Skip to main content
Liberating Theology from Alphabetic Writing's Reductionistic Reign
Mar 1, 2012

The words on this page are squiggly black ink pressed onto white paper. You could run your fingertips across these letters and feel their slick texture, but the ink you touch as you read is separate from the keys I click as I write. It would be impossible to tell - from these letters alone - whether or not their author is a withered war hero, a teenage suburbanite, or a patient in a psychiatric ward. The words are physically divorced from my Euro-American, male, twenty-something body. Alphabetic writing removes bodies from communication. But does alphabetic writing’s disembodied nature really matter, and - what is more - should it unnerve theologians?

Multiple factors shape thought, but communication is especially heavy-handed. Communication not only restructures the contents of the mind,; it re-configures the brain’s very neurological patterns (Rotman 2008: 51-52). Brian Rotman explains four ways people communicate selfhood: self-pointing, a spoken "I," an alphabetically written "I," and "self-enunciation within contemporary media" (Rotman 2008: xxxiii). The written "I" is the only disembodied method, but this separation subliminally trickles beneath conscious awareness. Writing has been a major component of communicating theological concepts because writing has been the easiest form of mass communication for centuries. Theologians 1,000 years ago probably did not ponder the disembodiment of writing any more than landing spaceships on the moon. Television - which mediates communication through bodies - was not on their radar. But contemporary theologians have options. Gunther Kress is clear that, "The former constellation of medium of book and mode of writing is giving way… to the new constellation of medium of screen and mode of image" (Kress 2003: 9). These moving constellations have forced a fundamental shift in the way social brains engage thought. Theology that fails to take this into account will find itself hopelessly outmoded and no longer equipped to engage the study of God in fresh situations.

This article addresses the cognitive and neurological effects stemming from shifts in "culturally mediated systems of external memory" (Rotman 52) - such as writing and images - and how theological communication could expand in response. Writing reinforces left-brain, systematic, and linear thought (Armstrong 1995: 115). Images, on the other hand, encourage more right-brain, intuitive, and spatial reasoning. It would be simplistic to hold that writing is only mediated through the right hemisphere and images only through the left, but communicative modes create lateral biases. Theological minds emerge, - not only from the "linear, logical, detail-oriented left hemisphere", - but from embodied, whole brains. The first section of this paper shows writing’s left-brain bias. The second section turns a corner by examining emotion as altered body states and how this leads to a right-brain bias. Visual mediums are the most direct way to communicate right-brain thoughts, so the last step is to show how visual mediums could add a holistic, embodied element to theology.


Writing forces neurons to march in line with time (Kress 2003: 2). The left hemisphere attributes meaning to words and strings those words together to form sentences, paragraphs, and full discourses (Hogue 2003: 87). In a sentence, one… word… follows… another, so the brain follows a preset "reading path" (Kress 2003: 3). A dog bit Karen means something entirely different than Karen bit a dog. Reading paths necessitate choices about which words make the most sense in which temporal order (Kress 2003: 3), so writing creates "the subliminal appeal of reducing wholes to constituent parts" (Jahandarie 1999: 57-58). It entrenches linear (temporal) neurological patterns through the repetitive, reductive decision-making (Jahandarie 1999: 54).

This leads to what could be called: alphabetic reasoning. Daniel Siegel explains that the left hemisphere is responsible for "more slowly acting, linear, sequentially active, temporal (time-dependent) processes. Verbal meanings of words… are a primary mode of processing for the left side" (Siegel 2001: 179). The left-brain deals in "monosemantic 'packets’… which are then processed in a slower, linear mode" (Siegel 179). Writing strengthens linear thought patterns in the left hemisphere. Siegel holds that, "Repeated activation of specific neuronal pathways reinforces the strength of connections between groups of neurons" (p. 194), so neurons fire in similar patterns in the future (p. 24). The brain functions like a malleable muscle, but writing only exercises the left-brain. The brain is sculpted like a bodybuilder who only lifts with one arm. That arm ripples, but the other atrophies. Plastic makes perfect.

