Thinking WITH God

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The following is an excerpt from Renovated: God, Dallas Willard, and the Church That Transforms. It captures Jim Wilder’s discussions with Dallas Willard on attachment love to God. This excerpt has been lightly edited for context and clarity.

Is God so near that we could share a mutual mind?

For God’s will to be done on earth in “real time,” human brains would need some sort of mutual-mind state with God. A mutual-mind state with God would be possible only if God is with us and limited divine thoughts to a form we could understand. Without a “real-time” mutual mind with God in each situation, we will not respond as God would respond. Without mutual mind, we will fail to react as God is reacting. Only in retrospect will we think of what God wanted when things happened. By that point, we already will have responded without the character of Christ.

There is a large difference between thinking about God being with us and thinking with God about our reality. Mutual-mind states with God could produce a with-God life. We would think with God rather than simply about God. When we think back about what God wanted in a past moment, we can feel remorse, but thinking with God changes our initial reactions—it changes our character.

Does God intend to use the mutual-mind system He created in the brain to help us think more like God thinks and regulate our responses to match His? Such intimate character training requires us to accept a very relational gospel. We will need to explore the nature of mutual-mind states and how they are produced before we can answer.

Creating a Mutual-Mind State

As soon as we say “thinking,” our minds lock onto conscious thought. Yet what we monitor consciously is a very small part of our mental process. There has been speculation about subconscious and preconscious thought, but until the 1990s, very little was known about mental processes that are faster than conscious thought. Some part of the mind creates our sense of who we are, what is around us, and how we will react before we begin a conscious analysis.

Mutual-mind is not the same as the increasingly popular concept of mindfulness or the experience of mindsight. The three ideas are quite related.

  • Mindfulness makes us aware and present in the moment.
  • Mindsight lets us know there is a mind behind the face we see.
  • Mutual-mind connects us mind-to-mind with another in that moment.

Mutual-mind develops in a mindful state. If we are not mindfully aware in the present moment, we cannot “read” what another mind is thinking (mindsight). Without accurate mindsight, we cannot manage to synchronize our mental state with someone else. Mutual-mind comes from the same brain structures that produce mindfulness and mindsight.

Mindfulness and spiritual disciplines are preparations for encountering God. Goodness is not found in the preparations but in the encounter they help facilitate.

Mindfulness is the basic state needed for relationship. Numerous writers give special attention to ways that mindfulness affects prayer. Dr. Charles Stone combines cognitive neuroscience and spiritual disciplines. He blends Christian traditions with practical steps for Christian mindfulness. Dr. Gregory Bottaro teaches mindful awareness of the present moment in the context of Catholic prayer practices. These (and many other) writers carefully distinguish Christian mindfulness from Eastern religious practices and stay in harmony with the spiritual disciplines Dallas encouraged.

Similar to what Dallas teaches about the spiritual disciplines, mindfulness cannot be considered a righteous act. Mindfulness and spiritual disciplines are preparations for encountering God. Goodness is not found in the preparations but in the encounter they help facilitate.

In his work on mindfulness, Dr. Curt Thompson combines neuroscience and spiritual practices with special attention to the effects of mindfulness on relationships. Curt was not content to give lectures but made a special point to connect relationally with the other speakers. He understood that spiritual maturity is developed, tested, and observed by the way our spiritual practices influence relationships. He makes a very significant point. Christian mindfulness is relational and is based on attachment to God and others. Talking with God grows from loving attachment with God in which each party genuinely cares about the other’s point of view.

Limits of Conscious Activity

It is quite easy to mistake understanding ideas for a mutual-mind state. Let’s say three theologians; a Muslim cleric, a Jewish rabbi, and Christian seminary professor explore the idea that Jesus is God. The three theologians can come to a very clear agreement about the idea and its implications and yet not be of one mind. When it comes to their persons and identities, their mutual understanding of an idea has not become mutual-mind.

Ideas are communicated at the speed of words, but mutual mind is nonverbal—usually visual. A look, like a picture, can speak a thousand words. Western education and Christian life have come to rely on conscious thoughts formed in the slow track systems of the brain. A soteriology of attachment shifts Christian life to the fast track as we will see. Our methods become face-to-face and eye-to-eye.

