Does the indwelling of the Holy Spirit require a neurotypical brain?

Joanna Leidenhag

  1. Introduction and Hypothesis
  2. Fields of Study
    2.1 The Indwelling of the Holy Spirit
    2.2 Theory of Mind Hypothesis in Autism
  3. Discussion
  4. Conclusion
  1. Introduction and Hypothesis

On February 28th 2020, The Washington Post published a story about how a Roman Catholic church in New Jersey denied, Anthony LaCugna, an 8-year-old boy with severe autism, his First Communion because he is not up to the “benchmark required to make communion” (Farzan 2020). This was seemingly contrary to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, who have stated that people with disabilities “have a right to participate in the sacraments as fully as other members of the local ecclesial community” (USCCB 2017). The spokesperson for the parish where the LaCugna family worship stated that contemporary guidance from Pope Francis and canon lawyers is that “the child should be presumed to have an inner spiritual relationship with God, and this would be sufficient in these particular cases” (Farzan 2020).

The practical issue to be resolved in the real-life case outlined above is not specific to autism but is a matter of settling on the criteria for participation in First Communion. However, beneath the practical question of criteria lies a theological puzzle on how neurology, capacities and certain behaviours affect or provide evidence of a believer’s relationship with God. Being a Christian, we are frequently reminded by theologians and pastors alike, is not primarily about affirming certain propositional beliefs or following some moral code but is about a distinct and ongoing personal relationship with God.

In Christian theology this relationship is said to be realized by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, who works to illuminate the believer’s mind and sanctify their life. The theological puzzle to be addressed then revolves around how far the indwelling of the Holy Spirit can be said to parallel or depend upon the same forms of social cognition that are employed in human-human relationships, which operate differently in persons with autism leading to social impairment in various neurotypical environments. Put more simply, does the indwelling of the Holy Spirit require a neurotypical brain? If we answer yes, then it seems that we cannot presume that Anthony LaCugna and other autistic people have an “inner spiritual relationship with God,” and perhaps should be denied access to the eucharist. If we answer no, as I argue we should, then we need to think afresh through the question of how human neurology undergirds one’s relationship with God.

In this puzzle, I start by outlining how analytic theologians have recently conceptualized the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, focusing on how Eleonore Stump’s work on second-personal knowledge and presence employs autism research to develop her account of indwelling. I then turn to the psychological literature on autism to further examine the Theory of Mind and mirror neuron hypotheses that Stump relies upon. In the discussion, I explore four different ways of matching up the theology of indwelling to autism research: (1) the exclusionary model (which I take to be Stump’s), (2) the either/or model, (3) the mystery model, and (4) the asymmetrical model. The first two models grant that the Theory of Mind mechanism and mirror-neuron network are directly necessary for indwelling but differ in how they interpret the empirical findings in autism research. The third model denies that neurology is in any way relevant for this area of theology. The fourth model, which I suggest is the most promising, suggests that neurology is descriptively relevant, but neither necessary nor inhibiting to a believer’s relationship with God. This, I suggest, has some theological implications for how we relate the indwelling of the Holy Spirit to the incarnation of the Son and to the broader doctrine of divine accommodation.

  1. Fields of Study

2.1 The Indwelling of the Holy Spirit

One of the central claims of the New Testament is that believers receive the Holy Spirit who lives within them, or ‘indwells’ them (Rom 8: 9-11; 1 Cor 3:16, 6:18). The indwelling of the Holy Spirit does a lot of work in Christian theology: It is by the indwelling Spirit that we can receive the gift of faith and come to know Jesus as Lord and Saviour, for the Spirit is the Spirit of truth (John 14:17; 15:26; 16:13). It is through the indwelling Spirit that believers can hope to grow in holiness and virtue, because the Spirit’s indwelling bears fruit in the life of the believer (Gal. 5:22-23); It is with the power of the indwelling Spirit that believers can heal the sick, raise the dead, and proclaim the Gospel, for the Spirit gives the many gifts to the church (Rom 12:3-8; 1 Cor 12: 4-11). The indwelling of the Holy Spirit is the mark of a Christian, which sets them apart and assures their membership within the people of God, and undergirds many (if not all) of the ordo salutis.[1]

