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John A. Teske
Recoupling Individuality: Relational Selves and Redemptive Relationships


The particularly toxic form that individuality has taken in European and Anglo-American culture in this era is substantially underpinned by a conception of mind, self, and soul that would hold these to be internal to the central nervous system of our biological organism. This conception of an internal/external boundary has roots as far back as the early modern emergence of science. The historical development of individuality has taken an increasingly bounded and self-contained view that may be corrosive to our communal life. Nevertheless, there is a growing movement within scientific and philosophical studies of mind which view it as embodied, enactive, encultured, and embedded in social and technical networks, and as a construction inclusive of its extensions beyond the boundary of the individual organism. The thesis of the present essay is that such an externalism can be rooted in a relational ontology of self, and a primary intersubjectivity, which have mutual and reciprocal implications for a number of religious themes, including Western theological concepts like the imago dei and our understanding of redemption.

Externalism is, quite simply, the view that “the mind ain’t in the head.” It denies that thoughts, beliefs, and desires are entirely constituted by states and processes physically internal to the organism. It does not mean that the mind is elsewhere, as the individual’s head, and his body, are proper parts of a mind. It entails a subject’s essential embodiment and immersion in the world. Mental phenomena are hybrids of physical events in the head and events in the world to which they are often coupled, not least of which are events both within and between other people and ourselves.

There are deep and historical contributions of Christianity to the understanding of interiority as separate, individuated, and bodily restricted. Nevertheless there are contemporary theological resources more consistent with an intersubjectively externalist view. These include Barth’s conception of the imago dei as existing not in individuals nor in the capacity for relationship, but in relationship itself, and his view that the center of our being is dynamic and cannot be isolated from our embodiment, or our embedding in the world. They also include Rahner’s view, that the substantial unity of the human person is not merely in praesenti statu vitae, and that we are inescapably wedded to the world, literally one flesh with it, as we are with each other. The remainder of the paper explores some contemporary theological developments within which we might begin to construct a broader set of religious meanings from this externalist view of mind, self, and relationship. This is in contradistinction to a view of the redemptive value of a private, individual relationship with the sacred, experienced “interiorly” in terms of bodily and emotional function, functions which may themselves require an externalist understanding. Rather, it is in our relationships with others, including, as Grenz so powerfully argues, our bodies and our sexuality, extending from our relationality to our communality, to which our understanding of redemption might better be bound, particularly in this era.

John A. Teske, PhD is a Professor of Psychology at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, PA.  He teaches personality and social psychology, as well as interdisciplinary courses such as “Narrative and Identity,” “Brain, Mind, and Spirit,” “Psychology through Shakespeare,” “Psyche and Film,” and “Neuromythology.”  He has published empirical research on nonverbal behavior, environmental psychology, cognitive development, and close relationships.  His focus in the last decade has been in the science-religion dialogue, particularly on the neuropsychology of spirit, and he has published regularly in Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science, most recently on “Neuromythology: Brains and Stories” in March 2006, and in Studies in Science and Theology, most recently on “Bindings of the Will: The Neuropsychology of Subdoxastic Faith” in the 2007-2008 volume.  He contributed entries on “Evolutionary Psychology,” “Neural Darwinism,” and “Spirit,” to the Encyclopedia of Religion and Science.  He is a second-generation contributor to the science/religion dialogue and believes that this is likely to be a multi-generational project with no less of an impact than the Reformation.  He has been President of the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science (IRAS) since 2005, and is co-organizing their 2009 Conference on “The Mythic Reality of Autonomous Individuality.”


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