Thursday, June 28, 2018

On the Soul: A Dialogue with a Philosopher on Addison’s Walk in Oxford

But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.
The Apostle Paul, Philippians 3:20-21
I’m currently in a conversation, perhaps even a debate, with a top notch philosopher about the nature of the soul and particularly some comments about “substance dualism” and the soul in Mere Science and Christian Faith

Since I like the idea of having this conversation along Magdalen College’s Addison’s walk where C.S. Lewis used to stroll and where I just paid a visit (thus the picture), I’ve decided to set the conversation there. (This dialogue is abstracted from an email exchange, but I hope, represents the spirit of the conversation.) And by the way, forgive me for taking the majority of the verbiage—I’m simply trying to clarify my ideas in light of some excellent and spirited challenges.  

A philosopher: As we walk along this beautiful path that has been trod by thinkers like Lewis and Tolkien, I have to let you know that I think you’re vague about the nature of the soul. If you mean what the Bible teaches about the soul, then we will have to respectfully disagree. Not because I believe the Bible teaches that there is a substantial soul, but because I believe it doesn't teach anything about the existence or nonexistence of the soul. The Bible isn't a philosophical text, and so, it seems to me, it simply assumes common sense, that is, what ordinary people believe.

Magdalen College, Oxford from High Street
Greg: I know that you’re really convinced of this point because you’ve repeated it on various occasions. I'm surprised that you don't think the Bible teaches anything about the nature of the human person and thus the reality of the soul or not. As just one resource, I'd highly recommend Hans Walter Wolff's Anthropology of the Old Testament (he has an entry on "soul" on pages 17-18), but he demonstrates (broadly speaking) that the human person is a unity that can't easily be divided into substantial parts, whether we call those "throat," "neck," "desire," "soul," "life," or "person." The New Testament similarly describes human beings with one  word "body," as Rudolf Bultmann unfolds expertly in his Theology of the New Testament. (And it's not difficult to find other scholars who agree.) Our soul then is one aspect of the entirety of the human person and not separable. (I will bracket for a moment the intermediate state while we await our bodies.) This conviction of the unity of the human person--and an unwillingness to define us as "souls" and material "bodies"--is clearly in several passages from Paul such as Philippians 3:21: Christ "will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself." To put a fine point on it, I don't see any separation implied there where our "soul" neatly leaves our body. And what I'm saying implies the broader point that the Old and New Testaments certainly teach about the human person even if they are not philosophical texts in the sense that we describe those today. Teaching about any particular subject can be done directly or indirectly, narratively or expositionally, or in a variety of means. It would be a sad day for humanity if all our teaching had to come through rational philosophical expositions. Jesus and his parables would certainly be in trouble!

A philosopher: Greg, I want to return to what you wrote, 

“Floating around many Christian circles are the dualistic versions of the soul—that there is an entirely separable substance within our bodies—something like air inside a tire, or more philosophically what Gilbert Ryle called the 'ghost in the machine.' This owes much more to Plato than the Hebrew Bible, which begins by describing that God created the first man to be found its pages, adam, from the dust, adamah, by breathing in his breath (Genesis 2:7). We like Adam and Eve are a psychosomatic unity of body and spirit. In this case, engaging cognitive science can help us correct our doctrine of the soul by reminding ourselves of the Scripture, which sees human beings as body/soul, a psychosomatic unity.”(Mere Science and Christian Faith)
      I do think you’re correct on this point: most Christians are right: the soul is a substance that is separate and separable from its physical body.

GSC: Wow! You philosophers have amazing memories! 
If by "substance dualism," we mean that there are two separable and reasonably independent substances, and that the soul is the “real me,” then I must demur. That is, however, what most Christians believe in my experience and so to that degree you're correct. But it's not good Christian teaching. And here we arrive at that critical difference between the immortality of the soul (via platonic thought and the Hellenism that took over Judaism after Alexander’s conquests in the 4thcentury BC) and the resurrection of the body (which is older and gradually formed and which the Pharisees stoutly held to). This is where Jesus and the Pharisees (with whom he agreed on most theological points) substantially agreed and confessed the resurrection of the body. What survives death? It appears, from the biblical texts, that it’s a bit mysterious because it’s of the new creation, but it’s certainly not to be a disembodied spirit. Instead it’s an embodied unity of our selves, which is fit for the new heavens and the new earth. We know for example, that Jesus ate after the resurrection, which spirits cannot do. And Paul, like Jesus, was dead set (as it were) on the resurrection of the body. 

The New Buildings at Magdalen College
A philosopher: Hey, there’re the “New Buildings” at Magdalen where C. S. Lewis’s office was, near staircase three. 

