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A Theology of the Brain
How the Trinity Helps Us Understand the Brain
How does 2 become 3? Can 1 plus 1 ever equal 3? Can trinitarian theology help us understand the brain? Do those questions have anything to do with spirituality and mental health? Join me on a short journey to find out!
In April, 2022 I wrote some brief notes, a paragraph really, on a theological theory of the brain. That has been simmering for almost 18 months. Now that I’m teaching a unit on the brain and the biological basis of psychology, it felt right to attempt a written reflection. Here’s a starter question:
Is reality fundamentally triadic? Or is reality, at root, dyadic?
Take the first option. What examples come to mind when you think about things that come in threes? Water can be solid, liquid and gas. Time includes past, present and future. Philosophy, the pursuit of wisdom, includes metaphysics, epistemology, and axiology. Or think of John Frame’s account of the three perichoretic perspectives of God’s authority, power and presence.
How about the second? What things, what aspects of reality from physical to metaphysical, are twofold in nature? Light is both particle and wave. Humanity is male and female. And yes, the subject of this post, the brain. All brains—not just humans, but all animal brains—have two halves that make up the whole, a left hemisphere and a right hemisphere.
What if the brain, that most mysteriously complex creation of God with roughly 86 billion neurons, is at once both dyadic and triadic?
Why Does That Matter?
Perhaps that question sounds uninteresting and abstract. If so, consider this: ever since Augustine (if not before), Christians have intuited profound implications from humanity being created in the image of the triune God. Because God is a trinity of Father, Son and Spirit, Augustine explored numerous triadic aspects of human existence in search of one that most fully represented the image of God.1 What is the best analogy for the Trinity in understanding humanity in God’s image?2 Is it memory, understanding, and will? Or in later terms of renaissance faculty psychology, is it reason, affections and will? Or yet another, from theologian Nathan R. Wood, is the Trinity reflected in the three aspects of human nature, person and personality?
Wood wrote a whole book exploring these and similar questions titled The Secret of the Universe: God, Man and Matter.3 Here is his central claim as to why space, matter, time and humanity are triune:
“The Triunity shown in the Bible manifestly presents a vast and adequate reason for the triune structure of the physical universe. For the reason ought to be in God. The universe ought to reflect God, its Maker and Ground. That should be the reason for the general character of the universe.”
Because God is triune we should not be surprised; no, we should actually expect to find triads throughout creation. Indeed, Bavinck went so far as to say that
“all the works of God ad extra are only adequately known when their trinitarian existence is recognized…The perfection of a creature, the completeness of a system, the harmony of beauty—these are finally manifest only in a triad. The higher a thing’s place in the order of creation, the more it aspires to the triad.”4
But what about dyads? If Bavinck and Wood and Augustine (and many others) are right, that God’s creation every reflects God’s triunity, and most especially so in humanity, how do we make sense of the bipartite nature of humans? So much of the physiology of humans—and animals as well—comes in twos. Two eyes, two ears, two hands, two feet, two lungs, two genders, and yes, two brains.
Well, not exactly two brains. While it’s true that we have one brain with two halves, the respective specializations of each hemisphere are so distinct—to the point of operating independently in split-brain studies— that some scientists speak of our two brains, the right brain and the left brain. Do these two brains of ours similarly reflect “the triune structure of the physical universe”? If humans are those creatures of God who “so narrowly missed being gods, bright with Eden’s dawn light” (Psalm 8:5 The Message), how are we to understand the human brain? It is the most complete system and harmony of beauty of the human body, the highest physical structure in creation (to use Bavinck’s language), so should it not manifest as a triad?
Seeing Through Triadic Chiasm
This whole question was sparked by reading two books back to back. The first was The Ethics of Beauty, by Timothy Patitsas. Starting from the transcendentals of beauty, goodness and truth, Patitsas demonstrates Eastern Orthodoxy’s fondness for triads. I actually made a list in the back of my copy, a total of 14. E.g., eros, agape and philia; fasting, alms giving, and prayer; shyness, boldness, and glory; purification, illumination, and deification.
But dyads also have a central place for Patitsas. For example, he finds deep theological significance in the two-fold structure of the cross and the resurrection. Indeed, he says the pattern of cross and resurrection in humanity is fractal:
“[T]he entire universe is structured according to the same fractal, the particular quality of unity between death and life in Christ’s cross and resurrection.”5
Dyad isn’t actually an accurate term for what Patitsas does with the fractal of cross and resurrection. He argues that it is a chiasm:
“Orthodox Christians should understand that chiasm is the very essence of sacramental life, of all Christian life, of the gospel itself: God became man so that man might become God (St. Athanasius of Alexandria). This chiasm is the gospel in one sentence.”6
Here is the crucial clue to my very first question above, which probably sounded concerningly irrational: can 1 plus 1 equal 3? Patitsas diagrams Athanasius famous line thus:
God became man so that man might become god.
You have two things here: God and man. The third thing is how they relate, how they are connected and interact, which a chiasm visually represents with the Greek letter X (God at the top left and bottom right, man at the bottom left and top right, intersecting in the middle).
