Living With A Brain

For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart (Hebrews 4:12).

Anyone who spends time listening to the spiritual struggles of other people – or spends time struggling with their own life (which, I am sure, we all must do to some extent) – will eventually come up against the question of where one thing ends and another begins. Specifically, I have in mind the question of where does the brain end and soul begin? I am certain that easy demarcations are misleading – we cannot say, “This is my brain, this is my soul,” with some easy clarity.

Depending on who you read – even within the Orthodox world – there can be a greater or lesser understanding of the role our body plays (specifically our brain) in the composition of our lives. Occasionally I will run across a “maximalist” (for wont of a better term) who makes little or no distinction between body and soul. There are days when this sounds right to me – and then there are days that I think such an answer is not subtle enough.

What I am certain about is that living with a brain has its ups and downs. I know that we all have “bad” days from time to time for no more reason than our brains are out of whack. Blame it on diet, hormones, or what have you, if your brain is not functioning well you’ll have a tough time – without having made any conscious decision.

This same certainty makes me skeptical of the role played by the will. Our culture is Arminian if not just Pelagian when it comes to the will (both theological positions emphasize the role of free will in salvation – Pelagianism making the will the very source of our salvation – a heresy). We choose many things, but most often, if not always, our choices are made in a context that we had no role in choosing. Fr. Alexander Schmemann is quoted as having said, “Spirituality consists in how you deal with the hand you have been dealt.”

I know that we make many choices during a given day – but the options are far less than infinite. And living with a brain, we are sometimes presented with options we would prefer to have avoided. Listening to others, I always have some sense that what I am hearing is simply what someone has done with what they were given. Some people may struggle more with anger than others – and it not be of their own choosing. Others may struggle with addictions or predelictions, anxieties and depressions that also have a component of “givenness” about them. All of which is to say that extending mercy and compassion towards one another must be one of the choices we make in our lives. We do not know the whole of another’s story or what “givens” they have to live with. God alone knows.

I have a small quote framed outside the door to my office at Church. It is a quote of the 1st century philosopher, Philo of Alexandria. It reads: Be kind. Everyone around you is having a difficult time.

It is such trains of thought that reinforce Christ’s commandments to be gentle and kind – to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Without such a fundamental choice (and here, it seems to me, a choice is indeed involved) life would be impossible. Without such a fundamental choice the family becomes an unbearable burden, the parish an outpost of hades, the nation a nightmare of incivility, and the world a planet plunged in darkness.

I have a brain. Somedays it is helpful and somedays not. Thanks be to God Whose mercy, as well as His word extends to the very division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. Thanks be to God Who trampled down death by death and made for all a path through His resurrection.


About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.



24 responses to “Living With A Brain”

  1. Georgia Smith Avatar
    Georgia Smith

    Fr. Stephen, Alice Lindsey referred me to your wonderul edifying blog. The above Scripture was put on my heart this week for the same reason you wrote, to help me discern what is soulishness and what is the Spirit. Thank you for your gift of this blog and your life in Christ that enriches so many.
    Georgia Smith
    Tallahassee, FL

  2. elizabeth Avatar

    I love that quote… I know it as:

    Be kind for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.
    — Philo of Alexandria

    Thank you Father for the reminder. …

  3. fatherstephen Avatar


    You may be more accurate. I was quoting from memory and today my brain is not in its best shape. 🙂

  4. Roger C Avatar

    Do you have any thoughts regarding the brain and mental illness? I see mental illness as yet another result of the Fall.

  5. fatherstephen Avatar

    I have some scattered thoughts – it’s obvious that many if not most (perhaps all) forms of mental illness have a physical component. The fact that our bodies don’t behave correctly or perfectly is certainly part of the fall in my understanding.

  6. Visibilium Avatar

    Let’s explore that a step further. Do you think that the mind is immaterial, but works through the brain? If so, do you think that the mind exists outside the body or within the skull?

    Do you think that our minds are created sui generis, or are they created similarly as our bodies, i.e., as a parental composition?

    I have my own ideas, but I’d be interested in hearing yours.

