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Spiritual formation of theological reason can benefit from a gradually increasing understanding of the human person driven in part by scientific advances in investigating the human brain and cognition. As cognitive neuroscientists discover the biological foundations of mental processing, those findings that currently inform psychological categories of perception, problem solving, learning, memory, and language comprehension and generation can begin informing the theological category of reason. As a step toward incorporating contemporary scientific findings into theological, nonreductive models of the human person, the current investigation revisits Thomas Aquinas' concept of habits and the pseudo-Dionysian schema of formation to demonstrate how a scientifically plausible model of graced interpretive habits can inform the development of theological reason within a participatory relationship with Mystery. Given a contemporary understanding of the mind, how does one develop the capacity for theological reason?

Several levels of theories and models are needed to characterize theological reason ranging from the occasionally borderline mystical through language, culture, mental processing, and brain function to their molecular foundations, and each reduction would explain some aspects in greater detail while losing some of that level's holistic ramifications. However, a carefully selected series of theories can increase the knowledge of reason gained while decreasing the information lost during the reductive mappings. To minimize reductionistic loss across multiple disciplines requires a coherent philosophical framework by which one understands each level's theories and models. For the formation of theological reason, the process of developing "habits" (classically, habitus) is an effective and fruitful category upon which to build. Theological reason is characterized as building theological habits of interpretation, and the formation of theological habits coheres with the development of behavioral, cognitive, and other psychological habits. It may also depend upon some of the neurobiological processes underlying habituation, learning, and memory formation.

Reinterpreting habitus within a contemporary scientific understanding of the human person furthers an ecumenical approach to spiritual formation [End Page 35] while retaining the valuable contributions of Aristotelian and Neoplatonic thought throughout the history of Western spirituality. Using habits as a foundational construct, one can define theological reason as a spiritual practice where one forms interpretive habits to know theological loci, such as God or Christ. In particular, an Orthodox Christian understanding of Mystery serves as a test case to demonstrate the benefits of modeling religious concepts in terms of tradition-mediated, interpretive habits rather than essences or arbitrary social constructions.

Developing theological constructs that incorporate scientific findings also enables directed empirical study of those constructs. Skills like juggling or driving a London taxicab sufficiently change brain function such that anatomical differences are apparent compared to novices in those areas. Brain scans (fMRI imaging) of Buddhist monks (and others) have found empirical differences compared with novice meditators.1 Directing scientific studies to examine theologically refined models may yield deeper insights into human dimensions of spiritual formation and theological reason as well as lay a foundation to pursue further empirical theological investigations.

A model of interpretative habits coheres with contemporary findings of cognitive neuroscience that identify the multimodal, plastic, distributed brain processes underlying mental reasoning processes. Although more physicalist or systemic models may better satisfy reductionist or integrative research agendas, respectively, theologians working to incorporate contemporary science into categories typically studied using methods from the humanities are not limited to scientific research categories previously developed without social scientific or philosophic input. Selecting models for theological use must meet most of the requirements for scientific model development, and may substitute broader coherence for reductionist simplicity as well as methodological fruitfulness for experimental potency. Interpretive habits model cognitive processes of theological reason in a way that supports ecumenical investigation of spiritual formation within a broad theological context. This article focuses on how interpretive habits can model the spiritual formation of theological reason with respect to communally defined loci such as Mystery.

Despite significant and often heated debates concerning differing Christian views on justification, sanctification, deification (theosis), humanity's natural moral state, and the role of grace in salvation, spiritual formation across major Christian traditions likely share a core set of developmental processes. As psychologists and neuroscientists develop a deeper understanding of those developmental processes, scholars of spirituality can begin using developmental and cognitive tools to investigate the embodied platform of spiritual formation. To synthesize current findings from cognitive neuroscience and psychology into a framework more easily integrated within theological and religious scholarship [End Page 36]

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[End Page 37] and the study of Christian spirituality, I present a general model of interpretive habits. The purpose is to capture commonalities in cognitive formative processes and demonstrate the model's applicability to the development of theological reason within spiritual formation.


How does one learn to understand one's faith? Theological reason requires a basic reasoning capacity and formation in appropriate skills to conceptualize, discern, and argue key theological themes. Central to the formation of priests and ministers, theology has long complemented liturgical, scriptural, and experiential practices in support of building one's capacity to reason about faith. Spiritual formation of reason classically occurred through development of theological skills, and now religious scholars and cognitive scientists can collaborate to elucidate aspects of a core developmental process for formation. A scientific study of reason complements theological study and informs those practices of spiritual growth as well as the general study of spiritual formation. By focusing on the cognitive development of theological reason, one gains understanding of meaningful theological practices for spiritual formation (often neglected or disoriented into purely academic practices) and clarity for subsequent use of the powerful theological tool to investigate other dimensions of spiritual growth. From the scientific study of theological reasoning, one can then investigate how that reasoning can inform other paths of spiritual formation.

Anselm of Canterbury sought a rational basis for his belief in God as faith seeking understanding. Although in one sense anyone who thinks about their faith is a theologian, as used here, the term theology is reserved for only some developed ways to "think about faith." In a radically individualistic culture, one can certainly believe and think as one wishes; however, just as making claims about science or nature does not make one a scientist, it could also be said that not everyone who makes claims about Christianity is a theologian. In order to develop theologically, given current understanding about developing expertise, one must practice particular ways of thinking about faith that engage faith in the thinking process.2 Theological reason selects from among possible interpretations those that best characterize the locus of study within contemporary (or targeted) culture, given the theological tradition(s) and other resources.3 In addition, to understand one's faith, one needs not only free choice (liberum arbitrium) to select among Enlightenment-derived reason but also the freedom (libertas) to pursue theologically sound reason.

Among Protestant theologians, one significant context for examining reason occurs in the Wesleyan Quadrilateral (methodology for theological reflection credited to John Wesley, leader of the Methodist movement in the [End Page 38] late 18th century), where reason occurs as one of four sources of revelation. To bracket problematic ecumenical and pluralistic discussion of revelation, I consider the Wesleyan Quadrilateral as characterizing the sources of faith in revelatory knowledge, where revelatory knowledge mixes the natural knowledge a person has in their particular historical, linguistic, and cultural context and the divinely revealed aspects of knowledge that putatively transcend any particular human context.4 The Wesleyan Quadrilateral identifies four complementary sources of revelation or revelatory knowledge: experience, Scripture, tradition, and reason. 5 A person can have religiously significant experiences that change, transform, or convert the subsequent interpretation of one's self and world to an extent that one might consider the experience as a source of revelatory knowledge. Christian Scriptures define canonical beliefs and hold a privileged place as revelatory texts and sources of knowledge. Tradition serves as a historically-mediated source of revelatory knowledge, usually associated with a long-lasting institutional church, and including apostolic succession and other extended historical movements, such as sola scriptura. Reason processes the revelatory knowledge through discernment, reinterprets key theological constructs within contemporary culture, and identifies emerging questions of significance that require theological reflection. The interpretation of revelatory knowledge can transform reason itself, and in that context, I examine the transformation of reason in spiritual formation as one gains the capacity to discern and identify revelatory knowledge.

