|A Mind of Its Own
Cordelia Fine, Icon Books, 2006
since the search of a Jesus of history began, its very necessity has
been constantly questioned. Writing in the early 20th century, Albert
Schweitzer called The Quest of the Historical Jesus a
He correctly identifies in that book a
fundamental clash between the modes of the Enlightenment and traditional
Christian teachings. He also notes the disconcerting and
... absolute indifference of early Christianity
towards the life of the historical Jesus ... that was the first
expression of the impulse of self-preservation by which Christianity
continued to be guided for centuries.
His conclusions and the efforts of theologians who followed him
effectively put a hold until
the 1960s on the great search for a Jesus of history. Since then a more adventurous and rigorous investigation has
Even now, though very few attempt to explain just why it is so
important to pursue the search at all. Most Christians think that the
traditional version of Jesus, delivered by the gospels and the Church,
is good enough for them. Why bother with rooting around for "what
Jesus actually said and did"?
Cordelia Fine's fine book provides an important opportunity
to get to an answer. This assertion may seem strange, for she writes
here about social psychology - not history, theology or doctrine. Indeed,
there is no hint that Christianity is even in her frame of reference.
Let me explain what I mean: History is an offshoot of science. At
their best, the analytical methods used by history and other scientific
disciplines seek to reduce to a minimum the possibility that we arrive at wrong answers to
the questions we ask. Indeed, they press us hard to ask the right
questions, refusing to divulge God's wisdom if we don't.
So if I want to know why the Second
World War began, for example, historians will dredge up a sea of information and
formulate a provisional answer. Over time and with good fortune a consensus about
those causes should gradually emerge.
But few keep in mind that there lies behind historical analysis and
interpretation a disconcerting fact about the human capacity to grasp
truth. In Fine's words,
... the truth of the matter ... is that your unscrupulous brain is
entirely undeserving of your confidence ... It deludes you. It is
emotional, pigheaded and secretive. Oh, and it's also a bigot ... thanks to the masquerading of an untrustworthy brain with a mind
of its own, much of what you think you know is not quite what it
Most of what we now
know about the way our minds work has been discovered in the last 50
years, so the research upon which Fine bases her observations was not
available to Schweitzer. If it had been, he might have held his
views with less certainty.
The evidence which Fine presents has been in the
public domain for a long time, though not easily accessible to the
ordinary person. The problem for the likes of you and me
is twofold. First, psychology is vast field and it's difficult to sort
out the wheat from the chaff. Second, not many of us understand the
tortuous methods and language of experimental psychology. We have to rely on the forked tongue
of journalism for the little we know.
Long before modern psychology was born, the heroes of the Enlightenment guessed - as did Socrates
- that we often delude ourselves. As a result, they
thought, nobody has an entirely accurate perception either of self or
the world. But Socrates and later sceptics didn't know exactly
how we arrive at false conclusions about reality. Fine explains with
remarkable clarity, brevity and good style just now that comes about.
For a start, our predecessors could not recognise that every man jack
of us is a bigot. As the author explains, research demonstrates beyond
doubt that my brain and yours are stuffed with stereotypes. No matter
how liberal we think we are, those stereotypes have the capacity to
change our behaviour towards others. Most importantly, they are almost
always beyond our awareness.
For example, it's fashionable nowadays to condemn the Church at large
for its age-old anti-Semitism. But condemnation comes less easily when
one realises the lengths to which the Bigoted Brain will go to preserve
its inbuilt antagonisms. It doesn't much help liberal illusions that being bigoted turns
out to be a useful survival mechanism . The stereotypical mental
constructs we build
... provide a quick means of extracting and interpreting
information from the complicated world around us, of forming useful
generalisations, and making helpful predictions ... a bigoted brain is
an efficient brain. A brain unburdened by egalitarian concerns can
decide 'Thug ... tart ... slob... nerd ... airhead', and then move
swiftly on to the next thing ...
The good news is that we can and do repress our stereotypes - but
only with great effort:
... it seems that we may be able to train our brain to replace its
spontaneous prejudices with more acceptable reflexes.
