Recently I posted this on Facebook, “Answer with the first thing that comes to your mind, why do you go to church?” The vast majority of the answers were related to obtaining some kind of experience: closeness with God, worship, to be fed, to obtain knowledge. The far and away number one answer was “for community/fellowship.”

Yet I wonder whether what these experiences have in common, even the desire for community, is the focus on what the church gives me. Can that thing be relational yet ironically still individual?

While this Facebook post is not a scientific study, it made me wonder. Is the evangelical church in North America today truly the Body of Christ, or is it more a “loose association of the independently spiritual persons?” Do we ultimately attend as individuals searching for experiences to shore up our individual selves?

Of course, God works through the Holy Spirit to do amazing things in individual lives, but for some reason, as the New Testament writers remind us, he works through the church, the Body of Christ.

We come to church for many reasons, but we come to be formed as a congregation into the image and likeness of Christ—his Body on earth. The New Testament describes Christ’s representation as one but composed of many individuals (1 Cor. 12). How does God, through the Holy Spirit, enact this communal process, not for individuals, of being formed into Christ’s body?

We’re all cyborgs

We live in a world of new digital tools that are reshaping our lives. We carry around “smart phones” with all sorts of applications that enhance our daily lives in important ways. Apps remember phone numbers, access online information, guide us around town, inform us about the world, politics, stock markets, and sports events, provide the status of our bank accounts and credit cards, etc. Our mental capacities (intelligence) have been enhanced by the smart phones we tote around.

Philosophers of mind and cognitive psychologists call this cognitive extension. The concept posits that humans are able to enhance their normal human limitations by coupling themselves to tools, human artifacts and even other people. Another way to say this is we learn better, think better, and perform beyond ourselves when we incorporate items outside of ourselves. The processes of thinking are thought of as extending outside the person to include tools and interactions with others.

This might bring to mind the idea of Robocop or some other human cyborg that has mechanized items implanted into or attached to their body allowing them to do superhuman feats. It turns out humans are naturally wired to incorporate items outside their bodies and brains. This tendency to incorporate has led cognitive philosopher Andy Clark to refer to humans as natural-born cyborgs.

In fMRI studies, brain scans reveal that when an experienced carpenter uses a hammer, the brain maps the end of the hammer as if it is the end of the hand. The hammer is incorporated into the body allowing the carpenter to do something (drive a nail) as if doing it with the hand. For amputees who use prosthetics, similar studies show that the brain maps the prosthetic as the missing limb. In both examples, the brain has incorporated something extra-body into its functioning systems, and subsequently enhanced the person’s ability.

Back to our digital tools. Think how debilitating it is for us if our computer crashes or the battery dies on our phone. We have cognitively extended our memories and problem-solving capabilities into these devices. This ultimately means we don’t think and learn solely with our brains or bodies. We literally think (in better and more powerful ways) in connection with elements outside our bodies. We supersize our human capacities!

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The fact that non-body tools and artifacts can become totally incorporated into our neural-cognitive systems is illustrated by Stelarc, a performance artist. He doesn’t paint pictures or sculpt, he performs something unusual and surprising. Stelarc created a mechanized robotic arm which he attached to one of his shoulders. The robotic arm was controlled by a series of sensors connected to muscles in his abdomen and thigh. By contracting these muscles in certain ways, Stelarc could move the arm, pick up things, and even write and draw. What was most astounding, however, was that after a significant amount of time using the robotic arm, Stelarc discovered that he didn’t have to “think” about moving it. He moved his robotic arm just like we do our natural arms. Stelarc is a dramatic illustration of how easily humans become cyborgs.

Extending into the thinking of one another

Cognitive extension has moved from research on how humans incorporate tools to how they incorporate the capacities of other persons through social interactions to extend their limitations. Have you ever known a couple where one partner has a poor memory for names while the other’s memory is really sharp? If so, maybe you’ve noticed the one with the better memory enhancing the memory of the other by quietly slipping the names of people to them at a party. Or consider a brainstorming session where a group of people come together to solve a problem. Over time, a solution emerges and yet no one can be certain where it came from. In the first scenario, memory is enhanced, in the second problem-solving is enhanced.