Theology as a spiritual practice develops one's reason and ability to understand matters of faith in a refined way. Within theology as thinking about faith, one can distinguish between personal reflections, tradition-mediated communal reflections, and academic study. As broad, interdependent categories simplified for analysis, personal reflection depends upon religious context yet does not constrain the method or source, while the formation of reason in a communal tradition and the learning of academic skills and methodologies requires changes to how one thinks. More specifically, borrowing from Walter Principe's academic demarcation of spirituality, three categories of reasoning about faith are distinguished:

  1. (i). reflecting on one's faith based upon one's awareness and observation of one's own and other's experience, including listening to sermons and songs and reading scripture and inspirational writing;

  2. (ii). thinking about one's reflection in relationship to the reflections of others, including spiritual leaders, theologians, other exemplars within one's tradition, and peer's thinking about their own reflections; and

  3. (iii). scholarly study of those reflections and the relationships between them.6 [End Page 39]

The three categories of thinking about faith cover a range of abstractions about a human cognitive endeavor from the immediate interpretation of an experience to the most academic. One may reflect upon the personal experience, reflect upon that reflection in the context of other reflections, or use methods from the humanities and social sciences to examine those reflections. Principe wished to justify the scholarly field of Christian spirituality (third category) as distinct from commonly recognized spiritual reflections (second category). However, I wish to reclaim the second category of enhanced communal reflection for theology, as academically, theology often becomes associated with narrow scholarly study.

As a significant example and test case, the Eastern Orthodox understanding of Mystery requires communal reflection using reason; however, it lacks meaning and significance to personal and academic study, respectively. The study of Protestant spirituality often depends heavily upon Roman Catholic sources for understanding; yet, the Orthodox traditions have long integrated spiritual formation and theological investigation.7 Orthodox theologians, such as Kallistos Ware, routinely criticize Roman Catholicism as never escaping its narrow and faith-undermining medieval scholasticism; and although that critique fails to account for Roman Catholic Vatican II theologians like Karl Rahner, the Orthodox appreciation of Mystery circumscribes limits of scholarly theological study applied to the understanding of faith.8 In the Orthodox tradition, Mystery is not unexplored avenues of theological thought surrendered to ignorance, as pejoratively ascribed, rather, it comprises heavily examined places of study carefully demarcated as beyond current human understanding. Mystery includes the unknowable nature of God, the Paschal Mystery of Christ's salvific death and resurrection, and the role of the Holy Spirit in the sacraments.

Spiritual formation of reason depends upon the second category of theological interpretation, that is, thinking about one's faith in relationship with others (and in community and solidarity). Learning to think about one's faith carefully in non-idiosyncratic ways requires developing habits of theological interpretation. How does one learn to think about the Mystery essential to one's faith? From a methodological perspective, in personal reflection, one can use any sources or means for thinking about the faith that one desires, though theological interpretation requires one to differentiate one's sources and interpretive context from others, and scholarly study depends upon formal attention to the methods and sources.9 Mentally demarcating exactly what one will not think about requires moving beyond an outdated, essentialist understanding of concepts to begin incorporating cognitively plausible ways the mind organizes how it responds to the person's environment. Well-built habits of theological interpretation focus on the understandable and leave as Mystery [End Page 40] what scholarly study and communal church tradition has shown is beyond current understanding.

By defining a practice of theology that distinguishes communal theology from personal reflection and academic scholarship, the church claims for the community the reality of Mystery as requiring spiritual practices in order to engage with it. Mystery arises and results from reason and is identified as at least partially uninterpretable. Experience, Scripture, and tradition contribute to reason; however, identifying the line between Mystery and "the understood" requires reason. The identification of Mystery may then inform experience, tradition, the interpretation of Scripture, and subsequently more reason and theological investigation. Thus, Mystery serves as a concrete construct of reason to consider in formation. Once Mystery as a construct of reason exists, scholars can study the construct from historical, sociological, and cognitive perspectives.

In this article, I use tools of the third category of theological scholarship to examine the boundary between the first and second categories of theological reason using Mystery as a significant test case. To illustrate the necessity of differentiating the categories of theology while contributing to an understanding of the role of reason in spiritual formation, I examine how reason develops to incorporate an understanding and appreciation of Mystery. This is done from the perspectives of individual cognition and the developmental progression of spiritual formation.

In addition to characterizing Mystery as a significant theological concept for God, learning to understand Mystery has important practical implications to spiritual direction and pastoral counseling as well as spiritual formation in charismatic and Orthodox traditions. Furthermore, in scholarly study, reasoning about theology as faith seeking understanding, where faith involves a participatory relationship with Mystery, is particularly effective as impoverished cognitive theories cannot handle non-essentialist, imperceptible Mystery. Therefore, scholarly study of spiritual formation can avoid slipping into the pitfalls of cognitive theories that are based upon universal essences or individually perceived characteristics in the focused study of the participatory relationship.


Cognitive psychologists have examined how humans form and use concepts, and have identified the importance of the participatory relationship between the person and the world.10 Concepts do not merely identify, abstract, and represent things that occur in one's world, they arise from the relationship between perception and environment.11 A person forms concepts by participating in their construction. If Mystery is to be more than another name for the [End Page 41] unexplained and inexplicable, the person must participate in that Mystery for the concept to become useful in one's world.

To characterize the shifts that occur in a participatory relationship with Mystery, one must model human cognition without depending upon representations of material objects. A concept refers to some class (or species) of something, though requiring the something to be a material object unnecessarily restricts theories of concept formation. Rather than consider concepts as static ideas or predicates referring to items in a person's world, one can consider concepts as mental habits that conditionally classify the items in certain ways.

Mental habits have significance within psychology, philosophy, and theology. Habits characterize the acquisition and changes of behavioral skills well studied by psychologists and cognitive scientists and can model the change of behavior and mental processes in formation. Increased interest also occurs due to the ability to model significant brain processes for learning by using habits.12 Relevantly and fortuitously, habits constitute a useful category in philosophy that underlies an understanding of moral development and have theological significance to spiritual formation and the Roman Catholic and Wesleyan understanding of grace. In particular, habits of interpretation model the change of cognitive perception and anticipatory response necessary for reasoning about participatory abstractions like Mystery, and the gracing of those habits models spiritual formation from a cognitive perspective. Instead of importing a theory of habits from psychology or biology, I argue that scholars of spirituality may reclaim (and update) the theory of habits from Thomistic theology.


