival and competing voices.

In addition, when recognized, the call provokes differing degrees of receptivity.  The call invites all to recognize the identity of Christ as king of the universe and head of the church.  It bids all to enter into a discipleship relationship with the Master.

Finally, it summons all to appropriate the benefits of his sacrificial death on the cross, the power of his resurrection over sin and death, and the offer of hope both in this life and the next.

What animates a spirituality shaped by a commitment to Christ is the passionate desire to follow him and to imitate his ways.  This deep yearning and ambition is clearly exampled in the life of the apostle Paul who modeled his life after Christ and called others to follow in the same spirit (1 Cor. 4:16; 11:1; 2 Thess. 3:9).

Rodney Reeves comments on the core elements of this Christ-centered, life-altering spirituality embraced by Paul:

Since the gospel was more than a set of beliefs–it was a way of life–Paul believe his life revealed the gospel of Jesus Christ: he was crucified with Christ, he was buried with Christ and he was raised with Christ. Participation in the death, burial and resurrection of Christ was the template of Paul’s spirituality.

Spirituality shaped by commitment to Christ builds on the decision to follow him and grows toward maturity by pursuing the things Christ calls his disciples to become and live for.

Evidence of this strand of spirituality would include repentance from wrong doing, daily dying to self, embodying a spirit of service and sacrifice, demonstrating trust and dependence on God, and possessing a concern for the things that matter to the Master.  It upholds its integrity by resisting dilution and domestication of the gospel and by understanding that following Christ is not like bringing a puppy back home for personal amusement.

Bringing a puppy home requires some adjustment in personal lifestyle but still preserves a person’s status as the puppy’s master.  Following Christ however is better conceived as bringing a new master home.

That being the case, followers will need to note the adjustments in lifestyles, behaviors, and thinking that Christ demands of all aspects and arenas of life.  Having it any other way would be tantamount to preserving the rhetoric of following Christ while failing to uphold the reality in practice.  It would be to advance the great irony of following Christ on one’s own terms, not on His terms.

Concluding Words

The world we live in today is a world of global flows, shifting boundaries, and porous walls.  It is a world where our community, congregation members and children are exposed to different forms of spirituality.  It is also in the context of this world that Christians are called to develop authentic Christian spirituality.

Perhaps the invitation to develop authentic Christian spirituality in such as world can be compared to how fish we eat is served to us.  If developing Christian spirituality in an era past can be compared to being served fish with bones removed, developing Christian spirituality in the present age can only be compared to being served fish with bones on.

Eating becomes an exercise of wisdom and good judgment.  Under such conditions, it is necessary to discern what is beneficial, to distinguish from what needs to be spit out, and to know how to aid casualties along the way.



Dr Calvin Chong
is Associate Professor, Educational Ministries at the Singapore Bible College. His teaching and research interests include orality studies, hermeneutics, new educational technologies, designing learning experiences, the impact of narratives on worldview and values, conflict resolution/reconciliation, and contemporary urban missions and youth issues.

 

Brain-Reading?

April 2015 Pulse

Without a doubt, some of the most important and exciting developments in biotechnology today are taking place in the new and vast field of neuroscience. The brain is seen as the organ that has the closest and most profound connections to the personhood of the individual – his character traits and behaviour. This has even led some philosophers and scientists to claim that the self is merely an epiphenomenon of the brain. Concepts like the ‘synaptic self’ and the ‘model self’ advanced by some neuroscientists and philosophers state that human subjectivity is nothing more than the product of the electromechanical and computational processes of the brain.

It is therefore not surprising that the most fascinating development within neuroscience is the technology that enables scientists to study changes in brain states. Neuroimaging in the form of computed tomography (CT), postrion emission tomography (PET), single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and functional computed tomography (fMRI) enables scientists to ‘read the brain’, it is sometimes claimed. According to scientists, the potential of this technology is staggering, as it will not only allow them to study neurological diseases but also predict behaviour.

Much of the knowledge that we currently possess about human consciousness is attained by the use of one or some combination of these technologies. Neuroimagining has also led scientists to change their theory about the immutability of severe injury, leading to exciting opportunities to address the challenges and needs of such patients. Brain imagining has also some applications in the court of law, although their reliability as evidence has been questioned in some countries. For example, in 2007, the British Home Secretary John Reid announced that convicted paedophiles must be subjected to MRI scanning to ascertain the risk of re-offense.

Legal philosopher Henk Greely therefore notes that neuroscience may ‘provide new ways to distinguishing truth from lies or real memories from false ones. This ability to predict behaviour with the help of neuroscience could have important consequences for the judicial system as well as for society as a whole’.

Although brain imaging offers exciting possibilities in brain studies, some scientists and theologians have cautioned against exaggerating what it is in fact able to accomplish. Some have rightly pointed out that neuroimaging raises so many important issues related to reliability and validity that scientists must not be too confident of the results. Others have also alerted the scientific community to the complex problem of interpreting the images obtained from MRI or fMRI.

Still others have raised the issue of causality. For example, studies have shown that there is a connection between lesions in the orbitofrontal cortex of the brain to impulsive and anti-social behaviour. But it is not clear whether the lesions caused the change in behaviour or it is the aberrant behaviour that caused the damage. And is it also not clear whether we should be even thinking in terms of causality or simply of correlation.

The warning that W. J. Winslade and J. W. Rockwell sounded must therefore be taken seriously: ‘Humans are forever prone to make premature and presumptuous claims of new knowledge … One may think that brain imagery will reveal mysteries of the human mind. But it may only help us gradually comprehend organic life, chemical and physiological features of the brain rather than provide the keys to unlock the secrets of human behaviour and motivation’.

Christians should encourage the development and application of brain imaging technology, especially in diagnostics. But Christians should at the same time be weary of the reductionism that is embraced by some neuroscientists, especially with regard to the relationship between the brain and human behaviour.

This reductionism is sometimes articulated by some of the most eminent scientists in the field. For example, in his now famous book, The Astonishing Hypothesis Francis Crick argues that ‘“You”, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules’.

This means, in the final analysis, that human freedom and responsibility are illusions. The freedom that we think we enjoy may itself simply be the product of our brain activity and how this most superior of organs is hard-wired. To think in this way is to submit to a form of determinism that would in the end absolve us from taking responsibility for our actions.

This issue is intensely discussed in the fascinating studies conducted by neuroscientists, philosophers and legal scholars on psychopathology. If one espouses the reductionism and determinism discussed above, psychopaths who commit murder cannot be said to be responsible for their crimes. Such a view would have profound implications to current laws.

Thankfully, many neuroscientists and bioethicists do not accept this naïve causal explanation of the relationship between brain states and human behaviour. Brain dysfunction alone, they argue, does not constitute sufficient reason to excuse people from taking responsibility for their actions. Other factors, like one’s social environment, also influence the way one behaves.

Psychopaths, writes Walter Glannon, ‘do not completely lack the capacity to control their impulses. Moreover, although they act without concern for the needs and interests of others, they have some understanding of what it means to harm someone and that other people can be harmed by their actions’.

An important significance attached to the Christian understanding that the human being is created in the image and likeness of God is that although humans are bodily beings they can never be simply reduced ontologically to their nervous or neurological systems. As bearers of the divine image, humans also have a spiritual aspect that enables them to relate to their Creator.

Genesis portrays the complex nature of the human being: ‘the Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being’ (Gen 2:7). Although the human being was formed from the ‘dust of the ground’ human nature can never be understood in purely materialistic or physicalist terms. For it is only when the lump of clay received the breath of life from God that it became ‘a living being’.


Dr Roland Chia


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.