Theology Slam entry 2022

Those who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are often the ones who do. That was written in my Twitter bio for years. Ambitious, yes, sizeable ego, yes. But it also reveals where I perceived the source of worldly renewal. Myself.

Seeing change take place in one direction from one human (or a set of humans) outwards is not a rare mistake. As Christians, we often see ourselves as the agents of positive change in the world. We condition the world. The world does not condition us. May they see the light in us, we pray. 

This way of thinking ourselves finds its roots in empire. To expand, land was needed. To acquire land, genocide was enacted. To make use of the land, people were displaced and enslaved. In such acts of terror, connections between humans and the other-than-human world were severed. Land ceased to be an identity signifier and rather, racialised identity emerged upon the destructive landscape of whiteness.

In our continual self-discoveries, our improvisations of identity, we fail to look beyond that which can be carried wholly on skin-bounded selves. Such imagined separation between people and environment limits sources of imagined change to one thing at a time, one direction at a time. And why wouldn’t we want to be the do-gooders in that equation? 

I see these distortions in the field of neuroscience where I spend much of my time. We look for causes in the brain. These appear helpful at first. Depression moves from being dismissed as “all in your head”, to being an imbalance of seretonin in the brain – it becomes something concrete, a new “all in your head” story that is taken seriously.

And yet when we look a little deeper at thought, behaviour, movement – there is a remarkable dependency on the environment we are situated in. We go into another room to look for something, forget what we are looking for, but remember what it was when returning to the room we first thought that thought. Memory depends on context. 

People with Parkinson’s, a movement disorder I research, walk remarkably well when there are horizontal lines on the floor, but struggle with slow, shuffling steps when there aren’t. Elite athletes aren’t so different – performance can be improved or worsened in high pressure contexts.

It is sport that led me to the brain. I wanted to know how movement could be improved and I thought the brain could tell me how. But what I found was a brain inseparable from its surroundings. As Willie James Jennings says, thought is not an act upon creation, symptomatic of viewing ourselves as isolated bodies. Rather, thought is an act of creation: interactions, encounters and correspondences that arise amidst our entangled dance as creatures in creation.

Some strands of neuroscience have begun to imagine such intimacy. We have clunky terms to imagine brained-beings finding their way in an interconnected world. We say whole-organism-in-its-environment. But there’s a better term: creation.

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