Although habits are popularly understood in terms of behavior, habits (or habitus) function in the theology of Thomas Aquinas to define the character dispositions of a person, especially toward virtues or vices.13 Habits dispose one to respond in particular ways to internal and external conditions. Habits are learned or innate tendencies that stably orient one's behaviors or mental dispositions in familiar or slightly novel situations. When one repeats a behavior under similar conditions, neurological processes increase the psychological efficiency of that response by simplifying the biological activity required and by making the conditional response more automatic.14

In long-term potentiation, learning occurs by strengthening, or making more potent, the synaptic connections between neurons. Neuroscientists consider long-term potentiation as the mechanism by which one's memories become permanent. In typical brain activity, neurons activate each other through a variety of ion and neurotransmitter signals. When neurons signal each other, concurrent biochemical processes within a neuron prepare the connection so that neurons that fire at the same time may have their connections reinforced [End Page 42]

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[End Page 43] if the signal is salient as indicated by repeated firings or additional chemical markers released in emotionally charged situations. Or, as neuroscientists describe it, "neurons that fire together wire together." In the process of long-term potentiation, neurons that accidentally fire together in novel sensation, associations, or behavior, will strengthen their connections to each other and more likely trigger the other in subsequent situations that previously would have only triggered one of the neurons. "Long-term depression" (not related to the clinical psychological condition) causes unused connections to slowly dissipate. Long-term potentiation and depression implement synaptic plasticity and form a neurobiological platform for learning and memory. The biological processes of synaptic plasticity integrate the functional and structural changes that implement learning and memory and enable the organism to adapt to its environment.15

Habits stably orient one's behaviors and mental processes in a direction regardless of whether that direction leads to an explicit goal. A philosophical investigation of habit can distinguish the type of directions the automatic psychological behavior takes. How does one characterize toward what something is disposed? The habit may have a telos or end that refers to a specific concrete goal, often with an underlying intentional purpose, such as driving a particular path to work each day or drinking water to quench thirst. A habit may also orient in a direction that gives it function without a specific end point or prescribed result, called teleonomic, such as steering a car between the lines of the road or the tendency of one's eyes to make frequent saccades. While evolution leads to biological systems staying alive, eating, and reproducing, as only those organisms doing so will propagate, it lacks explicit teleological goals. Finally, the habit may dispose something in a direction merely as a consequence of other habits, with no additional purpose, such as a tap on the knee causing one's leg to move reflexively because of the interconnection between neurons in the body. Thermodynamics, gravity, quantum decay, and other fundamental physical relationships change physical systems toward a final state, but not in any specific direction. The "accidental" constraints of a teleomatic system determine the particularities of that final state, rather than something essential to or maintained by its nature setting a direction. The present investigation attempts to shift medieval presumptions that human and other natural habits require the first, teleological, type of direction to a biologically plausible approach based upon the second, teleonomic, type of direction.16

Contemporary virtue ethics have already shifted its understanding of habits from a teleological construct to a socially constructed, teleonomic one. Pluralistic postmodern society cannot depend upon unanimous acceptance and understanding of universals such as "the good" to orient virtues toward a common goal nor, teleomatically, a naive modern and relativistic understanding of [End Page 44] the "common good" that neglects to consider who forms the common society. Alasdair MacIntyre initiated a contemporary revival of virtue ethics with his After Virtue, which places habits and virtue within a contemporary understanding of the person and enables their study within psychology. A similar reinterpretation of habit within spiritual formation can guide a contemporary study of spiritual formation.17 MacIntyre identifies "internal goods" that one can develop through practice (in community) that disposes one toward "excellence."18 A parallel adjustment in spiritual formation can identify practices that lead one in a particular direction without requiring an explicit goal, for example increasing one's capacity for understanding God through a progressive series of metaphors rather than one primary metaphor.

As an aside, aspects of virtue also have direct application to spiritual formation of theological reason. Classically, virtues include moral virtues like courage, temperance, honesty, and generosity, as well as intellectual virtues, such as wisdom or prudence. Aquinas writes:

Prudence is a virtue most necessary for human life. For a good life consists in good deeds. Now in order to do good deeds, it matters not only what a man does, but also how he does it; to wit, that he do it from right choice and not merely from impulse or passion. And, since choice is about things in reference to the end, rectitude of choice requires two things: namely, the due end, and something suitably ordained to that due end. Now man is suitably directed to his due end by a virtue which perfects the soul in the appetitive part, the object of which is the good and the end. And to that which is suitably ordained to the due end man needs to be rightly disposed by a habit in his reason, because counsel and choice, which are about things ordained to the end, are acts of the reason. Consequently an intellectual virtue is needed in the reason, to perfect the reason, and make it suitably affected towards things ordained to the end; and this virtue is prudence. Consequently prudence is a virtue necessary to lead a good life.19

Habits of theological investigation are formed through study and practice and refined into intellectual virtues, such as prudence, which develops one's capacity for practical theological reasoning during spiritual formation. Orientation toward some good occurs as discernment in concert with other revelatory sources of Scripture, tradition, and experience. Moral and intellectual virtues orient one's habit in a direction; nevertheless, characterizing that direction further without respect to an explicit end requires examining human interpretation.


Interpretation is a very general category capturing the ways that one internalizes and makes meaning of something. In the context of habits, the meaning [End Page 45] affects the way a person might respond to possible future conditions. As one reads a text and interprets it, that meaning affects how one interprets something in the future. One also interprets one's experiences in general. If the result of interpretation resonates with prior interpretation, one builds or strengthens a habit of interpreting that way. For a dissonant interpretation, one might ignore differences in a slight discord or change one's habit for a more significant one. Habits of interpretation may be innate, learned, or socially constructed. Interpretation pervades theology: one interprets a biblical or historical text or a person's experience as an experience of God; traditions pass on interpretations of events to subsequent generations; and denominations differ in their interpretations of sacraments and rituals, such as communion.

Human interpretation of language has the capacity to be symbolic, in other words, to refer to some object through socially constructed convention. Conventions are arbitrary: the English first-person plural "we" has no physical connection or similarity to the French affirmative declaration oui. Conventions can also refer to a complex shared interpretation of numerous people spread over millennia, long separated from their original physical reference (such as, religious doctrine, stock price, atom, or republic). The Western conventional understanding of "truth" and "the good" were presumed universal before modern engagement with other cultures identified its relative roots. However, convention in a community can define a good or knowledge it considers revelatory and interpret the orientation and outcomes of habits in that light.

