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Full-Brain Faith

Written By Tom Nelson

Driving is one of those things that can bring out the worst in me. Recently, I arrived at an intersection ahead of the car to my left. Instead of yielding, the driver floored it and sped right in front of me! I was ticked off. I felt my heart beating in my chest, my blood pressure rising. How dare he do that to me? Who does he think he is? When I paused long enough to calm my heart down, and reflected on my overreaction, it painfully reminded me how lacking in a Christlike way my response had been to a discourteous driver. When I least expected it, my inner world was on display before me—and it wasn’t pretty. 

One of my struggles in life is how often I am confronted by the inconvenient truth that my spiritual growth and character transformation has such a long way to go. My trek to greater Christlikeness and spiritual maturity often feels like one step forward and two steps backward. A steep climb for sure, often insufferably slow, and at times outright discouraging. 

No matter where we are in our spiritual journey, the true character change we long for can seem elusive and feel discouraging. Why is this the case? There are certainly several contributing factors to our lack of spiritual formation and transformation, but I believe a major culprit making change so elusive in our experience is a cultural distortion. For centuries as a Western culture, we have overemphasized certain parts of our brains and underemphasized others. This has led to an impoverished “change framework” emphasizing the brain’s rational world and deemphasizing the brain’s relational world. Many of us have been taught that if we individually just think right cognitively, if we possess the right biblical information, agree to the most sound doctrinal formulations, then we as individuals will experience transformation, take on the character of Christ, and grow to spiritual maturity. While having sound doctrine is essential, more is needed in our ongoing spiritual formation and transformation.

Our greater understanding of neuroscience is providing additional insight as to how God designed our brains. This makes us more aware of and attuned to how our Western cultural distortion is hindering change in our lives. In 2009, Oxford Professor and Psychiatrist, Iain McGilchrist, wrote a watershed book entitled The Master & His Emissary: The Divided Brain and The Making Of The Western World. It is a brilliant book exposing our Western culture distortion with great implications for how we change. McGilchrist points out that the left and right hemispheres of our brains have differing insights, values, and priorities. Each has a distinct ‘take’ on the world—most strikingly, the right hemisphere sees itself as connected to the world, whereas the left hemisphere stands aloof from it. 

This left brain dominance of our Western culture has impoverished us in many ways. It affects our understanding not just of language and reason, music, and time, but also of all living things: our bodies, ourselves, and the world in which we live. McGilchrist helps us see that for centuries in our Western culture the left hemispheres of our brains have been overemphasized and the right hemispheres have been underutilized with far reaching consequences. McGilchrist writes, We need both (brain) hemispheres, but the left hemisphere has become so far dominant that we’re in danger of forgetting everything that makes us human.” 

Neuroscience and interpersonal neurobiology is helping us understand how God designed us to flourish, providing insight into how we change and how our spiritual formation takes place.

We now more fully understand that character formation is primarily a function of the right brain hemisphere. We also now know that the right hemisphere is the main brain function that allows for whole person integration. Stop for a moment and think about this insight. No wonder in a left brain dominated culture our struggle to live integral lives and see character change is such a gargantuan challenge! Our distorted Western cultural framework, with its overemphasis on the left brain hemisphere, has led an increasing number of contemporary Christian thinkers such as Curt Thompson and Jim Wilder to address so much of the church’s deficient half-brain faith. By half-brain faith they mean one that overemphasizes the left brain hemisphere at the expense of the right brain hemisphere. 

There is a great deal of complexity to how God designed the two hemispheres of our brains to work in harmony. We clearly have much more to learn about our brains. However, our greater understanding of our amazing brains points us to the Psalmist of old who declared in a microburst of praise to God that as his image bearers we are fearfully and wonderfully made. If you are newer to the neuroscience conversation, it may be helpful to distinguish the two brain hemispheres this way: left brain—think logic, right brain—think relational. Both brain hemispheres are vitally important and we must employ both in how God designed them to function. Because of our Western cultural distortion overemphasizing the left hemisphere at the expense of the right hemisphere, an important correction is greatly needed. As a local church committed to biblical truth, spiritual formation, and transformation, we are prayerfully and intentionally making this crucial correction.

This full-brain insight may be new to many of us, a shift in our perspective, but it has been right in front of our eyes all along. Because of a cultural blind spot we may have missed it. Yet when we carefully examine the Holy Scriptures, we see that from Genesis to Revelation, the biblical writers embraced a full-brain faith, not one reduced or distorted by left brain dominance.

The biblical writers understood that spiritual formation and transformation is both rational and relational. They understood that true knowing first knows someone, not just something.

They saw the deceptive peril of thinking about God rather than thinking with God, of knowing about God, rather than knowing God intimately. They grasped fully that true change involves all of us, including all of our brain.

