02 August 2009

Losing your mind to Christ

18th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Church of the Incarnation, Univ of Dallas

Have you ever lost your mind and wondered where you put it? Have you ever changed your mind and wondered if you are now another person? Ever have something on your mind and wondered if the weight of it was showing up on the bathroom scale? According to Plato, the human mind is a reflection of the Nous, the One Mind, corrupted by the body. Aristotle argued that the mind is that faculty of the soul that reasons. Aquinas and most of the scholastics propose that the mind apprehends reality as it is and understands that reality according to the nature of the divinely informed human intellect. Empiricists tell us that our minds are sensation collectors, blank slates that scoop up impressions from the world; Rationalists that the mind is best understood as a repository for those innate ideas that make it possible for us to think. Kant puts these two theories together and concludes that the mind orders sense experience using ideas that already exist in the mind. Most contemporary philosophers have more or less accepted that the mind is simply the work of the brain and that when we use “mind-terms” to describe mental activities and states (happiness, confusion, insight), we are really just talking about neuro-chemical activity in the brain. All of these theories tell us what the mind is; how it works with memory, perception, learning, and will; how we use it, and how we lose it. So when Paul writes to the Ephesians, “I declare and testify in the Lord that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds; that is not how you learned Christ...,” we much ask: have we learned Christ, or do we live as the Gentiles do in the “futility of their minds”?

By the third time I attempted college algebra—having dropped it twice out of abject fear—I concluded that my brain was not wired to comprehend the occult lore of math. To my mind, geometry is an ancient magical system for plotting an eternity of suffering. Calculus is a demonic wisdom that tricks us into giving our souls to the Devil. Confronted by the squiggly gibberish of numbers in formulas, my mind freezes in fear and then flees to poetry where nothing can hurt me, or make me hurt myself or others. I failed to learn math as a kid, and now, as an adult, I will not put on the mind of math because such a renovation project seems to me be utterly futile, hopelessly empty of promise or prize. So, along with all the number-challenged souls in the world I rejoice to hear Paul say, “...truth is in Jesus...” Alleluia! This truth is the one truth I do not fear. Though I seek this truth, there is some question about whether or not I have learned it. This is a judgment to be made at the conclusion of this world, the Mother of All Final Exams. I hope Professor Jesus allows us all a crib sheet!

Desperate to witness signs of wonder and learn the mysteries of salvation, crowds follow Jesus around throwing questions at him like paparazzi after Britney Spears. On occasion, Jesus obliges the crowds by healing the blind, the demonically possessed, and even the dead. He teaches his Father's mercy and calls all to repentance and a new way of living life toward a glorious end in heaven. He even demonstrates his command of math by multiplying five loaves of bread and two fish into enough food for five thousand. Impressed but unfulfilled, the crowds demand more and wait on the next miracle to confirm their faith. Jesus tells them that they are asking him to teach the wrong lesson: “...you are looking for me not because you saw signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled.” They are lead by the stomach not the mind; hunger-pains brings them to Christ not the pains of ignorance. Though the bread they eat fills the belly, it does not fill the soul. Therefore, Professor Jesus concludes, “Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life...”

What do you hunger for, thirst for? What do you need to see, to learn, to feel before you can say that you are filled-up, completely satisfied? If you were in one of those crowds following Jesus around, what one gift would you beg him for; what one question would you ask him? You might say, “I only desire to do the work of God!” Do you know what that work is for you? Have you read the job description for being a good Christian? Have you learned Jesus as your one truth, putting “away the old self of your former way of life, corrupted through deceitful desires, and [been renewed] in the spirit of your minds”? If you have, then you have done the work of God. Jesus says, “ This is the work of God, that you believe in the one he sent.” First, believe; then think, feel, act, be always out of this belief in Christ and your life will be a sign to others that you have “put on the new self, [and have been] created in God’s way in righteousness and holiness of truth.” You will be a sign of hope to all those who seek the truth that Christ is the truth they seek.

Though we have a long, long history of exploring the philosophical, scientific, and theological nature of the human mind, we do not need an empiricist or rationalist or materialist theory of consciousness in order to comprehend and live the mind of Christ. We do not need a clear and distinct idea about the structure of memory or perception, or a fulsome argument for the nature of thinking or the workings of emotion and will. If mind is simply the neuro-chemical activity of the brain, fine. Do your dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine belong to Christ? If mind is the rational faculty of the soul that allows us to abstract ideas from sense experience, fine. Does your reason belong to Christ? Do you see and hear and touch Christ first? And if mind is a reflection of the One Mind corrupted by the body, so be it. Are you receiving God's graces to perfect your body and elevate your mind? If not, Paul reminds you, “...you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds.” For Paul, the Gentile mind reaches for knowledge and understanding without first having grasped Christ. This is utterly futile because “truth is in Jesus.”

You might be the one in the crowd who yells out to Jesus, “OK! The truth is in you. What sign can you do, that we may see and believe in you?” Jesus says to you, to all of us, “What can you do? Our ancestors ate manna in the desert...it was not Moses who gave the bread from heaven; my Father gives you the true bread from heaven.” You look to the sky. Glance around at the ground. Your stomach rumbles a bit. “Well, sir, give us this bread always.” Jesus smiles. This is the perfect set-up, the best of all segues. He takes the moment in hand, pauses just long enough to build an arc of anticipation, and then teaches the crowd, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.” Never hunger. Never thirst. First, believe; then think, feel, act, be always out of this belief in Christ and your life here and now will be a reflection of your promised life at the foot of the throne. You will be the only sign any of us will need to believe, the only miracle any of us will ask for.

Have you learned Christ? If so, then be Christ for us! If not, then let the Body and Blood you take this morning be your food and drink for the pilgrimage to heaven. Receive him as you would a rescuer come to take you from the wilderness. He will bring you to a far holier land.


  1. I take your point, Father: do not let your philosophical preconceptions and biases separate you from the knowledge and love of Christ. But it seems to me that this homily can be read as saying that the truth about how the mind works is irrelevant—and surely, all truth is important, as a reflection of Christ, the perfect embodiment of Truth?

  2. On the other hand:

    The man who thought out this statement:

    All non-trivial zeros of the zeta function have real part one-half,

    was, apart from being one of the greatest mathematical imaginations of the 19th Century, "was very pious, in the German Protestant style. ... His opinion was that the essence of religion is ... 'Daily self-examination before the face of God.'"

    As one biographer wrote, "Within that diffident, withdrawn exterior was a mind of great brilliance and staggering boldness. However timid and listless he may have appeared to casual observers, [his] mathematics has the fearless sweep and energy of one of Napoleon's campaigns."

    This is the man and this is his mighty Hypothesis. I got into it because the math part of my mind needed a good workout.

  3. PM, a trick of the Devil to lure you in! Resist it!!!!

  4. "this homily can be read as saying that the truth about how the mind works is irrelevant..."

    Not at all. I say quite clearly, twice: "First, believe; then, think, act, etc."