Two Ways News
Two Ways News
Out of my mind

Out of my mind

And into my heart

Dear friends,

Just me this week, with Phillip away on holidays. And I’ve found myself thinking quite a lot in the past few days about … thinking.

In reading Romans 7 and 8 in recent weeks, I’ve been struck by how much Paul talks about the ‘mind’. The contrast in Romans 7 is between what we know with our mind to be good and true, and what the ‘fleshly’ part of us just goes ahead and does anyway. And in Romans 8, there’s a very clear dichotomy—between the new mind that is set on the Spirit (bringing life and peace) and the old mind which was set on the flesh (bringing death).

But all this talk of ‘mind’ is a bit counter-cultural for us. We tend to favour the importance of ‘hearts’ over minds. In fact, I think if I was paraphrasing Romans 8 for a modern person, I’d instinctively say that the ‘heart’ set on the Spirit is life and peace, not the mind.

So how should we think about the mind? Or feel about the mind for that matter?

That’s our topic for this week.

Your brother


Out of my mind

Romans 7 and 8 speaks about the ‘mind’ as that crucial part of us that needs to be set on the Spirit rather than the flesh.

And it’s not the first time ‘mind’ and ‘thinking’ has come up in Paul’s letter.

If we go right back to Romans 1 in that classic passage about our rebellion against God, once again, it's a question of knowledge and mind that seems to be the problem. Let me remind you what Romans 1:18-23 says: 

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. 

Our rebellion against God is a rebellion against knowledge and truth. There was something that we knew and should have known and have no excuse for not knowing—that God is God, with a divine nature and eternal power. He is the God who made us; we are his creatures, we owe him all honour and thanks and submission. This is plain to see and understand from the creation itself. We know this, and yet we suppress that truth. Our rebellion is a mental rebellion. It's refusing to recognize the truth of existence and reality and God, and instead embracing a lie. Now the heart is also clearly involved—it becomes darkened by our rejection of the truth—and we’ll come back to our ‘heart’ and ‘mind’ fit together.

But it’s worth observing not only how ‘mind’ and ‘knowledge’ is the problem in Romans 1, and how a new mind set on the Spirit is God’s answer to the problem in Romans 8, but also how this new mind becomes the source of ongoing transformation in the Christian life. In Romans 12:1, as Paul begins to tease out the nature of the live lived in response to God’s grace, he says:

I appeal to you, therefore brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 

Except the word there for ‘spiritual’ is really the word for ‘logical’ or ‘rational’. So a better translation would “your rational or logically-appropriate service or worship of God”, because it picks up on the idea that we have a whole new way of thinking now, a new mind that is set on God. And so our service of God has a whole new way of thinking behind it, that we offer ourselves now to God as living sacrifices. And he goes on, of course: 

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind that by testing, you may discern what is the will of God, what is good, and acceptable and perfect. 

Now, as I alluded to at the beginning, all of this is strange to us as 21st century people. ‘Mind’ and ‘heart’ are quite different categories for us, and heart is very much the one we prefer. The mind is our head, our intellect. It's not really to be trusted. Don't follow your head, don't overthink it. Go with your gut, go with your heart. That's our zeitgeist and it naturally affects the way we come to Scripture as well. 

In Western cultural history, we're in a period where the Romantic spirit is in the ascendant. It's not the philosophers and thinkers and intellectuals who we admire. It's the people who authentically follow their heart and their instincts and their feelings. Access to the real me and the universe and reality comes through my heart, instincts, guts and passion.

This dance between the two impulses—mind, rationality, logic, science versus heart, passion, instinct, personal authenticity, experience—goes back a long way in Western culture. 

If you go back to the 18th century, to what was sometimes called ‘the age of reason’, it was a time when there was great optimism about the mind—that by rationality, reason, investigation and science, humanity could rise and embark on a new direction, and that there would be progress and enlightenment; that as education spread to all it would create a new and better society. There was a great deal of optimism at that time of history about the power of human rationality. 

But then, of course, in the century following, there was a reaction against that in the Romantic movement. It's very hard to define Romanticism; it is a series of vibes rather than a coherent position. But many of the aspects of our contemporary culture that we take for granted were established in the Romantic period.

For example, the idea that in order to find the truth, you don't go outwards to do some sort of rational investigation or interaction with reality, but that you go inwards to your feelings, to your psyche, to the real you that's inside—that's a romantic idea. It was very much a new and radical idea in the early 19th century, that creativity and art and genius come from introspection, not from observation. That's the spirit of the Romantic poets–Wordsworth, Coleridge, Blake and the others. Personal authenticity and following your heart are the classic Romanticist values. 

There's also a focus within the Romantic movement on the individual: I am what matters, not the universal; not the conventional or traditional or what everybody else is, or even the outwardly verifiable. What really matters is me and my individuality and my individual experience and authenticity. And within that, therefore, there's also a focus in Romantic art and literature and music on intensity and the importance of a passionate, inexpressible experience. 

Now, that was the briefest summary of some of the features of the Romantic movement (or vibe) of the late 18th through into the mid 19th centuries. You can hear it in music, in the shift from Johann Sebastian Bach’s more rational, almost mathematical approach to beauty, to the crashing, lush emotional music of Beethoven and the other romantic composers (like Brahms and Wagner and Mendelssohn). 