Ok. Still with me? Just a little bit more. We’re getting back to the brain, I promise. After reading The Ethics of Beauty I read Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Following Patitsas with McGilchrist’s exhaustive study of brain lateralization—how the brain is structured to function with its right and left hemispheres—connected all of these dots. Here’s what I wrote in my journal back in April, 2022:
Perhaps chiasm really is a structural reality embedded in the material world. For example, as seen in body lateralization: right eye uses left brain hemisphere, left eye uses right brain hemisphere.
If you’ve studied the brain, you’ve probably seen a diagram like the one below. This is the first time I’ve noticed a diagram using the phrase “optic chiasm”:
McGilchrist’s main thesis, which I’ve discussed here, is that the right hemisphere is biologically wired—and Christians would add, designed—to take the lead in life. With our bi-hemispheric brain, the design sequence goes something like this: the right hemisphere openly welcomes new information (presence, receptivity), the left hemisphere makes purposive use of that information (re-presentation, analysis), and then sends the representation back to the right hemisphere for integration and greater depth of presence.
Two hemispheres, two brains as it were, but a threefold (triadic and chiastic!) ordered sequence:
Right Left Right
This is how the dyadic brain reflects the triune God, how, in the language of Bavinck, the brain aspires and rises to a triad. Only when we use our two brains in this threefold order do we most fully reflect and represent the Trinity in whose image we were made.
To answer the earlier question, can trinitarian theology help us understand the brain? I think so! Practically, this means we let the right brain take the lead in life. We lead with being open minded, relational, empathic, embodied, mindful, allowing the left brain to follow with its helpful but subservient analysis and reason, completing the chiasm with a return to presence: physical/mental/emotional/spiritual presence that is rooted in the physical world, rooted in wise self-knowledge, rooted in relationship with others, and most of all, rooted and resting in God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.78
Quote From Blaise Pascal
“Nature has set us so well in the centre, that if we change one side of the balance, we change the other also. This makes me believe that the springs in our brain are so adjusted that he who touches one touches also its contrary.”
Ways of Attending: How Our Divided Brain Constructs the World, by Iain McGilchrist. I haven’t read this, but it looks to be a condensed version of The Master and His Emissary. I don’t understand why a paperback is $20 for only 32 pages, when The Master is $18 with over 500 pages. Even at that price though, a 32 page book is much easier to finish, and I believe McGilchrist is a must read for anyone wanting to better understand how neuroscience applies to our present Western society, including Christianity and Christian spirituality.
Thinking should be done in community, and I would love to hear your thoughts about this post. Aside from the critical question “Does it make sense?” (I hope it does!), what more are you curious about? Does this resonate with any questions of your own about neuroscience and theological anthropology? Please share freely!
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The Trinity, Books IX-XV.
This became known as the psychological analogy, which is imperfect/incomplete, and there are valid critiques from the social analogy, most of all that it is too individualistic. But getting into that distinction would take us too far afield; this post is exploring the human brain, and there is a place for studying humanity as a human.
Nathan Wood. The Secret of the Universe: God, Man and Matter. New York: F. H. Revel & Co., 1932.
Reformed Dogmatics: God and Creation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), p. 333. Bavinck also observes this universal perception of triads in unregenerate knowledge; it is an indelible characteristic of being created in God’s image, whether fallen or redeemed: “Still, consciously or unconsciously, philosophy from Plato to von Hartmann has always again returned to three first principles (αρχαι) on the basis of which the creation as a whole and in its various parts could be explained. There is much truth in the belief that creation everywhere displays to us vestiges of the Trinity. And because these vestiges are most clearly evident in “humanity,” so that “human beings” may even be called “the image of the Trinity,” “humanity” is driven from within to search out these vestiges.”
The list of non-Christian triads could fill, and has filled, PhD dissertations: Freud’s id, ego and superego; Karen Horney’s moving away, moving against, and moving toward; Hegel’s thesis, antithesis, and synthesis; Siegel’s mind, body, and relationship; Badenoch’s leading, following, and responding.
The Ethics of Beauty, p. 153.
Ethics, p. 301.
As a side note, which could be an additional post, I wonder if this way of deploying chiasms to make triads could solve Calvin’s and Edwards’ dilemma over the number of human faculties. Both, from what I recall as I haven’t taken the time to look this up, acknowledge many philosophers and theologians believing there are 3 human faculties—reason, affections, and will—and yet they included affections in the will, so that there are only 2 faculties, reason and will. But I’ve been known to strain the limits of conceptual tools and have to be wary of forcing things that don’t really fit.
Ok, went a little crazy with footnotes here, but that’s what happens when I have to click that publish button but want to leave some breadcrumbs for further study. An additional connection I’m wondering about is Aquinas’ dyadic anthropology. On the basis of the missions (sending) of the Son and the Spirit, Aquinas believed that salvation could be understood as beginning with the Son and the Spirit bestowing gifts to sinners which fit them for receiving each person’s distinct work. These gifts are knowledge (from the Son) and love (from the Spirit), corresponding to human reason and will, respectively. If there is not a creaturely gift corresponding to the Father because the Father is not sent, is there nevertheless a way of construing knowledge and love in triune fashion similar to McGilchrist’s work?