The conscious mind must, by its design, focus attention on details. Our conscious mind is like a dog with a cone on its head that limits what it can see. Consciously, we are unable to fully grasp reality. This is not a case of being out of touch with reality—we can grasp reality in our faster-than-conscious mind. The problem with conscious thought is that it is not aware of being unaware of what it fails to notice. (Yes, I did say that!) The philosopher of science Michael Polanyi once said, “Unbridled lucidity can destroy our understanding of complex matters,” which is another way to say that when we focus on details, we miss reality. He called what we know faster than conscious thought “tacit knowledge.”

Dr. Iain McGilchrist calls the conscious mind the “emissary” for the brain. Although this emissary does exceedingly well with investigating details, it cannot grasp the whole picture. The business of the conscious emissary is coordinated using the slower brain systems of the left brain. Dr. Marcus Warner and I have called those conscious systems the “slow track” of the brain. What McGilchrist has called the “master” system, we have called the “fast track” of the brain because it runs faster than conscious speed and is managed from the right brain.

The Fast Track and Slow Track in the Brain

To help us understand the difference between the fast-track (right-brain dominant) process and the slow-track (left-brain dominant) process, picture yourself outside on a dark summer’s night. You are taking in the whole experience. Fireflies, stars, warm breeze, grass that could use mowing, rustling leaves, realizing dinner is in the oven for another twenty minutes, the children are happy, a mosquito bite itches, family visits to your grandparent’s farm come to mind with the games there at dusk. You find yourself humming and taking a deep breath that brings with it the faint smell of paint drying on the deck. Your fast track takes everything in, incorporating your current moment with your people and memories of your past.

Something large moves in the darkness among the trees. The fast track remembers that bears are large, dark, and among trees. You don’t think of this as remembering because by the time you are conscious of the noise, you already are reacting with fear and your attention is focused on a spot. The fast track has sent its emissary to grab the flashlight and shine it in the woods. Gone is the reality of the stars, fireflies, mosquito bite, and your grandparent’s farm. Like the flashlight, your attention is focused on a very small part of the world. The flashlight cannot capture the reality of the night. It can see only a tiny bit. The two eyes looking back from that tiny spot in the woods becomes its world.

Behold! Your neighbor has a cow.

This conscious mind (slow track) cannot grasp reality. Like the flashlight, it sees only a bit at a time. The conscious mind cannot even fully grasp that it cannot see reality because it only knows what has gained its attention. Sometimes, like when we are engrossed looking through a telescope at the night sky, someone comes up behind us and scares the daylights out of us. At those moments, the conscious mind realizes that there is more reality than what we noticed. The conscious slow track will select a detail that has its attention as the explanation. Soon, its attention will shift to something else.

When our Christianity is only in our conscious mind, our attention shifts from one virtue or sin to another but forgets to monitor the rest of our character. We will focus our conscious attention just in time to see our sinful reactions.
Unlike the emissary (slow track) that cannot understand reality because it sees trees and not forests, the master (fast track) system refuses to be focused. The fast track considers all input and all related memory at once. The goal of the fast track (master system) is to establish our reality at this moment and answer what is like us (and our people) to do under these conditions.

When our Christianity is only in our conscious mind, our attention shifts from one virtue or sin to another but forgets to monitor the rest of our character.

Character reflects what we have learned to be when things get “like this.”

Maturity is the sum of our memories of what we and our people do when things get “like this.”

A properly trained and uninjured fast track performs many identity functions: individual identity; group identity; social engagement; attachment to our important people; awareness and understanding of other minds; providing moral thoughts and values; remembering important lessons from our past; finding and remembering our role models; maintaining joyful relationships; preserving our shalom/peace; taking action when peace is missing; regulating emotions, feelings, and desires; and more. By comparison, the slow track focuses on details and finds if they are important, explains what things are and how they work, solves problems, matches words with experience, develops procedures to get results, and keeps a narrative of our conscious experience.

