Mind or muscles?
Thomas Edison said great ideas originate in the muscles. Kant, Descartes, Hegel – and most Western Christians – say great ideas originate in the mind. Jesus probably doesn’t care if great ideas come from the mind, muscles, or your mom’s minestrone. But he might say Edison knew something that faith communities don’t.
Edison is considered the embodiment of American inventiveness, holding 1,093 U.S. patents. That’s the right word – embodiment. Edison believed great ideas are embodied ideas – not esoteric abstractions. We know by doing. Seeking the truth is not sitting in seminars and listening to lectures but requires practice – exactly what the Bible says.
In Ezra 7:10, the Hebrew “seek” is also rendered as “practice.” Learning is doing, and doing is learning. It’s a kinetic process promoted throughout the Bible. In Genesis, when Adam and Eve ate the apple, “then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew they were naked” (3:7). This explains why “Adam knew Eve” (4:1). They learned by experiencing sex, not sitting in seminars. It was “hands on” versus a head trip. But knowing by doing wasn’t restricted to Judaism – “philosophers in Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum practiced their craft; they did not merely study it,” writes Benjamin Balint.1 They also believed the truer knowing came with the doing. Here’s why.
The first commission in the Bible is to “make culture” (Gen. 1:26-30). “Culture is seen in what people do unthinkingly, what is “natural” to them and therefore requires no explanation or justification,” writes Dallas Willard.2 It’s habits. Practice doesn’t make perfect; but it does make habit. Jesus wants his kingdom to be habitual, so his method was practice, practice, practice. You learned by practicing as an apprentice under a mentor – you shoed a horse to learn how to shoe a horse. You didn’t yak about it.
Practicing, however, is risky. Kids learn bike riding by practice – and some scrape their knees. To reduce risk, the German Enlightenment of Kant, Lessing, Goethe, and Hegel elevated ideas – or the “mind” – over doing. René Descartes piggybacked on this, holding that soul and body are two independent things. The effect, writes Lesslie Newbigin, “has been to reinforce the dichotomy… between theory and practice.”3
Most Western faith communities unthinkingly piggyback on Descartes. As Willard points out, “The ‘Western’ segment of the church today lives in a bubble of historical illusion about the meaning of discipleship.”4 Western Christians pulled the plug on kinetic practice and plunked people in classrooms to learn theory. This accounts for “the practical irrelevance of actual obedience to Christ,” Willard writes, and “for the weakened effect of Christianity in the world today.”5 We believe the classroom will catalyze followers of Jesus, yet – and I write this with apologies to Churchill – never has so much been drilled into so many by so few with such meager results. What if the problem isn’t so much with our minds but with our muscles?
Management experts say that every system is perfectly designed to yield the result it is getting. Expecting a different result by doing the same thing over and over equals insanity, Einstein said. Its nuts to keep plugging small groups, home groups, societies, and seminars while the wider world pays attention to getting things done. We’re known for mostly publishing papers – Edison was praised for being a great practitioner. In fact, you could argue that Edison, with his prodigious achievements and networks that included Ford and Firestone, beat the pants off faith communities when it comes to changing the 20th century world. Knowing by doing is what makes the difference – a lesson I learned under Lew Fenton.
I tried out for Lew Fenton’s basketball team my sophomore year of high school. He had a reputation for winning teams that ran the opposition off the floor. Yet Lew never selected his players and never made any cuts. Instead, he put away the basketballs at the first practice and lined everyone up on the baseline. Then we ran sprints. Lots of them. We ran until kids began to quit. And then we kept running. If you threw up, you were cut. I only made the team because I had dry heaves. The fifteen still standing at the end made Lew’s team. We ran every other team off the court that year.
The Apostle Paul ran in such as way to win the race. He told his apprentice, Timothy, to “discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness” (I Tim. 4:7). The Greek word for discipline is gymnasium – working out and exercising until your guts are pooped out. He added, “it is for this we labor and strive” (I Tim. 4:10). The Greek word for strive is agonize – another athletic term. Apprenticeship is discipleship, and it used to be considered agonizingly exhausting. “In working-class France,” Annie Dillard writes, “when an apprentice got hurt, or when he got tired, the experienced workers said, ‘It is the trade entering his body.’”6 We’ve forgotten how truth gets into our tissue.
“Knowledge exists only as a function of living tissue,” Kieran Egan insists.7 This is essentially what the great scientist Edison meant. But it was also the message of Jesus, whom the “earliest apprentices in kingdom living” thought of as “the ultimate scientist,” Dallas Willard notes.8 If great ideas exist only as a function of living tissue, then perhaps we need to get off our fannies and begin to practice, practice, practice.
1 Benjamin Balint, “What Is Ancient Philosophy?” First Things, December 2002.
2 Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God (San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins, 1998), p. 260.
3 Lesslie Newbigin, Proper Confidence: faith, doubt, and certainty in christian discipleship (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995), p. 23.
4 Willard, Conspiracy, p. 214.
5 Willard, Conspiracy, p. XV.
6 Annie Dillard, The Writing Life (New York, NY: Harper, 1989), p. 69.
7 Kieran Egan, Getting It Wrong From the Beginning: Our Progressivist Inheritance from Herbert Spencer, John Dewey, and Jean Piaget (New Haven, CT: Yale, 2002), p. 68.
8 Willard, Conspiracy, p. 94.