GSC: Those buildings look fairly old for "new" buildings.

A philosopher: Actually, those buildings date to the 1730s and a “new” in relation to the older ones that are on High Street, which are centuries older.
      Back to a more philosophical note, the claim (which you seemingly accept) that the belief in substance dualism has its roots in Plato is a canard. Jesse Bering, Nicholas Humphrey, Paul Bloom, Alfred Gell, etc. all know that human beings are natural-born substance dualists.

GSC: This assertion is the easiest to disprove, despite the merits and acumen of Bering, Humphrey, Bloom, and Gell. For one thing, the concept of what “we all know”—i.e., “common sense”—needs to be scrutinized. There are at least three separate historical versions of non-dualistic and/or materialist of the soul. Of course, Lucretius (with whom I’m sure you’re familiar) brought a stunning non-materialist. In the 6thcentury and in a different part of the word (i.e., Arabia), Muhammad was laughed at because he proclaimed resurrection from the dead and the Arab world of his time (a religious world at that) had no sense that anything lasted past the body. And I’m going to assume your comment about Buddhist belief in a disembodied spirit was a slip because Siddartha Gautama certainly didn’t teach it (he felt it was an unimportant doctrine), and the Buddhist concept of anattais often translated “no soul.” What goes from one life to the next is like a flame being passed from one candle to the next, it is not a thing or a substance. (As I might have mentioned, I teach religious studies at Chico State, and so I’ve had to reorient myself with these teachings in the past few years.) 
      Let us continue walking as we ponder these things…

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Souls Old and New

My brother (a philosophical sort, to be sure) came to me many years ago in a bit of consternation and announced, 
“I’m not sure I believe human beings have a soul. But, if I don’t have an enduring soul, in what sense am I the same person in the past, as I am today and will in the future?”
This is what I grew up with.

At the time, I have to admit that, I didn’t have a readymade answer. (To be honest, I was somewhere in my teens probably trying to figure out other weighty questions like who my prom date would be.) Nonetheless, the subject of soul endures through time, and is the topic of this week’s post. Why? 

First of all, I’ve been in Oxford, England the past few days talking with two philosophers and a pastor (this sounds like the lead up to a joke) about various philosophical topics. (The central theme has been the meaning of life, but I’ll leave that for another time.) In our time together, I’ve realized again how important the soul is. 

First of all—and this brings me into my usual realm for this blog, that of science and religion—it seems to me that the current trend of many scientific worldviews is toward a materialist conception of human life in which our selves are a constantly changing, thus non-enduring, collection of molecules. (As a scholar of religion, I’d have to add that this sounds a great deal like the Buddhist teaching of anatta,or “no soul.”) And this materialist version of science takes us away from an enduring, persisting soul. Another way to put this is that our souls are really simply our minds and our mind is, to quote Marvin Minsky, 
“The mind is what the brain does.” Marvin Minsky
Secondly, what is it?
If we were to rely on Webster’s dictionary for the its definition, the soulis this: “the immaterial essence, animating principle, or actuating cause of an individual life.” Webster’s dictionary
Fair enough, maybe not sufficiently theologically nuanced, but the definition will work as long we don’t fall into the “substance dualism”—that body and soul are two distinct entities and that the soul fills the body in some way similar to air filling a bike tire. The biblical texts teach us that we are much more interconnected in a body-soul unity. 

Christians, it seems to me, are convinced that there’s something more than just the material body, something that God has given us. If we’re created by the God who loves us then we need to have some way to relate to our Creator, and the soul provides us a way to do just that. It is also who we are. We talk about the soul as “the embodiment of some quality.” “She is the soul of this institution.” That’s the sense I’m talking about.

So how am I the same person as in 1978 (see the picture) as I am today? In some ways, I hope not. But at the same time, I’m thankful that the core of whom I am endures, repents and thus changes. And through it all, there’s a God who loves me.

P.S. If you want to go a bit further with the question of "What is the soul?" try this lecture from psychiatrist Iain McGilchrest.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Sage Advice

Here’s a piece of sage advice:
“The easiest thing to create is a pile of garbage. Just throw a piece of paper in the corner of a room, and watch what happens in just a few minutes.”
Think about it—when some expresses an attitude that brings down an organization or a community, it doesn’t take long for others to follow. When you, as one particular example, create garbage discussions of faith and science, almost anyone can come along
and thrown in a piece of garbage advice.

Incidentally, I like this proverb better than the better known, “one bad apple spoils the whole bunch” (despite of course the Jackson Five’s contributions), which is essentially a more passive image. A garbage pile elicits active, if at times unconscious, contributions, but it demonstrates that we indeed play a part with our actions.