Although the idea of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is both clearly Scriptural and foundational for many aspects of the Christian life the concept of “indwelling” itself has received very little scholarly attention. What exactly is “indwelling”? How does the indwelling denote a sanctifying or transformative divine-human relationship, which is different from incarnation or possession? In recent decades, the new field of analytic theology has started to ask just these kinds of questions (Alston 1989; McCord Adams 2005; Yeo 2014; Porter and Rickabaugh 2018; Kroll 2019).

In 1989 William Alston proposed three models of indwelling: the fiat model, the interpersonal model, and the sharing model. Alston favoured the later where, “there is a literal merging or mutual interpenetration of the life of the individual and the divine life, a breaking down of barriers that normally separate one life from another” (Alston 1989, 246). More recently, Eleonore Stump has developed an influential model for the indwelling of the Spirit which combines Alston’s “interpersonal model” and the “sharing model”. Stump argues that the influence between human persons is a useful metaphor for the indwelling of the Spirit, because human interactions are not as insulated through “physical and psychological barriers” as Alston supposed (Alston 1989, 246). Stump draws upon recent studies in developmental psychology and autism research to argue that neurotypical human interaction provides a useful analogue to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

Stump argues that we might distinguish various types of presence, both for God and for humanity. On the one hand there is being presence in a certain place and at a certain time, or in God’s case present in all space (omnipresence) and at all times (eternality). Presence can refer to a spatiotemporal location. However, a person can also be present with and to another person, and this can be distinguished from spatiotemporal location. For example, imagine you are in a conversation with a friend, standing a few metres from them, but you notice a glazed look in their eyes and so you ask, “Where did you go? I don’t feel like you’re really present with me right now.” Stump calls with latter type of presence with and to, “personal presence” and argues that the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is the personal presence of God to the believer.

Stump links presence with and to person to, what she calls, second-personal or Franciscan knowledge; that is, knowledge of a person as a person. Second-personal knowledge is not irreducible to propositional (or Dominican) knowledge for Stump, as it captures the difference that spending time with a person, as opposed to reading a list of facts about them, makes to relationship. To have second-personal knowledge of another person, then, requires that one be in inter-personal relationship with that person, has spent time in personal presence with them, and knows them as a person (Stump 2009, 553-565; 2010, chapters 3, 4, and 6). Second-personal knowledge of God, Stump suggests, is core to the Christian faith.

Personal presence and second-personal knowledge, according to Stump, is facilitated by particular cognitive capacities, namely mind-reading and empathy (Stump 2013, 37). Stump writes that,

In human mind-reading, there is a sense in which something of the thought, affect, or intention in the mind of one person is in the mind of another. In the intermingling to minds made possible by the mirror neuron system, one person is present to another in virtue of being in that other, in a way that the neurobiology of the brain makes possible. This is intersubjectivity, or presence with. In mind-reading, one human person can be present with another in a way more powerful than mere presence at a place or in a time (Stump 2013, 41).

Does this presence with-another between human beings account for the indwelling of the Holy Spirit? At first, Stump seems hesitant as she writes: “The indwelling of the Holy Spirit is meant to be something ontologically more powerful than mutual closeness accompanied by shared attention” (Stump 2013, 46). However, it seems that mirror-neurons are sufficient in giving Stump the “ontologically more” that she is looking for: “the intersubjectivity of mental states enabled by the mirror neuron system and evident in mind-reading transforms from a mere psychological sharing to something that is ontology… ‘Indwelling’ is not a bad word for this kind of relationship between minds” (Stump 2013, 49).