The "linear, logical," and "linguistically-based" left-hemisphere (p. 161) evaluates the contents of written words through syllogistic reasoning (p. 197), prejudicing the brain to evaluate their contents through the brain’s semantic operator. The semantic operator deals with "propositional representations - symbols of external or internal facts that can be… assessed as 'true’ or 'false’" (p. 35 [emphasis mine]). In alphabetic reasoning, ideas are filtered into categories of: right or wrong, - fact or fiction. Then, alphabetic reasoning reinforces the brain’s quest for causation through sequencing. Reading paths communicate meaning through cause-effect relationships, so the ensuing left-brain thought patterns in the semantic operator create a syllogistic lens. Wholes are eliminated in the effort to snap details into linear, cause-effect relationships. Meaning is confined to these necessary but limited ways of processing information.


As writing has become increasingly more accessible in punctuated bursts over the past few millennia, theologians have become more and more linear and syllogistic in thought. But neurons fire in strikingly complex and highly plastic patterns (Bennett and Hacker 2008: 137). Linear rules for systematic theology are only engrained through repetition. The dark side of alphabetic reasoning is that it can produce theologians who tend to exercise linearity while alternative methods atrophy. Recall that the semantic operator can only qualify concepts as right or wrong. Linear patterns do not leave cognitive space for multiple details to be processed simultaneously. In the study of God, this cognitive capacity is absolutely necessary.

So far, I have examined several important consequences of alphabetic writing: it is inherently linear; in committing to using particular words in particular sequences it automatically eliminates other options; it coerces thought into cause-effect analysis, and it externalizes, or disembodies, thought. Of these consequences, the disembodied nature of theological writing is the most problematic.


Emotions are physiological changes in a person’s body. These are mediated through combinations of gestures, postures, and behaviors (Damasio 2003: 63). External images - or stimuli - are mediated to the brain through the senses, and internal body and brain states refract the external world (Damasio 195). Marshall McLuhan writes, "The use of any medium or extension of hu/man/ity alters the patterns of interdependence among people, as it alters the ratios among our senses" (Jahandarie 51). The higher cognitive processes involved in developing theological concepts are pushed and pulled by the body’s constant emoting (Siegel 143).

The signals passing in and out of bodies generate emotion, so change signals can make emotions contagious (Siegel 143, 50). Siegel explains that, "Complex neural/bodily aspects of emotional processes are not easily translated into words. Nonverbal expressions, including those of the face, tone of voice and gestures, can transfer information about internal states more fully to the outside world than words can do" (Siegel 150). When it comes to altering the emotions correlated with belief - belief that can override higher cognitive functions - bodily gesture trumps writing.

Because this emotional processing is primarily non-conscious, people do not qualify intuition as true or false by sequencing details into rational arguments. For example, anger is typified by "dilated pupils, widened orbital area, raised eyebrows, furrowed brow, and pursed lips" (Siegel 128). The brain absorbs all of these signals at once when someone unexpectedly sees this:

Through non-conscious processing, faces can change emotions and minds in a flash.

Intuition of other people’s emotions occurs within the Mirror Neuron System (MNS). This system draws most heavily from facial expressions (Siegel 290), and it tells the viewer’s brain to respond to the viewed face in kind (Siegel 129). The MNS non-consciously indicates: whatever is happening in that person is also happening in me. This is why people constantly imitate the "motor acts, postures, and gaze of their co-citizens" (Kanwisher and Duncan 2004: 463-64). When people talk, their body language loops without their awareness as emotions harmonize. Yawning becomes contagious. When the MNS causes altered body states and facial expressions, people influence each other’s emotional-cognitive looping, and thought itself is steered.

There is scientific evidence that the entire body is engaged in understanding and remembering. James McGaugh demonstrated that the Vagus nerve - which connects the brain stem to the stomach - directly unites visceral and emotional experience with mental processing. McGaugh presented subjects with two stories containing similar amounts of data. One story had high emotional content and the other had low emotional content. People with functioning Vagus nerves recalled more data from the stories with high emotional content than from the stories with low emotional content. People with damaged Vagus nerves had identical recall from both stories. This suggests that certain types of thought are crippled by the absence of full-bodied emotion. Siegel explains that, "conceptual representations are nonverbal. They form the fundamental building blocks of our thoughts, beliefs, intentions, and aspects of our explicit memories" (Damasio 167). Written theological method is often left wanting embodied communication to close the cognitive loop.


The body’s indicators of emotion - somatic markers¬ - interface with the right hemisphere more than the left (Damasio 144, 82). The right-brain simultaneously correlates multiple details rather than sequencing them in cause-effect relationships. Siegel describes how the right-brain deals with nonverbal communications through "fast-acting, parallel (simultaneously active), holistic processes" (Damasio 179). This means that the right-brain is the default processor of metaphor and paradox. Imagistic representations in the mind do not force choice, categorization, or analysis. They exist simultaneously without being truncated by "top-down" processing as emotions ebb and flow (Siegel 165).

