Thursday, August 11, 2022

Brains With Feet

I was reading a book on apologetics, a collection of essays. It had one by Sean McDowell. Yes, that Sean McDowell, son of the more famous Josh McDowell. (How tired he must be of hearing that!)

Anyway, I’ve read a few McDowell books, and from the first moment I opened one, I remember feeling a vague sense of … what was it? ... a sort of vague ‘missing’.

I don’t disagree with what the McDowells argue. In fact, their facts are often quite right: astute, even … and helpful in their own way. And their logic is … generally good. In a sort of polite, detached way, I agree with them; and I thoroughly agree with what they’re trying to do. They’re shoring up the faith, providing good “evidence” that hopefully “demands a verdict” that will confirm believers, young and old, in their convictions. They’re standing for Christ — and in a difficult field, I must say. So how could I not be 100% on their side? But something’s always been not-quite-right there: I never could just put my finger on it.

Until now.

Questions, Questions

Now I think I see what was bothering me all along. It came to me when I was reading Sean’s essay. He was writing about the statistical chances that young people will defect from church as soon as they reach early adulthood. Citing the Barna Group’s David Kinnaman, he writes:

“Much of the ministry to teenagers in America needs an overhaul — not because churches fail to attract significant numbers of young people, but because much [sic] of those efforts are not creating a sustainable faith beyond high school … Youth ministry fails too often at discipleship and faith formation.”

Okay, so far so good. But why?

McDowell continues, “Most adults are concerned about the behavior of young people. Few, however, go deeper to the source of their behavior: their beliefs.” Here he pauses to cite Glenn Schultz (author of Kingdom Education): “At the foundation of a person’s life we find his beliefs. These beliefs drive his values, and his values drive his actions.”

McDowell then concludes:

“If we want to shape the behavior of young people, we must guide them to truthful beliefs about the world and help them to strengthen and build on their existing true beliefs and convictions … Young people who have a biblical worldview are less likely to leave the faith; they are more likely to practice it in their own lives, and … far more likely to follow it than those who are not so convinced.”

Yes, in a general way, I think this is true. What people believe does have an important impact on what they do. But is the situation so simple? Do we get a hold of people’s commitments by focusing intently on what they think is true? Do we cement people’s certainty by providing better facts? Do hearts always follow heads? And have young people deserted the church only because their intellectual questions were not being taken seriously?

Hesitations …

I’m not doubting that’s a part of a proper answer — particularly for some specific people — I’m just sensing that it’s not the right answer for everybody, or even for most people, perhaps.

Now, understand, please: I love intellectual arguments. I love facts, reasons and logic, almost to an unhealthy degree, I suspect. But even I am not just a brain with feet. When I examine my own beliefs and motives carefully, I find that I am just as often driven by things like emotion, inertia or habit as I am by reasons. And cold facts? Well, I see every day what happens when they are served up to someone who has no particular desire to find their application for him or herself. Indeed, to make application of facts to reality takes a considerable intellectual effort and not a little self-discipline to the task. It’s an effort nobody can sustain for very long. And this you are hearing from a student of philosophy.

Honestly, I wish everybody led with his brain and followed with his feet. It would make my job so much easier. But I actually suspect that the McDowells and their friends have got it quite wrong. I doubt very much it’s merely a failure of facts that is producing the youth exodus from church. I think it must be much more.

A Problem of Belief?

Glenn Schultz says beliefs are primary. He says that if we get hold of the beliefs, then the beliefs will drive the values, and the values will drive the actions. If he’s right, then everything is a problem of belief. Right beliefs inevitably issue in right action.


But what if people “believe” a thing in their heads, but don’t really hold it in their hearts, support it with their bodies and put it into action with their feet ... do they still really “believe” it? From a scriptural perspective, I think we’d have to say they don’t. They’re self-deceived. After all, how can a person really “believe” something if the way he acts denies it? Isn’t that classic Titus 1:16 behavior?

And what if such a person happens to change his “beliefs”: how profound a change can it be? Isn’t that just a case of swapping out a thing he didn’t really believe earlier for a new thing he also doesn’t really believe? How is that going to make any difference?

