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Neurotheology on the "Sarx" and Ethics

Autobiographical memory (in our left-brain) explains who we really are on the basis of what we have done up to now. Therefore a man who copied his control center from the malfunctioning control centers of his parents might come to believe, after 80 years of life, that he is just a grumpy old man. He has always been grumpy and that is all his autobiographical memory has on file. But what can we conclude if at times he is grumpy about being grumpy? After all these years he is still not pleased or satisfied with who he is – there is the sense that he has a malfunction somewhere. His personality is neither to his liking or that of his family.  This discontent is a sign that he senses he could have been someone else. At times we are aware that there is something wrong with our identities and those of the people around us. The prophet said, “I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips.” (Isaiah 6:5) He had seen a vision of something better.

Since we grow a brain by creating mutual-mind state with others that allows us to copy how their brain works, we are very vulnerable to copy and pass on malfunctions. Suppose we have been given bad training along with wrong information about what our behavior means. This is quite common. Genius, creativity and leadership are often given other labels during school years leaving bright kids feeling disliked and stupid, for example. As we age these autobiographical memories become the defining source of our identities. We grow up having had errors encoded in the structure and function of our brain. We have trained biological deficits in our brains and identities.

Not all the brain errors about who we are come from external sources. The level 2 of the control center (amygdala) is totally subjective in its determination of good and bad based on how something feels to us. If it hurts it is bad. If it is pleasurable it is good. We strongly tend to justify our experiences and actions based on these interpretations. The problem is that what we experience as good, bad and scary is totally idiosyncratic. No two people will end up with the same set of interpretations of their life experience. For example, I may think mommies are good because my mommy kept me from pain, you think mommies are bad because yours was gone all the time. But my mommy actually kept me from maturing and outgrowing her because she needed my love while yours left an abuser, worked hard all her life to pay the bills and was always too tired. Because our basic evaluation (level 2 of the control center) depends on how our bodies feel at any given moment to tell us if an event is good or bad, you might feel that that the drink you just took helped you relax (and is good) where my body might have gotten tense because your drink made my life feel out of control.

This process of letting your body define good and evil is referred to in biblical language as listening to the sarx or sarx. This word is often translated “flesh” or “meat.” The flaw in the sarx/sarx is not that the body is bad, but that the brain can only use old information for its evaluation. The brain predicts the future based on accumulated information about the past. If you have bad data you will make bad predictions and malfunction. Perhaps an example will help.

Your father was absent, hostile, cold while you were little and eventually left the family and died in a car crash. The result of this experience is that you had a lot of attachment pain as a child when it came to your dad. Your body “heart” hurt and sometimes you became angry or frightened which are both unpleasant body states we do not want to repeat. Having your father approach became bad. Having him gone became bad and thinking about him became bad. Not thinking about him hurt less and that was good. From experiences like that many children have concluded that 1) they are bad, 2) they are not worth much, 3) men are bad, 4) dads are worthless, 5) it is better to avoid becoming attached to men and as many other value interpretations. These all serve as explanations of why we hurt and based on these understandings we decide what it is like us to do. The problem is that all these explanations are flawed but the brain (sarx/sarx) has no others. It would be closer to the truth to say, “I’m just the kind of kid that would love my father. My brain is configured to attach and painfully his is not. Something has blown his attachment circuit and that is painful to me because I am configured to prefer something much better – a secure attachment with all my people.” Do you know any kids that came up with something like that on their own? Instead the brain must tag something or someone as bad.

If we are ever to become more than the malfunctions we may have acquired, then there needs to be some definition of who we are that is stronger and more true than our accumulated experiences. We may be more than what we have done or been. If some of what we think is us is actually a malfunction then what is true for us needs to be true for others as well. It becomes a spiritual journey to no longer see ourselves or others according to our accumulated experiences (what the “meat” says) but according to our potential. Seeing this truer self in others when they cause us pain is what it means to forgive, that is, to say that what they have done is less significant than what they were meant to be. Biblical language calls this living according to the spirit and not according to the sarx/sarx/flesh/meat. It should be pointed out that those who do not admit that they are malfunctioning and rely on their own sense of good and bad (sarx) will be highly dangerous to be around at times. They will become deadly at the most unfortunate moments and continue to justify themselves for doing so. After all, this matches the information their brain has on file from the past and they have no vision for becoming someone who is fully alive in the future.

Ethics and religious behavior is an attempt to create a sophisticated variant with what the “meat” can do. (Romans 8:3) By introducing religious principles, truth or absolute values to replace the physical sensations from the body as the basis for ethics, many people have tried to make the brain calculate the right thing to do in an ethical structure. In a sophisticated ethical or religious system the values will always become contradictory: justice and mercy, accountability and forgiveness, or honesty and kindness. If ethics are about steering our behavior then it is necessary to have contradictory principles because if we are going off the road on the right side we should turn left and if we are going off the left side the right thing to do is turn right—the opposite correction and opposite value. The values do not contradict each other because they are not to be applied at the same time but which one do you apply now is the question the brain must solve before times runs out. At this point we need only to read theology, see Sunnis killing Shiites, protestant reformers killing each other over doctrine, Jewish Orthodox against almost anyone, Catholics fighting with Protestants, denominational splits, Anglican and Presbyterian wars over homosexuality, Hindus and Muslims in India or Tantrics against other Hindus to see brain-based religious ethics at work. The conclusion from biblical theology is that when the result of these ethics is death then you can be sure that it is “meat/sarx” trying to do the right thing. (Romans 8:6) The rest of the story is in the news.

In the Life Model view, in spite of how valuable it is to know the right and true principles, we are still unable to determine the right thing to do. We can’t determine the right thing to do because we can’t accurately know who we are really meant to be if that includes being someone we have never been before. The solution is to be synchronized with God and do what God is doing at the same time that God is doing it. (John 5:19) This requires a joy bond with God and the ability to experience some mutual-mind with God as we go through the day. (1 Thessalonians 5:17) You can read about this in the section of spiritual formation.

The sarx and recovery

The word sarx refers to soft body tissue whether alive or dead and should, at the very least, apply to our brain tissue with its dead spots. These dead spots are genetic, or due to Type A or B traumas. Both the neglected good things and the bad things that happen will increase the chances that genetic weaknesses will become severe and noticeable. We know that when these weaknesses and dead spots accompany bad training in our control centers, we are unable to reach our potential or act like our true selves. While the word sarx may mean more than just this deadness in brain function, it must at least include it. To overcome that deadness, become alive and thrive will practically require three things:

  1. Personal determination to live by my true identity even when my memory tells me that I am someone else because of the malfunctions I have always had.
  2. A group of people around me that will mirror my true identity as more important than my past and help me live in joy and peace with them.
  3. A living example of what it means to be fully alive that I will trust more than my own mind.

Once we have rejected our current identity as too dead, begun to look for a new one, formed a love/joy bond with our redemptive model and bonds with our redemptive community we can retrain our minds to live a new way. In 12-step groups this means admitting that you are powerless, attending group faithfully and submitting to a higher power. For Christians it means confessing we have malfunctioned, becoming part of the church family and looking to Jesus as our living example of how to live. While Christians rarely use this model to overcome the deadness in their brains (sarx), it is hard to conceive of a better model.  One problem, in actual practice, is that many people in 12-step programs never develop any identity but that of an addict and many people in churches never develop any identity but that of a sinner.  While it is better to admit that we have dead spots in our identities than to think we are fine the way we are, this stops one step short of reaching the potential that we see through the heart that Jesus gives us – to quote the Life Model.