Atrophy is not attractive.
Moviegoers are initially unnerved by Christian Bale’s emaciated physique in The Fighter. To play the cocaine-addled Dicky Ecklund, Bale lost over 60 pounds. Atrophy is not healthy, so when David Brooks says science is filling the hole left by the atrophy of theology, what does this say about the current health of the faith community?
Brooks is a columnist for the New York Times. He’s written such books as Bobos in Paradise, a satirical excoriation of the educated class’ inconsistencies. Bobos is a contraction of “bourgeois bohemians”—Americans who are conspicuous consumers (bourgeois) yet practice recycling (bohemian), all without a sense of irony. In a new book, Brooks sets his sights on our overly simplistic, rationalist view of human nature.
In The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement, Brooks tells the story of an imaginary couple, Harold and Erica, from womb to tomb. He’s actually retelling how they came to be who they are. Citing findings from neuroscience, Brooks debunks the idea that our decisions are primarily the product of conscious thoughts. “A core finding of this work is that we are not primarily the products of our conscious thinking,” he writes in The New Yorker. Our decisions are instead mostly the products of unconscious habits that are formed by cultures.
For example, in the womb, Harold was listening for his mother’s voice and being molded by it. Brooks notes that babies who have been read “The Cat in the Hat” while in the womb suck rhythmically when they hear it again after birth. They unconsciously recognize the poetry’s rhythm. Being read to in the womb also gave Harold a sense of security according to research from the University of Minnesota on attachment patterns in children at 42 months. These patterns predict with 75 percent accuracy those who will later have more friends and graduate from high school. Men who never experienced these early patterns are three times as likely to be solitary at age 70. “Early experiences don’t determine a life, but they set pathways,” writes Brooks.
The Social Animal parallels a passel of new books on human nature from the fields of neuroscience, genetics, psychology, sociology, and economics. For example, John Gray writes of research indicating humans process about 14 million bits of information per second.1 The brain compresses these ‘bits’ into bundles so that we unconsciously process about 95 percent of input yet are cognizant of only five percent. “It is rule of thumb among cognitive scientists that unconscious thought is 95 percent of all thought,” adds Cal Berkeley professor George Lakoff. “Moreover, the 95 percent below the surface of conscious awareness shapes and structures all conscious thought.”2 In other words, all decisions are, in the final analysis, culturally conditioned—even the five percent we are cognizant of. This means the kinds of cultures we create is a big deal.
It’s a bigger deal since scripture says the same thing. Human beings fundamentally operate by desires, or delights. We delight mostly in what we learn indirectly. Cultures are most influential in this endeavor, since they indirectly form desires through ideas, images, items, and institutions. Our primary desires are therefore unconscious, giving shape to 95 percent of our behaviors. Thus, the making of cultures is most influential in forming our behaviors. Small wonder that the making of flourishing cultures is the first mandate given to human beings (Gen.1:26-30 & 2:25).
The wonder is why the modern faith community focuses more on individuals than on assisting institutions in forming cultures. One culprit is the Enlightenment. It assumes decisions are primarily the product of the conscious will. Our conscious will forms no more than five percent of behavior, however, so modern theology explains only five percent of everyday behavior. It’s why Brooks writes in The New Yorker: “brain science is helping fill the hole left by the atrophy of theology.” Atrophy is a weakening of muscle caused by disease or disuse. A theology explaining a mere five percent of behavior doesn’t get enough use. It does however account “for the weakened effect of Christianity in the world today,” writes Dallas Willard.3
In Knowing Christ Today: Why We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge, Willard writes that for “most of Western history, the basic claims of the Christian tradition were regarded “as knowledge of reality.”4 He notes how this knowledge, including understanding human nature, “was made available to people in general through institutions of one kind or another.” For example, the church’s theology and take on human nature was useful to science and the arts, resonating with poets such as Iris Murdoch who suggested that, “at crucial moments of choice most of the business of choosing is already over.”5
If theology is atrophied, the solution is vigorous exercise. Faith is a muscle. Use it or lose it. The Apostle Paul urged 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. “It is for this we labor and strive,” Paul added (I Tim. 4:10). Strive is agonize, an athletic term for working your muscles to exhaustion. A theology explaining a mere five percent of behavior doesn’t get enough exercise—it’s not useful in the making of flourishing cultures, nor will it be taken seriously.
When Christian Bale won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in The Fighter, he had already gained back the 60 pounds and once again appeared healthy. A theology seeking to contribute to culture-shaping institutions in brain science will get a good workout. It will gain back the weight from the Enlightenment error, becoming robust and reversing the atrophy that David Brooks does not necessarily commend.
1 John Gray, Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals (London: Grant Books, 2002), p. 66.
2 George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1999), p. 13.
3 Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998), p. xv.
4 Dallas Willard, Knowing Christ Today: Why We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2009) p. 8.
5 Heather Widdows, The Moral Vision of Iris Murdoch (London, UK: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2005), p. 109.