When speaking of the human body (and both its material and immaterial aspects), Scripture uses a number of specific terms. In the New Testament, some of the common terms used for the human person include; the body (soma), the flesh (sarx), the mind (nous), the spirit (pneuma), the soul/life (psyche) and the heart (kardia). While this list is not exhaustive, it includes the major terms used in Pauline and other New Testament literature.
There are instances in which some of these terms are used interchangeably or at times in poetic and metaphorical manners. Furthermore, we know that these words were by no means exclusively New Testament in origin or usage. Paul, who was raised in a context that was both Jewish and Greek, had a worldview that was predicated upon both the traditions of his Jewish heritage (and their holy scriptures) as well as that of the Greek culture in which he was born into. What we see in the New Testament is a theological description of how these widely used terms make sense in light of divine revelation. Thus, in Scripture, Paul develops a Christian anthropology – meaning a Christian framework for how to understand the human being. This anthropological framework assumed, of course, the basic tenets of a biblical worldview, which saw the:
‘human being as the work of God’s creation, the human being as enslaved to sin, and the restoration of the human being through the work of Christ.’
Of course, one may wonder how everything fits together when delving into the particulars of the human person. Over the last several centuries, the natural sciences have provided us with a wealth of insight into the biological and physiological intricacies of our bodies. However, if we hold to a biblical view of the human being, we accept that there are both physical and metaphysical aspects of our bodily existence. Furthermore, we believe that insights of science compliment rather than detract from the theological account of who we are.
The question remains then. How does Scripture envision the unique aspects of the body to function, both independently and interdependently? How does the mind relate to the soul? How does the body relate to the mind? And so forth. In Christian tradition, there are two primary perspectives on the human being, both of which can be reasonably derived from Scripture. One view espouses a dichotomy in which the body consists of two pieces (body and soul). The other view, called the trichotomy of the human being, holds that there are three concurrent elements (body, soul and spirit). The debate on the legitimacy of these two perspectives persists to this day.
In Western Christianity, the dominate view of the human body holds to the twofold distinction between body and soul, which considers the additional Pauline usage of “spirit” to be synonymous with “soul.” Other theologians, however, have rejected both views as dualistic divisions between body and soul, arguing that the human person cannot be neatly divided into such categories and is instead, a unified whole where body and soul/spirit cannot be disentangled from one another because they are fundamentally intertwined. This view points to the bodily resurrection as an indication that we cannot separate the physical from the metaphysical and cautions us from falling into a gnostic tendency to pit the body/flesh against the soul. This concern is not without warrant and must somehow exist in tension with the reality that Paul does envision a sort of conflict between the desires of the flesh and those of the spirit. Perhaps, paradoxically, this tension between body and soul, parallels the profound mystery of Christ’s dual nature.
In any case, these conversations include far more depth and cannot be examined in full detail here. If you’re interested in studying more – start with J. K. Chamblin’s article on Pauline “Psychology” in the Dictionary of Paul and His Letters: A Compendium of Biblical Scholarship (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 765-775.
The question we’d like to explore in this month’s Theological Trails, is how the mind (nous), fits into a holistic conception of the human person, which should inform our work in reentry and recovery.
“Set your mind on things above, not on earthly things” (Colossians 3:2)
“Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming” (1 Peter 1:13).
“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Romans 12:2).
As outlined earlier, Scripture views the mind as the faculty and location where an individual “reasons and understands.” This coincides with modern insights. Cognitive and intellectual exercises are performed and activated in the mind. Interestingly enough however, the mind is not limited to exercises that are purely rational or logical. Paul categorizes other forms of knowledge ‘that are distinct from the cognitive.’ This includes references to prayer and a “peace that surpasses all understanding (nous),” found in Philippians 4:7. In other words, there are forms of “knowing” that transcend the intellect/mind or at the very least, are not rationally explained or limited to the mind.
As we see in some of the passages listed above, the mind plays an important role in our spiritual development and maturation. We are called in many instances, to order our mind, to set it on the things of God. To maintain a mind that is lucid and steadfast. All of these characteristics are tied to a mind that functions according to God’s design. What we value and order our lives around informs our development, our habits and trajectory of our mental wellbeing and our ultimately, our life.
The call to be transformed by the renewing of our mind (or “to renovate”) is integral to an individual’s reentry and recovery journey. In the Greek, the verb for “renewing” is anakainosis – which is a compound verb that combines the idea of “again” (thus the prefix “re”) and kainos, or the state of being “new in quality.” Some sharp eyes may have noticed that the word “kainos” is the same word we used for the name of our “Kainos Woodshop” in Shakopee. This name is derived from passages like Romans 12:2, which speak to the process of renewal (i.e., transforming an old thing into a new state of being). The repeated occurrences of the prefix “re” demonstrate a common thread in our discussion. To renew. To renovate. To reenter. To recover. Notice how all these verbs share the etymological root, “re,” which simply means back or again (implying a sort of return to something).
This renewal is an important step in learning how to retrain the habits, patterns and behaviors of the mind and body. The renewal of the mind is a discipline that prevents (or frees) us from adopting narratives or ideas that control our mind and body. These narratives conform us to a pattern of living, which ultimately estranges us from God, others and ourselves. Taking the time to identify the narratives, half-truths and lies that have taken up residence in our mind can help initiate this process of renewal. We also know that these narratives are often deeply tethered to our own histories and traumas.
On a tangible level, this renewal is exercised through daily disciplines, which can actually rewire and reconfigure parts of our mind and our bodily response to situations and circumstances. Such daily disciplines can take many shapes and forms.
Consider, for a moment, how in the Early Church, believers and young catechumens entering the faith were called to model and develop the practice of renewal through the formation of what Christian historian Alan Kreider calls “habitus:”
“It is habitus that constitutes our profoundest sense of identity; that forms our deepest convictions, allegiances, and repulsions; and that shapes our response to ultimate questions—what will we live for, die for…” (Alan Kreider, The Patient Ferment of the Early Church, 40).
Habitus refers to the trajectory and fruit of our individual and specific habits. When something becomes habitual or routine, it begins to become engrained in who we are. We essentially inhabit a way of living. Scientific research confirms this intuition with theories of neuroplasticity, which indicate that the brain and its neurons can be rewired over time through the habits and environments in which we immerse ourselves in. One of the simplest ways we can do this is through reflection. The act of reflection is itself a habit that in turn allows us to contemplate the ways in which our daily rituals and decisions impact our mind.
In our line of work, we engage with individuals as they come to us – as human beings with both physical and spiritual needs. As human beings with minds and bodies in various states of health and decay. Regardless of our individual theological perspectives and convictions, we can all agree that human beings are comprised of complex elements that all fit together in a web of unity and design. Just as the Church has distinctive parts, so too does the human body. This includes not just the external physical attributes, but the internal neurological, physiological and biological ones (to name a few). As Christians, we believe that God created the human being as a unified whole. At the same time, we also acknowledge that in one way or another, this bodily harmony and unity has been disrupted by brokenness and as such, is in a state of imperfection.
As Christians and members of the Damascus Way team, this process of mind transformation is a value that is vital to who we are. The transformation of the mind is essential to successful reentry and recovery. It is our conviction that this takes both spiritual and evidence-based approaches.
In conclusion, we can state that the way in which we renew or transform our minds is, like many things, multifaceted. This process involves taking adverse thoughts captive, which requires us to identify those thoughts in the first place. Even before this step, many of us recognize that this initial desire to change one’s perspective, is itself motivated by our encounter with the Gospel message. We extend the invitation to experience this message of transformation to all who desire a change in their mind and body!