    Incidentally, my view is that Pelagianism is the defining heresy of our age, rather than consumerism or the free market. Then again, perhaps Pelagianism has been the defining heresy of every age, but with different trinkets and standards of living. We may disagree, but I’m looking forward to your insightful perspectives on these and other topics.

  7. fatherstephen Avatar

    [Edited] I think there is a spiritual component, the Nous, whose precise relationship with the Body is unclear but is clearly part of us – Maximus the Confessor says more than most on these matters, and he’s doggedly difficult. Generally the Nous is considered “dormant” until the grace of Baptism awakens it and as it is nurtured in the spiritual life – but this is still distinct from what we generally mean when we say “mind.” There are various names that aspects of the Nous are referred to, including the “heart” which is probably my own preferred term. One of the best and most helpful contemporary accounts is Staniloae’s Orthodox Spirtuality. I’ve read several accounts that seem like over-simplifications to me – too pat, if you know what I mean. I don’t think that the mind exists per se outside of the skull, though the nature of its experiences can be quite unclear – as St. Paul said, “Whether in the body or out of the body, I do not know, God knows,” though such experiences seem clearly to belong to the “nous”.

    I believe generally that our souls and bodies are a parental composition (I’m following Hopko’s lead on this . The other view would be one of “ensoulment”, which, I understand, is not an Orthodox position. If you have “ensoulment” a fresh creation by God at the moment of conception, and yet the soul clearly has fallen aspects – you’d have God creating a fallen soul, or blaming all of the fall on the body, which would be heresy.) The Antiochian Archdiocese stresses that the soul is both of human and divine origin. “The origin of the soul lies in a combination of Divine and human activity, with God’s creative power involved and exercised in the generation of each individual.” Perhaps it should be said that it is difficult to find a really definitive statement in this matter (that is more definitive than the Antiochian Archdiocese offers).

    I would agree that Pelagianism is probably our defining heresy (maybe not of just this age – maybe even in the Garden). I often speak of consumerism, etc., simply because only someone with a theological education or background understands what is meant by Pelagianism.

    I’d be interested in your thoughts. I have probably heard more from Hopko in terms of speculative plus patristic.

    Then I’ve read some classic modern Greeks where everything is pretty cut and dried (such as Met. Hierotheos).

    Where I find more fruitful thought, has been in the works of Fr. Sophrony and a few others who have spent more time look at the question of personhood, which has the advantage of not getting too tied up in some of the classic terms of soul, body, etc. Personhood certainly includes these, and also carries an absolute need for freedom and love (directed towards God) to be properly fulfilled. I tend to be more comfortable with that language and feel that I’m on more solid ground when I’m reading in that vein. It has weaknesses, but I much prefer it. Most particularly I prefer it, because the fullness of who I am as a Person is “hid with Christ in God” so the question of parental contribution, which seems in some cases almost overwhelming, is still able to be addressed in a manner that transcends those limits – which I take to be the work of the good God redeeming us from sin and death and conforming us to the image of His beloved Son.

    Incidentally, between you and me, thanks for the note. God bless you richly.

  8. John Willard Avatar
    John Willard

    Excuse me father, but could you explain further what “Pelagianism” is? I understand that you said it was believing that the will is the source of salvation. Do you mean that salvation comes from the will to be saved? Or that our salvation is in fulfilling our will, whatever that may be, or something else? Would Pelagianism be an appropriate description for the protestant view of salvation, what with the “sinner’s prayer” and all?

    Thank you

  9. Carl Avatar

    “Pelagianism” is a bit ill defined. At its worst, it means “How the other guys view salvation.” It’s named after Pelagius, who was an opponent of St. Augustine. Pelagius wasn’t necessarily a bad guy, but he put too much emphasis on our own ability to effect our salvation by choosing not to sin. The Orthodox view of original sin is different from the Augustinian view, so a lot of the background behind the dispute is different for them.

