Cart Before the Horse

Michael Metzger

By Mike Metzger & John Seel

How many bits of information just zipped though your brain? What percentage of them were you aware of?

The answer might resolve a debate. Many modern faith communities believe putting the Cultural Mandate before the Great Commission is like putting the cart before the horse. Others say this is not true—the Cultural Mandate is the horse. The Great Commission is the cart. Which view is right? Recent findings from neuroscience might provide a clue.

The best way to resolve a debate is to first define terms. The Cultural Mandate appears in Genesis 1:26-28 where God calls Adam and Eve to reign and reproduce. This project begins in the Garden, where Adam is told to “cultivate” the earth (Gen. 2:15). “Cultivate” is translated in German as “kultur” and where we get our word “culture.” It’s our “human job description,” writes Dallas Willard.1 We are to make culture. Even after Adam and Eve fell, the Cultural Mandate is restated in Genesis 3:23 (“cultivate the ground”) and after the flood in Genesis 9. It has never been rescinded and was historically considered to be the horse that pulls the cart.

The Great Commission appears in every Gospel and the Book of Acts. It calls the church to make disciples. However, in some American faith communities, this is the horse. The Cultural Mandate tags along as the cart—something the church commits resources to only after winning people to Christ and trying to disciple them. But if these churches aim to develop “fully devoted followers of Christ,” their view of the horse and cart is undermined by neuroscience findings indicating how the human brain operates.

Human beings can process unconsciously perhaps 14 million bits of information per second, according to John Gray of the London School of Economics.2 The bandwidth of what we’re conscious of, however, is only about 18 bits. This is stunning. Human beings are aware of only .000001 percent of the ideas and images shaping their behavior. The rest of human behavior is unconscious, or culturally conditioned—about 99.99999 percent.

The implication from this research is staggering. Faith communities can’t make “fully devoted” Christians without first making a healthy culture in alignment with a biblical definition of reality. They have to put the horse—the Cultural Mandate—before the cart since behavior is more culturally conditioned than a matter of choice.

This isn’t a news flash to students of human nature. Pierre Bourdieu was a French sociologist and anthropologist who is perhaps best known for his analytical concept, habitus. This was a concept first used by Aristotle and Aquinas. Bourdieu furthered it by showing how behavior is grounded in social tendencies framed by a handful of center institutions. He writes, “In each of us, in varying proportions, there is part of yesterday’s man; it is yesterday’s man who inevitably predominates us, since the present amounts to little compared with the long past in the course of which we were formed and from whom we result. Yet we do not sense this man of the past, because he is inveterate in us; he makes up the unconscious part of ourselves.” Most of the items we assume reflect our choices—our food, our clothes, our words, our artwork, and our views of marriage—are more shaped by the habitus. What’s stunning about the new findings from neuroscience is just how few choices we actually make. Habits trump choices by a higher percentage than most of us imagine.

Too few of us have thought reflectively about “the unthought categories of thought, which delimit the thinkable and predetermine the thought.” Self-reflection takes work, but can help free individuals from the habits and dispositions that shape their behavior. Bourdieu called for a self-conversion. “The task is to produce, if not a ‘new person,’ then at least a ‘new gaze,’ a sociological eye. And this cannot be done without a genuine conversion, a metanoia, a mental revolution, a transformation of one’s whole vision of the social world.” William Faulkner in his creation of an imaginative county made a similar observation. He observed cryptically, “The past is not dead, it is not even the past.” “No man is himself, he is the sum of his past.” And perhaps most poetically, “Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders.”

This high percentage impact of embodied habits and dispositions is credible when we take into consideration that human beings are finite creatures. God is the infinite creator. The percentage of difference between infinity and finitude is infinite. That’s not a word play—it’s reality. The difference between what God knows and what we can know is greater than 99.99999 versus .000001 percent. So it’s not a stretch to imagine an infinite God making finite beings capable of being conscious of only .000001 percent of all that is happening around them.

Of course, this is not an argument against individual responsibility. Rather, it elevates the church’s responsibility to put the horse before the cart—if they are serious about making “fully devoted followers of Christ.” The habitus shapes 99.9999 percent of our choices. We may think we freely choose, but Bourdieu argued that we are more influenced by social forces. Culturally influential institutions create these social forces. To take the Great Commission seriously, faith communities have to first make culture—making institutions that make the habitus that shapes individuals. They have to put the horse, the Cultural Mandate, before the cart, the Great Commission.