The field of semiotics generalizes human language to any medium or sense modality and examines the process of meaning formation through an organism's apprehension of the world through signs. Semiotics was developed by Charles Sanders Peirce, who founded pragmatic philosophy (which was further developed by William James, Josiah Royce, and John Dewey). The simplest organization of Peirce's semiotics consists of three kinds of relations to objects in signs: icon, index, and symbol. An icon signifies by resembling its object like a painting or a map. It possesses a quality that resembles or duplicates that of the object. Iconic representations of God are generally prohibited in Abrahamic traditions, though Orthodox Christian traditions generally value iconic representations of other figures. An index represents its object through an existential connection between itself and the object. For example, a finger-print not only resembles the ridges of a fingertip, it signifies the existence of a particular finger. An index may also signify by a causal relationship, such as a thermometer or weather vane. Religious relics purport to have an existential relation to the person from whom they originated, and the story of Moses and the burning bush purports a causal relationship between God and the burning bush. A symbol represents its object through a convention that governs how the symbol will be used: a symbol refers to an object by social convention [End Page 46] without direct similarity (as in an icon) or existential or causal connection (as in an index). Names of God are linguistic symbols for God, and the empty cross of Protestants symbolizes the resurrection event.20

The capacity of a symbol to refer to any object by convention enables groups of individuals to define interpretations of symbols that may have no natural referents. Numbers, geometric shapes, and mathematical formulas generalize relationships among natural objects to define abstractions that one can manipulate without considering their material referents. One can interpret the meaning of a story in Scripture or other text separately from discussion of the event and figure's historicity. Semiotics provides ways to discuss the interpretation itself (classically called the interpretant). The subtle shift to consider the interpretant as something that actually exists rather than just being a transient aspect of a linguistic process opens up a new way to view the world. (Peirce called his philosophy "objective idealism.") One can interpret the commentaries of the New Testament authors' interpretation of the disciples' interpretation of Jesus' parables about the Kingdom of God, and treat each interpretation as an object of study. Similarly, when one partakes in a ritual such as communion, one interprets the religious events of the ritual within the communal context. Shifting the focus of cognitive theory from representations of external objects to interpretants that relate perception and the world facilitates examination of immaterial and ineffable religious constructs, such as Mystery.

With interpretants, one can define habits more precisely. Habits define conditional ways to interpret one's world. An interpreter has habits that help map the information received from its world into effects. The interpreter makes meaning from what it perceives in its environment, and that meaning extends beyond linguistics to possible actions in the world. An English speaker has a habit of associating the word "dog" with a particular collection of animals. When one sees an animal, one uses habits of interpretation for "dog," "wolf," "cat," and the like, to orient one's response to the animal.

The ability to interpret one's experience in comparison with others in the same tradition leads to development of one's spirituality (within that tradition), while the ability to reflect and understand one's categorization and other mental processes in comparison with others in the tradition leads to development of one's theology. As a working definition, spirituality is the experience of striving to integrate one's life toward the ultimate value one perceives, and ultimate value is mediated through a tradition and its associated communities.21 Theological reason extends the reflection upon one's experience toward ultimacy by engaging in particular kinds of interpretation. For the committed Christian (and others), one prioritizes a particular category of interpretation over all other categories. This is what John E. Smith calls the "idea of God" and Paul Tillich calls one's "Ultimate Concern."22 Opening up interpretive habits [End Page 47] to the "idea of God" begins the possibility of those habits becoming graced, and specifically for the current investigation includes the communal interpretation and circumlocution of Mystery.

In summary, interpretive habits model how one conditionally responds to the world. One is disposed toward a particular embodied interpretation of possible stimuli, and one can learn that disposition well or poorly. Peirce's semiotic shift identifies those habits of interpretation as having a type of existence without requiring disembodied habits or universal interpretations to exist independently. Spiritual development requires forming new interpretive habits, and theological understanding requires identifying and developing those interpretations within one's tradition and community. Like other fields of human endeavor, one acquires new interpretive habits and learns to refine those interpretations in concert with others. However, for theology, one must also consider the role of grace.


As a person receives grace, that grace affects one's interpretations and habits and adds additional meaning to the habits of an interpreter. Aquinas' understanding of graced habits can incorporate more contemporary views on nature through the semiotic interpretation of experience in light of the idea of God. Grace structures one's interpretations as interpretive decision-making becomes habituated and infuses the resulting interpretive habits with grace.

Aquinas describes the capacity of habits to become infused by grace and their role in the development of theological virtues.23 The infusion of habits by grace can raise habits to function on the level of being. Classic Thomistic thought depends upon the soul to lead a creature toward its natural end, specifically for humans to develop rational and moral capacities to know and love, including God. However, that role for substantial form (soul) does not reconcile well with either modern science, especially evolution, or postmodern understanding of humanity, expressly the cultural transmission of religious values. Fortunately, the expansion of habitus required for evolving nature and the cultural and linguistic transmission of religious knowledge also suffices to bear the intellectual burden Aquinas places upon the rational powers of the human soul.24 Aquinas' identification of the active role of senses to abstract sense data (phantasms) into the appropriate intelligible essence can be translated from an identification of form to an interpretation within socially constructed concepts.

For Aquinas, knowledge consists of abstracting the image of a sensible thing into its intelligible essence (species). Most European ancient and medieval thinkers followed the Platonists to understand that every natural object (and every human) has an essence (or form) characterizing its existence, and Aquinas shifted the Platonic tradition by interpreting Aristotle through Avicenna [End Page 48] (Ibn Sīnā) in arguing that one can receive knowledge of those forms through the human intellect's engagement with the senses. The incorporation of sense data into knowledge eventually led to the empirical methods of modern science deconstructing the Platonic realm, although Aquinas forged a fairly thorough synthesis within a medieval worldview. By shifting the natural "ends" from teleology intrinsic within fixed essences to teleonomic ends within socially constructed revelatory knowledge (mediated through a tradition), one shifts the ontological foundation of habits from substantial form to a sociological (existential) self while retaining the infusion of grace into those habits.25

In his neo-Thomistic approach, the twentieth century Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner addressed a relationship between the human response to grace and the natural world that can also inform cognitive and neurobiological models of grace.26 Habits are the medium and the product of the human response to grace, and the natural world includes the neurobiological processes of the human brain. In Rahner's understanding of grace, God communicates God's self as a quasi-formal cause so God does not become part of human subjectivity or restrict God's freedom.27 Thus, while everyone is disposed to want to love God, they are free to reject God's self-offer because they do not have an intrinsically graced nature. Rahner's emphasis on uncreated grace in describing God's self-communication to human beings shifts attention from Thomas' understanding of created grace as the accidental habit of the human soul infused by God, which Rahner rejects, toward the theological virtues as the consequence of the infusion of sanctifying grace. The infusion of sanctifying grace into the moral and theological virtues changes one's interpretive habits and reorients one's behavioral dispositions.

From a Protestant perspective, Wesleyan scholar Ken Collins characterizes Wesley's orienting concern as holiness and grace.28 In that context, one can consider repentance and faith formation as an incremental shift of habits that embodies grace. As one continues to work to receive grace, one begins the process of sanctification and movement in holiness. Grace eventually pervades one's interpretive stance (as materialized in the brain) and may eventually completely shift one's dispositions as a whole.29 The incremental neurobiological processes underlying that shift may lead to significant soteriological shifts.30 The gracing of habits of interpretation is one way revelatory knowledge enters into the world. One interprets experience, Scripture, or tradition differently: experience becomes religious experience; Scripture becomes inspired text; and tradition becomes sacred history. Grace affects human habits, however, not as a separate substance or thing. The gracing of interpretive habits transforms reason itself.