    Here’s the wikipedia summary:

    Pelagianism is a theological theory named after Pelagius. It is the belief that original sin did not taint human nature (which God called very good), and that mortal will is still capable of choosing good or evil without Divine aid. Thus, Adam’s sin was “to set a bad example” for his progeny, but his actions did not have the other consequences imputed to Original Sin. Pelagianism views the role of Jesus as “setting a good example” for the rest of humanity (thus counteracting Adam’s bad example). In short, humanity has full control, and thus full responsibility, for its own salvation in addition to full responsibility for every sin (the latter insisted upon by both proponents and opponents of Pelagianism). According to Pelagian doctrine, because humanity does not require God’s grace for salvation (beyond the creation of will), Jesus’ execution is devoid of the redemptive quality ascribed to it by orthodox Christian theology.

    On the other hand, John Calvin is pretty much on the opposite extreme, and in their devotion to preserving the absolute sovereignty of God, Calvinists say that God predestined people to salvation or damnation apart from any human choice (“irresistible grace”). So, Pelagianism is not a pan-Protestant heresy, since the Reformed theologians end up going too far in the other direction.

  10. fatherstephen Avatar

    Pelagianism, named for the 5th century heretic, Pelagius, teaches that we can be saved through the actions of our will alone, thus making the grace of God not necessary.

    The protestants I know, though placing an emphasis on the roll of choice do not teach that we are saved by the will without grace. They would generally fall into the category of “Arminian” named for one of the the early Protestant teachers, Arminius, who taught a necessary role of the will in cooperation with grace, in distinction to the divine election of predestination taught by John Calvin.

    Our culture, apart from these finer points of theology, tends to make the will almost everything – thus we find people who “re-invent” themselves, as if public image and Being were the same thing.

  11. Karen C Avatar
    Karen C

    I’m amazed at the kindness of God to direct you to this subject on a week when I feel I am turning from Dr. Jekyl into “Mrs. Hyde.” I don’t know what the problem is: Sleep deprivation? The tyranny of the day in/day out with cantankerous kids who don’t want to do home work, are sluggish getting ready for school, don’t like what Mom made for dinner, etc.? Middle-age fatigue? Hormones? Prayerlessness? All of the foregoing?

    I’m a former Psychology major, with a family member chronically mentally ill from early adulthood and another on the Autism Spectrum (high functioning), so I have given much thought over the years to this subject. I have come to much the same conclusion: i.e., that we do make real choices, but those choices are within limitations not of our own choosing, and only God is capable of discerning where the line of volitional sin is and when we have crossed over it. The only redemptive response is to be kind as our Father in heaven is kind even to ungrateful and evil men. (Luke 6:35-36) Thank you, Fr. Stephen. I thank God for the encouragement of this post.

    One more interesting tidbit regarding our brains and bodies: We now know that our nervous systems give rise to a weak electro-magnetic field that surrounds our material bodies up to about an arms spread away from us. This “aura” can be photographed with new imaging technologies. Some health practitioners use this information to detect and treat dysfunction and disease. There are a couple of fascinating books by Robert O. Becker, M.D. (*The Body Electric* and *Cross Currents*) that describe his research regarding these lesser-known properties of our nervous system. For thousands of years Chinese medicine has made use of this electro-magnetic property of our nervous system in the diagnosis and treatment of many conditions. Among other things acupuncture and techniques that make use of these acupuncture points on the body are based on this. I don’t believe that this electro-magnetic field is necessarily synonymous with our “mind” but it does show that the gross corporeal aspect of our bodies is certainly not all there is to us. Truly we are “fearfully and wonderfully made.” There are layers upon layers of complexity to the human being, and I believe the only attitude with which to approach all this information and one another is with the utmost humility and gentleness.

  12. handmaid Avatar

    “Our culture, apart from these finer points of theology, tends to make the will almost everything – thus we find people who “re-invent” themselves, as if public image and Being were the same thing.”

    Thank you for another intriguing post Father; and some great comments!

  13. handmaid Avatar

    Oops! somehow what I had commented on got erased.
    I wanted to point out how in pop culture, Madonna, is a great example of “re-invention..”
    Sorry guys…

  14. AR Avatar

    Karen C, I think you pinpointed exactly what energy work illustrates.