The difference between the human-human case of indwelling and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (a divine-human case) seems to be a matter of degree. Stump refers to the divine-human case as being a “maximal second-personal presence” (Stump 2013, 51). This appears to be a bottom-up account where the more minimal cases of mind-reading via the mirror-neuron system have to be in place in the human-human case, in order to then achieve the divine-human maximal case. It follows that if there is a disruption to the human-human cases of mind-reading, as Stump cites occurs in cases of children with autism, then a proponent of Stump’s account would have serious reason to doubt whether a child with autism can be indwelt by the Holy Spirit.

2.2 Theory of Mind Hypothesis in Autism

Autism is a difference in neurobiology that arises from a genetic foundation and manifests in distinct behavioural traits. Depending upon both the individual and the environment in which they find themselves these behavioural traits can be advantageous, lead to marginal difficulties, or constitute significant impairments for a person’s quality of life. The goal of much psychological research into autism is to find a cognitive or psychological theory that explains the link between neurobiological and genetic differences to the manifest behavioural traits, which dictate diagnoses. One psychological hypothesis that has been a popular theory for explaining autism is the so-called Theory of Mind hypothesis.

There are three main categories of cognitive theories of autism that have been developed over the last thirty years: primary difference models, developmental models, and information processing models. All have some empirical success and continue to be explored today, but equally all have significant limitations which continue to confound researchers pursuing each of these avenues.

Primary deficit models, or the more recently preferred term primary difference models, seek to identify a single, underlying difference that explains all the diverse features used to diagnose autism. This was the first approach that modern psychologists of the 1980’s utilized in order to explain autism. At this time, the prevailing view of the brain was modular – meaning that researchers were looking for a particular module or area of the brain that was “switched off” in autism but switched on in everyone else.

One of the most prominent and earliest versions of a primary difference model is the so-called Theory of Mind hypothesis. Theory of Mind is a concept developed in the context of exploring chimpanzee social cognition to refer to the ability to attribute independent mental states to oneself and to another agent in order to explain behaviour (Premack and Woodruff 1978). The gold standard for Theory of Mind is a false-belief test, where a person S understands and predicts person A’s behaviour by attributing an incorrect belief to person A. The most famous experimental false-belief test in autism studies is the Sally-Ann test, developed by Uta Frith, Alan Leslie, and Simon Baron-Cohen in the mid-1980’s (Baron-Cohen et al., 1985).

In addition to the gold-standard of false-belief attribute, Theory of Mind was also seen to affect more basic cognitive tasks such as deception (Chandler, et al., 1989), humour (Reddy 1991), imaginative free play, and empathetic responses, all of which require some form of “mentalizing” – attributing mental states to other agents (Leslie 1987). In the 1990’s, the Theory of Mind and mentalizing hypotheses were joined with the apparent discovery of “mirror neurons” in macaque monkeys; that is, the observations that the same motor neurons fire when performing an action as when observing someone else performing the same action (Rizzolatti, et al. 1996). For two decades, psychologists were hopeful that this discovery would illuminate “the driving force” behind “the great leap forward” in human evolution by accounting for learning through imitation, metaphorical language, and empathy (Heyes 2010). This led to the so-called “broken mirror” theory of autism, which Stump draws upon, arguing that autism results from damage or impairment to the mirror neuron system (Oberman and Ramachandran 2007). However, after twenty-five years of the mirror neuron hypothesis, only one single study on humans has claimed to be able to locate a mirror neuron in human beings giving rise to significant doubt to this whole line of enquiry into human behaviour (Kilner and Lemon 2013; Hickok 2014). Moreover, the “broken mirror” theory of autism has been refuted by further empirical testing of this hypothesis (Hamilton et al., 2007; Hamilton et al., 2013; Dinstein et al., 2010).

