Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Blind Man Walking

A man with brain damage that makes him clinically blind can navigate an obstacle course, seemingly by using a part of his brain other than the visual cortex to perceive the objects in his path. This remarkable ability, discovered through a chance observation, is shedding light on a curious phenomenon known as blindsight.

The man, known as patient TN, was studied by a multinational team led by Beatrice de Gelder at Tilburg University in The Netherlands and Alan Pegna of the Geneva University Hospitals in Switzerland.

The researchers tested TN extensively to confirm that he was completely blind. They used brain imaging to show that there was no activity in his visual cortex, the part of the brain that processes most of the information coming from the retina. They then persuaded TN to set his stick aside and walk down a corridor strewn with lab equipment.
"It's quite a distance to walk," says de Gelder. "He walked much faster than we had expected, without hesitation or any kind of exploration." She adds that he did it completely subconsciously, with no idea that he had been avoiding obstacles in his path.

The team think the visual signals from the retina were processed by neural pathways below the damaged cortex. "It's a major lesson that brain damage can release minor neurological pathways that had previously been suppressed, allowing them to play a more significant role," she says.
This discovery is fascinating for neurobiologists, evolutionary theorists, and medical practitioners for the ways it can advance their fields in treatment of pathology. It's fascinating to me, a practical theologian, because of the way it confirms the Scriptures and explains spiritual encounters in the world.

Humankind is blind because of the Fall. Our sin separates us from God, and that separation extends to all parts of human experience. Nowhere is it more evident than our ability to recognize God for who He is and ourselves for who we are. This affect of the mind is dubbed by theologians the noetic effects of sin. The Apostle Paul writes about it in Romans 1:18-23:
18For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 21For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.
Echoing the sentiment of Job, Paul is describing the condition of non-Jewish peoples. But don't think that he excludes the Jewish people (to whom the Law was given and through whom came the promised Messiah) - just look at the next chapter (and ch. 11). For even Moses pointed out that God's redeemed people can be quite blind in their own right.
Deuteronomy 29:2 And Moses summoned all Israel and said to them: "You have seen all that the LORD did before your eyes in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and to all his servants and to all his land, 3the great trials that your eyes saw, the signs, and those great wonders. 4But to this day the LORD has not given you a heart to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear. (See also Ezekiel 12:1ƒƒ and Jeremiah 5:20ƒƒ)
God's reconsitituted redeemed - the Church - can face the same problem of blindness (cf. 1 John 2:9ƒƒ). It troubled Jesus then, and it troubles his people now.

So where do we go from here? If the people on the outside of the covenant are hopelessly blind, and many within the covenant are blinded, too, what's to become of the world?

Hear what Paul said to the people of Athens when he noticed that they were groping about for a deity they intuited was out there, but didn't know.
Acts 17:24 The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, 25nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. 26And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, 27 that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us,
We stumble and grope. We get it partially right, but mostly wrong. And yet still, there is an abiding, deep, and stubborn perception of the divine. Even secular and atheistic antagonists recognize the persistence of religious belief.Calvin called this phenomenon the sensus divinitatis.* As Francis Bacon wrote in Novum Organum Scientiarum,
For man by the Fall fell at the same time from his state of innocency and from his dominion over Creation. Both of these losses however can even in this life be in some part repaired; the former by religion and faith, the latter by arts and sciences.
The search for that latter dominion goes on, and I've related a small step in that direction above. The Church is largely responsible for making this search so successful (maybe even possible) in the West. But we've failed in our first calling, which was to help people who seek after God find him in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

When we preach or explain our faith and someone rebuffs us, we get offended instead of praying for Satan to be hampered. We argue, fuss and fight. But sometimes what blind people need the most is for someone to patiently be there, walking beside them to steady them when they wobble or stumble...someone who knows the way around those obstacles.

May the King Who opens our eyes grant you grace to do just that!


* I learned about this in Paul Helm's class taught in conjunction with the release of his book John Calvin's Ideas. Read his blog and you'll quickly see why I can't read Calvin without hearing it in a British accent. You don't have to spend $60 to get at his work on reformed epistemology. The outlines of the argument are present in an earlier article. Paul Helm, "John Calvin, the Sensus Divinitatis, and the noetic effects of sin" International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, Springer, ISSN 0020-7047 Volume 43, Number 2, pg 82, April 1998

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