Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Article Note: "The Transmission of early Christian thought: Toward a cognitive psychological model" (István Czachesz)

In the mail this morning, I received a copy of volume 36:1 (2007) of Studies in Religion/Sciences Religieuses and was delighted to see one of Czachesz's articles on cognitive psychology among the others articles. (Update: Wade Greiner has posted a link to a pre-publication version of this article).

Czachesz does a fine job introducing the reader to some of the current major theories in cognitive psychology as they may pertain to the study of Christian Origins, including ritual theories, memory research, and studies in orality and transmission.

One question that immediately occurred to me while reading was how much the language of cognitive science is going to burden and/or offput scholars of religion? For instance, the transmission of ideas is called the "epidemic of beliefs" (p. 68).

I particularly was appreciative for the distinctions Czachesz drew between how one understands the transmission of traditions from a cognitive approach and the form-critical (pp. 66-68). Like my own analysis of the Gospel of Thomas, Czachesz highlights the fact that the ancient world of the early Christians was not purely oral, but included various degrees of literacy, and all of this acted together to create the environment in which our texts arose. This is what I and others call "rhetorical culture," a term that I did not notice Czachesz using. In rhetorical cultures, even though orality dominates the scene in terms of transmission and consciousness, the written word is also present, and oral text and written text interact in lively fashions.

Czachesz thinks that cognitive psychology can help us understand why early Christian tradition developed in the ways it did. He considers reasons beyond the daily needs of the congregrations, beyond the social or economic motivations. He says that their success is due to their universal appeal to the human mind - that is, "certain ideas especially appeal to us because our minds can work with them in particularly efficient ways...Religious ideas survive only if they adapt themselves to the structure of the human mind" (p. 68).

Since I am not a cognitive psychologist and am not yet familiar with the studies he references (Atran 2002; Barrett 2004; Boyer 2001; Pyysiäinen 2003), I'm not sure what specific items within the Christian tradition Czachesz sees as appealing to the structures of our minds, or how we would differentiate these from those that are/were unappealing (and therefore not transmitted?). I would like to know more though, and hope that he will address this type of question in future publications.


The DeGreiners said...

It looks like he has a pre-publication draft available at his website - specifically at http://religionandcognition.com/publications/czachesz_transmission.pdf.


Geoff Hudson said...

April quotes Czachesz : "certain ideas especially appeal to us because our minds can work with them in particularly efficient ways...Religious ideas survive only if they adapt themselves to the structure of the human mind" (p. 68).

It is my view that the so-called fourth philosophy of Judas the so-called Galilean, was the belief in the Spirit of God as Lord. For him obedience of the Spirit came before obedience of the Jewish law in gaining cleansing of the person's spirit and its ultimate acceptance by God in glory. It is also my view that this universal philosophy very quickly gained wide acceptance among Jews in Rome, and particularly among the Roman establishment in the courts of Claudius and Nero. It was this belief that constituted the earliest Christianity.


Geoff Hudson said...

As we know, in certain communities 'the structure of a human mind' can be conditioned such that ideas that survive in that community, at least for a time, depend on the conditioning. The Chinese Cultural Revolution is a good example. During the Flavian dynasty I would suggest that 'the structure of the human mind' of most was very much conditioned by the cultus of its ruthless emperors. Under the artistic Nero, there is some evidence that greater freedom of thought was permitted. It was in that freedom, that I believe the early Christians who obeyed the Spirit of God flourished. And I believe that the highly specified Jesus cultus began during the rigid Flavian rule. It was all about control of the people.

Geoff Hudson said...

While playing-down Jewish law, the irony of Pauline Christianity was its author's creation of the doctrinally specified Jesus cult as an official prescribed religion. Original Christianity was 'morphed' into the new recognised religion.

1 Cor.2:2 has: 'For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ
and him crucified.' But of course we know there is a whole lot more to Pauline Christianity - it never was that simple. But the proclamation of the Spirit was indeed a simple message. The basic wording of 1 Cor.2:2 would be highly appropriate for a prophet proclaiming the Spirit ('proclaimed' is explicit in 2:1) thus: 'For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except the Spirit of the Lord and him glorified.' There were few doctrinal strings attached to this message. For me the travelling prophet and the original author of the epistle was James the son of Judas.


Geoff Hudson said...

The legalism of Pauline Christianity would certainly have had an appeal to the minds of Roman lawyers and those in their society who regarded the law as the means of maintaining public order. Simply doing what the Spirit of God led one to do would have been very disturbing to such.

On second thoughts, 1 Cor.2:2 was probably a complete Pauline interpolation, especially beginning with the tell-tale word 'for'. Originally, 1 Cor. 2:1 would have already informed the reader what the writer had been about when he 'came to' the Corinthians, thus: 'I proclaimed to you the Spirit of God' (not the Pauline 'testimony about God' as given in 2:2). 'Proclaiming' was an activity that preceded the arrival of the Spirit to indwell the hearers.


Geoff Hudson said...

And music to a Roman lawyer's mind would be the Paulinist Rom.13.1:'Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.' This really was a change of a religious idea to guarantee survival of the Pauline community. We even have that little word 'for' again to introduce the subsequent interpolation: 'there is no authority except that which God has established.' So in prophetic language, the original religious idea in Rom.1:1 would simply be:'Everyone must submit himself to the Spirit's commands.' Thus the original prophetic theme of Romans 13 was about obeying the Spirit's commands to fulfill the law - that is the moral commands of the Jewish law.


hermenauta said...


I don't know the work of Atran and Barrett, but Boyer is an anthropologist that thaughts a chair of Individual and Collective Memory at Washington University in St. Louis. Pyysiäinen is docent of in Comparative Religion at the University of Helsinki. Both are more or less in the tradition of "evolutionary psichology" opened by James Tooby and Leda Cosmides, pursuing an agenda of naturalization of religion. I find it very interesting.