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  • Hope in Imperfection: Toward a Naturalized Theology of Grace
  • Taylor Thomas (bio)

In this article, I argue for a new theological conception of grace in which I examine the evolutionary roots of cognitive error, focusing on its relationship to prejudice. Contrary to traditional views, I articulate grace as neural plasticity, the possibility for profound neuronal changes within the brain. In this manner, grace is an immanent component of being evidenced by our cognitive capacities for moral reflection and behavioral adjustment. By defining original sin in relation to cognitive error and reimagining God as a collaborative metaphor for the interdependent processes in nature that produce and shape creation, I identify grace as both a new way of understanding the ontological reality of “sin” and a practical means of resisting our inherited inclination toward cognitive error. In this framework, humans are understood as beings with adaptive traits that, while once advantageous to our survival, now reinforce ways of perceiving the world that perpetuate bias. Ultimately, I use this reconceptualization of grace to develop alternative modes of understanding ethical engagement, emphasizing the need for targeted intercession in disrupting particularly destructive thought patterns in humans. This goal involves addressing the moral implications of our shared evolutionary condition, articulating the soteriological significance of our capacity for neuronal change, and considering the practical benefits of religious practices in revealing and reshaping the mental processes responsible for producing cognitive bias. Through a naturalistic reconfiguration of the category of God and a theological analysis of cognitive adaptation, grace can, and should, acquire revived relevance in informing how we conceptualize and respond to prejudice.

I. Evolutionary Perspectives on Prejudice

According to evolutionary science, our biases are not immune to environmental pressures. In fact, evolutionary scientists argue that the forces of natural selection have continually shaped and reshaped cognitive mechanisms designed to respond to recurrent threats emanating from our environment. Without negating the role of socialization in producing prejudicial attitudes and behaviors, evolutionary-based accounts on prejudice emphasize the prominence of cognitive adaptation in understanding how exclusionary thought patterns emerge in human beings. For example, evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker [End Page 77] argues that human drives, particularly those that capitalize on our most violent tendencies, “have a common logic across cultures, are difficult to erase or redesign from scratch [and] were shaped by natural selection acting over the course of human evolution.”1 While these behaviors and attitudes produce contextually dependent outcomes, the tendencies themselves appear to have been originally shaped by environmental pressures, many of which stem directly from our species’ unrivaled aptitude for social learning. Our brains are enculturated in complex social spheres. Since adaptive behaviors that promote survival become increasingly representative of populations over time, the cognitive abilities that influence our perception of the external world, such as pattern recognition, agency detection, and social intuition, have an evolutionary basis.2 These processes have resulted in the development of mental modules acquired to regulate human behavior to fit particularly hostile environments. Consequently, discriminatory modes of thinking have emerged as a matter of survival. Being the most fit in prehistoric scenarios meant developing brains that allowed individuals to quickly identify potential threats and respond accordingly. However, what constitutes “best fit” is contingent upon an external world that is subject to unpredictable fluctuation, since what is adaptive in one context can easily prove maladaptive in a different situation.

Cognitive error has many faces and is not limited to its role in discriminatory thinking. It also includes perceptive tendencies like extrapolating too much information from incomplete data sets, mistaking our expectations as an accurate portrayal of reality, believing what we are told by authoritative sources, and becoming entrapped by self-defeating attitudes and behaviors.3 For the purposes of this discussion I will be focusing on the human tendency to make crude, categorical distinctions between persons, a habit derived from our penchant for pattern recognition and in-group preferencing. Beyond the emphatic displays of bigotry associated with acts of discriminatory violence, humans carry implicit biases that are difficult to self-diagnose but nevertheless color how we perceive the world.4 In modern contexts, both demonstrations of cognitive error are frequent.5 The potential for conflict is exacerbated by our [End...


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pp. 77-91
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