Archive for May 15th, 2008

Living With A Brain

May 15, 2008

For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart (Hebrews 4:12).

Anyone who spends time listening to the spiritual struggles of other people – or spends time struggling with their own life (which, I am sure, we all must do to some extent) – will eventually come up against the question of where one thing ends and another begins. Specifically, I have in mind the question of where does the brain end and soul begin? I am certain that easy demarcations are misleading – we cannot say, “This is my brain, this is my soul,” with some easy clarity.

Depending on who you read – even within the Orthodox world – there can be a greater or lesser understanding of the role our body plays (specifically our brain) in the composition of our lives. Occasionally I will run across a “maximalist” (for wont of a better term) who makes little or no distinction between body and soul. There are days when this sounds right to me – and then there are days that I think such an answer is not subtle enough.

What I am certain about is that living with a brain has its ups and downs. I know that we all have “bad” days from time to time for no more reason than our brains are out of whack. Blame it on diet, hormones, or what have you, if your brain is not functioning well you’ll have a tough time – without having made any conscious decision.

This same certainty makes me skeptical of the role played by the will. Our culture is Arminian if not just Pelagian when it comes to the will (both theological positions emphasize the role of free will in salvation – Pelagianism making the will the very source of our salvation – a heresy). We choose many things, but most often, if not always, our choices are made in a context that we had no role in choosing. Fr. Alexander Schmemann is quoted as having said, “Spirituality consists in how you deal with the hand you have been dealt.”

I know that we make many choices during a given day – but the options are far less than infinite. And living with a brain, we are sometimes presented with options we would prefer to have avoided. Listening to others, I always have some sense that what I am hearing is simply what someone has done with what they were given. Some people may struggle more with anger than others – and it not be of their own choosing. Others may struggle with addictions or predelictions, anxieties and depressions that also have a component of “givenness” about them. All of which is to say that extending mercy and compassion towards one another must be one of the choices we make in our lives. We do not know the whole of another’s story or what “givens” they have to live with. God alone knows.

I have a small quote framed outside the door to my office at Church. It is a quote of the 1st century philosopher, Philo of Alexandria. It reads: Be kind. Everyone around you is having a difficult time.

It is such trains of thought that reinforce Christ’s commandments to be gentle and kind – to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Without such a fundamental choice (and here, it seems to me, a choice is indeed involved) life would be impossible. Without such a fundamental choice the family becomes an unbearable burden, the parish an outpost of hades, the nation a nightmare of incivility, and the world a planet plunged in darkness.

I have a brain. Somedays it is helpful and somedays not. Thanks be to God Whose mercy, as well as His word extends to the very division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. Thanks be to God Who trampled down death by death and made for all a path through His resurrection.