(1 Corinthians 12:1-11)
An aircraft carrier called Palau was speeding toward San Diego Harbor when its engines failed. Quick action was needed to avert disaster. But no one person had the key to stopping the runaway ship.
Fortunately, the captain, navigator, quartermaster chief and navigation team pooled their brawn and their brains to come up with some makeshift repairs. They saved the day by using their group, or extended mind.
No single brain prevented the tragedy, but many did so.
For years, we have honored the geniuses who appear to achieve great things on their own, whether they are working in science, the arts, business, or technology. But this idea of a lone genius is really a myth. The most successful minds in history have made their breakthroughs with the help of others.
Michelangelo worked with a team of assistants to paint the Sistine Chapel.
Albert Einstein analyzed the work of others at the Swiss patent office as he developed his own theories.
And the apostle Paul? He lived in Corinth with a couple named Aquila and Priscilla, and they worked together as tentmakers (Acts 18:3). You can just imagine the conversations they had over their sewing, as Paul prepared to argue in the synagogue and try to convince people to follow Jesus.
A science writer named Annie Murphy Paul has written a book called The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain. In it, she challenges us to tap the intelligence that exists beyond our brains – in our bodies, in our surroundings, and in our relationships. Our thinking, which is often referred to as “cognition,” is improved by connections all around us.
She argues that walking or exercising together can lead us to behave more cooperatively and be more successful in achieving shared goals. Morning calisthenics routines are broadcast over Japanese radio, and they are followed by people ranging from Sony executives to public school children. These shared exercises create greater synergy and cohesion among members of the group.
There is even value in sharing a meal, according to Annie Murphy Paul, with the effect being heightened if the food is very spicy and served family-style.
Our thinking is also helped by taking what she calls an “awe walk.” Get out of your home or office and spend some time outdoors. Allow yourself to be moved by the majesty of nature. Awe can act as a “reset button” for the human brain, shaking us loose from old patterns and opening us up to new ways of thinking.
Reflecting on this book, psychologist Emily Balcetis says that “intelligence can be found, in part, in our brains, but perhaps even more importantly in our hearts and skin, in the architecture of the physical spaces we surround ourselves with and in the friendships we keep.” This form of intelligence “isn’t found in just one person but emerges as multiple minds collaborate.”
She calls it “socially distributed cognition.” Socially distributed thinking. Not one brain, but a group mind.
Although the apostle Paul was not a psychologist, he knew all about insight being found beyond the minds of individuals. “Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters,” he wrote to the Corinthians, “I do not want you to be uninformed” (1 Corinthians 12:1). He wanted them to be fully informed about the way that the Holy Spirit was at work in their lives. The Spirit was not coming to them as isolated individuals, but as a community. It was offering them spiritually distributed cognition.
“There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit,” said Paul, “and there are different kinds of services, but the same Lord; and there are different kinds of working, but it is the same God at work in all of them. Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good” (vv. 4-7). There is one God, according to Paul, giving a variety of gifts to a variety of people. Together, these people form one body, with one extended mind. And the goal is the common good.
Think of the officers and sailors of the aircraft carrier Palau, hurtling toward San Diego Harbor. Japanese schoolchildren doing calisthenics together. Members of a congregation sharing a potluck meal.
The goal is always the common good.
To achieve this goal, the Spirit gives “a message of wisdom” to one, and the “a message of knowledge” to another. The Spirit gives to other people the gifts of faith, healing, working of miracles, prophecy, discernment of spirits, various kinds of tongues, and the interpretation of tongues. All of these gifts come from the same Spirit in order to advance the common good, according to His understanding (vv. 8-11).
Within the church today, we have this same experience of different gifts at work in different people. We know that we would be far less insightful, and far less effective, if everyone had the same spiritual gift. But even though we have a variety of gifts, we are one Christian community. “For just as the body is one and has many members,” said Paul, “and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ” (v. 12). We are one Christian body, with socially and spiritually distributed knowledge. Or that’s how it should be, yet, on this Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend – and nearly 60 years after Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Sunday mornings remain one of the most segregated times in the country.
There is hope, for the value of such one-body thinking is seen whenever a group of young people joins the church. At Fairfax Presbyterian Church in Virginia, members of a confirmation class stood before the elders, deacons, and trustees of the church. They stated their faith and presented their confirmation projects. Together, they represented different parts of the body of Christ, and they showed the power of socially and spiritually distributed cognition.
A young woman named Emily spoke about how she had been influenced by philosophers and theologians, including Saint Thomas Aquinas. He wrote extensively about the body of Christ and the church, and said at one point that “the Head and Members are as One Mystical Person.” In other words, there is always going to be spiritual solidarity between Christ, the head of the church, and all of us who are members of His body.
Another class member, named Faith, spoke passionately about how her faith has helped her. Clark used his own hands to craft a pencil that he used to write his statement of faith. Serena talked about her running and her faith. Kirstyn actually used her hands and her feet to break boards. This demonstrated how her faith had enabled her to break through a number of personal obstacles.
They represented a variety of gifts, activities, members, and parts – but they were one body. As Aquinas said, “One Mystical Person.” One extended Christian mind.
We are much smarter together than we would be apart, and much more effective as well. In confirmation classes and in the larger church, each person “is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (v. 7). Whether our passion is theology, writing, running or martial arts, our gifts can advance the common good. English classes taught by native-born Americans can help immigrants to communicate better and achieve success in the United States. Senior citizens can mentor teenagers, married couples can coach other couples, children can draw pictures or write greeting cards for residents
We are much smarter together than we would be apart, and much more effective as well. In confirmation classes and in the larger church, each person “is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (v. 7). Whether our passion is theology, writing, running or martial arts, our gifts can advance the common good. English classes taught by native-born Americans can help immigrants to communicate better and achieve success in the United States. Senior citizens can mentor teenagers, married couples can coach other couples, children can draw pictures or write cards for residents of nursing homes. In each of these activities, we see the power of the Holy Spirit, working for the common good.
All “are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses” (v. 11). The Spirit of God is the activator, not us. The Spirit activates some to sing sacred choral music with a choir and some to offer contemporary Christian music with a praise band. The Spirit activates some to take medicine to Guatemala and some to feed the homeless in the United States. The Spirit activates some to meet for small group Bible study, some to gather for women’s or men’s groups, and some to teach children in Sunday school. The Spirit activates each of these efforts, and we would be a much dumber and much less effective church without them.
Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream. A dream that there would be a day when “all of God’s children, black and white, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last, Free at last, Great God a-mighty, We are free at last.’”
The time has come for us to abandon the myth of the lone genius and replace it with belief in an extended Christian mind. This is a challenging shift, because we are indebted to so many great individuals: Abraham, Moses, Mary Magdalene, and Paul, just to name a few.
But were they really lone geniuses? Abraham needed Lot and Sarah to travel with him in faith, toward the land of Canaan (Genesis 12:5). Moses required his brother Aaron to speak for him (Exodus 4:16). When Mary arrived at the empty tomb, she ran immediately to Simon Peter and the beloved disciple (John 20:2).
And Paul? He had numerous traveling companions, including Barnabas and Timothy (Acts 16:1). Paul wanted Timothy to join him because the young man’s mother was Jewish and his father was a Greek, and he could relate to both communities. Acts tells us that after Timothy joined Paul and Silas in their work, “the churches were strengthened in the faith and increased in numbers daily” (v. 5).
Yes, we have one Spirit, one faith, and one Lord Jesus. But the gifts of God are given to us in a variety of forms, so that we can be both smart and effective as we do God’s work in the world.