With or without the backing of a mirror neuron system, what are we to make of the Theory of Mind hypothesis? To be clear, Theory of Mind is a hypothesis or theoretical construct, which enabled psychologists to predict and explain why some behaviours are reduced or impaired in autism children and others, seemingly similar behaviours, are not. Moreover, the idea of Theory of Mind has helped distinguishing between behaviours that are reduced for children with autism, but not for children with other learning disabilities. For example, the reduction of gestures in autism only applies to gestures connected to mental states (Attwood et al., 1988); there is a lack of protodeclarative pointing, which is for the sake of shared attention, but not protoimperative pointing, which is for the purpose of attaining some object (Baron-Cohen 1989). The precision and success for this theory in the 1980’s and early 1990’s was such that it really seemed that psychologists were “cutting nature at the joints” and were on the cusp of a single unified theory of autism.

Autism is now believed to be a neuro-developmental condition, rather than a straightforward deficit and this has led to more developmental models of the Theory of Mind hypothesis. Developmental models posit a subtle innate difference in how an individual relates to their environment, which leads to a non-typical development of sharing attention and Theory of Mind abilities, resulting in the pattern of behaviours used to diagnose autism (Happé 2015). One attempt to pinpoint these differences focuses on the orientation of preferential attention, arguing that in autism this attention is orientated away from social content in the world (Dawson et al., 1998; Klin et al., 2002). However, the empirical sources behind this theory have been contested by later studies (Guillon et al., 2014, Elsabbagh et al., 2013, and Jones and Klin 2013). Another developmental account has suggested that it is not social orientation, but social motivation, that is the underlying difference. That is, an innate difference in how much social interaction is valued by the individual, which may lead to a non-typical cognitive and neurological development. However, this theory is mostly based on adult studies or regional brain responses to different stimuli and is challenged by the report from autistic people themselves who report high motivation for greater social interaction, leading to costly “camouflaging” behaviours (Hirschfield et al., 2007; Lai et al., 2017).

The third version of the developmental model of Theory of Mind comes from intersubjectivity accounts, primarily put forward by Peter Hobson. It is Hobson’s account that Stump’s theology also draws from. Hobson argued that autism is rooted in differences in the ability to perceive and respond to the affective expressions of others in infancy, which went onto affect the developmental of social understanding. However, as with the other developmental models, this account has not been corroborated by further empirical studies. Indeed, recent studies suggest that neurotypical individuals have as much difficulty identifying the emotions or “reading” the facial expressions of autistic people and vice versa, and that this deficit disappears for interpersonal communication between two autistic people, just as they do between two neurotypical people (Sheppard et al., 2016; Brewer et al., 2017; Komeda et al., 2015). This points to the possibility that “in-group” / “out-group” status played a major role in generating the results of these studies, and that autistic social cognition and interaction is different, rather than impaired. (Fletcher-Watson and Happé 2019, 97, 111).


Despite the popularity and predictive success of the Theory of Mind hypothesis, it continues to face some significant challenges in meeting the criteria for any successful theory of autism: universality, specificity, and primacy. First, the criteria of universality states that a successful theory of autism must be universally true of all people with autism. In every study using ToM, without exception, some autistic participants pass the tests and perform as well as neurotypical participants. That is, the idea that autism is caused by a Theory of Mind deficit or difference does not seem to apply universally for all people with autism. In particular, there is almost no difference in the performance of autistic and neurotypical individuals in Theory of Mind tests past childhood. There are two possible reasons for this lack of universality; either, some autistic participants in studies have found other ways to solve the tests or complete the tasks; or, there is a developmental delay, but not a permanent impairment, in the development of mentalising capacities which leads to the idiosyncrasies of autistic behaviour but does not prevent people with autism from mind-reading or mentalising entirely. This led to developmental models, rather than primary difference models, of the Theory of Mind hypothesis. 

