If you were a child that was raised attending church, you probably also had the experience of accepting Jesus into your heart. Chances are, it was a milestone kind of day. Many of us literally believed that a miniature version of Jesus took up residence inside us, becoming a conscience for us, protecting us, and sometimes controlling us like the little alien from the Men in Black movies (You know, “The galaxy is on Orion’s Belt.”) This is the story that millions of Christian children are told: when you accept Jesus, he moves into your heart.
Whether or not the metaphor works for kids is a completely different discussion, but one that’s worth thinking about. How do you talk to kids about ideas as complicated as these?
For me, as an adult, I completely understand that Jesus doesn’t actually have a condo in my right ventricle. In fact, maybe it’s worth thinking wildly different about what it means to have a relationship with Jesus.
Jesus, it would seem, is all in your head.
And, I do mean that literally. It is at least more literal than the Jesus living in your heart idea.
Doug Hofstadter is a renowned professor of cognitive science. He also lost his wife, Carol, to a brain tumor when she was just in her forties and when their children were quite young. Among all of his interesting ideas about what it means to think of yourself as a person, in his book I Am A Strange Loop he devotes a lengthy chapter to how he experienced grief around the loss of his wife and how he eventually came to terms with it. He is truly a scientist and doesn’t claim much of a religious background. His processing was completely based on what he knew about brain science. What he realizes is that Carol will always be with him because she is hard-coded into his brain.
Whenever we are exposed to new people, ideas, or experiences our brains change. In fact, every thought that we have – every circuit that fires – slightly alters the way that various neurons talk to each other. This is why you can practice an instrument and get better at it. Practicing makes those circuits that are devoted to laying down sick guitar riffs more efficient. If we hang around friends long enough, we start to pick up their habits and may find ourselves even starting to use the same sorts of phrases that they use. You’ve heard that when you spend many years with someone in a close, intimate relationship, you start to act and sound like them. It’s not by chance – your brains literally grow to resemble each other.
Hofstadter realized that Carol’s actions, her ideas, her opinions, her tendencies were all encoded in his own consciousness. While it could never substitute for still having her with him, he was comforted by the idea that whenever he interacted with their kids or with the world at large, a little bit of Carol would be there too, influencing him each and every day. He was the body through which her own consciousness continued into the future.
When you pursue compassion – when you actively choose it and practice it with people – you become a more compassionate person. When you practice being patient and truly listen to your partner, you become a more patient person. There are parts of your brain – let’s call them the compassion and patience sections – become more active, more efficient, and more likely to influence your behavior.
I am the vine, and you are the branches. If you stay joined to me, and I stay joined to you, then you will produce lots of fruit. But you cannot do anything without me. John 15:5 (CEV)
This past Easter Sunday, I heard a talk that said the only people who were directly impacted by Jesus were the few thousand or so that he had some sort of interaction with during his life. Since then, the only way that people that experience Jesus is to do so vicariously. To experience Jesus today requires that we have an encounter with someone who has Jesus in their own heads – someone that has been so transformed by the selfless, compassionate, inclusive message of this man that their own brains start to resemble his.
Those first disciples – the ones that actually had an opportunity to spend time hearing Jesus’ message directly from him – had a pretty close relationship with their teacher. When Jesus was killed, how much was their experience like Doug’s? The way that they interacted with people had changed because of Jesus. The way they viewed power and privilege and what they had thought about who was in and who was out would never be the same. Jesus death thrust the disciples into roles that involved actively continuing to teach people about the perspectives that Jesus was said to have brought. Whether or not Jesus literally rose from the dead, his consciousness continued to live in the world in the minds of the people that were closest to him. As they taught others, more and more students came to see the world in a Jesus influenced way. Their thinking, their actions, their motivations – literally, their physical brains – began to look more and more like his.
I wonder if this is what is meant by the idea of eternal life. All of us will live on to some degree – the legacy we leave will continue in conversation and consequence for years to come. Jesus’ legacy appears to be so impactful that he continues to find his way into people’s heads, thousands of years later. I wonder if the “I am the vine” passage speaks to this very idea. Jesus was only able to have relationships with a few close followers. But, from them, a world-changing message continues, down the branches and limbs to the new growth that continues to this very day.
The Jewish Biblical teachings around eternal life weren’t about living forever – the afterlife wasn’t much of a concern for them. With the ideas in this post, what comes to mind when you think about the eternal life of a Jesus that lives in your head?
I once heard someone speaking about looking for a job and asking the question, “Who do I want to be like?” Given what we know about the brain and how people and experiences can literally change your brain structure, how does this impact your thoughts on things like who do I want to associate with, where do I want to worship, etc?