One really remarkable example of this was observed in deaf children in Nicaragua. Michael Siegal, in a landmark study, reported that, over the course of three decades, deaf children developed their own sign language. Linguistic experts examined this spontaneously created communication system and determined that this “made up” form of sign language contained all the important elements of a genuine language. This is an example of social extension because the sign language would not have developed had it not been for students interacting with one another in ways that extended their system of communication.

Culture also passes on the products of thinking and the creativity of persons not currently present. Thus, systems of thought like the law may be considered to be another form of social extension. No lawyer can know all the laws, but lawyers know where to go to look up past cases, verdicts, precedents and exceptions. The law is the aggregate of the cognitive contributions of countless others put into written form. By using, or incorporating the law, any lawyer can enhance his/her natural limits of knowledge allowing him or her to practice more efficiently. Philosophers of mind call this form of cognitive extension a “mental institution.”

Supersizing the Christian life

We can begin to understand how we might engage with the church in such a way that our normal human limitations are enhanced, forming us into a true Body of Christ, and in the process “supersize” our Christian life.

Take prayer for example. There is something powerful about praying as a group or congregation, perhaps because when we do our spirituality is enhanced. When we hear others pray we may be alerted to concerns which might not have occurred to us, sensitizing us to issues outside of ourselves. Or we may experience others praying with great faith when our faith is somewhat shaky, and it buoys us up to pray in faith as well. As a form of social cognitive extension, group prayer enhances the praying by creating a larger mental network from which prayers emerge.

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Or think about the practice of reciting liturgy together. The liturgy is not our words, but that is exactly what makes it most powerful. We are enhanced as over time we make these ancient or contemporary words our own. Once again, we are moved beyond ourselves to larger concerns. Our thinking is momentarily incorporated into the thoughts of other Christians.

Think also of doctrine and theology. While many Christians downplay these in favor of experiential spirituality, doctrine and theology are “mental institutions” similar to the law. When we face an issue that perplexes us, we can certainly pray and search Scripture, but we will also be greatly enhanced if we consult what tradition has had to say to us through doctrine and theology. Just like a lawyer can’t know all the law, we can’t know all of Christian theology, and our Christian life is enhanced as we consult it.

Maximizing extension

It is important to note that we don’t necessarily automatically incorporate. A skilled carpenter’s brain maps the hammer differently than a novice because she is regularly using it. By interactive frequent use (involving feedback), the hammer becomes incorporated into her action systems. For humans to experience the enhancement of extension with others means a) we have to be readily available to one another, b) we need to spend considerable time together, and c) we need to be able to receive feedback from one another. This is hard to make happen in an individualistic understanding of church where a “regular attender” is someone who reports coming to church one hour per month.

Secondly, we should note that not all cognitive extension is healthy. Coupling with the Body of Christ is good but coupling with a crime syndicate is problematic. What makes the extension of the Body of Christ virtuous is its embeddedness in the narrative of Christ and the Kingdom of God (Matt 5-7). This takes time as individuals couple to one another over word, sacrament and service.

Cognitive extension then changes our understanding of community from a thing we get to who we are as a people—a network of extension, not a loosely associated group of individuals. This enhancement of our Christian lives through extension to what is outside of ourselves has been going on for a long time.

But it is not guaranteed. We must continue to resist the cultural value of individualism and strive to be the true Body of Christ, where all parts are respected, needed and valued (1 Cor. 12:12-31). The church can be a means of grace made possible through the Holy Spirit. This is the same Spirit that creates humans as natural-born cyborgs, inhabits the Body into which we extend ourselves, redeems us from our rebellious ways, and sanctifies us. We were not designed to do Christian life as individuals in a community. When we try, we are limited. But when we couple to one another, extending Christian life beyond our individuality, we become the true Body of Christ. Thanks be to God.

Warren S. Brown is a psychology professor at Fuller Seminary and director of the Lee Travis Research Institute. Brad D. Strawn is a psychology professor at Fuller Seminary and a licensed psychologist. Together they authored The Physical Nature of Christian Life: Neuroscience, Psychology, & the Church. Brad and Warren are the authors of a forthcoming book from IVP on extended cognition and the church.