Jesuit theologian Donald Gelpi explains that when a person decides "to respond positively in justifying faith and in ongoing sanctification to the saving [End Page 49] historical self-revelation and self-communication of God, they build into themselves in collaboration with supernatural divine grace the tendency so to respond in the future."31 Grace occurs not by modifying the decision one currently makes (affecting human free will) but in the natural process of habituation while interpreting one's experience, within one's tradition-mediated idea of God, as one's decisions become incorporated within one's tendencies and habits, which then influence one's future decisions in a graced way.32 As those new habits affect one's interpretation of experience, one's interpretants become infused with grace, including those interpretants involved in theological reason.

In general, the formation of habits can model human learning from neurobiological processes to religious rituals. The formation of interpretive habits models significant aspects of learning to reason within particular socially educated ways, including tradition-mediated categories and institutionalized methods. Theologically, infusing habits with grace raises habits to an ontological level and can characterize the incorporation of revelatory knowledge within religious social structures without directly contradicting a scientific understanding of nature. Within a neo-Thomistic approach, one could also reinterpret the Thomistic soul within contemporary science.33 Whether one considers grace to include supernaturally infused habits or new interpretants received through natural and socially-mediated semiotic processes, one can still identify interpretive capacities as graced. One can also consider the sources of those graced ways of making meaning through one's interpretation of the world. In order to locate the progressive development of theological reason as graced interpretive habits within spiritual formation, next the investigation focuses on examining classic spiritual formation processes using interpretive habits.


Within Christian spirituality, spiritual formation is classically divided into three overlapping, intertwined stages of progression that include a beginning, middle, and end, with the idea that one rarely recognizes the beginning and never actually reaches the end. Within Christian theology, two major classic figures for understanding formation are early Church Father Irenaeus, who articulated the significance of a developmental progression, and pseudo-Dionysius, who organized the progression into three stages.34 The developmental progression of Irenaeus benefits from direct comparison with developmental psychology and neurobiological models of learning and development, while pseudo-Dionysius' Neoplatonic structure requires reinterpretation with respect to an embodied anthropology in order to structure a progression of habit formation.

Irenaeus was a major Christian theologian of the second century and concerned with the path necessary to live the "rule of faith," or spiritual [End Page 50]

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[End Page 51] formation. For Irenaeus, although God would give humans the spiritual aspect of God's "likeness," humans lost that spiritual likeness in the Fall and require restoration in Christ. Humans retain the "image" of God as body and soul, but the person can only be made complete (perfect) with Christ who has the perfect likeness of God.35 Although the Fall has no scientific parallel, one can provisionally consider the image as humanity's biopsychosocial capacity for relationship sufficient for self-communication and God's likeness as communicated through the Christian Church's revelatory knowledge, and those categories would reconcile with natural and social science well.

Spiritual development occurs during decisions made in following a spiritual path where, for Irenaeus, the person either follows the path or wanders lost. Within the teleonomic characterization of habits, the path yields a direction from one's current location, yet, not necessarily a predefined end.36 Vision provides a key role for Irenaeus as one must see and follow "the light" to receive and partake of "the light."37 Specifically, seeing and choosing to follow the path involves the person with the Light who illuminates the path (and moves one further along the path). Human development (with Christ) never reaches a limit as the path has no finite end. Humans have a freedom to follow the path that involves them in relationship with the Light, and can increase from their natural (fallen) state to perfection like an infant who matures. Irenaeus draws upon Paul's letter to the Corinthians, where Paul writes of feeding them with milk, not solid food, because they were not ready (1 Cor. 3:2). Humans obtain nourishment through Christ who, though "the perfect bread [of God], offered himself to us as milk." Like an infant not ready for strong food, humans are not ready for the full glory of God, and must mature in development. After being nourished by milk, Christians become accustomed to eating and drinking the Word of God, and "may be able also to contain in ourselves the Bread of immortality, which is the spirit of the Father."38

One can interpret Irenaeus' metaphor of milk and bread as meaning that one must develop habits of digesting milk before one can acquire the ability to digest bread. As one continues the practice of ingesting the bread of the Word, and building new interpretive habits, that person gains the ability to contain the Bread of immortality. The developing Christian becomes like Christ, through the gracing and transformation of those interpretive habits, including those characterized as reason. Following and partaking of the Light involves the person with the Spirit through a process well-articulated by pseudo-Dionysius.

The anonymous sixth-century figure now known as pseudo-Dionysius examines spiritual knowledge and characterizes spiritual formation within a Neoplatonic returning to God.39 Within the spiritual formation process, pseudo-Dionysius describes the order of returning as three sub-stages called [End Page 52] purification, illumination, and perfection. As a person begins the return, the purification process removes everything unlike God, such as the person's immorality. When purified, the person becomes illuminated, sees aspects of God, and engages in contemplation or movement of their soul toward God. The illumination fills the person until the Divine Light illuminates all aspects of the person. In perfection, anything that separates the person from God is removed, the person becomes transparent, and the Light shines through the person and "overflows" to others.

Pseudo-Dionysius understood the Neoplatonic return as a spiritual movement of dualistic human souls, which does not easily reconcile with contemporary science. However, he also explained how one gained spiritual knowledge through those stages, which works well to characterize the spiritual formation of theological reason. In his development of spiritual knowledge, all ignorance is removed in purification; knowledge is gained in illumination, and knowledge is perfected and made complete in perfection. The spiritual knowledge of mystical experience, as pseudo-Dionysius describes, is not a typical cognitive knowing, but a process of apophatic unknowing where aspects of God are affirmed, then negated, and finally understood by negating the process of affirmation and denial.40 One affirms "God is Good," negates it as "God is not Good" (in other words, Goodness is too limiting to capture God's characteristic), then understands, metaphorically, "God is and is not Good."41

Through the process of spiritual formation, one's mental habits and capacities become purified, then become illuminated by grace, and eventually become a means of grace. For each of the three stages, the formation process depends upon: (a) aspects of habituation common to general learning; (b) facets specific to spiritual formation, especially with respect to Mystery; and (c) a dimension attributable to grace. Examining these three aspects for each of the three stages characterizes a model for spiritual formation in terms of graced interpretive habits.


When one first meets a new learning opportunity, one's preexisting habits will be incoherently oriented. (Otherwise, one has nothing new to learn.) In learning the new skill, one's preexisting habits shift and new habits form. One relearns or drops habits opposed to the new development. The initial experience may appear chaotic as interfering habits dissipate and change, still other habits have not yet formed. The old habits dissipate as one attempts to learn new ways of interpreting and participating in the world. One unlearns old patterns of behavior and neural activity, and the unlearning disrupts existing habits, including those habits that would not necessarily have to change. One [End Page 53] must surrender old ways of responding in order to make way for new habits to form.