Now, to be fair, I must admit that the McDowells do distinguish between superficial beliefs and true beliefs; so they’re not saying that faith is a mere exercise of saying what is true and what is not. Rather, they seem to recognize some kind of psychological component that can cut a person off from whatever they mean by “true” beliefs. (I think they must mean the sort of bedrock convictions people don’t even doubt.) Still, McDowell, Schultz, Kinnaman … if I have them right, they all believe that the solution to the wandering of our young people is some sort of apologetics upgrade.

And I just don’t think that’s true. I spend too much time with young people to believe it. I think the McDowells have missed the boat. It seems they’re assuming that we’re just some sort of brain attached to a pair of feet. There’s no body in the middle to interfere: just convince the brain of something, and the feet will go that way ...

And that just seems unrealistic to me.

Hmm …

Am I saying that facts are useless, arguments are futile and apologetics are a waste of time? No. Am I saying they don’t work for some people? No. Am I saying we wouldn’t be better off to get our facts straight than to teach wobbly-kneed half-truths or bare lies? No. Am I then saying that people are not really intelligent, and that we need to appeal to their emotions or their desire for entertainment? No, no, no, no …

Well then, what am I saying? I’m saying there's a whole lot more to believing than what a person thinks he believes. And I’m saying, contrary to the above-noted worthies, that we could probably tune up our delivery of facts and arguments and still lose nearly as many young people from our congregations.

Why? Beliefs don’t translate neatly into values which translate neatly into actions. That’s just not how human beings work, at least not most of them.

Complete Humanity

How do they really work? They work by a complex interaction between various elements of what it means to be a live, embodied human being.

Human beings are cerebral, it’s true: they have brains. But they are also corporeal and physical: they have bodies, and they interact with the world in various ways. They are not just intellectual; they are emotional as well, responding as often to feelings as to facts. Then they are also social: they live in families, groups and communities of other persons whose lives and activities inevitably work a chemical effect on them. They’re cultural beings: they locate themselves within particular national and ethnic backgrounds. Then they’re also sexual beings: they have desires, longings and hopes for intimacy. Moreover, they are environmental beings: they continuously negotiate their needs and wants within a material world that both aids and obstructs their hopes. They are moral beings: they have an inherent sense of right and wrong. And it will come as no surprise to any of us as Christians that human beings are spiritual entities as well, beings with a (sometimes suppressed) profound need to enter into relationship with their Creator.

Can we expect to make them whole-person Christians if all we have to offer them is an improved set of facts? Is better logic the answer to hidden sin? Can sensible syllogisms fill the heart that longs for love? Can we salve the bereaved with a right set of reasons?

How many young people are lost from our congregations not merely because some intellectual puzzle they faced went unanswered, but because they fell into a bad relationship, dabbled with the wrong substances, became distracted by the glitter and bling of the world, were allured with the promise of career and prosperity, fell prey to a secret sin they were too ashamed to name, or despaired in the wake of the loss of a loved one? A lot, I’m thinking.

Again, let me offer a caveat: I’m all for apologetics. I love that field, and I’ll do it until I die, Lord willing. I believe it can do us much good. But not all good. There are other needs the human heart has than the need to achieve intellectual satisfaction. Failure to remember this will render our apologetics far less effective than they could be.

Getting It Right

In truth, there’s a sort of feedback loop between what people believe with their brains and what they do with their bodies. There’s an effect produced on their intellect by the friends they choose. There’s a definite effect on their focus that comes from the entertainments in which they indulge. And there’s a tension between the views they hold intellectually and the habits they form as they negotiate their way in the world.

Sociologist Peter Berger has written good stuff on this. He talks about how the way we live from day to day either supports or undermines those “beliefs” we think we have in our heads. He calls these things “plausibility structures”. Plausibility structures can make it easier for us to hear certain facts than to think about others. They can serve as a help in applying our beliefs to our situation, or they can distort those beliefs. Church is a plausibility structure. Meeting with other believers helps us to reinforce our commitments to God and to his work. Morning devotions are a plausibility structure: they keep us mindful of our duties and refresh us in truth. Prayer is a plausibility structure: when we speak with God, we are not just benefited with blessings but also reinforced in fellowship with him. Giving thanks before meals is also one: it reminds us that we are not self-sufficient and ingrains in us gratitude.