Fast Track and Character

Character is not only displayed and communicated by the fast track; it is also learned and changed for the better or worse by the fast track. Character is housed and remembered in the fast-track structures. Character and maturity are not separate for the brain. Both are aspects of identity.

Since identity (including character and maturity) runs in a brain system that is faster than conscious thought, the fast track produces a reaction to our circumstances BEFORE we have a chance to consider how we would rather react. What happens before we have a chance to think about it is the source of what we call character. Our reactions will reveal our character.

This suggests that if we are to learn Christlike character, it would be best learned in the ways that the right-brain, fast-track mind thinks and learns. The mechanism for building and changing character in the fast track is mutual mind. We need to think with God, not simply about God. Learning to think with God carries major implications for spiritual-formation practices if we want to create a Christlike character that spontaneously responds with love for our enemies.

Learning to think with God carries major implications for spiritual-formation practices if we want to create a Christlike character that spontaneously responds with love for our enemies.

Seeing how fast- and slow-track systems operate differently illuminates how the brain develops maturity and character. This neuroscience raises some questions about developing our character. Can the brain only learn character from other humans? Could brain processes be employed by God to develop mature, Christlike character? Can God use the fast-track master system? Does God develop our character without engaging us with other people? Does God add something to our best human maturity and character that we could not add ourselves? Does following scriptural practices train the fast track of the brain? These are the questions of neurotheology. Yet every item above requires that our salvation forms a new, hesed love attachment—through Jesus—with a God who is present and interacts with us.

Relational maturity

All immaturity exhibits poor regulation of emotions, feelings, and desires. Yet we need to make a distinction (philosophers love to make distinctions) about what causes the immaturity Dallas observes—being ruled by emotions, feelings, and desires. We use the word “immaturity” two ways. One meaning, the one intended by Dallas, is that someone has failed to develop. A second meaning is that someone is young. The immaturity of children comes from an undeveloped self in the fast track. The immaturity of children is usually mindful, joyful, and peaceful. Children with loving attachments are open to developing identity.

The immaturity shown by adults with traumatic, incoherent identities is rarely mindful and lacks a sense of loving attachment. The immaturity after trauma is both undeveloped and incoherent. Brain studies demonstrate that after trauma, the brain no longer runs in smooth synchronicity. Not only does the fast track not run smoothly but the fast and slow tracks are out of synchronization with one another, as well. A disrupted identity also occurs with children who lack secure, loving attachments.

Restoring a secure, loving attachment where there are traumatic memories not only resolves the trauma but resynchronizes the fast track. Where there was once an incoherent identity, stability is restored. Now the brain can mature and develop an identity capable of regulating emotions, feelings, and desires. This restoration depends on acquiring a loving attachment.

The Science of Spiritual Maturity—a Neurotheological Perspective

Could the science of attachment and emotional maturity also be the science of spiritual maturity, once we add mutual mind with God and God’s people? Neurotheology suggests the value of:

  1. attaching to God;
  2. thinking with God;
  3. becoming one of God’s people; and
  4. thinking about God.

Thinking about God has very different outcomes than thinking with God when it comes to character. Without attachment, we will not think with God. Without attachment, we will have spiritual ideas but our reactions and character (in the face of emotions, feelings, and desires) will change very little. We will be far more shaped in this world by the people we call “our people.”

Without attachment, we will not think with God.

Thinking about God has value. If we do not think about God, we will have great difficulty recognizing that (1) God’s thoughts are not like our thoughts, (2) God’s character is not like our character, and (3) God’s ways are different from our ways. We will not even notice that (4) our loving attachment to God is making us more like Him.

Salvation that produces a new attachment love between us and God makes a mutual-mind state with God possible. Could part of the meaning of Isaiah 1:18—“Come now, and let us reason [יָכַח, yakach] together”—mean “let us come to a mutual mind”? God expects yakach to teach us to do good because the previous verse (17) says, “learn to do good” (לָמַד, lamad, or become skillful). We will be practicing a skill when we yakach. In the following verse (19), God adds that all will be well “if you consent” (אָבָה, abah). Abah can mean to synchronize or go along with. If yakach is mutual mind, then our identity (in the master fast track) will become increasingly like God’s character.

