Note to My Readers: from mid-June to mid-August (6/18 - 8/20), I will be taking a summer break from posting new articles for my Thursday and Friday slots. This will only affect my Thursday series on the global growth of Christianity, and my Friday series, the "Theological Bestiary" of birds, both of which will resume in late August. During the summer, I'll be dusting off some of my best essays from the first few years of this blog (a decade ago), as well as my verse play "Thus Ends the World," and re-posting them in the Thursday and Friday slots. All other weekdays will continue to feature new material throughout the summer.

Saturday, June 06, 2015

95 Theses, #15-16: On Human Nature

(To see the introduction and disclaimers for my 95 Theses, first go to: 95-Theses-Introduction)

These two theses are highly speculative, but rooted nonetheless in the work of serious theologians in the evangelical tradition (though probably still representing minority positions within that tradition). They represent positions that I would not teach as doctrine in my local church, since the traditional Christian position on these questions remains a valid possibility; nevertheless, I think these ideas are worth considering by pastors and theologians. Recent evangelical theology is showing more openness to considerations of human beings as developmental creatures, and that particular view is adopted here. These theses also seeks to bring some of the best work of current neuroscience and the philosophy of consciousness to bear on the theological question of human nature. But, since both of those academic disciplines are still a long ways from a full understanding of their fields, these hypotheses must necessarily be held lightly. (If any readers are interested in my source material and inspirations, leave me a comment and I can point you to some representative works of these theologians and philosophers.)

 (Picture: "Vitruvian Man," by Leonardo da Vinci, c.1492, ink on paper; image is in the public domain.)

15.) Human Consciousness - The long road of God’s creative partnering with his creation ultimately led to one of the great goals of that creation—the development of material beings who were able to understand themselves as persons in the fullest sense, capable of self-determining moral choices in a way that other animals were not. This new mental life is perhaps best illustrated by our ability for high-level abstract thought (though some animals have shown the rudiments of an understanding of such abstract-related fields as logical processes and geometry). A jump of this proportion could possibly still be the result of natural development accompanied, as always, by the immanent, sustaining, creative power of God, or it could represent a new, special act of creation, in which God granted to humans a participation in “mind” of a different order (the latter certainly seems to be more akin to what the Genesis narratives have in mind).

16.) The Human Soul - This attribute of “mind” enables us to learn and grow in virtue, moving ultimately towards the highest goal of our progress: conformity and union to the very nature of God himself. As conscious, moral, rational beings, we are now capable of relationship with God as persons. It is this personal relationship with God that the Bible seems to hint is the essence of being “spiritually alive.” This deep connection with God gives us something rather different from what the rest of the animal kingdom has—something often termed “soul,” or “spirit.” But once again, these are not to be understood as a “substance” which is part of the same stuff God is made of, since God is not made of “stuff” at all; rather, “soul” can be defined as the personal information-pattern of “mind” that makes each one of us ourselves. One modern analogy in which to conceptualize this is to think of the human essence, the human mind/soul/spirit, as a software program, composed simply of bits of information. This information, in the case of humans, is necessarily supported on a hardware platform—our material bodies—but is also capable of being transposed onto a new hardware platform—our “resurrection bodies.” This idea of soul-as-information is perhaps a bit too reductive, but it is a helpful way to conceptualize a reality that is perhaps beyond our human capacity to express at this point. Another helpful analogy would be that of a fictional character, who exists in the mind of the author, but can be instantiated in the material context of stories; indeed, in as many stories as the author is pleased to place him.

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