Your Cartesian Split is Showing

René Descartes’s illustration of the mind-body problem.

The French philosopher Rene’ Descartes, during what I can only imagine to be the wee-morning hours of a youth ministry lock-in, began to contemplate the legitimacy of reality.

What did he really know?

Did he really have a body? Well, he couldn’t really prove that…maybe he was just a brain in a jar (*cough* The Matrix) or perhaps the reality he experienced was simply the result of a dream (*cough* Inception).

This Redbull-fueled mental exercise caused Descartes to conclude that the only thing that truly existed was his mind (ergo, “I think therefore I am). While this “mental reality” perceived of an external physical reality, it ultimately existed separately from it. With this, Descartes effectively split the existence of the mind and the existence of the body, thereby creating what modern philosophers call the “mind-body problem” or the “Cartesian Split”.

Now before you write this off as some issue only for beret-wearing philosphers, I’d like to suggest that the Cartesian split is very much a part of ministry.

Let me explain.

The Christian life is predicated upon “faith” or “belief”. But too often Christians (and ministers) view faith as purely an intellectual exercise, that is, something that must be “understood” and then “believed”. However, as modern Christians, we must remember that the “mind-body” split is a relatively new philosophical position (early 17th century), meaning that the biblical authors and the majority of interpreters throughout Christian history thought it impossible (or at least untenable) to separate the role of the mind and the role of the body in faith.

Just a couple of examples…

The early desert fathers and mothers considered the body to be an integral part of “faith”. By disciplining the body, the mind was more able to ponder the beauty of God. Their approach to faith gave rise to a multitude of monastic orders and practices that sought to facilitate the work of the Spirit in the growth of faith.

Christian liturgy throughout the centuries assumes bodily participation as a key aspect of worship. Worshipers stand, sit, kneel, vocalize, contemplate, smell incense, touch water, taste bread, and drink wine – all in a carefully orchestrated liturgy that connects the body with the mind in holistic worship.

The Wesley brothers at 18th-century Oxford University studied extensively the philosophy of their day but also encountered the writings of Greek Christians from the first few centuries of the early church. As they studied, they too began to see the “mind-body problem” at play in the lives of Christians around them. The Wesley’s became disillusioned with the lack of spiritual discipline among the “faithful” at Oxford. Surely, the Wesley’s reckoned, faith must affect the entirety of a person – both thoughts and actions. Driven by this conviction and with the early Greek Christians as their guide, the Wesley’s sought to cultivate lives of “practical divinity”.

Building A Philosophy Of Sustainable Youthwork

For the Wesley’s, both works of piety (devotion) and works of mercy (service) characterized the life of faith. These actions, governed by the empowering grace of the Holy Spirit, allowed the Wesley’s and the people who would later be called “Methodists” to approach faith holistically – with both mind and body. This was (and still is) the uniqueness of the Methodist approach to faith formation.

But what about you? Do you understand faith to be simply a mental exercise? Or is faith something that governs our entire being? Does your ministry reflect an understanding of faith as simply intellectual assent to certain doctrines? Or does it seek to engage each person holistically, recognizing that God uses the body as well as the mind to bring us to holiness?

Our Methodist heritage offers a wealth of resources to bridge the gap between mind and body. The Methodist emphasis on works of piety and mercy as well as our attention to the sanctifying work of the Spirit through the means of grace  offers an effective framework for healing the Cartesian split that divides many of our ministries.

How might we all provide a uniquely Wesleyan approach to holistic faith in our ministries?

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