122 Body & Soul

BODY & SOUL

           In Body & Soul:  Human Nature & the Crisis in Ethics (Downer’s Grove:  InterVarsity Press, c. 2000), J.P. Moreland and Scott B. Rae, two professors at the Talbot School of Theology, set forth a persuasive defense of a very traditional Christian anthropology, evident in Boethius’ classic definition of a “person” as “an individual substance with a rational nature.”  This provides one a deeply metaphysical identity–one is who he is, a particular being of enduring worth. 

          Immersed in a scientifically-shaped culture, forever reducing “reality” to materiality, human nature has suffered serious debasement, becoming a product of purely natural processes.  Even “Evangelicals” like Karl Giberson blithely embrace science as “the most epistemologically secure perspective that we have,” though it leads, inexorably, to the reduction of human nature to empirically-evident biological data, a composite collection of biochemical parts, a “property-thing” (to use the currently popular philosophical designation) rather than an “individual substance.”  A number of Christian “complementarians” envision “higher-level” properties that distinguish man as man, but deny him any discrete, purely spiritual essence.  Thus we find numbers of such thinkers arguing that when we die we simply die–dust to dust.  In the final resurrection, hopefully, God will raise us as “resurrected bodies.”  But there is no “soul” per se that eludes the grave. 

          But Moreland and Rae insist on a discrete, really real soul that gives the body its form.  What’s needed is a restored awareness of spiritual “substance,” a confidence that in our deepest self we are more than matter.  In The Divine Conspiracy, USC’s Dallas Willard says, “To understand spirit as ‘substance’ is of the utmost importance,” because, rightly understood, for both God and man, “spirit is something that exists in its own right” (p. 8).  The word substance fuses sub (which means under) with stance (which means stand); so substance means what stands under what appears to be–what really is.  Aristotle discerned this clearly, writing:  “That which is a whole and has a certain shape and form is one in a still higher degree; and especially if a thing is of this sort by nature, and not by force like the things which are unified by glue or nails or by being tied together, i.e., if it has in itself the cause of its continuity” (Metaphysics 1052a.22-25). 

          So Moreland and Rae argue we are both body and soul.  They reach back to the 13th century and refurbish a “Thomistic dualism.”   Importantly, unlike rationalistic philosophers following Descartes, “Thomistic dualism focuses on the soul, not the mind.  The mind is a faculty of the soul, but the latter goes beyond mental functioning and serves as the integrative ground and developer of the body it animates and makes alive” (p. 21).  Like the artist moving his brush, the soul arranges the genes, drives the DNA, shapes the molecules, forms the frame.  Thomistic dualism holds that the “soul contains capacities for biological as well as mental functioning.  Thus the soul is related to the body more intimately and fully than by way of an external causal connection, as Cartesians would have it” (p. 21). 

          A critical component of this position concerns the freedom of the will.  Cornell University’s William Provine, a naturalistic, atheist biologist, understands the implications of his stance, stating:   “Free will as it is traditionally conceived . . . simply does not exist. . . .  There is no way that the evolutionary process as it is currently conceived can produce a being that is truly free to make choices” (p. 105).  Only if one is a rational person, free to choose non-empirical goods, independent of material processes, can he transcend the flux of nature.  As John Finnis wisely says, “Everything in ethics depends on the distinction between the good as experienced and the good as intelligible” (Fundamentals of Ethics, 42).  Only free moral agents, of course, choose to do good or evil.  So, as the subtitle indicates, Moreland and Rae deal extensively with ethics.

          If a person is a discrete, ontological substance, there are simply cannot be “degrees” of personhood.  Age and physical condition do not add to or detract from one’s status as a person.  “For the Thomist it is impossible for there to be a human nonperson” (p. 225).  Facing today’s complex biomedical questions, when unborn babies are discarded as “fetuses” (i.e. not-quite-human), and elderly folks are “euthanized” (having forfeited their “personhood”), the Thomist insistence that we are essentially (not developmentally) human truly makes a difference.  Moreland and Rae say:  “Our view is that zygotes, embryos, fetuses, newborns, children and adults are all persons, though each is at a different stage of development and maturity.  A clear continuity of personal identity is bound up with the human person’s being a substance in the Thomistic sense” (p. 270).

            “Body & Soul is a quality piece of philosophical work,” says Stephen Evans.  It is carefully argued, attuned to contemporary scholarship, and adroit in applying the insights St Thomas Aquinas to today’s questions.  Though a bit technical at points, the book is generally accessible to folks outside the academy who understand the importance of its focus.

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