By Mike Metzger & John Seel
How many bits of information just zipped though your brain? What percentage of them were you aware of?
The answer might resolve a debate. Many modern faith communities believe putting the Cultural Mandate before the Great Commission is like putting the cart before the horse. Others say this is not true—the Cultural Mandate is the horse. The Great Commission is the cart. Which view is right? Recent findings from neuroscience might provide a clue.
The best way to resolve a debate is to first define terms. The Cultural Mandate appears in Genesis 1:26-28 where God calls Adam and Eve to reign and reproduce. This project begins in the Garden, where Adam is told to “cultivate” the earth (Gen. 2:15). “Cultivate” is translated in German as “kultur” and where we get our word “culture.” It’s our “human job description,” writes Dallas Willard.1 We are to make culture. Even after Adam and Eve fell, the Cultural Mandate is restated in Genesis 3:23 (“cultivate the ground”) and after the flood in Genesis 9. It has never been rescinded and was historically considered to be the horse that pulls the cart.
The Great Commission appears in every Gospel and the Book of Acts. It calls the church to make disciples. However, in some American faith communities, this is the horse. The Cultural Mandate tags along as the cart—something the church commits resources to only after winning people to Christ and trying to disciple them. But if these churches aim to develop “fully devoted followers of Christ,” their view of the horse and cart is undermined by neuroscience findings indicating how the human brain operates.
Human beings can process unconsciously perhaps 14 million bits of information per second, according to John Gray of the London School of Economics.2 The bandwidth of what we’re conscious of, however, is only about 18 bits. This is stunning. Human beings are aware of only .000001 percent of the ideas and images shaping their behavior. The rest of human behavior is unconscious, or culturally conditioned—about 99.99999 percent.
The implication from this research is staggering. Faith communities can’t make “fully devoted” Christians without first making a healthy culture in alignment with a biblical definition of reality. They have to put the horse—the Cultural Mandate—before the cart since behavior is more culturally conditioned than a matter of choice.
This isn’t a news flash to students of human nature. Pierre Bourdieu was a French sociologist and anthropologist who is perhaps best known for his analytical concept, habitus. This was a concept first used by Aristotle and Aquinas. Bourdieu furthered it by showing how behavior is grounded in social tendencies framed by a handful of center institutions. He writes, “In each of us, in varying proportions, there is part of yesterday’s man; it is yesterday’s man who inevitably predominates us, since the present amounts to little compared with the long past in the course of which we were formed and from whom we result. Yet we do not sense this man of the past, because he is inveterate in us; he makes up the unconscious part of ourselves.” Most of the items we assume reflect our choices—our food, our clothes, our words, our artwork, and our views of marriage—are more shaped by the habitus. What’s stunning about the new findings from neuroscience is just how few choices we actually make. Habits trump choices by a higher percentage than most of us imagine.
Too few of us have thought reflectively about “the unthought categories of thought, which delimit the thinkable and predetermine the thought.” Self-reflection takes work, but can help free individuals from the habits and dispositions that shape their behavior. Bourdieu called for a self-conversion. “The task is to produce, if not a ‘new person,’ then at least a ‘new gaze,’ a sociological eye. And this cannot be done without a genuine conversion, a metanoia, a mental revolution, a transformation of one’s whole vision of the social world.” William Faulkner in his creation of an imaginative county made a similar observation. He observed cryptically, “The past is not dead, it is not even the past.” “No man is himself, he is the sum of his past.” And perhaps most poetically, “Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders.”
This high percentage impact of embodied habits and dispositions is credible when we take into consideration that human beings are finite creatures. God is the infinite creator. The percentage of difference between infinity and finitude is infinite. That’s not a word play—it’s reality. The difference between what God knows and what we can know is greater than 99.99999 versus .000001 percent. So it’s not a stretch to imagine an infinite God making finite beings capable of being conscious of only .000001 percent of all that is happening around them.
Of course, this is not an argument against individual responsibility. Rather, it elevates the church’s responsibility to put the horse before the cart—if they are serious about making “fully devoted followers of Christ.” The habitus shapes 99.9999 percent of our choices. We may think we freely choose, but Bourdieu argued that we are more influenced by social forces. Culturally influential institutions create these social forces. To take the Great Commission seriously, faith communities have to first make culture—making institutions that make the habitus that shapes individuals. They have to put the horse, the Cultural Mandate, before the cart, the Great Commission.
This shouldn’t be a news flash for the church. Up until the 1800s, the majority of faith communities worldwide believed the Cultural Mandate preceded the Great Commission. You couldn’t make disciples if you didn’t make culture. There was no debate. Nor is this a debate outside the faith. The poet Iris Murdoch observed that, “at crucial moments of choice most of the business of choosing is already over.”3 The cars we drive, the clothes we desire, the music we enjoy, the slang we use—they are mostly shaped by the habitus. This reality underscores the deficiencies of “two-chapter” gospel churches. They promote the Great Commission while only paying lip service to the Cultural Mandate. This cart-before-horse approach accounts for perhaps the most remarkable thing about modern Christians—just how unremarkable they are.
According to Gallup surveys, 94 percent of Americans believe in God and 74 percent claim to have made a commitment to Jesus Christ. About 34 percent confess to a “new birth” experience and are drawn to “two-chapter” gospel churches. But a close examination of their behaviors is sobering. When compared to the general public, these Christians exhibit the same behaviors in terms of unethical behavior, crime, mental distress and disorder, family failures, addictions, financial misdealing, and the like. These individuals aren’t moving toward becoming “fully devoted followers of Christ.”
Movement requires hitching the cart—the Great Commission—to the horse—the Cultural Mandate. You can’t get anywhere putting the cart before the horse. Now neuroscience is reinforcing what scripture has long said and the church used to believe: the Cultural Mandate is the horse and the Great Commission is the cart.
1 Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God (San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins, 1998), p. 22.
2 John Gray, Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals (London: Grant Books, 2002), p. 66.
3 Heather Widdows, The Moral Vision of Iris Murdoch (London, UK: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2005), p. 109.