But the plausibility structures in our world also work against God. The busy-ness of our lives pulls us away from godliness, occupying us with urgent trivialities. Entertainments pound into us contrary messages and alien values, and foster moral degradation. Educational institutions drill into us skepticism, relativism and nihilism, and yet leave us baffled and without answers. Shopping trains us in thoughtless consumption and wastefulness, the endless wanting of the worthless. Our work lives stir up our ambition, competitive spirit and teach us that only our achievements in this world really count. Our politically-correct social climate inculcates in us a spirit of shame instead of boldness in the gospel … and so on.

Our interpersonal relationships are a particularly difficult factor. Living among unbelievers is hard: it may not totally erode faith, but it sure dampens confidence. The fact that nearly every achievement our society celebrates is more easily achieved by hiding our faith is surely an immense incentive to drifting. And entering into an intimate sexual relationship with an unbeliever … well, that’s one of the most corrosive things you can ever do to your faith. You may think you can stay a Christian and play around with that, but many, many Christians have also thought so, and have found out to their sorrow how wrong they were.

Holistic Christianity

It takes a whole pattern of life to sustain belief. It isn’t just a matter of getting the right facts sorted out in the brain; it’s a matter of inculcating, nurturing and sustaining right beliefs though a whole pattern of faithful living, employing all our faculties to reinforce the message the world denies but we hold dear. This becomes ever more pressing in our modern world, where much of what we do forces us into engagement with alien plausibility structures and distracts or prevents our engagement with the plausibility structures that feed our faith. We need to be ever more deliberate in fighting against that tide, making deliberate choices about becoming a different kind of people than the world wants to force us to be.

Where We Failed

And this, I think, is the challenge we have not put to our young people. We have not been asking them to reshape their lives sacrificially. We’ve thought that so long as we supplied them with a limited selection of routine facts, or worse, so long as we laid down certain legal requirements for them, they would be preserved from losing their faith. Meanwhile we left all the other aspects of their beings — emotional, social, educational, economic, recreational, sexual, habitual and so on — largely to chance.

We didn’t exactly tell them to go wild, we just didn’t make any provision for the fact that life involves all these things; so the only way they could continue living in a fully-embodied way was by mentally sectioning off their religious lives from these other aspects of life. Absent knowledge of any specific application from scripture, absent adult models to emulate, and absent any provision for the actualization of their whole human nature, our young people have taken their cues from the world. And the world is only too happy to provide alternatives to address every emotional, social, economic, sexual, recreational (and so on) need they might have.

The result has been that as young people take increasing charge of their own lives — their decisions, their social choices, their bodies, their educations, their careers, and so on — their beliefs about God are not engaged. Consequently, they find an increasing distance between what they are told they are to believe and the kinds of mental processes, actions and priorities through which they enact their daily choices. In other words, their religion turns out to have nothing to do with real life.

Not surprisingly, they leave.

The Ultimate Plausibility Structure

We’re not losing our kids’ heads: we’re losing their bodies. Their heads are just following. After all, there is no more powerful plausibility structure to any mind than the activities of the body that is attached to it.

A man doesn’t just do what he thinks; he also comes to think whatever he does. Action and habits of life are very persuasive to the intellect. The mind set against the body is fighting a losing battle. If you tell your mind to believe one kind of thing but let your body do something different, then sooner or later the mind will lose its confidence. And really, the same sort of thing happens if you let your educational world, your economic world, your recreational world or your relational world become too distant from your spiritual activities. Sooner or later the disconnect, the hypocrisy, the schizophrenia will get to you. You’ll lose your conviction.

This makes the wisdom of God so great in Romans 12:1-2. We must not just assent to the right facts, not even about the gospel itself: rather, we must “present our bodies” as living and holy “sacrifices”. Without that, our minds will simply not stay in line.


Why is it so easy for us to forget the Incarnation? When God the Father desired to make himself known to us, he did so par excellence not in creation, not in a voice from Sinai, and not even in a dusty, leather bound tome: he did it (literally) “in Son”. He did it not in a brain with feet, but in a whole and living Person, for whom he “prepared” a “body”.

Do we think that was incidental? Do we imagine that incarnation is just one of the ways that the Father could have achieved his purposes and saved us as a people for himself? Or would it be right to say that that there really was no other way?