Another challenge to the Theory of Mind hypothesis is specificity. In order to securely claim that autistic behaviour (since autism is diagnosed at the behavioural level) results from a deficit or developmental delay in Theory of Mind, then the Theory of Mind deficit/delay must characterise autism specifically and not other psychological diagnoses which do not manifest the same set of distinctive behaviours. Three other groups fail to pass false-belief tests developmentally are neurotypical children under three years old, non-autistic children with other learning disabilities, and deaf children in non-signing homes. Although, when the demands on executive control are lessened then typically developing children show more basic signs of mentalising at 15 months, (see Scott & Baillargeon 2017; Setoh et al., 2016) and non-autistic children with intellectual disabilities also perform better (San José Cáceres et al., 2015). Mentalising can also be disrupted later in life, such as in some right-hemisphere stroke patients. Mentalising can also be over-active in schizophrenics suffering from paranoid delusions. In both these cases, the behavioural features of autism do not then arise, challenging the causal power of ToM hypothesis for autism (Fletchter-Watson and Happé 2019, 91).

The third challenge concerns the primacy of mentalising as the cause of autism. Whilst ToM is a powerful explanatory device for the social and communicative differences that manifest in autism, it does not seem to explain the diagnostic criteria of “restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviours, interests, or activities” or the “hyper- and hypoactivity to sensory inputs” (American Psychiatric Association 2013). Whilst much autism research has focused specifically on the social aspects of autism, there is now a wider exploration of differences in information processing and sensory input in both social and non-social environments. It is of note that this development has largely emerged out of and been affirmed by the autistic communities themselves. More studies in this approach to autism are indeed before larger conclusions can be drawn.


This section has provided an overview of the Theory of Mind hypothesis of autism within developmental psychology. The Theory of Mind hypothesis dominated autism research for several decades and the concept of “mentalising” has provided the general public with a useful and simple explanation for the kinds of behavioural and social differences that frequently occur in autism-neurotypical interaction. However, the Theory of Mind research (within autism studies and beyond) remains ever-changing, as different studies provide slightly different neurological and developmental pictures. It seems likely that autism research is significantly broadening, if not moving away from, the primary difference and developmental Theory of Mind accounts of autism, which have thus far been at the forefront of autism research.

  1. Discussion

In this puzzle, I am examining how two sub-disciplines have already developed in mutual conversation such that the concept of a “theory of mind” in developmental psychology and “personal presence” in Stump’s theology of indwelling are already entangled concepts. Elsewhere, I have argued that the original invention of autism and some of the field’s continuing assumptions regarding the nature of human relationality has been more influenced by theories of dialogical personalism in 20th century Christian theology than has been previously realised. However, in this paper I am focusing on a more recent “entanglement” in how analytic theologians, and Stump in particular, have drawn from autism research. In fact, Stump’s employment of autism research to articulate how a human mind might be indwelt by the Spirit is a clear example of science-engaged theology. In this discussion, I will evaluate four possible ways of lining up the theological research with autism research, each of which result in answering the primary question of this puzzle in markedly different ways.

Option 1: The Exclusionary Model

Section 2.1 outlined how Stump relied on autism research to elucidate second-personal knowledge and second-personal presence. The logic can be summarised as follows:

(1) Some autism research states that differences and difficulties that people with autism have with certain social behaviours and relationships is caused by an impaired or developmentally delayed Theory of Mind mechanism and/or mirror neuron system in the brain.

(2) This tells us how important the Theory of Mind mechanism and/or mirror system is in a neurotypical brain for the formation and enrichment of social relationships, especially with regards to the ability for second-personal knowledge and relationships.

(3) Second-personal knowledge of God and second-personal relationships with God are the kind of knowledge and relationship of God gained only by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

(4) As such, we can conclude that the Theory of Mind mechanism and/or mirror neuron system undergirds the second-personal relationship between God and humanity that the Christian tradition terms indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

(5) The implication of this thinking is that a neurotypical brain is a necessary condition for the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

A couple of comments on this logic. Stump is so committed to (4), that even God the Father cannot experience empathy or mind-reading apart from the incarnation of the Son, whereby a neurotypical brain is incorporated into the divine life (Stump 2013, 42-44). The bizarre implication of this is that if Jesus had been autistic, it seems, then God would not have been able to form second-personal relationships or have second-personal knowledge of any human beings!