    The subject has great interest for me. My grandfather learned how to heal people by manipulating energy. He studied Chinese medicine as well as a few other traditions, including the modern developements of Americans and Brits in the field of Pain Management. He also developed some methods and theories of his own. Apart from treating pain and infection, his abilities also included percieving whether meat and produce were still good, hypnotism, and other things that might be considered parlor games.

    His healing he did under the auspices of a dental practice and membership in a cranio-sacral pain management society. It was not an infallible method but it was very effective and incredibly precise. I’ve stood by and watched him change people’s experience of their own bodily condition within minutes – even assisted him in it – dozens of times. I myself became sensitive to this field of energy to where, at moments when my own energy is high, I am now affected by who is nearby, what they are doing and feeling, and etc. It is not all good. I know one woman whom I strongly suspect is always ill because she has become too sensitive to the energy of everything around her in the course of energy treatments.

    At any rate it’s a fascinating experience of human being that does indeed lend perspective to some rigid classical definitions of what we are.

  15. Reader John Avatar

    I have the same quote above my computer but with a slightly different translation. Mine reads, “Be kind. Everone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” I don’t know where I found this translation but it seems to better convery, for me at least, the seriousness of the spiritual warfare that rages within and around us.

  16. Karen C Avatar
    Karen C


    Your history with your grandfather is interesting. Thanks for sharing your experiences. I have used a chiropractor who has training in many of these same areas and who has been very helpful to me and some family members. I also had a family member who underwent cranial-sacral therapy and saw some dramatic results just after one treatment. That c-s therapist also conducts some teaching sessions in the field of Neurology at Harvard. I read the books by Dr. Becker when I was trying to decide as a Christian whether I could pursue in good conscience treatment by my chiropractor knowing that he also makes use of various energy medicine treatments. This is an area requiring discernment as the illness of the woman you know suggests. The demons make use of this same sort of knowledge I believe when people seek healing by occult means or make healing into an idol in their lives without reference to the ultimate healing from our sin by Christ that we all need. I’m very cautious about how such knowledge is understood and used by the practitioner. My chiropractor sees his practices as having a sound basis in physical reality and supportable by scientific evidence (which he respects), and he is very good at explaining what he understands on a lay level for us. He doesn’t push his religious perspective (which I strongly suspect has a New Age bent). This is important to me as a Christian. I don’t think every Christian would or should be comfortable in such circumstances. There is no substitute for dependence upon Christ in all things, and anything that threatens that dependence for any Christian has to be shunned. Each of us has different vulnerabilities depending on our level of Chistian maturity and our background experiences. When in doubt, consult your Priest or trusted Christian confessor, and don’t do anything that violates conscience.

    I would love to hear more from Orthodox professionals who really understand the science of energy medicine on the one hand and their faith on the other and have worked to integrate their understanding and practice with Orthodox Christian faith.

  17. fatherstephen Avatar

    I have no experience with these areas of healing theory. I do know that Russia is a great center of herbal medicine that is quite effective (at least in the experience of one dear friend who spent a year there).

  18. Visibilium Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, I am unfamiliar with the Fathers’ views of these topics owing to my view that Orthodoxy is behind the curve on these and other important subjects. We can talk about the reasons, and they probably pertain to the crushing persecution that Orthodox have suffered. Let’s face it; we really haven’t had much of a break until the Soviet Union fell a few years ago.

    Here are two important examples of how Orthodox are behind the curve: America and Alcoholics Anonymous. Rather than spending their time talking crap about American freedoms and affluence, Orthodox should be wondering why the America is a Protestant creation and not an Orthodox one. The question I ponder is: What have we done such that the Protestants have beaten us to the punch in establishing the most magnificent society that the world has known?