In spiritual formation, previous, unsupportive habits (classically, sin) must dissipate as one transitions into forming new habits. One purifies old behaviors and perceptions in ways consistent with the source of one's formation. When participating in a relationship with Mystery, the transition may appear chaotic as one loses prior perceptions while not yet gaining new ones.

The gracing of interpretive habits shifts the form of the habits from the prior interpretation to a new interpretation. One interprets Mystery as unfamiliar and becomes purified from preconceived religious understanding and hindrances that view Mystery as unknowable. One's commitment to spiritual formation incorporates grace through sacraments and communal spiritual knowledge to orient one's development toward the Mystery one cannot yet perceive. One increases the capacity to receive God's self-offer and orients one's development toward holiness, even though the telos of Mystery is not yet embodied.


As one continues to learn, new behaviors and interpretations gradually become automatic.42 New habits form and shift interpretations of one's world. Because one can anticipate new actions, one potentially perceives differently.43 New interpretations begin to line up with one's expanded world, and habits become effective in new endeavors. The newly acquired knowledge enables one to perceive and act in the world in a new way. The new habits begin to solidify into a different way of participating in the world, and this new stance supports the formation of additional habits. As new habits are built, these potential actions affect how one perceives the world. One perceives new situations in which one might act and new possible responses. Thus, one perceives the world differently, and through this dramatic transformation, may even perceive what appears as a new world.

In illumination in spiritual formation, the new habits enable new perceptions and interpretations. New possibilities become illuminated because one can now perceive what was previously unapparent. When participating in a relationship with Mystery, the world may appear illuminated as the new interpretive habits affect the interpretation of everything. One's interpretation of Mystery is not limited to specific situations or conditions, hence everything may be affected.

Grace continues to build new interpretive habits and sanctify one's engagement with the world. New interpretive habits embody aspects of Mystery from communal spiritual knowledge, and the world and others begin to be seen as mediums of grace. The Light permeates one's self and world in a way that [End Page 54] continues the gracing of participation with Mystery and in the world. One may discern revelatory knowledge and more fully participate in the Christian community's continuous interpretation of revelatory knowledge. One embodies the direction of Mystery within one's historical, cultural location and shares God's self-offer in aspiration of holiness.


As one's habits solidify, response becomes more consistent. One's predisposition becomes robust, and one can respond under more challenging conditions that have adversity or subtle ambiguity. One gains expertise to act in novel situations and can extend interpretive habits into new areas. One's habits resist change, and the ever-increasing automaticity may decrease awareness of how one automatically responds with what appears as more intuitive action.44 The old habits completely dissipate as the new habits solidify. The new habits become more resilient, and additional habits form to strengthen one's response by resisting wavering from the habituated response. Interpretation and participatory response become fully automatic as one continues to embody the particular way of responding in one's lived context.

In spiritual formation's perfection stage, one's habits more fully capture the source of one's formation.45 No longer introducing error into spirituality, interpretations and behaviors filter and dampen noise from diverse sources and increase the clarity of spiritual knowledge. When participating in a relationship with Mystery, interpretive habits provide the material substrate that defines how Mystery relates to the particular situations and conditions under which one formed those habits.

Grace infuses interpretive habits and sanctifies one's participatory relationship with Mystery and action in the world. One's embodiment of Mystery as spiritual and revelatory knowledge enlightens the world through experience of God's gracing, which perfects one's habits of virtue. Full participation in communal discernment of Mystery engages the unknowable, salvific, and sacramental activities of Mystery with one's particular historical and cultural place in the world. As one accepts God's self-offer in the perfection of holiness, one continues participation with Mystery as well as Mystery's participation with the world.

The theological and scientific investigation of spiritual formation highlights at least one historical challenge in Christian spirituality. If one decontextualizes the three stages of spiritual formation from their Neoplatonic foundation, one may tend to reinterpret perfection from either a narcissistic or self-undermining perspective. However, by considering perfection within the context of a participatory relationship with Mystery, one can identify a stance that honors the power of God's grace and the tragic limitations of the human condition. Instead [End Page 55] of a return to an unattainable pre-existent state of being, grace enables a perfection of the person's particular historical, cultural interpretive habits as an extension of Mystery into communal revelatory acts and spiritual knowledge embodied in the world. Perfection occurs not via a return to God, but through God's free and salvific self-offer to humanity, in which humans are free to accept and participate. Instead of reason intellectually grasping the One, reason expands God's grace further into revelatory knowledge and extends salvation to human cognition. As reason undergoes spiritual formation and gains holiness, God's self-offer infuses the socially constructed and communally defined dimensions of the person's knowledge and extends revelation and grace further into humanity. In this interpretation, spiritual formation consists not only in following an Irenaean path toward perfection, but in God continuing to create the path within humanity to bring humanity closer to God.


Synthesizing contemporary cognitive science with ancient foundations of spiritual formation bridges knowledge of mental processing dependent upon the brain with Christian knowledge of spirituality bordering on the mystical. The tenuous bridging between the neurobiological and the mystical solidifies the aspects of human experience that a theological account of reason must address. More centrally, the gracing of interpretive habits models the formation of spiritual knowledge, and the contemplation of Mystery places the scientific investigation within the Christian tradition. Interpretive habits help explain the underlying cognitive processes of purification, illumination, and perfection, and the three stages of spiritual formation help orient the understanding of the development of interpretive habits within grace.

Theological reflection can occur through three stages of formation. As in many learning endeavors, one can reorient habits into a new way of perceiving and conceptualizing the world, which gradually become automatic. With respect to Mystery and other communal, apophatic constructs, one partially embodies corporate habits that identify and subsume affirmative and negative interpretive habits into interpretations capturing more elusive constructs. Within the personal and communal interpretations, across sources of revelatory knowledge and possibly scholarly interpretations, the nexus of interpretive habits remains open to the quasi-formal cause of grace. Somewhat similar to a classic distinction between the practice of meditation and receptivity of contemplation, some shift of interpretive habits may incorporate revelatory knowledge irreducible to any prior interpretive habits.

One learns to understand faith through a progression of stages where one changes, builds, and solidifies habits of interpreting Mystery in a participatory and graced way. The refinement of reason within communal theological [End Page 56] investigation identifies boundaries of Mystery and enables the understanding of additional sources of faith. Cognitively, models of conceptualizing Mystery depend upon interpretive habits to capture the participatory relationship which then can receive grace. Spiritually, formation depends upon purifying, illuminating, and perfecting how one follows a path of becoming like Christ. Theologically, the spiritual development of reason progresses through ever-new habits of interpreting Mystery that increase one's Christ-like participation in the world by grace. [End Page 57]

Mark Graves

Mark Graves is Research Assistant Professor of Psychology and Adjunct Associate Professor of Theology and Science at Fuller Theological Seminary. He has scholarly publications in theology, psychology, biology, and computer science, including the books Mind, Brain, and the Elusive Soul (Ashgate, 2008) and Insight to Heal (Cascade Books, 2012).