Kress calls this type of right-brain embodied thought "spatial reasoning," and he places it in opposition to the "temporal reasoning" sublimated by alphabetic thought (Kress 45). Spatial reasoning portrays multiple details simultaneously, so spatial reasoning is correlational rather than sequential. This opens up possibilities for theologians by beginning with building blocks of thought before they are sequenced into categories of justified and true, fact or fiction.

The right-brain is functionally nonverbal, so its contents have to be externalized in "non-word-based ways, such as drawing a picture or pointing to a pictorial set of options" (Siegel 327). Alternative mediums, such as video and visual art, could generate entirely new forms of theological thought.


Video and visual art are viable possibilities for developing a right-brain, spatial reasoning into theological method. Jahandarie poetically explains, "Electric media are extensions of our central nervous systems and thus put us in touch with the totality of experience" (Jahandarie 99). Jahandarie overstates his case; - for example, video does not communicate through odors, for example, - but his intended meaning is helpful. New technologies make it possible to create right-brain mass communication. The MNS is 80-85% as effective at influencing emotion through video as it is in person (Kanwisher and Duncan 469), so gestures captured on video have a startlingly high ability to steer the emotional side of the cognitive loop. Emotions can be altered and details can be expressed simultaneously if theologians were to use a wider set of cognitive and communicative tools.

Rotman explains that people listen, "not to speech sounds as such… but to the movements of the body causing them; we focus on what happens between the sounds, to the dynamics of their preparatory phases, pauses, holds, accelerations, fallings away, and completions" (Rotman 23). Through the MNS, we get hunches, - not only about what another person is thinking, - but how the person is thinking and feeling. The dynamics of gesture in film add an intuitive, interpretive element to its communicative ability. In split-brain studies, the left-brain cannot even register facial expressions or emotional states (Rotman 151). While the left-brain might be incredible at reading and writing books, it is inept at spatial reasoning. Siegel writes that the left-brain’s "monosemantic 'packets’" operate through neurological patterns and processes "quite distinct from the analogic representations seen, for example, in an artist’s painting or in a photograph," so "the right hemisphere more fully 'sees the world for what it is,’ whereas the left hemisphere must reduce the world much more into mentally defined, often socially constructed chunks of information" (Rotman 179). The right-brain’s holism and simultaneity could be invaluable to theologians, but it is too often dampened by the limitations of past technologies.


Siegel mentions the "theory of nonlinear dynamics of complex systems" in regard to personhood (Siegel 7). The firing of every synapse in every thought exponentially complexifies what it means to be human. Perhaps God is not only linear, either. Images are not filtered through the linear critiques applied to writing because they function differently in the brain. This does not make imagistic, spatial reasoning irrational. It makes spatial reasoning non-rational, and theologians desperately need non-rational ways to discuss a nonlinear God. Spatial mediums are not able to comprehensively encapsulate God’s personhood any more than writing, but they could generate new perspectives to better triangulate theological depth in conjunction with it.

In the syllogistic line that runs from rational to irrational, the concept of a trinity is inherently problematic. The semantic operator only deals with logical, sequential coherence, so the multiple, simultaneously existing details involved in conceptualizing the trinity do not get cognitive space. In this case, it might be advantageous to take a right-brain, imagistic approach to theology.

Depictions allow for multiple details to coexist without sequence. Images can be worth far more than 1,000 words. Imagistic reasoning allows space for entire persons to subject themselves to concepts. The "events and actions" lost in writing’s "principles and concepts" could be filled out through images (Jahandarie 17). Instead of only understanding theology in terms of right and wrong, the theologian could also trust a Vagus nerve when it communicates that an image or gesture is good or bad. The details could remain simultaneous in the right-brain without being sorted, and persons could experience theologies to a fuller degree in addition to critically evaluating them.


As neurological patterns become more spatial and less linear, theologians have the opportunity to construct new theological paradigms by diversifying their communicative tools. Creating theology through imagistic mediums would be bounded by its own "epistemological commitments," (Kress 57) though. Critical thought is a crucial element in theological conversations, for example. This suggests that - when used in isolation - either alphabetic or imagistic methods are reductionistic. Theology has to be alphabetic, linear, and critical to be constructive, but it also needs to be imagistic, embodied, and holistic to avoid reductionistic sequencing of nonlinear concepts. The multiple natures of cognition cannot be mixed or separated. Language and experience, left-brain and right-brain thinking, knowledge and belief, are locked into cognitive loops (Eichenbaum and Bodkin 179), and it is impossible to have a one-sided loop.

