Living Tissue

Michael Metzger

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.


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  1. How about the idea or concept of salvation? Christ most certainly embodied this “great idea” by his death on the cross, and we must get off our fannies to proclaim it, but it still seems like we preach and live something that is basically an idea or concept. Yes, we do work it out, that is salvation, yet it is still the idea apart from which our actions have little meaning.

  2. I KNOW both tactics and medicine from my years in the SEAL Teams. The first step is painful. You must first test your resolve. Then you must learn the trade which takes apprenticeship and employment. Then when you have learned it you must study it so you can teach it…then you know it! It takes time and exercise(read pain).
    Fight the good fight!

  3. Hmmm. I wonder how literally we can take this. Does knowledge really reside in the physical body? Do ideas and learning–love and worship and wonder–adhere to chemicals, molecules, atoms, electrons & leptons? Seems like there’s much more substance to thought than to physical forms, including our bodies.

  4. I love when the truth hurts! Being a fully developing disciple of Jesus is learning something not just from theory, but action…faith IN action. Saved, not BY works, but FOR GOOD WORKS…it is a privilege to WORK OUT our salvation through the process of becoming more like Christ! THEN, you teach it (2 Cor 1) because we have experienced God fully and are ready to give a good word, based on TRUTH, not THEORY! (Thank you Henry Blackaby) Time for the church/Body of Christ to take it to another level and get moving in love and good deeds – and it will take becoming acquainted with HIS SUFFERING…the analogies live on! THANKS for the Freedom to THINK in 2009!

  5. Good stuff, Mike. I’m with ya, mostly. Besides my laziness and busyness, it is easier to read a book about discipleship, prayer, Christ, than to do it.

    Still, still. If it were anybody else writing this fascinating column, I’d chide you for anti-intellectualism, discounting the role of ideas in the shaping of cultures, and the very Biblical theme of using our mind, taking every theory captive, having renewed minds, the mind of Christ, loving God with our minds.

    Perhaps I didn’t get all that you meant by that last line “ideas exist only as a function…” Hmmmm. I’d like to say I need to think about that, but don’t want to be an Enlightenment rationalist. Heee, heee.

    Yes, we live into the truth, and our discipleship happens as we embody fidelity. Yet–and you know this, but I figured somebody ought to put it down for the record–there is a call to study, learn, think and do the hard work of theoretical reformation. Calvin Seerveld, renowned reformational philosopher of aesthetics writes about the hard WORK of Christian scholarship. Yet, he is always about embodied discipleship, honoring lived out work and play and worship 24/7. I wonder, then, despite good discernment of the geneology of the idolatry of pure theory, if we should draw the distinction between thinking/doing as starkly as you have here.

    The unacceptabled dichotomy between the two must be tackled, but the wisest direction isn’t to just swing from one pole to the other.

  6. As the Lord has wired me as an ideas person I certainly agree that unless the many great ideas He has given me become outworked they aren’t worth nothing to nobody. And some of them are very simple but even there I need to link in with others who are able to turn these ideas in to reality because the Lord has blessed them with the skills needed to do so.

    Systems only work when everyone involved agrees & to it & if they are centred around common sense otherwise people don;t waste time on something that doesn’t work practically.

    The fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good & evil wasn’t an apple because how would it be consistent of the Lord to consider us the apple of His eye if it was the fruit that caused us to sin. It was more likely a banana or a nut because that expresses that sin is crazy in the Lord’s sight!

  7. Hello Byron! I’m glad that you’re with me, mostly – but I think you have a false dichotomy (plus, I’m not into pole swinging… sounds like you hang out in bars too much!). I didn’t say that only only embodied ideas matter. That would be anti-intellectualism. The correct contrast is not anti-intellectualism, but idealism — even more pointedly Gnosticism. It’s our Hegelian assumption that ideas have consequences – apart from getting traction in culture-shaping institutions. We evangelicals lean more toward talk, the wider world more measures traction. We more into “conversations,” the wider world is looking more for consequential changes. We’re closer to Gnosticism – they’re closer to pragmatism.

  8. I appreciate the idea that knowing is tied to doing. And I completely agree with Polanyi on his concepts of tacit knowing and personal knowledge. But, the shorthand translation that “knowing=doing” from the article seems to move the pendulum beyond center. If you accept the example given in the article that modern classroom education is the antithesis of “doing”, then you really don’t “know” anything from simply having read the words arranged on the screen. For, according to the shorthand translation, “knowing” requires more kinetic energy than that which typically happens in a classroom, namely active listening and perceiving. We are told that faith comes by hearing, which doesn’t necessarily imply “doing” beyond the classroom kinetics denied by the article.

    More accurately, we are able to more fully know through doing. In fact,
    the Bible implores us to work out our salvation. But throwing out
    classic learning methods or implying that what happens in a classroom is not a part of the knowing process is perhaps beyond center.

  9. Again, Steve, the difference is not between the classical education, the classroom, and book learning on the one hand and kinetic learning on the other. It is the difference between Enlightenment “idealism” and the Hebrew sense of a truer knowing though mentors and hands on learning.

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