Chapter 3 of Joel Green’s book Body, Soul, and Human Life: The Nature of Humanity in the Bible deals with the topic of sin and freedom. I am going to devote a few posts to this topic because it is one that troubles me far more than the debates over heaven and hell. What is the nature of sin? How can we view ourselves as, in any sense, free to act? Dr.Green outlines a common view, perhaps predominate view, especially within Christian circles:
“For many, a distinguishing characteristic of humanity is the capacity to decide. Earthworms, goldfish, and jaguars do not leaf through a register of options before acting; they simply do what they are genetically programmed and hardwired to do. They act on instinct. They are possessed by “animal desires.” Humans, on the other hand, possess the capacity to step back from the precipice of innate desires or inborn patterns of behavior in order to elect for or against them, so that even when a human action follows the path of instinct this is nonetheless the product of a decidedly human reasonableness. Those who prove incapable of controlling there animal desires are beastly, brutish, somehow subhuman, irrational.” ( p. 75)
There are aspects of this sketch though, that are seriously flawed. It is not that the sketch is completely wrong, but that human control of behavior is far more subtle and complex.
Is the moral compass and the ability to evaluate and control behavior a distinguishing characteristic of humanity?
Is this capacity something attributed to the human soul?
Dr. Green starts this chapter with the sketch of a case study of a man who was convicted of child molestation (p. 73-74). The antisocial behavior started suddenly without any indication that it would, he was an upstanding married school teacher. He began to collect child pornography and made subtle advances toward his step daughter. He solicited a prostitute and could not keep himself from making advances after he was convicted toward the staff at a facility where he was being evaluated for treatment vs. Imprisonment.
As he was to appear for sentencing he complained of headaches and suicidal thoughts. He was taken to a hospital and evaluated by MRI. an egg-sized tumor was found and removed. After recovery his behavior and uncontrollable urges went away. Within a year headaches resumed and an urge for pornography resurfaced. An MRI revealed tumor regrowth and surgery to remove the tumor again returned to him the ability to control his ” animal desires.”
The issue in this case was not so much the “natural” desires themselves but the ability to exercise impulse control. The man still had a moral compass and he knew that what he was doing was wrong. When the tumor was present he could not control those urges.
There is an inseparable connection between what we think, feel, and do and the bodies within which or as which we exist. We all know this on one level. No matter how much my friend and I loved baseball as 12-year old kids, checked out books on pitching and catching and practiced in the basement and outdoors, we would never play at a high level. As girls it would never happen, and even the boys from our gene pool wouldn’t make it. Some things are “gifts.” But we don’t expect this to be the case with moral decision making.
I will go into this topic more deeply in future posts. Dr. Green looks at both science and scripture for an understanding of the nature of human freedom. Philosophy has to play a role here as well alongside science and theology. Scot’s posts on the book by Keith Ward More Than Matter?: Is There More to Life Than Molecules? are a welcome complement to the discussion in Green’s book.
Today I would like to stop here and put up a question for consideration.
First, does this example change anything in your view of human nature and the nature of the soul?
Second, how should an appreciation for the embodiedness of human behavior change our approach to Christian faith, life, and gathering as the church?
The second question will come up in later posts as well as we continue through this series. The fully embodied nature of human persons, whether this includes a soul in a wholistic dualism or some form of Christian monism, is an important concept as we consider the Christian life and the role that the gathering, the church, plays in the Christian life.
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