The advent of new mediums makes the creation of an embodied theological method - complete with shifting neurological patterns - a mandatory opportunity. The next step is to synthesize multimodal theologies with alphabetic reasoning. A critically holistic methodology would emerge as gestalt. Full-blown theological paradigms could materialize if both hemispheres were used in conjunction. However progressive, however gestalt, and however critically holistic theological method becomes, it can never be comprehensive or complete. Theologians must do theology at all times. When necessary, they should use words.

Jonathan Camery-Hoggatt is a freelance writer in Seattle. He has MA in divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary.


  • Armstrong, David F., William C. Stokoe, and Sherman Wilcox. Gesture and the Nature of Language. Cambridge ; New York, NY, USA: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
  • Barth, Karl, Geoffrey William Bromiley, and Thomas F. Torrance. "Barth's Church Dogmatics (14 Volumes)." In Logos Bible Software series 3. [Bellingham, WA]: Logos Bible Software ; Libronix Corp., 2008.
  • Bennett, M. R., and P. M. S. Hacker. History of Cognitive Neuroscience. Chichester, U.K. ; Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008.
  • Bradt, Kevin M. Story as a Way of Knowing. Kansas City, MO: Sheed & Ward, 1997.
  • Bultmann, Rudolf Karl. Theology of the New Testament. 2 vols. New York,: Scribner, 1951.
  • Camery-Hoggatt, Jerry. Reading the Good Book Well : A Guide to Biblical Interpretation. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007.
  • Cone, James H. God of the Oppressed. Rev. ed. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1997.
  • Damasio, Antonio R. Looking for Spinoza : Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain. 1st ed. Orlando, Fla.: Harcourt, 2003.
  • ———. The Feeling of What Happens : Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness. 1st ed. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1999.
  • ———. Thinking About Belief. Edited by Daniel L. Schacter and Elaine Scarry, Memory, Brain, and Belief. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000.
  • Deacon, Terrence William. The Symbolic Species : The Co-Evolution of Language and the Brain. 1st ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 1997.
  • Eichenbaum, Howard, and J. Alexander Bodkin. Belief and Knowledge as Distinct Forms of Memory. Edited by Daniel L. Schacter and Elaine Scarry, Memory, Brain, and Belief. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000.
  • Ekman, Paul, and Erika L. Rosenberg. What the Face Reveals : Basic and Applied Studies of Spontaneous Expression Using the Facial Action Coding System (Facs). 2nd ed, Series in Affective Science. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
  • Hodgson, Peter Crafts. Liberal Theology : A Radical Vision. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007.
  • Hodgson, Peter Crafts, and Robert Harlen King. Christian Theology : An Introduction to Its Traditions and Tasks. Newly updated ed. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994.
  • Hogue, David. Remembering the Future, Imagining the Past : Story, Ritual, and the Human Brain. Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2003.
  • Jahandarie, Khosrow. Spoken and Written Discourse : A Multi-Disciplinary Perspective, Contemporary Studies in International Political Communication. Stamford, Conn.: Ablex Pub., 1999.
  • Kanwisher, Nancy, and John Duncan. Functional Neuroimaging of Visual Cognition. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
  • Kress, Gunther R. Literacy in the New Media Age, Literacies. London: Routledge, 2003.
  • Minear, Paul Sevier. Images of the Church in the New Testament, New Testament Library. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004.
  • Newberg, Andrew B., Eugene G. D'Aquili, Vince Rause, and Judith Cummings. Why God Won't Go Away : Brain Science and the Biology of Belief. 1st ed. New York: Ballantine Books, 2001.
  • Niebuhr, H. Richard. The Meaning of Revelation. New York,: The Macmillan Company, 1946.
  • Rotman, B. Becoming Beside Ourselves : The Alphabet, Ghosts, and Distributed Human Being. Durham: Duke University Press, 2008.
  • Siegel, Daniel J. The Developing Mind : How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are. New York London: Guilford Press, 2001.
  • Stenning, Keith. Seeing Reason : Image and Language in Learning to Think, Oxford Cognitive Science Series. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.