Here are your choices: *
1. We are made of one "part"
a. a physical body only. (materialism)
b. spirited bodies, incarnated souls, (physicalism)
2. We are made of two "parts" (dualism)
a. a body and a soul
b. a body and a mind
3. We are made up of three parts, body, soul, and spirit. (trichotomism)
4. We are made up of one "part" which is spiritual or mental (idealism).
So, what did you pick? Was it hard to decide? Is this a topic you have given much thought to?
Nancey Murphy in her book, Bodies and Souls, or Spirited Bodies, suggests that most people haven't thought very seriously about this. That's a shame, because as she points out, our view of what a person "is" affects our opinions about many modern concerns. Abortion, end of life, stem cell research- just to name a few.
Historically the mainstream Christian position has been dualism. Murphy contends that much of our Christian thinking about this has been more heavily influenced by Greek and Roman philosophy and less influenced by scripture. The Old Testament, for the most part, assumes a robust physicalism. This is not the "nothing but" materialism of modern reductionism which claims humans are nothing but our physical bodies and so genetics, endocrinology and the rest of science can account for all that we are. In the Hebrew Bible, people were understood to be unities of body, mind, and soul. We cannot be separated into component parts. Sometimes this idea is expressed by the phrase "incarnated souls" or "spirited bodies". The New Testament writers reflect the variety of first century opinions about what constitutes a human being but are more concerned about relationship.
So the Greek philosophers we have surveyed were interested in the question:what are the essential parts that make up a human being? In contrast, for the biblical authors each "part" ("part" in scare quotes" stands for the whole person thought of from a certain angle. For example, "spirit" stands for the whole person in relation to God. What the New Testament authors are concerned with, then, is human beings in relationship to the natural world, to the community and to God. Paul's distinction between spirit and flesh is not our later distinction between soul and body. Paul is concerned with two ways of living: one in conformity with the Spirit of God, and the other in conformity to the old aeon before Christ. (21-22)
So Murphy argues that there is no clear definitive Biblical teaching about what a human being is. Therefore, she believes Christians in our time are free to, and should, rethink our beliefs about what a human being is and that we should use the findings of modern science as well as scripture to help us do this.
Murphy acknowledges that there will have to be "adjustments" made to certain Christian beliefs but she contends that on the whole, they will be helpful. For example, physicalism could help Christians embrace a strong belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus. And, it could help encourage an appreciation for the physical world- our bodies included- that would discourage an "other worldliness" that sometimes keeps us from acting in this world.
I have to confess, I haven't finished her book yet. I'm reading it as part of a science and religion book discussion group and I haven't read ahead. It will be interesting to think more about this as she makes her case for physicalism.
But I am wondering about the implications of physicalism for the science and religion dialogue.
If more Christians adopted a physicalist view, would that remove some of the stumbling blocks in the science and religion dialogue? Removing dialogue stumbling blocks is not an adequate reason to adopt the physicalist position. But what if after serious study and prayer and discussion, physicalism became a more commonly held belief? Would we stop debating about souls and start focusing on entire people?
Certainly this view of humanity, physicalism is a more complex accounting of humans than the "nothing but-ism" of some materialists. There still might be too big a difference to overcome. How ever, not all scientists are materialists, and some are very willing to engage a more complex view of human kind.
What do you think? Is physicalism a view that Christians could faithfully adopt? Would a physicalist anthropology help resolve some of the science and religion tensions?
Adapted from Nancey Murphy's book Bodies and Souls, or Spirited Bodies?, Current Issues in Theology, Iain Torrance, editor. Cambridge University Press: 2006.