More importantly for this article, steps 1 and 2 are entirely circular. Neurotypical psychologists think that persons with autism cannot engage in second-personal relationships because they fail false-beliefs tests and seem to have an impaired or delayed Theory of Mind mechanism. We think that they have an impaired or delayed Theory of Mind mechanism because it appears to neurotypical people that persons with autism cannot form second-personal relationships. Not only is this logic circular but, as seen in section 2.2, it is increasingly underdetermined by empirical studies and the testimony of persons with autism who have rich and varied friendships, marriages, and parent-child relationships. Furthermore, it appears that neurotypical persons have as much trouble “mind reading” people with autism as vice versa.

Option 2: The Either/Or Model   

This leads us to a second possibility; namely that the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is characterised by second-personal knowledge, ordinarily manifested through a Theory of Mind mechanism and/or mirror neuron network, but persons with autism find other neurological pathways to facilitate second-personal relationships and knowledge. As such, second-personal relationships are not so tightly bound to neurotypical neurology. There may exist two neural pathways for “mind reading” and second-personal relationships, one that we identify as neurotypical and the other as neurodivergent. The difficulty only emerges when a neurotypical and a neurodivergent are trying to “mind read” each other, because there is a mismatch between the two systems.

This leads us to a different-but-equal means by which persons with autism might enjoy the benefits of second-personal social interaction and knowledge. However, we are not out of the woods of exclusion yet. If Stump is right in stating that God the Father cannot experience second-personal knowledge or empathy apart from the incarnation of the Son which makes the Theory of Mind mechanism/mirror neuron network available to the divine mind, and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is the extension of Jesus’ mind-reading across all time and space, then much depends on the particular neurology of Jesus. If Jesus has a neurotypical mind, then the indwelling of the Holy Spirit – on this model – seems to only be extended to those with a similarly neurotypical brain (or whoever is accessing second-personal knowledge through this mechanism). If Jesus has a neurodivergent neurology, then the Holy Spirit is extending access to Jesus mind only to those who are enjoying second-personal relationships in this alternative way. On this model, either the Holy Spirit is able to indwell neurotypical people, or persons with autism, but not both.

Model 3: The Mysterious Model

Both the models above can be ruled out on the basis that both autistic and neurotypical Christians report rich spiritual lives in second-personal relationships with God. The assumption in both of the models above is that a second-personal relationship with God relies upon neurology in the same way as second-personal relationship between humans. On Stump’s model, there is a quantitative difference in the nature of this relationship – in that Jesus’s divinity enables him to “mind-read at once the entire minds of all human beings at every time and space” (Stump 2013, 44-45). The divine power in Jesus grants “extended powers” to human nature’s capacity for mind reading.

The fundamental question of this puzzle is then, how far is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit similar to other intimate relationships that human beings enjoy? In order to avoid the problems of exclusion in the models above, it is tempting to fall back on the utter incomparability of God and creation, the radical transcendence of God that is not only other to creation but also not-other because God cannot even be compared or contrasted to creatures. We have good theological reasons to do this, such as the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, the incorporeality of God, and the ascension of Jesus removing the assumed body of God from earth. To push this line of reasoning further would be to argue that the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is, in fact, a mystery to which neither knowledge of human neurology nor social psychology can provide any illumination whatsoever. If this is the case then a neurotypical brain is not a necessary requirement for the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, indeed no brain at all, nor anything else in creation, can be cited as a necessary requirement.

