On Tuesday I began a series on Joel B. Green’s book Body, Soul, and Human Life: The Nature of Humanity in the Bible. Over the course of the next few months, once or twice a week, I will work through the questions raised by Green on the nature of humanity in the context of scripture, theology, and modern neuroscience.
The view that humans are composed of a physical material body and a separate immaterial soul is the default position for most Christians. This dualist view is increasingly difficult to reconcile with improved understanding of biology, biochemistry, and neuroscience. I’ve posted on some of this before. The posts can be found through the Science and Faith Archive on the sidebar – scroll down to the heading Science, Faith, and Being Human. Dr. Green gives definitions for some of the important concepts and terms at play in the discussion of the nature of humanity. The two extreme positions are:
Reductive Materialism has it that the human person is a physical (or material) organism, whose emotional, moral, and religious experiences will ultimately and decisively be explained by the natural sciences. People are nothing bu the product of organic chemistry. (p. 30)
Radical Dualism advocates the view that the soul (or mind) is separable from the body, having no necessary relation to the body, with the human person identified with the soul. … in this view the soul acts apart from bodily processes and the body is nothing more than a temporary and disposable holding tank (or shell) for the soul. (p. 31)
I’ll give some intermediate options after the jump.
Where would you put your position on the continuum between these two poles? Closer to reductive materialism or radical dualism?
There are a number of positions between the extremes of reductive materialism and radical dualism.
Wholistic dualism … a form of substance dualism, but posits that the human person, though composed of discrete elements, is nonetheless to be identified with the whole which, then, constitutes a functional unity. (p. 31)
Various forms of monism are also defended from a Christian perspective.
…the monists with whom I am concerned argue that the phenomenological experiences that we label “soul” are neither reducible to brain activity nor evidence of a substantial, ontological entity such as a “soul,” but rather represent essential aspects or capacities of the self. (p. 31)
These four terms form a basis for the discussion that will come in future posts. There is another important aspect of human existence that we should consider before moving on though.
Individual vs Community. The witness of the bible in both the old and new testaments is to an embodied existence of humans, humans always considered as in relationship to God, and humans who are always considered in the context of human community. The cultural blinders like those that impact interpretation of body and soul in scripture also impact interpretation of the communal nature of personhood.
Given the strength of Cartesian categories and the experience of many since the Enlightenment, it is perhaps not surprising to see the degree to which humanity has come to be understood “one person at a time,” so to speak. This is not biblical faith however. Although biblical faith would naturally resist any suggestion that our humanity can be reduced to our physicality, it also challenges those, past and present, who insist that the human person can ever be understood on individual terms.
Thus a consideration of the nature of humanity in the bible in the context of modern neuroscience must deal with both the embodied nature of humans and the relational nature of humans. This impacts the understanding of eschatology, salvation, and mission. As a people we are much more than a collection of individuals.
Dr. Green considers poses several questions that highlight the relational nature of humanity and this impact this may have on our understanding of the biblical view of humanity. These questions can help shape the discussion today.
How should we understand salvation? Does salvation entail a focus on the inner state of individual human souls?
To what extent should the mission of the church focus on the soulish needs of persons, on society-at-large, or on the cosmos?
If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net