Some more problems (Processing, please wait 4)

In the first post in this series, I talked about how classical philosophical ideas didn’t cope well with modern science, and suggested that the same might hold with theology. In the second, I talked a bit about Process Theology and why I’d avoided it to date. In the third, I outlined some concepts in classical theology and three problems which that gives rise to.

The fourth problem rests in the mind (or spirit) versus body dualism of Greek thought. The thinking of the Hebrew Scriptures was not, by and large, influenced by this concept; Jewish thought did not see the spirit as being something which temporarily inhabited a material body, but saw people as material beings which were made alive by the divine spark, the breath of God, but only vivified by that, not “inhabited by” a separate spirit. Greek thought, and that of some of the very late Hebrew Scriptures, the Intertestamentals and the New Testament, did see the essence of the person as being something separable from the body. Isa. 26:19, Dan 12:2 and Hos. 6:2 are examples of this Jewish thinking.

[As an aside, I am reasonably convinced that the insistence in certain of the resurrection accounts that the resurrected Christ was tangible was a concession to this Jewish belief that a person was inherently material, and that there could be no resurrection without a body. Paul’s early account of resurrection appearances, which is the earliest, is fairly clear that he is not talking about a revivification of a dead body, but of an appearance, possibly but not definitely cloaked in a tangible form; I suspect that this was not acceptable to non-Hellenised Jews and there was therefore a need for something more like the conventional view of resurrection. It may be, however, that the expectations of certain of the disciples that there could not be an appearance of the resurrected Christ without his original body gave rise to the subjective experience of real substance. ]

This combines with an individualism which was not the dominant theme of the Hebrew Scriptures; these dominantly regard salvation as relating to a people rather than to individuals, and individual behaviour as being important to preserve ones place within an already to-be-saved people of Israel. This is a concept labelled by scholars in the “New Perspective on Paul” as “covenantal nomism” (these scholars include E.P. Sanders, James Dunn and N.T. Wright).

Of course, in terms of modern science, the concept of a separable spirit or soul is now generally regarded as untenable; although mind (or spirit) is given importance as a concept, it is as  an epiphenomenon of  consciousness, which is itself an epiphenomenon of life. That is to say that mind, spirit or soul arise from the fact that we have brains capable of conscious thought, and brains capable of conscious thought arise from the fact that we are fairly complex living beings. Granted, science fiction has frequently played with the concept of conscious thought in machines or other forms which would not be regarded as “living” by most, but to date in order for there to be conscious thought, it has been found to be necessary for there to be a brain. Similarly, it is extremely probable (by extension) that in order for there to be a mind, spirit or soul, there must be conscious thought. Mind (or spirit, or soul) is not separable from the material body.

In other words, I am suggesting here that in this respect first century Jewish thinking was more conducive to modern scientific and philosophical ideas than was first century Greek thinking, resting on the Greek philosophical tradition which continued in the West unchallenged until at least the early stages of the Enlightenment.

This is, of course, not to say that there cannot be some survival of mind or spirit; using the analogy of computer software and hardware, a computer program and its associated stored memory can be separated from the hardware on which it runs (and can run on other hardware), but it is not functional in the absence of the hardware. In much the same way, it seems extremely probable that mind or spirit cannot function in the absence of a material matrix, but could conceivably continue in a form of existence given some storage medium, and similarly could be “resurrected” into a new matrix.

This mind-body dualism links with two other potential problems, the first of which is that the unseen, immaterial, “spiritual” is seen as “higher” and more perfect than the material, and so what really matters is not the whole person or the material body but only the spirit, and secondly that the spiritual (and God) is seen as being of infinite duration, so the infinity of time to come after death matters far more than does our current life. The result is a focus on survival after death to the exclusion of living today. Of course, if my analogy of the computer program has any validity, an infinity of storage on a floppy disk is probably not preferable to actual functioning…

This leads me neatly to the fifth problem, which is that as the immaterial, mental and spiritual is seen as higher, better and more perfect than the material, it is also seen as more fundamental, more real. In other words, the immaterial creates the material, usually in a rather poor imitation of the immaterial ideal. Plato’s “cave” image is one way of putting this: the world as we see it is a series of distorted images of what is more real, more perfect and more fundamental but which we cannot see directly.

I am not here attacking Idealist philosophies generally; for a start, some idealist philosophies lend themselves to panentheism, and I experience God in a way which is for me massively best described by panentheism. There is no problem in terms of science in the concept that our concepts can only approximate to the reality beyond “the cave”, indeed this is very much the way philosophy of science tends to see things, and the state of modern physics tends to underline this in that there appears to be a substrate of reality which is irretrievably uncertain, where Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and chaos theory reign.

The problem comes when this couples itself with revealed religion and we think that our concepts are “higher, better, more real, more fundamental and more perfect” than what is actually experienced, because that is what has been revealed to us. I have to be very careful with this aspect myself, as the bones of panentheism represent to me something “revealed” directly to me, and there is an inevitable temptation to say that that is what must be so irrespective of any material evidence to the contrary. It would, of course, be a mistake for me, and it is a mistake for theology generally. Whatever else can be said about revelation, it has passed through at least one individual human consciousness before reaching us, and that must give the basis for error. Paul recognised this in 1 Cor. 13:12: “Now we see through a glass, darkly…”

Process recognises that things change, that things are interdependent, and as such is antagonistic to concepts such as perfection but very conducive to the idea of “better approximations” which develop with time.

Number 6 is giving me difficulties, so there may be a delay!


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