    The same goes for AA. For a condition that’s rife with relapse and outright failure, AA has worked God’s miracles. I think that Bill W and the other founders were Anglicans. What is Orthodoxy’s excuse for not being in the forefront of such a miracle? If Orthodoxy is the True Faith, which I believe it is, why aren’t we taking more risks with the talents that God has given us? Orthodox priests are placed in the embarrassing position of sending alcoholic parishioners to find healing in a group whose freewheeling “Higher Power” beliefs would otherwise merit the imposition of a metania.

    Natural healing has pretty much been the bailiwick of pagans and folk religionists. Does Orthodoxy have a place participating in such naturalism, or would such participation run afoul of the Old Testament prohibitions on divination and the like?

    An entertaining story for me involves the Russian Orthodox evangelization of Alaska. The natives weren’t drawn to Orthodoxy because the missionaries were so convincing about Christ, but because the modern medical technology that the Russian missionaries brought with them proved to be superior in curing particular conditions than the natives’ shamanistic practices.

    Didn’t Christ say that He performed miracles only so that folks would believe in Him? What is our Orthodox role in such a mission?

  19. fatherstephen Avatar

    Good point for AA – though I would say that the priest involved, Anglican though he was, was formed in a Tradition that had much in common with Orthodoxy. It wasn’t after all, a Baptist who founded the movement.

    As to Protestants having founded the most magnificent society the world has known is an arguable point. America has its strengths and its weaknesses. Some of our Protestant history, for instance here in East Tennessee, is quite painful. The Trail of Tears suffered by the Cherokee, condemned by David Crockett, was one of the sorriest moments in our history.

    There have been a lot of sorry moments in many nations history. I do not think the True Faith is measured by a contest between who can create the most magnificent society (again by what standard do you measure this). I can think of nothin in the teachings of Christ which established such a standard for the measurement of His Church.

    It is also perhaps the case that God in His sovereign love for His bride, has allowed her to endure much for reasons He alone knows. Providence is a very difficult thing to judge, unless you are God.

    History, which is simply another name for Providence, becomes a very poor measure for anything, since History is not what we judge it to be but what God in His Providence, and for the salvation of mankind has allowed it to be.

    The Rich Man lived a magnificent life. Lazarus sat in the street and the dogs licked his wounds. Do you suppose the Rich Man was a Protestant American and Lazarus an Orthodox immigrant? No one would have judged the Rich Man a failure during his lifetime.

    I will quickly grant that America is one of the most generous societies to have existed. May God pour out His grace on our fair country. But I can hardly judge the sort of matters you suggest. It is beyond human ken.

  20. Wonders for Oyarsa Avatar

    “Our culture, apart from these finer points of theology, tends to make the will almost everything – thus we find people who “re-invent” themselves, as if public image and Being were the same thing.”

    Everything and nothing, it would seem to me. For our culture also adopts a practical materialism – that ones own actions just flow from the genetic/environmental makeup that formed the self.

  21. fatherstephen Avatar

    I would think whatever explanations are convenient to best make our actions seem acceptable would be what we find. It’s the culture of expediency. I think some of Alasdair MacIntyre’s Whose Justice, Which Rationality.

  22. Carl Avatar

    Popular thought is very simple and consistent: My faults are the faults of my DNA; my virtues are the product of my self-willed choices. 🙁

  23. Karen C Avatar
    Karen C

    “History, which is simply another name for Providence, becomes a very poor measure for anything, since History is not what we judge it to be but what God in His Providence, and for the salvation of mankind has allowed it to be.”

    Here’s a quote adapted from David Bentley Hart in The Doors of the Sea that expresses this well, which I’m sure Fr. Stephen will recognize:

    “. . . God is light and life and infinite love, and . . . the path that leads through nature and history to his Kingdom does not simply follow the contours of either nature or history, or obey the logic immanent to them, but is opened to us by way of the natural and historical absurdity–or outrage–of the empty tomb.”

    I love that! It’s even better in the full context of the book.
    Christ is risen!

  24. AR Avatar

    Good quote, Karen C. This kind of paradox, of seeing within things a meaning that defies their own contours, is exactly the sort of thing that people are itching for. I think it is the urge for this kind of insight that drives the Emergent know-nothing attitude…as annoying as it is.

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