And that’s the problem with any number of societal ills and our discussion of them. Today, it often involves assuming a victim’s role in. And I’m tired of that. Because frankly, there are some true victims in the United States (which I know, to some degree, because my wife Laura directs our local ministry for the homeless in Chico). The true victims rarely get the mic, as it were. So if you hear victimization loud and clear, be forewarned.

Take our consistent cavils by our President about the “mainstream media” as if his cozy relationship with Fox and Friendsisn’t an alliance with a wildly popular news program. How can we, except by a certain perverse logic, describe this top-rated TV show as anything but mainstream? And then of course, the media outlets that dislike President Trump return the favor by ready themselves to spin everything to the negative and pronouncing a daily dose of everything dire.

Ah, it’s tiring…

That’s also the problem with the "conflict thesis" as the most accurate relationship of science and religion (first promoted by Andrew Dickson White and William Draper in the 19th century, and that still lives on today in Jerry Coyne and Richard Dawkins). When we start throwing garbage out there, it attracts other pieces of similarly useless opinion to be thrown in the garbage corner. 

That’s why I found this radio interview last week about my book, Mere Science and Christian Faith to be some needed oxygen. Al Kresta is a Catholic thinker who grasps the topic of science and faith with sensitivity and insight, which meant of course that he knows how to ask questions that push the conversation forward. Instead of into the garbage pile. If you want to here it, start at about 22:40 here.

Can we make a pact? Let’s be part of the solution and not part of the problem. Let’s not create garbage.

(And, by the way, it was my father—a true sound lay philosopher—who gave me this advice, and though he’s gone, who’s insights I still treasure.)

Thursday, June 07, 2018

“Let Others Wrangle, I Will Wonder,” A Travelogue

Since the last post, I’ve participated in some truly invigorating conversations about faith and science, especially as they transpire in Christian congregations. These discussions raised various thoughts in my brain—conclusions, questions, and a few big insights.
Last week, I and my colleague on the STEAM project, Drew Rick-Miller, invited ten Christian thought leaders to Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena last week. Our task was to evaluate the 2011-14 Scientists in Congregations project, which paired a scientist and a pastor in 37 congregation in the U.S., Canada, and even Paris, France for purpose of integrating bring faith and science in the form of classes, conferences, sermons, small group discussions, and whatever other creative and productive formats they created. 
Among I heard many insights worthy of recording (though I won’t do that here), the resounding answer was that it—this integration—has to feel like it’s vital. I really mean vital, as in its root, the Latin vitalis “of or belonging to life.” Does this make a difference to my life, especially my life with Christ?

Sure, the ten core thought leaders we invited didn’t need to be convinced, but as a result one wondered if we were simply hearing ourselves in an echo chamber. If we let the echoes fade away, a lingering question speaks in the silence, Why would anybody else find this interesting?I used to denigrate this approach, but in order for this conversation to take place, it has to attach to some conviction, some interest, some need that’s deeply felt. 

More recently—in fact, Tuesday—the leading sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund curated a conversation at Rice University Religion and Public Life Project and brought together various thought leaders (including several pastors) to discuss her recent research and book on the topic of “what Christians think about science.” But it was much more. In the discussion, we considered why indeed this might be a topic of consideration for the church, which it isn’t entirely self-evident.

Again, there were so many notable insights, but I will only note my favorite quote from the day together:
 “Let others wrangle, I will wonder” (Augustine). 
I love that. Because there is a great deal of fairly loud static, whether it’s the shrill cries of Richard Dawkins “Belief in God is a delusion,” or the equally disturbing declaration of Ray Comfort that greeted me as I thumbed through pages a Santa Ana Airport store on my way to Houston and thus Rice University: “If evolution is true, then the Bible is false.” Just to emphasize the obvious--this was inside a public place not within the walls of a fundamentalist church. (See the pics.) 

At the heart of the church’s enterprise is to help us wonder at the mystery of God and at the beauty of creation. Let's not lose that in the midst of din of media voices.

Augustine of Hippo
And it was this great intellectual voice from antiquity, Augustine from the African city of Hippo, that carried our conversation toward something that we in fact needed: to move past the “conflict thesis”—the idea, promoted by Cornell founder Andrew Dickson White in the late nineteenth century, that religion and science have been, and will always be, in conflict. This was Fox News vs. CNN before television existed (which, by the way, I watched on the plane home). 

Certainly, some feel the conflict—and it needs to be addressed—but that’s not going to sustain the inherent question of wonder that drives science and interests those who don’t practice science.

“Let others wrangle, I will wonder.” 

That’s something worth remembering.