Inception and Christian Mission, Part 2: Neuroscience, Plausibility Structures, Newbigin (and Mystico and Janet!)


And now, for something completely different.
("Mystico and Janet: Flats Built by Hypnosis"-- starting at 4:40). 

And now for something else, a must-read interview with Lesslie Newbigin from 1998.

And now, from Inception, Cobb's warning to Ariadne that if she creates things that are implausible to the dreamer or the projections in a dream, or tries to re-create things from memory, the result will be that the dreamer and other characters in the dream will no longer believe what they are experiencing is real, may seek to attack the architect of the dream, and the dream itself will begin to collapse.

What do these three have in common? 

Two things (at least!).

1) Peter Berger's term "plausibility structure" and all that it stands for-- as well as all that its absence for religion in the Western world stands for now.

2) What memory can continue to carry over time, and what it takes for that to happen.

Whether one uses Peter Berger's language from the 1970s and 1980s, or talk of the demise of Christendom that became popularized with Loren Mead's The Once and Future Church in the early 1990s, and then perhaps accelerated a bit by (now Bishop) William Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas in Resident Aliens, or the whole spate of church and congregational research studies (Hartford, Pew, US Congregations, etc) over the past three decades, there's one thing they all agree on: Christianity is in significant decline in the United States, at least in all the ways we thought we knew it.

But if Inception is right, trying to pin the "big reasons" for this on the "end of Christendom" or "the rise of postmodernism" may not be going quite far enough.

Maybe the big reason isn't that the culture has moved beyond Christendom, and we've joined it in doing so, and no longer really believe in it, and therefore its tower has fallen (cf. "Mystico and Janet").

Maybe we've actually gone beyond the carrying power of collective memory of what the church, as we knew it, was.

(The past tense here is intentional).

Every time we try to remember something sufficiently complex, our brains actually alter it-- at least twice, and perhaps three times. First, memory isn't like an optical drive, taking in all data made available to it and storing it in a sequential order for playback in the same sequential order. It's more like a hard drive, taking in data available to it and storing it wherever it can on the disk, then using some identifier in the file and the file allocation table to reconstruct it when needed later. And even that's not quite accurate, because a hard drive doesn't discriminate between what parts of the data are more important to be retained and what parts aren't, but our brains do. Which means, actually, that our brains store less information than we actually take in-- and often in a much more scattered way-- if at all! In short, the very first operations of memory are very "lossy."

That's the first problem.

Then, when you remember something, what's happening is your brain is reconstructing that memory out of whatever bits of information it had stored, plus whatever inputs were involved in creating the reconstruction in the first place-- meaning what it presents to you as a memory is already altered, even before it gets to your awareness. Then as it's "replaying" it's likely being altered all along. And then as it's re-remembered, it's altered some more. (That's four, four alterations!). In short, the more you remember anything, the less accurate the memory itself becomes-- the lossier, the more unstable and the more unreliable the memory in relationship either to what happened or what you think or feel about it.

A sufficiently simple idea can survive this deconstruction-reconstruction-alteration process for a very long time. It's less prone to alteration in itself. Indeed, it can become an unquestioned, nearly automatic, unconscious basis for altering other perceptions and for creating new realities and even new memories-- whether one calls this false memories or corroborating memories or whatever. The "new memory" may be something you can now see in a previous replay that you hadn't seen the first time through. But now that it's associated with that replay, it can also get associated as part and parcel of the memory itself, and so as integral in the story you tell about yourself.

What this means, in effect, is that the more one tries to recall and press a sufficiently complicated memory for details, the more it falls to bits under the examination. 

But not only that. That's only one part of the phenomenon of memory. Another part, also clear in Inception, is that whatever has instantiated itself as sort of core reality in the recreated memory-- whether directly related to the original generative idea or not-- may well seek other means to reassert itself and create its own plausibility structures, sometimes out of ravels or wholecloth, and even, at times, defend itself fiercely.

We know in part... we prophesy in part... we see through a glass in paradoxical riddles.

So what I'm beginning to ponder is whether the declines we see all around us in Western Christianity can still be attributed solely or largely to cultural changes to which we simply haven't adapted yet-- but potentially could, given enough time and effort. 

I'm beginning to wonder whether perhaps we may be facing a sort of biological limit, built into our neurons, and then transmitted across cultures that emerge from them. 

I'm wondering if it's possible that we've tried to live out of re-reconstructed and so ever-degrading memories for too long-- and so if both the declines in the West and some of the "pushbacks" we see from fundamentalist movements or from Rome (over women's ordination, for example) are symptomatic of that syndrome, which may be progressive and irreversible, even more than what the family system therapists refer to as "systemic inertia" which might be amenable to change if we could just find the right place in the system to reframe things and enough time for such reframing to take hold.

If we have reached such a hard, biological limit with church as we knew it in Western cultures-- whither here (do we know how we got here?), and whither from here?

Peace in Christ,

Taylor Burton-Edwards