1. J.A. Brefczynski-Lewis, A. Lutz, H. S. Schaefer, D.B. Levinson, and R.J. Davidson. "Neural Correlates of Attentional Expertise in Long-Term Meditation Practitioners." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 104, no. 27 (July 3, 2007): 11483–88.

2. John B. Cobb, Becoming a Thinking Christian (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993). Alister E. McGrath, The Science of God: An Introduction to Scientific Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004). Guillermo Campitelli et al., "Psychological Perspectives on Expertise," Frontiers Psychology, March 2015,

3. The fundamental theologian Heinrich Fries argues that the inexhaustibility of theological material and necessary subjectivity of theologians demands understanding theology as plural (theologies) as it reflects upon the diverse Church. The contemporary systematic theologian David Ford defines theology as dealing with "questions of meaning, truth, beauty, and practice raised in relation to religions and pursued through a range of academic disciplines." Heinrich Fries, Fundamental Theology, trans. Robert Daly (Washington, D.C.: CUA Press, 1996), 172–175. David Ford, Theology: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 16.

4. Revelatory knowledge comprises what the Christian philosopher Nancey Murphy identifies as the "core" beliefs of religion within her appropriation of Imre Lakatos' philosophy of science. By focusing on revelatory knowledge rather than grace, divine action, or revelation itself, one can identify a privileged class of knowledge within Christianity and ignore (or bracket) questions in discourse about whether the origination of that knowledge is divine or socially constructed (or both). The knowledge claimed as revelatory by some within a particular tradition is important to those in the tradition, and harmonious dialogue can honor its great significance to a group without evaluating the reasons for its internal significance, especially when those reasons may even be subject to internal debate. Nancey Murphy, "Theology and Science Within a Lakatosian Program," Zygon 34, no. 4 (1999): doi:10.1111/0591–2385.00241.

5. Despite its frequent use, the historical basis of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral or "four-legged stool" is somewhat unclear. One can find an emphasis on Scripture in the writing of reformers, such as Martin Luther, which contrasts with the traditions of the Roman Catholic Church. Anglicans often attribute the three legs of Scripture, reason, and the voice of the Church to the sixteenth-century Anglican theologian Richard Hooker: "What Scripture doth plainly deliver, to that first place both of credit and obedience is due; the next whereunto is whatsoever any man can necessarily conclude by force of reason; after these the voice of the Church succeedeth. That which the Church by her ecclesiastical authority shall probably think and define to be true or good, must in congruity of reason over-rule all other inferior judgments whatsoever." However, as Peter Toon suggests, as a Protestant soon after the Reformation, Hooker would have resisted incorporation into tradition of anything more than major decisions of ecumenical councils, and reason would have been conclusions that follow from Scripture rather than the power of natural, independent ideas that came from the Enlightenment. Wesleyans find the aspects of the Quadrilateral in Wesleyan thought, and I follow that usage, though Wesley would have prioritized Scripture. A contemporary understanding of experience (as complementary to reason) would require the subsequent development of nineteenth-century theology in the context of Romanticism, such as significantly Friedrich Schleiermacher. Richard Hooker, The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, Books I-IV (G. Routledge, 1888). Quote in Book V, 8:2; Folger Edition 2:39, 8–14. See also Peter Toon, "Scripture, Tradition and Reason: Hooker's Supposed 3-legged Stool," Mandate 20, no. 4 (July/August 2001): 6,–07–08.pdf. Albert C. Outler, John Wesley (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964), Albert C. Outler, "The Wesleyan Quadrilateral in John Wesley," Wesleyan Theological Journal 20, no. 1 (1985): 7–18.

6. Walter Principe, "Toward Defining Spirituality," in Exploring Christian Spirituality: An Ecumenical Reader, ed. Kenneth J. Collins (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 2000), 47–8.

7. Arthur G. Holder, ed. The Blackwell Companion to Christian Spirituality (Oxford: John Wiley & Sons, 2010).

8. Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1995). Karl Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith: An Introduction to the Idea of Christianity (New York: Seabury Press, 1978).

9. From a social perspective, the spectrum of interpretation ranges from (i) the most individual personal reflection to (ii) interpretations depending upon multiple individuals within a tradition to (iii) scholarly interpretations that attempt to maximize the breadth of sources and minimize one's personal bias. (In practice, even the most personal reflection depends upon tradition and culture-mediated constructs, and no scholar can eliminate personal bias.) From a semiotic perspective, the three stages define a spectrum of interpretive processes from personal reflection upon experience to theological interpretation of numerous reflections and interpretations to scholarly study and methodological interpretation of those theological interpretations.

10. E. Rosch, "Reclaiming Concepts," Journal of Consciousness Studies 6, no. 11–12 (1999): 11–12.

11. L. Gabora, E. Rosch and D. Aerts, "Toward An Ecological Theory of Concepts," Ecological Psychology 20, no. 1 (2008): 84–116.

12. Gregory R. Peterson et al., Habits in Mind: Integrating Theology, Philosophy, and the Cognitive Science of Virtue, Emotion, and Character Formation (Leiden: Brill, 2017). In particular, see the following chapters: Todd Junkins and Darcia Narvaez, "Disposition Formation and Early Moral Development;" Mark Graves, "Habits, Tendencies, and Habitus: The Embodied Soul's Dispositions of Mind, Body, and Person;" and Michael L. Spezio, "Faith and Imitatio for the Understanding of Habitus."

13. For Aristotle, habit (Greek, hexis) as a state of character meant primarily an acquired propensity toward a determinate type of behavior, and as he writes in Metaphysics: "Habit means a disposition according to which that which is disposed is well or ill disposed" (Aristotle, Metaphysics, Book V, Part 20). Thomas Aquinas and Latin translators used habitus in a similar way to refer to the active state of moral or intellectual character inclining the person toward certain actions and emotions (passions), not the routine behaviors typically meant by habit. In Aristotle's metaphysics and in Thomistic thought, habits function as a dynamic principle that perfects the operations and powers of human beings, and includes the disposition toward (or away from) some behavior or end, such as virtue or happiness.

14. Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013).

15. In long-term potentiation, the flow of calcium through the N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptor and the receptor's activation by glutamate signals genetic transcription and the creation of proteins forming new dendritic buds. The additional buds strengthen the synapse. Joseph E. LeDoux, Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are (New York: Viking, 2002). Eric R. Kandel, In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2006).

16. Systems theorists and others categorize the purpose of systems into three types of ends, depending upon whether the result of the system occurs: (1) with a final state or goal, (2) with a direction but no goal, (3) statically with neither a goal or a direction. Ernst Mayr, The Growth of Biological Thought: Diversity, Evolution, and Inheritance (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1982), 47–51. Ludwig von Bertalanffy, "An Outline of General Systems Theory," British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 1, no. 2 (1950): 134–165.

17. Alasdair C. MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984). James A. Van Slyke et al., Theology and the Science of Moral Action: Virtue Ethics, Exemplarity, and Cognitive Neuroscience (New York: Routledge, 2012).