This is the core of our theology: that God was “manifest in flesh”. The divine mission to us came in the form of a fully human, fully embodied Man, one no less human than he is God. He did not come as a set of propositions to be believed in the head, but as a living reality, a true human being to whom we could relate, one who experienced all the tests and trials of full humanity, and yet remained entirely "apart from sin" (i.e. having no sin nature) while triumphing over them all.

He came not offering us propositions only, but also demanding our response. He came to separate between those who would only know with their heads and those who would surrender their bodies to incarnate his death and new life in their own flesh. He came not merely to save us, but to call us to a whole new round of life, one that would encompass every aspect of our human being — our personal, emotional, physical, social, economic, educational, recreational, cultural, national, sexual, political and spiritual realities.

There is no aspect of being a Christian that is impervious to the claims of Christ. There is no such thing as a “non-Christian” aspect of life. The Incarnation should teach us that.

The Answer

Sean McDowell’s right to say that we need a refresher on our beliefs. And there is a huge amount of value in apologetics as an area of study and ministry. But we must not mistake those things for total solutions to the spiritual malaise of our day.

In particular, if we really care about our young people, we will do more than polish up a set of propositions to address their intellectual curiosity. If the brain is all we address, then that is not nearly good enough. Here is the full mystery of godliness: “God was manifest in flesh.” Immanuel came to us, and dwelt with us, and he became to us what we could not only hear but see and touch as well. The life he gave us was his body, that in our bodies he should dwell with us forever. Again and again, we see not a despising of our status as beings with bodies, but rather a call to bring our bodies into full action in service of what our brains should rightly know.

Thus, what we really need is a fresh view of what a “Christian life” is. With it, we need a breaking down of the barriers between our secular and spiritual lives, and a flooding of every area of life with fresh understandings of what it means to be Christian. Anything that calls itself Christianity and demands less is really unworthy of the word.

When the Incarnate God calls his disciples, he calls them body and soul. Every part of the human being is implicated in salvation. Our spiritual renewal, however, won’t come through any mere appeal to the brain. It will take a renewed vision of what it means to be a Christian: one that embraces our status as incarnate beings following the Incarnate God, and inspires us to incarnate his life in the world.

In Other Words …

When you place your faith in Christ, you must take your body with you. That means that along with the assent to the facts, you must immediately voluntarily start making those sacrifices necessary to conform your practical life to your new spiritual knowledge. Don’t just listen to truth: incarnate it.

If you don’t, don’t expect your spiritual knowledge to last. It just won’t “take”.

We’re not just brains with feet, you know.


  1. Thanks - this is vitally important. As much as we'd like to deny it and as loudly as we proclaim our rational natures, we are creatures who lead most often with appetite and then simply use the intellect to justify decisions as rational; usually long after our passions pulled us into something unfortunate.

    1. Thank you, yes. But please don't feel discouraged. If we're ahead of the game, we can use that realization. We can use it in practical ways, and start to engage our young people in whole-body, whole-life spiritual commitments. It'll take a bit, but I think we can make a difference.

      The problem is that to do that Biblically we have to present ourselves as examples. And if I can speak for others of my generation, they have always been most keen to "believe" like Christians while still living like non-Christians.

      I hope that's not too harsh: I think it's been true.

  2. What a tour de force. For my own purposes let me summarize it my way
    (as I have done many times in the past). I have called it the convenience (or inconvenience) factor in a person's life. And by convenience I do not mean comfortableness but rather what is more or less advantageous to me (mostly at that moment). I remember distinctly from when I was growing up that there were no deep philosophical thoughts coursing through my mind concerning the various decisions I made other than weighing what I would prefer to do at that moment. In other words, our
    lifes tend to be more reactive than contemplative. This might include some long range goals and compromises like taking the job with the better pay even though the work is less desirable. This reactiveness of the youth is therefore what allows youth to be molded and shaped by their active/reactive environment. If it is a good environment as in a loving and caring family then that will result in concomitant offspring. What this all means from a practical standpoint is that youth needs to be told what to do and also that one models for them what is essential, and then everything else will follow. The problem we have nowadays is of course that the wrong models are in the public arena and they are becoming more and more polluted and are polluting in turn. This will only be fixed if people relearn and exercise the skill of turning the channel, i.e., disempower those who think they hold power over our children.