Now, that back and forwards between intellect/rationality/reason, and feeling/heart/experience has continued on right through to our time. You could say that there were parts of the 20th century in which reason and science and technology and ideology was strong; the positivistic idea that by rational education and the spread of good and utopian ideas we could find the truth and create a better world. That’s what communism was. Yet post the two World Wars, and post the upheavals of the 60s and 70s, we've come into a different kind of era where the romantic vibe has become stronger again. Some people have called it expressive emotivism or expressive individualism.  And I'm sure you see that in our culture. “Follow your heart,” as Disney says, or as Pixar movies say. That’s the key to finding out who you really are, to finding authenticity and joy in life. And whatever you feel like you really are, that's what you really are.

You also see these two streams weaving back and forth through Christianity as well as you look back over the last couple of centuries. You can think of Christian liberalism and its focus on a rational and a reasonable Christianity, stripped of its miracles and its weirdness, that would supposedly make the world sit up and take notice of Christianity. But of course, you've also had a very strong experientialist stream within Christianity, the idea that God should really be accessed and related to through our inner selves, experienced through our feelings, through our passions, our hearts. This is classically seen in the pentecostal and neo-pentecostal movements.

Even within evangelical Christianity, these two kinds of streams have been pushing and pulling. On the one hand, evangelicals have always been very big on the Bible and on exposition and on understanding the truth. And yet we've always been heart people as well. We've always wanted our hearts to be strangely warmed, as Wesley said. We've always believed in an experiential born again religion, that changes people from the inside.

One of the little phrases I grew up with as a Christian was that the last thing you wanted to have was just ‘head knowledge’–only intellectually knowing the truth about the gospel and the Bible but not penetrating your heart.

The classic proof text for the dangers of ‘head knowledge’ might be something like 1 Corinthians 8:1:

Knowledge puffs up but love builds up. 

Or possibly that verse in James 2:19:

You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!

‘Head knowledge’ can't be enough; there has to be ‘heart knowledge’.

All in all, it is quite common for us as contemporary Christians to feel strange about embracing a Christianity that's focused on the mind and on knowledge. That seems a bit suss to us. We want Christianity to be focused on heart and love and passion. 

I think that's because almost implicitly, we set head and heart against each other, as if they're alternatives. But in the Bible, they don't seem to be alternatives, and certainly not in Romans. Somehow, the Bible has a vision of head and heart being integrated together that we don't quite share as modern people. How does the Bible find a positive place for mind and knowledge alongside heart and love? And how does it hold those two things together? Because it does so in a way that our culture finds impossible to understand and to enact, but in a way that I think is immensely liberating for us as thinking people and as feeling loving people. 

Perhaps I can illustrate the way the Bible holds these two concepts together by by quoting Paul's extraordinary prayer in the opening chapter of Ephesians. After having talked about this massive cosmic history of what God has done in Jesus Christ and the blessings that he’s poured out on us, starting from before the creation of the world right through to everything being summed up in Jesus Christ, Paul prays that the Ephesians would grasp and really know this in the very heart of their personality, in the extraordinary prayer in Ephesians 1:16-18: 

I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints,

That’s a really striking image: the eyes of the heart. Somehow he wants them to receive wisdom and revelation and knowledge, but for this to open the eyes and understanding of the heart so that the heart itself might be enlightened and know the hope of the great calling that God has given us.

The way we think about it in contemporary society, the heart is the centre of feeling and instinct. But in the Bible, the heart is just the centre of me. It's me as a complete and whole personality. And so the heart in Ephesians 1 is not blind or ignorant; the heart is something that sees and perceives and knows. The Bible holds together here what we tend to separate. The heart is the centre of me, that part of my personality that chooses and wills and loves, and is therefore also that part of me that deeply knows things to be true—because choosing and willing and loving are based on some perception of what is known. 

We sometimes tend to talk these days as if the choices of the heart are somehow separate from thinking, but they can't be if you pause to think about it. We can only choose or will or or love something, or reject or hate something, by knowing it—by distinguishing it from something else, by understanding enough of what this thing is to decide, yes, I love that, or no, I don't like that. 

And the Bible represents this overlapping, interconnected sense of what we know and what we choose or love as residing in ‘the heart’. The mind perceives and understands things, certainly, but there's an overlap between that understanding and knowing, and what the heart knows and chooses. The heart is me—as a knowing, understanding, perceiving, choosing, loving whole.

And so the perceptions and understandings of the mind inform our whole selves. They inform the heart, in a sense. The heart almost encapsulates the mind, according to the way the Bible often talks about it. And so what we know and what we perceive is deeply connected with who we really are, and what we really love, and what we feel. It is part of what our heart understands and sees and knows and chooses. 

But it also works in reverse. Once we have made various choices and commitments—once we've decided based on what we perceive and know that we love something—that also then affects our subsequent perceptions and knowledge. It’s as if there’s a two-way highway between mind and heart.