18. MacIntyre, After Virtue, 187.

19. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, First Part of the Second Part, Question 57, Article 5,

20. See Kelly A. Parker, The Continuity of Peirce's Thought (Nashville, Tenn.: Vanderbilt University Press, 1998), 156–57. Paul Tillich and Carl Jung define symbol and sign differently from Peirce; for them, a symbol partakes of the reality to which it points, and a sign simply points to the reality.

21. Sandra M. Schneiders, "Approaches to the Study of Christian Spirituality," in The Blackwell Companion to Christian Spirituality, ed. Arthur Holder (Oxford: John Wiley & Sons, 2005). Robert A Emmons, The Psychology of Ultimate Concerns: Motivation and Spirituality in Personality (New York: Guilford Press, 1999). Josiah Royce, The Problem of Christianity (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2001).

22. John Edwin Smith, Experience and God (New York: Oxford University Press, 1968). Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith (New York: Harper, 1956).

23. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, First Part of the Second Part, Question 51, Article 4.

24. Aquinas and Thomistic scholars also initiate this approach in the development of connatural knowledge.

25. For a philosophical foundation for this shift, see Donald L. Gelpi's use of Peirce's reinterpretation of substantial form as evolutionary and dispositional. Donald L. Gelpi, The Gracing of Human Experience: Rethinking the Relationship Between Nature and Grace (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 2001). Kelly A Parker, The Continuity of Peirce's Thought (Nashville, Tenn.: Vanderbilt University Press, 1998).

26. Karl Rahner, Theological Investigations, Volume I: God, Christ, Mary and Grace (Baltimore, Md.: Helicon Press, 1961). Mark Graves, "Gracing Neuroscientific Tendencies of the Embodied Soul," Philosophy and Theology 26, no. 1 (2014): doi:10.5840/philtheol20143125.

27. Rahner, Theological Investigations, Vol. 1, 297–317. Karl Rahner, Theological Investigations, Volume IV: More Recent Writings (Baltimore, Md.: Helicon Press, 1966), 165–188. Drawing upon Heidegger's philosophy, Rahner's supernatural existential avoids the extrinsicist natura pura of Cajetan and the intrinsicism of de Lubac by asserting that the human existential has been transformed by God's eternal self-offer into a supernatural existential with the obediential potency to accept God's historical self-offer (or grace).

28. Kenneth J. Collins, The Theology of John Wesley: Holy Love and the Shape of Grace (Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press, 2007), 6.

29. By way of contrast, Wesley describes unbelief as the "confluence of all sins." In that context, rather than receive and accept grace, one either ignores or subverts its gradual affect on one's habitual response. Systematic unbelief subverts sanctification and leads to pride, self-will, and other evil dispositions. The dispositions grounded in unbelief orient one away from sanctification and alienate one from God.

30. Paul N. Markham, Rewired: Exploring Religious Conversion (Eugene, Oreg.: Pickwick, 2007). Alan C. Weissenbacher, "The Neuroscience of Wesleyan Soteriology: The Dynamic of Both Instantaneous and Gradual Change," Zygon 51, no. 2 (2016): doi:10.1111/zygo.12260.

31. Gelpi, The Gracing of Human Experience, 336.

32. Those habits also become materialized in the brain. Graves, "Gracing Neuroscientific Tendencies of the Embodied Soul."

33. William R. Stoeger, "The Mind-Brain Problem, the Laws of Nature, and Constitutive Relationships," in Neuroscience and the Person: Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action, eds. Robert J. Russell, Nancey Murphy, Theo C. Meyering, and Michael A. Arbib (Berkeley: Vatican Observatory Foundation; Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences, 2002). Mark Graves, Mind, Brain, and the Elusive Soul: Human Systems of Cognitive Science and Religion (Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2008).

34. Bernard McGinn, The Presence of God: A History of Western Christian Mysticism (New York: Crossroad, 1991).

35. Peter C. Phan, Grace and the Human Condition: Message of the Fathers of the Church, Volume 15 (Wilmington, Del.: M. Glazier, 1988), 49–50. Irenaeus, Adversus haereses, IV.38.3.

36. The metaphor of path can be developed further within social sciences, such as with Lakoff and Johnson's cognitive linguistic metaphor theory that includes "Spirituality is Journey," and with a physical science understanding of path within a field of force (as a gradient), which occurs frequently within biological development as well as the pneumatology of Wolfhart Pannenberg. George Lakoff, Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal About the Mind (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987). Wolfhart Pannenberg, Systematic Theology, trans. Geoffrey William Bromiley (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1991). Also see, Mark Graves, "Places of Information Generation: Bridging Pannenberg's Logos and Deacon's Emerging Semiosis," Theology and Science 14, no. 3 (2016): doi:10.1080/14746700.2016.1191880.

37. Irenaeus, Adversus haereses, IV.14.1.

38. All quotes from Irenaeus, Adversus haereses, IV.38.1.

39. Because each person has an identity with God, the soul "remains" within God. As each person differs from God, the soul "proceeds" from God. Because each person is separate from God, in which their soul originates, each person has an innate tendency, to "return" to God and become united again.

40. One can consider experiences as apophatic when the apparently empty and unknowable aspects of the encounter are prevalent and kataphatic when the encounter fits within known categories, such as Christians meeting Christ, Mary, an angel, or a saint.

41. In the neo-Platonic process of the soul's return, one affirms the cognitive categories of the soul's exterior relationships, then negates that external understanding and moves interiorly beyond the exterior framework toward God's unity.

42. Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow.

43. Alva Noë, Action in Perception, Representation and Mind Series (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2004).

44. The change becomes intuitive in two senses of the word. New knowledge can incorporate fragments from many experiences, Scripture passages, and aspects of one's tradition and just seem to appear from below conscious awareness, and sometimes with surprising creativity. Philosophically, intuition refers to the capacity to know something independent of and prior to sense experience. In earlier philosophies, intuition grasped objects in a separate (sometimes spiritual) realm, such as grasping the essence of a perfect sphere even if one only experiences imperfect ones. Now, philosophers generally recognize that examples of intuitive knowledge always require a context that depends upon experience, learned properties of language or logic, and/or social instincts in an evolutionary context. New knowledge can emerge in mental processing that exceeds knowledge directly ascribable to experience, linguistically dependent Scripture, or culturally-mediated religious tradition. Something about the way one's mind works, embodied in one's brain and body with sense organs and motor function and socially located in a particular historic, linguistic, and cultural context, can create new knowledge. That knowledge can have religious content dependent upon Scripture or tradition, and one's reason itself can develop in a way that creates religious knowledge even using experiences and knowledge not otherwise considered religious.

45. Thorough critiques of Neoplatonic perfection in spiritual formation exist from intercultural and gender perspectives. For this article, I let perfection stand as historically characterized to explore how embodiment and contemporary science alone revise the third stage of spiritual formation.

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