This shouldn’t be a news flash for the church. Up until the 1800s, the majority of faith communities worldwide believed the Cultural Mandate preceded the Great Commission. You couldn’t make disciples if you didn’t make culture. There was no debate. Nor is this a debate outside the faith. The poet Iris Murdoch observed that, “at crucial moments of choice most of the business of choosing is already over.”3 The cars we drive, the clothes we desire, the music we enjoy, the slang we use—they are mostly shaped by the habitus. This reality underscores the deficiencies of “two-chapter” gospel churches. They promote the Great Commission while only paying lip service to the Cultural Mandate. This cart-before-horse approach accounts for perhaps the most remarkable thing about modern Christians—just how unremarkable they are.

According to Gallup surveys, 94 percent of Americans believe in God and 74 percent claim to have made a commitment to Jesus Christ. About 34 percent confess to a “new birth” experience and are drawn to “two-chapter” gospel churches. But a close examination of their behaviors is sobering. When compared to the general public, these Christians exhibit the same behaviors in terms of unethical behavior, crime, mental distress and disorder, family failures, addictions, financial misdealing, and the like. These individuals aren’t moving toward becoming “fully devoted followers of Christ.”

Movement requires hitching the cart—the Great Commission—to the horse—the Cultural Mandate. You can’t get anywhere putting the cart before the horse. Now neuroscience is reinforcing what scripture has long said and the church used to believe: the Cultural Mandate is the horse and the Great Commission is the cart.

_______________
1 Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God (San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins, 1998), p. 22.
2 John Gray, Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals (London: Grant Books, 2002), p. 66.
3 Heather Widdows, The Moral Vision of Iris Murdoch (London, UK: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2005), p. 109.

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9 thoughts on “Cart Before the Horse”

  1. Mike and John,

    Thoughtful! Thank you for another excellent piece calling us to be reflective practitioners.

    Looking forward to next Monday’s piece.

    Samuel.

  2. Thanks, Mike and John, for the great efforts. This essay is, like many others you have posted, very provocative. I fully agree with and understand your point about the church’s need to play a stronger role in the Cultural Mandate. But I have a question about the “which comes first” issue you raise in this essay. To me, the matter is more of a “chicken or egg” problem than a “cart and horse” problem.

    It seems to me that Jesus entered a decadent Roman culture and started a movement that certainly transformed the culture over time–as Rodney Stark and others have documented so well. But the early believers, as Stark concludes in “The Rise of Christianity,” did so because they first had transformed beliefs–a new and hopeful worldview that inspired them to behave differently and work toward healing a broken society. It’s hard to imagine how unregenerate people could produce a redeemed culture.

    I also see this pattern in Romans 1:18-32 (which depicts the roots of cultural decline; the last part of the chapter portrays cultural chaos) is that the undoing of culture starts with a spiritual rejection of God (exchanging the truth for a lie). In other words, Paul seems to indicate that false belief produces broken culture. This would indicate, perhaps, that to redeem a culture one needs to transform people first, at the level of belief.

    That said, I fully agree that the Gospel message (great commission) would have had little impact without the amazing cultural work generated by believers from the first century forward. And we need to regain that emphasis today.

    Thus it is difficult for me to portray this question in “cart and horse” terms. To me it’s more of a “chicken and egg” question.

    Any thoughts?

  3. Mike and John,
    Thank you for such a thoughtful article. I agree with much of your ideas, but not necesarily your conclusion. First – I believe you have created a false dichotomy between horse and cart. There is not precedent from scripture that the cultural mandate should come before the great commission. Both are commanded, both should be obeyed. If not, we would likely find ourselves stuck in trying to get the mandate perfect before we begin to fulfill the great commission.

    Second, Jesus did not create this dichotomy. He made culture, and he preached the gospel message. In fact, in some ways, he prioritized his time to the great commission as he knew that the cultural mandate would always be in play; requiring an ongoing adaptation to changing culture. Yet, individuals only have a small time on earth, and therefore, with time being of the essence, he focused on Shalom, and reaching the lost, and training his disciples to do the same.
    Third, your argument on information processing is a reach. How our brains work is truly poorly understood. I wouldn’t base an argument on what we know or don’t know about how the mind processes information. In addition, to say that we can’t make fully devoted disciples until the cultural mandate is moving forward or healthy, begs the question regarding many of histories great Christians who have impacted the world for Christ – in the middle of cultural mandate hell. For example, Dietrich Bonnhoffer made disciples and had a tremendous impact then and now, despite the fact that the culture he was in was a culture of death. Furthermore, the suffering life of many believers in the worst of circumstances often is what turned the world on its head and open peoples to the good news of the gospel.

