I deeply appreciated Jennifer Wiseman’s reminder of our context as practitioners of faith within a cosmos we now know to be many orders of magnitude more vast than humanity had ever imagined prior to this century.
Particularly poignant was her highlighting of the tough question of what we are to do with the the age of the universe as a people whose tradition is only concerned with the smallest sliver of the last few thousand years. Further, what meaning do we make out of the profoundly slow process of many generations or cycles of star birth and death that are required to forge the heavier elements that form solid planets and make up all life on earth?
By situating the problem of evil, both disasters and people being wicked to other people and other creatures, within that narrow band of the last few millennia of creaturely existence, and by emphasizing the goodness of creation prior to that, she radically recontextualizes the problem of evil within a vast and ancient created cosmos that is in her words “good in its totality.” This is not an perspective I’ve encountered before in the age old wrestling match between thinking, suffering humans and our concept of an omnipotent God and it is one that, I think, is only possible by the dramatic expansion of our ability to imagine and understand the cosmos that comes from the fruits of science in the past century.
All the more fitting that her talk happened within sight of the Mount Wilson observatory where Edwin Hubble first made the observations that established that the universe’s expansion was accelerating.
Dr. Brown’s talk on embodied cognition and the role mirror our mirror neurons play is always fascinating, but all the more in the context of Christian formation.
I’m a little leery of his quick jump from the notion of mobile phone as off-loaded cognitive work into the environment to the notion of Christian community as off-loaded cognitive / belief / formation work since the one is reliant on artifacts, designs and systems and the other is reliant on humans in relationship.
Further, since my work with read-together.com and with Fuller’s endeavors into formation through programs primarily delivered online, I’ve been working on the question of how formative interactions mediated through the web can be. I’m no techno-determinist but if you accept Brown’s thesis that most meaning, language, learning and formation happens through the means of the body “enmeshed in recurrent situational feedback” and “rooted in sensory motor experiences” the relatively dis-embodied modes of most online interaction become problematic. Stripped of both communal context for language, and of all sensory motor cues he suggests are used in everything from making sense of language to building empathy, it’s little wonder so few people understand one another or interact charitably online.
My team and I are working on decreasing the context-stripping tendencies of the web by structuring the scaffolding around interactions to build both context for the individuals and shared contexts, experiences and interactions on which to build better discourse. Online contexts can perhaps themselves be venues for recurrent situation feedback and charitable, Christ-patterned online interactions can themselves become something to be learned by observation and mirroring.But if the cognitive roots of empathy and the ability to be formed by mirroring others we observe are rooted exclusively in bodily experience, and the cognitive work of running non-enacted simulations of the other’s mind, how far can we expect to get in being formed and transformed by those whose bodies we can’t see, hear or mirror?
I attempted to get at this question and was thankful for Mark Labberton’s observation that my question was an expression of concern for the implications of embodied cognition in a world that is increasingly communicating in disembodied ways (note the way we the room groaned at the mention of the endless sea of email). Brown concluded his response by recognizing this as something on which more work needs to be done.
This is precisely where I am focusing my work.
The centrality of these challenges for the Christian Church and really all human communities who strive to stay whole and make sense of themselves given the disembodying tendencies of technologically mediated interaction are what motivate that work.