It’s a bit like me and my football team, Arsenal. Why did I choose to become an Arsenal supporter? Well, it wasn’t without knowledge. I saw Arsenal playing on TV, I saw and understood how they played football, and I particularly saw a player called Charlie George that I just really liked (this was in the 1970s!) And so in because Charlie George seemed to me to be just a great footballer, the team he played for, which was Arsenal, became the team I supported. And so, having seen and perceived and understood something, I was attracted to it. I chose to embrace it, and they became my team. 

But having done so, interestingly, it changed the way I subsequently perceived and saw everything. I was always in favour of whatever Arsenal did, and always against what their opponents did. Every 50-50 umpiring decision that went against us was clearly an injustice against Arsenal, and vice versa. In other words, I made a choice based on knowledge and perception and understanding. But once having made that choice, and embraced it with my whole self–with my heart–then the way I saw everything subsequently changed.

And it's very much the same with God. That's what Romans 1 is saying. Once we reject the truth about God and embrace a lie, then our reasoning and way of thinking becomes empty and vain, and we become fools. Our hearts become darkened, uninformed, ignorant, locked up in a lie and in darkness. So the mind and the heart are bound together in both directions. The mind informs the heart; it's by our understanding and knowledge that our heart comes to perceive things, to want things, to make choices. But having made choices as a whole knowing, willing, loving, feeling person, that then affects the way we see and know the world. So our knowledge becomes corrupt and distorted by the choices and commitments that we've made as a person.

There's an aphorism that was coined by Ashley Null, the Reformation historian, that goes something like this, “What the heart wants, the will chooses and the mind justifies.” And Ashley was using this aphorism to express the anthropology of the Anglican reformers, where the choices of the heart and the willing embracing of those choices then affects our mind and the way we think. It's a way of talking about how sin affects every part of us, including our thinking. 

But I think I'd like to modify it slightly, because it makes it sound as if the mind only gets involved at the end of the process. Because the heart can't choose what it wants without seeing and knowing something and therefore wanting and choosing. So I’d modify it to say something more like, “Having perceived with my mind something that I find attractive and that I want, I embrace it with my heart and will and choose it, and then further justify my choice rationally thereafter.”

Our desire and our love and our choice and our embracing of things always starts with some cognitive perception of something. But it then also finishes with a cognitive process at the other end of justifying ourselves. And all of this is why we need a new mind, as Romans says, because we need a new heart. The two can't be separated, and they never are in the Bible. 

But it's fascinating to me that our society has tended to separate them, and I think it’s because we've rejected the possibility of truth. Because we've denied the idea that there might be an objective standard of truth and objective reality out there, then the inward reality is all that we have left, and so heart triumphs over mind. If there's no objective truth to really know and understand–even if we can only understand it imperfectly, and even if we have to debate about it and discuss it and contend over it–if it just comes back to what I subjectively experience and feel and embrace, then the heart of the individual is really all that we have left. 

It's not surprising then that Romanticism reigns supreme in our culture. It's a bit like those famous lines from Keats, a Romantic poet, in The Ode on a Grecian Urn: 

 "Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all

                Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

For Keats the aesthetic experience of pleasure and of beauty—that's truth. That's all there is to be known—that personal experience of what is beautiful. Never mind a truth that is objectively real, that's outside yourself, that you have to come to terms with. A truth that is true, whether you perceive its beauty or not. All you have is your perception of beauty. That's the beginning and end of truth, and all you need to know. 

But of course, what happens through the gospel is that there's a disjunction–as Phillip likes to say–there's an interruption. There's a liberation from outside that crashes through the prison of the ignorance we find ourselves in. And that opens our eyes and minds to see and understand and know the truth. When the Spirit of God breaks into our hearts and breaks the chains that hold our minds and hearts in captivity to the lie that we've embraced, and we open our eyes and see that truth, see its goodness, love it, embrace it, put our faith and trust in it, build our lives on it—that then, as Romans 8 says, is life and peace. It's a whole new mind, a whole new way of seeing and understanding everything that God's Spirit has made possible. 

It's interesting in 1 Corinthians 8—sort of proof text for the problem that knowledge puffs up—doesn’t stop there. Paul goes on to say in the very next verse:

If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, he is known by God. 

It's not as if knowledge is wrong. It's not as if the way to make progress is to abandon knowledge and just love. Paul says the problem is you don't know enough. You don't know what you need to know. You don't know that you've been loved by God and you don't understand the fundamental thing about you is that you are known by God. And that therefore all your knowledge comes from there, as does your love. 

All of this has huge implications for us and our culture and our churches. Our culture is a culture of ‘heart’ in the sense of passion and feeling and personal experience. But we shouldn’t think that somehow we can bring a gospel to them that only involves heart and passion and feeling. The gospel is the truth. That's what changes the heart. That's what informs and opens the eyes of the heart to a whole new reality. 

And it's also true that our churches need to be places of mind and heart, where the truth is clearly explained and proclaimed and understood and grappled with, and where the eyes of our hearts are opened by God's Spirit to see that truth, to embrace it and know it and love it, to build our lives upon it. True love always rejoices in the truth.


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Gospel thinking for today, with Tony Payne and Phillip Jensen.
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