In Paul’s inspired letter to the Romans, chapter 12 plays a pivotal role in declaring the gospel is not just a rational belief we acknowledge, or a set of doctrines we affirm, but also a new identity, a deeply lived relational reality we bodily experience within spiritual community. In Romans 12, the Apostle Paul urges us to embrace an embodied full-brained faith. He will advocate for our transformation by bringing our whole selves to God as we live out our new creation lives in Christ, our new group identity in the context of Spirit empowered community.  

While wise individual rational choices are vitally important for our spiritual growth, they are not sufficient in themselves. Spiritual disciplines are also an essential part of our training in greater Christlikeness, but they are not only engaged in as isolated individuals. The spiritual disciplines find their greatest transforming power when we experience secure attachment love with God and others lived out relationally in the context of joy-filled spiritual community. Our loving relationship with God and others transform us.

When it comes to our spiritual formation, we are not all on our own. We not only have each other as members of a faith community, we are supernaturally empowered for change. We have been given the Holy Spirit who transforms us into the likeness of Christ. The Holy Spirit is not only at work within us as individuals, but also among us as a local church family. We are called to be a Spirit-filled community.

We can change, but a greater emphasis on our right brain hemisphere is needed. Our transformation takes place primarily in the context of safe, joy-filled attachment-loving relationships, which is a primary function of the right brain hemisphere. If we are going to truly change, continuing to grow in our spiritual formation, and increasing Christlike character, we need a full-brain faith.

Recommended Resources for Further Study

Anatomy of the Soul: Surprising Connections between Neuroscience and Spiritual Practices that
Can Transform your Life and Relationships
by Curt Thompson M.D.

The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe About Ourselves By Curt Thompson, M.D.

Renovated: God, Dallas Willard, and the Church That Transforms by Jim Wilder

The Other Half of Church: Christian Community, Brain Science and Overcoming Spiritual Stagnation by Jim Wilder and Michel Hendricks









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1 Comment

  1. Stan Wallace

    Dear Tom,

    I entirely agree that a balance must be restored between “reason” and “relationship”—and the Church must lead the way. Thanks for reminding us of this important truth. I also agree that, as embodied beings, God created us with brains that play an important role in how we think.

    For this reason, we often say things like, “I use my brain to X” (where X may be to think in certain ways, feel certain things, chose to do this or that, etc.) This is how God created us—as souls united to bodies, with the two interacting in deep ways. Dallas Willard bases his work on spiritual formation on this deep unity between soul and body. And neuroscience is discovering more and more of how we use our brains in amazing ways. But the biblical view is that we are fundamentally a soul that has a body. God created us embodied, and we are to use our bodies to flourish. But we will continue to exist, think, feel, and believe after the death of our bodies (until the final resurrection). So we cannot be the same as our bodies. Nor can thoughts, feelings, beliefs, etc. be the same as neural events.

    However, it is easy to shift from the biblical view that “I use my brain to X” to the unbiblical view that “My brain X” (thinks, feels, chooses). This is the view of physicalism—that we are only, or at least ultimately, a physical thing. It is not me/my soul/my self which is ultimate and uses my brain, but it is my brain which is ultimate. The brain does the “heavy lifting” and therefore we explain everything in terms of brain activity. This is a very unChristian idea which we must guard against.

    I am concerned because this physicalism underlies the work of Ian McGilchrist, whom you cite several times in your sermon. McGilchrist is a physicalist who is attempting to explain our experiences in fully physical terms (in terms of brain activity). He fails to make the distinction that it is we who think, believe, feel, choose, using our brains. Instead, in his book, he repeatedly claims that our brains think, feel, believe, and choose. This is physicalism.

    My worry is that some Christians have not made this distinction between us using our brains to do X, and our brains doing X. By failing to make this distinction they are promoting a view that is contrary to biblical anthropology. And as our culture believes less and less in the soul (because more and more is explained fully in terms of brain activity), there is less and less reason to be concerned with matters of the soul, such as sin, salvation, and spiritual formation.

    I see this as such an important issue that I recently wrote two articles on this very topic. I begin the first article by saying,

    “Recently two Christian leaders asked for my advice, and I had to give them some bad news. This week and next I’ve decided to share with you my advice (removing names and other identifying information). I do so to surface again how insidious and pervasive non-Christian thought patterns are in our culture, and how easy it is for us, if we are not vigilant, to begin thinking ‘unChristianly’ about important issues, rather than thinking Christianly about everything.”

    I’d appreciate your reaction to the articles, and whether I misunderstood your sermon today as also implicitly reducing us (and our thoughts, emotions, and beliefs) to our brain activity. The posts are here:


    I look forward to your response.

    Respectfully submitted,
    Stan Wallace
    Christ Community, Olathe campus


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