    Finally, while I appreciate your article, I think you are working too hard on this one to make a distinction between the two ideas. I would offer, that the two are more intertwined and there is neither horse nor cart; rather there are those who are to fulfill the two great commandments while simultaneously fulfilling the cultural mandate.

    Best,

    Pete Floyd (Stephen’s dad)

  4. Mike Metzger

    Glenn – Chicken and egg might indeed be a better picture. Good contribution! Peter: If it helps, we’re not suggesting a dichotomy. It’s both/and. We’re saying there is a linkage and, as Peter Berger might suggest, science might provide a pointer that underscores the ‘how’ and ‘why’ scripture seems to link the Cultural Mandate and Great Commission. The historic position in the church was that the Great Commission is a reiteration – or re-missioning – of the Cultural Mandate. Thus, the Cultural Mandate is the cart before the horse.

  5. Peter and Glenn,

    It’s also helpful to think of how Jesus began his public ministry, by being baptized (a strong cultural/behavioral action that expresses belief in a very high-touch manner) and then calling to his side 12 men who would take part in the ultimate behavioral modification experiment. They walked by his side experiencing the way he slept, ate, healed, taught, etc. long before they heard him talk about the fact that the kingdom (which they had been experiencing bodily at his side) was to be brought to earth through his bodily death and resurrection. If you read the Gospels, you’ll notice that even Jesus during the three short years that he spoke of the kingdom did not disclose the heart of chapters 2 and 3 of the four chapter Gospel until the tail end of his time here on earth. The horse did come before the cart in his life. It is not a dichotomy. The horse must be hitched to the cart in order for the cart to move. The “gospel message” will not go forth without the gospel being lived out in our subconscious so that the world will know its power.

    If you like these thoughts, I’ve written a fair bit on the re-creative power of God’s people in culture over at re-kre8.blogspot.com. There should be a link above, under my name.

    Cheers,

    Kyle

  6. I know this is late to the game, but I wanted to respond to Glenn.

    Why do you assume the culture Jesus lived in was unredeemed? There was a strong Jewish presence, and the Jews being the people of God did have a strong culture based on scripture, along with tradition. Sure, some of the Jewish culture went too far or missed the point altogether, but the general Jewish public desired to be good Jews as best they knew how. Hence the people who came to Jesus asking which commandment was the greatest. Clearly there was an understanding of the Law and a foundation for Jesus to quote Lev and Deut as the answer. Plus, many of the first converts were either Jews or God-fearing Gentiles, people shaped somewhat by a religious background/culture, albeit a minority one.

    Fast forward to our times, our country was, for the most part, a churched one that fostered a moral and theistic culture. In this climate, simple gospel presentations or revival meetings found fertile soil, where they simply connected ‘dots’ for people that they had picked up along the way. Now our culture has shifted and that general church/bible background has been lost. This makes evangelism more difficult and, in my opinion, calls for revisiting the cultural mandate as opposed to figuring out a better way to proclaim. In this, I strongly agree with Mike.

  7. I know this is late to the game, but I wanted to respond to Glenn.

    You said, “it’s is hard to imagine how unregenerate people could produce a redeemed culture.” Why do you assume the culture Jesus lived in was unredeemed? Sure, it wasn’t fully redeemed, but there was a strong Jewish presence, and the Jews, being the people of God, did have a strong culture based on scripture, along with tradition. Sure, some of the Jewish culture went too far or missed the point altogether, but the general Jewish public desired to be good Jews as best they knew how. Hence the people who came to Jesus asking which commandment was the greatest. Clearly there was an understanding of the Law and a foundation for Jesus to quote Lev and Deut as the answer. Plus, many of the first converts were either Jews or God-fearing Gentiles, people shaped somewhat by a religious background/culture, albeit a minority one.

    Fast forward to our times, our country was, for the most part, a churched one that fostered a moral and theistic culture. In this climate, simple gospel presentations or revival meetings found fertile soil, where they simply connected ‘dots’ for people that they had picked up along the way. Now our culture has shifted and that general church/bible background has been lost. This makes evangelism more difficult and, in my opinion, calls for revisiting the cultural mandate as opposed to figuring out a better way to proclaim. In this, I strongly agree with Mike.

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