Model 4: The Asymmetrical Model

I want to argue that whilst we have good theological reason to think that God does not relate to us in the same way as other creatures, as the mystery account suggest, we do relate to God in a sufficiently similar fashion as to other creatures. That is, as embodied and finite creatures we relate to God through our bodies and cognitive mechanisms in a sufficiently similar fashion as to other human persons that psychology and cognitive science can provide insights relevant to theology in these matters. Whilst our relationship to God is not, in fact, like our relationship to other creatures, the difference lies entirely on the side of God and not humanity. The relationship between God and humans is, in this sense, asymmetrical.

If the relationship between God and humanity, particularly the one referred to in Christian theology as the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, is asymmetrical then we are able to say that a neurotypical brain is not a necessary requirement for relationship with God in every case, but that it may be employed in some cases. Similarly, a neurodivergent brain is also not necessary, neither an advantage nor disadvantage to the Spirit’s indwelling, but may be employed in some cases, and differences in religious experience and perception may result. The Holy Spirit can accommodate to whatever neurological or other physiological conditions mark a particular human life.

What this examination of autism and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and the asymmetrical model which we have arrived at, result in is a re-examination of the traditional doctrine of divine accommodation. That is, the accommodation of God’s self-revelation that is realised by the Spirit, sent to dwell within the limits of human understanding is not one-size-fits-all, and so does not demand neurological similarity to the person of Jesus who is the paradigmatic instance of divine accommodation. This is a loosening of the connection Stump makes between the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and the incarnation in her account of indwelling as an expansion of Jesus’ mind-reading to all of humanity across time and space.[2] Instead, the condescension of God of the Spirit into the mind and life of believers is person-specific.

  1. Conclusion

Autism research is a complicated and continuously changing area of psychology, with thousands of new studies published each year seeking experimental support for a range of different theories and approaches at various levels of explanation. I do not mean it as too harsh a criticism, therefore, when I say that the mirror-neuron hypothesis and intersubjectivity developmental deficit approach that grounds much of Stump’s work is increasingly out of date. It is largely for this reason, in addition to the more obviously acceptable ethical outcome of excluding persons with autism from full membership within the Kingdom of God, that Model 1 must be rejected.

If we keep the theological and philosophical logic of Stump’s account unchanged, and only update the psychological literature, then it seems that we are left with something like Model 2. On this “either/or” model there are two mutually exclusive options for how the Holy Spirit might indwell human beings, where the neurology of Jesus determines which means of indwelling is successful. This also results in the same unsatisfactory consequence where something a small as neurological mechanisms for a few highly specialised forms of social interaction is able to separate us from the love of God.

The third model most radically questions the whole theological assumption at work here and moves in the direction of mysterianism. This too seems unacceptable as it denies the relevance of human embodiment for how we perceive, believe in, and relate to God. This leaves us with Model 4: The Asymmetrical Model, which holds that due to the transcendence of God no neurological capacities, impairments, delays, or differences can prevent the Holy Spirit from indwelling a Christian believer. However, the means by which that believer experiences God’s presence, knows God as a person, and relates to God will be conditioned or influenced by their neurology. In closing, I suggested that this final option will require theologians to think more carefully about how to articulate the doctrine of divine accommodation such that, despite the particular form of embodiment that God assumed in the incarnation, different forms of embodiment are not implicit excluded from the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and full participation in the Body of Christ.


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[1] Elenore Stump helpfully points to Thomas Aquinas’ discussion of the effects of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in SCG IV.21-22. Here, Thomas affirms [905] “wherever there is any effect wrought by God, there is God Himself who works it.” Thomas goes on to state that it is by the Holy Spirit indwelling that we are made friends of God, adopted sons of God, receive God’s forgiveness, experience the effects of the joy of salvation, the consolation and peace of God, and freed from the power of sin. (Rickaby 2005, 608-612).

[2] Ray Yeo, similarly, suggests that it is the human mind of Christ, not the Spirit directly, that indwells believers, or in Stump’s language is mirrored in believers’ minds by the mediation of the Spirit (Yeo 2014). For an excellent critique of this paper, see (Kroll 2019).