Article Note: "The Transmission of early Christian thought: Toward a cognitive psychological model" (István Czachesz)

In the mail this morning, I received a copy of volume 36:1 (2007) of Studies in Religion/Sciences Religieuses and was delighted to see one of Czachesz's articles on cognitive psychology among the others articles. (Update: Wade Greiner has posted a link to a pre-publication version of this article).

Czachesz does a fine job introducing the reader to some of the current major theories in cognitive psychology as they may pertain to the study of Christian Origins, including ritual theories, memory research, and studies in orality and transmission.

One question that immediately occurred to me while reading was how much the language of cognitive science is going to burden and/or offput scholars of religion? For instance, the transmission of ideas is called the "epidemic of beliefs" (p. 68).

I particularly was appreciative for the distinctions Czachesz drew between how one understands the transmission of traditions from a cognitive approach and the form-critical (pp. 66-68). Like my own analysis of the Gospel of Thomas, Czachesz highlights the fact that the ancient world of the early Christians was not purely oral, but included various degrees of literacy, and all of this acted together to create the environment in which our texts arose. This is what I and others call "rhetorical culture," a term that I did not notice Czachesz using. In rhetorical cultures, even though orality dominates the scene in terms of transmission and consciousness, the written word is also present, and oral text and written text interact in lively fashions.

Czachesz thinks that cognitive psychology can help us understand why early Christian tradition developed in the ways it did. He considers reasons beyond the daily needs of the congregrations, beyond the social or economic motivations. He says that their success is due to their universal appeal to the human mind - that is, "certain ideas especially appeal to us because our minds can work with them in particularly efficient ways...Religious ideas survive only if they adapt themselves to the structure of the human mind" (p. 68).

Since I am not a cognitive psychologist and am not yet familiar with the studies he references (Atran 2002; Barrett 2004; Boyer 2001; Pyysiäinen 2003), I'm not sure what specific items within the Christian tradition Czachesz sees as appealing to the structures of our minds, or how we would differentiate these from those that are/were unappealing (and therefore not transmitted?). I would like to know more though, and hope that he will address this type of question in future publications.