Could loving attachment to God be how salvation saves us from our sins? Dallas once told me that we would most likely call “sin” a “malfunction” in modern language. Character and control of emotions, feelings, and desires are disrupted by whatever causes the fast track to malfunction. A fast-track malfunction, along with a poorly trained fast-track identity, cause a failure to regulate emotions, feelings, and desires—not to mention our reactions. Dallas has just said that “immaturity is the effect of sin.” Salvation through hesed attachment could be a very specific solution to sin and its effects on our identity and character.

Spiritual Maturity and the Human Brain

Dallas told us that both spiritual and human maturity are demonstrated by having feelings, desire, and emotion under the guidance and control of what is good. Persons who are not spiritually mature are under the guidance and control of feelings, desires, and emotion. Neuroscience indicates that, in operation of the brain, the fast-track master system centered in the right brain regulates emotions, feelings, and desires. Spiritual maturity, like emotional maturity, must modify this fast-track system.

Emotional maturity represents how far we can take maturity using only human models. What God’s Spirit and people add to normal maturity, we call spiritual maturity. Spiritual maturity is not a separate phenomenon but rather emotional maturity plus more. Jesus says that even the pagans can love their neighbors. This is a good deal further than many Christians bother to go. Spiritual maturity is indicated by the ability to love our enemies spontaneously from the heart.

The social brain is profoundly sculpted across the life span by who it loves. The quality of all relational interactions shapes the development of identity and character. Loving relationships grow from joyful and thankful interactions. When we grow beyond loving only those who bring us joy, we begin to act Christlike. To love our enemies, we surely need a mutual mind with God.

Dallas’s first lecture told us of the immediacy of God’s presence. Neuroscience has us ask, Is God immediate enough to create a mutual-mind state with us? If the answer is yes, then neuroscience has us add: A mutual-mind state might provide guidance with someone we don’t love, but it will only change our identity and character if we have significant hesed (attachment love). When we have enough attachment to think with God rather than about God, the access rights to our identity go much deeper.

The fast-track system develops coherent identity (mature character) through mutual-mind practice with “my people” who have the loving-attachment “rights” to tell me who I really am. Jesus and Jesus’ family need to be attached to me as “my people” by deep attachment love to shape the character of Christ in our identities. Practicing mutual-mind (through God’s Spirit) allows us to develop better character than we could from the best collection of humans. At the same time, if that character does not show itself with humans (particularly our enemies), how can we claim that we are being saved?

We must ask, What is the basis for maturity and Christlikeness? Is it the will, or is it attachment love?

Dallas emphatically stated that living in the Kingdom of God should transform people. He decried the current state of the church and indicated that whole churches spend their time tiptoeing around immature leaders and members. He proposed a method for shaping character through our wills under the Holy Spirit. We will see that, for the brain, attachments are stronger and quite separate from what we think of as the will. We must ask, What is the basis for maturity and Christlikeness? Is it the will, or is it attachment love?

Jim Wilder
Jim Wilder

You’ve been reading with Jim Wilder, author of Renovated: God, Dallas Willard, and the Church That Transforms. Engage further or read the first chapters for free.

[1] Charles Stone, Holy Noticing: The Bible, Your Brain, and the Mindful Space between Moments (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2019).
[2] Gregory Bottaro, The Mindful Catholic: Finding God One Moment at a Time (North Palm Beach, FL: Beacon, 2018).
[3] Dallas Willard in chapter 8.
[4] Curt Thompson, Anatomy of the Soul: Surprising Connections between Neuroscience and Spiritual Practices that Can Transform Your Life and Relationships (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale, 2010).
[5] Michael Polanyi, The Tacit Dimension (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966), 18.
[6] Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009).
[7] Marcus Warner and Jim Wilder, Rare Leadership: Four Uncommon Habits for Increasing Trust, Joy, and Engagement in the People You Lead  (Chicago: Moody, 2017).
[8] Richard Clark et al, “Cortical Desynchronicity Problems in PTSD” (Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory, Flinders University, Adelaide, Australia).
[9] See chapter 1’s comments on In Search of Guidance (later titled Hearing God) by Willard.

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