Enhancing Christian Life: How Extended Cognition Augments Religious Community, Brad D. Strawn and Warren S. Brown. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020.
Summary: The authors propose that as persons we are embodied and embedded in particular contexts, but also that extended cognition expands our capacities as we engage our physical and social worlds, with implications for the importance of Christian community.
The authors begin this work by reminded us of the African-American women who served as human computers during NASA’s space projects. Their calculations extended the cognitive capacities of the flight engineers and scientists. The authors argue that our cognitive capacities are not merely a function of our own intellectual achievements but also the social and physical context in which we are embedded as embodied creatures.
An important part of this argument that the authors discuss early in the book has to do with our assumptions about the mind-body relationship. They contend that the philosophical and Christian assumption of mind-body dualism has been problem in directing the focus of spirituality inwardly, ignoring the embodied social context in which we live in the Christian community. Extended cognition recognizes that our embodied relationships with people and the physical environment extend our minds beyond our bodies and enhance our Christian life beyond an inward and private focus.
They explore various ways extended cognition works to nurture “super-sized intelligence” from our families to meetings to psychotherapy and finally the church. They observe that even the seemingly personal spiritual disciplines connect us to the life of the community, our shared faith and commitments. Our praying for others may be understood as believing for them, enhancing one another’s lives as we pray, learn, and act with each other. The stories and traditions of the Christian faith are “mental wikis,” that enhance our abilities to respond to various situations in our lives.
What is compelling about this proposal is that it shifts the locus of our lives from inward private experience to our shared life in the embodied Christian community. What is controversial about this proposal is the non-dualistic assumptions behind it. The authors exchange the term, “Christian life,” for “spiritual life.” What we call “mind,” “spirit,” or “soul” are simply perceptions of neuro-physical processes. Rather than defend this proposal, the authors critique the spirituality that has developed from dualism. Both defense of these ideas, and consideration of their theological implications need to be considered. While not central to this work, one question that arises is that of the intermediate state, our fate between our deaths and the resurrection. If, when we die, all of who we are ceases to exist, then in what sense are we “with the Lord”?
More pertinent to this project is the question of how we engage with God. The discussion of extended cognition mentions a number of other physical beings and objects. While prayer is mentioned, it is spoken of as primarily for others. How does extended cognition work with a being who is defined as “spirit”?
Also, while there is a privatistic spirituality that may be justly critiqued, this seemed to me to be a bit of a straw man. One may think of many examples of dualists who combine deeply inward lives with communal engagement. Henri Nouwen, for one, comes to mind.
Still, whether one accepts the premises of non-dualism or not, the idea of extended cognition, and how our communal life enhances all of us as Christians is worth considering. It is a valuable corrective to a “solitary man” spirituality (my favorite type in my worst moments). It “extends” our biblical understanding of how our lives are interdependent, how deeply we need each other to become all Christ intends us to be.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.