The story doesn't end with bigotry. Numerous experiments show that we
are also incurably conservative. The Pigheaded Brain frequently prevents
us accepting new information. Worse than that, we often totally ignore
the facts if they don't suit us:
We don't seek refreshing challenges to our political and social
ideologies from the world; we much prefer books, newspapers, magazines
and people who share our own enlightened values.
And, yes, I must admit that I seldom read anything which
staunchly opposes the need to find a Jesus of history. Nor do I usually
buy books which treat the Bible as the undisputed, literal Word of God.
So much for my impartiality.
There is more. The evidence is now cast-iron that our Pigheaded Brain
seriously mangles how we interpret the data we do take notice of. It
will even create its own supporting evidence - the rightly-named
"self-fulfilling prophecy". Scientists have found ingenious ways of not
contaminating their experiments with their own beliefs. But the rest of
us are left high and dry.
Therapy is all about bypassing the Pigheaded
Brain. So bigoted and deluded are we that we deceive ourselves at every
turn. Some optimists may suggest as a solution that we all focus
clinically on counter-evidence and
alternative hypotheses. The problem? Our belief that we're already doing
this is set in concrete. Our Pigheaded Brain knows it's not
How is it possible then to properly research a Jesus of history if we're
each of us so convinced that our position is impervious? The answer is
"With great difficulty and slowly, over considerable time". In
other words the best answers come only after long and patient debate
between people who admit their intellectual fallibility.
Nobody does any good by refusing the enter that debate - which is pretty
much what those who claim access to divine inspiration do.
As if our instinctive tampering with evidence isn't bad enough, our
brains have yet more difficulties in store for us.
The Vain Brain insists that we always dress up the negative in
positive clothes. Defeat is given the appearance of victory. (Only the
clinically depressed are likely to get close to a realistic assessment
of themselves.) And if that doesn't prove effective, then we are likely
simply to forget the negatives:
The really bad news is that even our relatively rare moments of
conscious choice may be nothing but an illusion.
Forgetting is the job of the Secretive Brain - which is too useful to
get rid of. It enables us to walk and drive a motor car with little or
no conscious thought, for example. We can, however, think without too
much interference from the unconscious if we try. But experiments have
shown that this requires great effort. It's tiring to think without the Secretive Brain getting in the way. Fine warns:
Never forget that your unconscious is smarter than you, faster than
you, and more powerful than you. You will never know all of its
Add to all this the extremely strong evidence that our Emotional
Brain constantly undermines many of our attempts at rationality. Anger,
jealousy, anxiety and paranoia are among the emotions which shape our
supposedly rational thoughts. Top it all off with the incapacity of our
Deluded Brain to follow even the most simple logic, and we're in a
As well as being a really good read, Fine's book turns out to be a
stark challenge to Christians. We have a choice: switch off our brains
or be alertly sceptical about even our most cherished articles of faith.
My brain may not be as reliable as I'd like - but it's all I've got if I
want to penetrate to the truth about anything.
Not even Jesus is immune to the tricks our brains play on us. The
payoff for thinking as hard as we can about him is not that belief is weakened, as some claim. Rather, it is that faith
is made all the stronger by undiluted scepticism and a determination to
live out what our bigoted, emotional, pig-headed, vain, deluded,
secretive brain delivers to us.
Given that the brain is what it is, it is sheer folly not to accept
that every single one of our beliefs may be at least partly wrong, and
that therefore they should all be held at best provisionally.
In short, faith as rock-like belief ceases to be faith since it
admits no possible error. The evidence that the brain has a mind
of its own is incontrovertible. And because we are so inevitably
error-prone, it seems wise to hold loosely onto what we think we know.
The merit of the search for a Jesus of history is that at least it
attempts to set aside delusional beliefs. Blind faith is path which
leads to a precipice. Only sceptical reason will keep us on the straight
I would hazard the opinion that this book is a must-read for any
Christian who wants a stronger faith - that is, an approach to the world
which is intensely sceptical on one hand, and stubbornly determined on