Does Modern Psychology Challenge Traditional Christology? [Questions That Haunt]

This week, Aaron Berkowitz asks a question that, I think, will tax all of us who hope to maintain a fairly traditional Christology:

I don’t know if this counts as a Question That Haunts, but I think it might. It seems that modern psychology doesn’t leave much active role for the human “soul” in cognition (unless I’m greatly mistaken). Instead of imagining the soul as a little homunculus in our heads that makes decisions for us, it appears that thought is a byproduct of neurons firing, etc. in our heads. I’m not saying that there’s no room for the soul to interact there, but it certainly isn’t clear how it would work.

Here’s my question: how does this affect traditional understandings of Christology? When you look at debates about Monphysitism and Monothelitism and the like, they are really based on philosophical assumptions about “natures” and “wills” that don’t really seem compatible with contemporary understandings of psychology. What does it mean in terms of neurobiology to say that Christ had both a human and a divine “will” if all thought is really just neurons firing?And if Jesus doesn’t have a brain that is noticeably different from you or I, how does his divinity interact with his thought process? I guess this is just a small piece of a larger issue relating to interpreting traditional notions of Christology in general in light of contemporary scientific and philosophical categories, but it definitely leaves me scratching my head…

Wowzers, that’s a tough one. I’m looking forward to reading responses below from the regular crew of contributors, and I’m hoping that we’ll have some psychologists and physicians weigh in as well. I’ll take a crack at an answer on Friday.

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  • This is definitely one that keeps me up at night. Gosh, I appreciate the seriousness and unflinching nature of these questions so much.

    The more I read and talk to scientist pals about this, the more I think that we could be talking about it in terms of emergence theory. This is a newer direction of scientific inquiry, and will take much more time to tease good theories from bunk. But people with radically different conclusions about ultimate reality, folks like John Polkinghorne (theist) to Stuart Kauffman (atheist), are impressed with what emerges from complex systems. These two in particular are persuaded that there is much more there to be discovered and understood as this field develops.

    What seems to be true so far is that it’s possible for profoundly complex phenomena to emerge much greater than any of the simple parts that make them, in ways that are impossible to predict from just looking at the parts in isolation. So it could be that whatever we mean when we say “soul” is something different from our biology, but emerges directly from our body’s complexity.

    This is a hypothesis.

  • Wow.

    I think if you fully embrace the scientific consensus on these things, the only option you are left with is that “God” – if God is in some sense an existing being or person – operates entirely outside of what can be measured, weighed, experimented on, etc.

    I don’t think it’s possible to start with the scientific consensus and be forced to posit “God” as the most reasonable hypothesis. Rather, most of us start with our own understandings of God and project them back upon the evidence (i.e. confirmation bias).

    But, I’m becoming more convinced that you can fully embrace science and see theological language as helpful (though not necessary) to illuminate some theories – and mysteries.

    But, I could be missing something…

    • (And I do realize I didn’t touch on the existence of a soul or the humanity & divinity of Jesus. But, for me, those other points need to be worked out before I can even consider these.)

  • Hit reply too soon. Wanted to conclude: This is a hypothesis I have no idea how to test, which is maybe why, so far, more theologians talk about it than biologists.

  • jomari peterson

    I recently read a discussion on the Templeton Foundation site about this topic. this in my opinion sums up to the belief that our soul is a part of our body, but not. just like we are not the individual atoms, but the sum. Our soul is the life breathed into us and one of the reasons we look forward our bodily resurrection, not just a spirit one.

  • This is way out of my league but that has never stopped me form commenting before.

    I think we are reaching too far when we start to guess about Jesus biology. This same Jesus who rose from the dead. Since he was conceived by the Holy Spirit, I imagine there were some DNA issues. Jesus also said, “Jesus gave them this answer: “I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.:” Obviously he had special insight into the Father’s will because he also said ,” I and the Father are one” Jesus also made the statement to Peter, “Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven.” I don’t think modern psychology, biology, or neurology, can account for the work of the Spirt. It’s an interesting question though and would make for a great Bible study.

    • I’ve never considered this before, but what if “the work of the Spirit” is a theological translation of a phrase communicated by more non-religious people as fideism?

      • Alan K

        This was one of the great questions pondered by 19th century theologians, brilliantly answered by Kierkegaard who was nevertheless ignored by everyone until the world fell apart.

        • I vaguely remember running into this… As an atheist, I appreciate Derrida’s reappropriation of Kierkegaard’s idea of “truth as subjectivity” – but I probably hold out more of a possibility of the existence of “Truth” (though our perception is always approximate, contingent – an interpretation).

    • Aaron Berkowitz

      I agree that it is dangerous to speculate about the biology of Jesus, but my understanding of the Council of Chalcedon is that orthodox Christianity insists that Jesus was “fully human”. I guess the question then is what does it mean to be “fully human”. My initial instinct is to read that as saying that materially, Jesus was a human being, which would imply a human biology…

  • Kara

    I think we are going to have to take a look at some of our Greco Roman presuppositions before we can answer this one. Dualism, for example.

  • Aaron’s question, in part, was: “What does it mean in terms of neurobiology to say that Christ had both a human and a divine ‘will’ if all thought is really just neurons firing?

    For starters, neurobiology is a practicable science. Christology (in all its numerous variants) is a theological notion, an idea created by imagination and ultimately, by my estimation, a mere fiction housed in the realm of myth.

    Moreover, the notion of “soul” is highly subjective, with numerous cultures and subcultures espousing their own unique views. We can speak of “soul” poetically and religiously, but it has no objective scientific applicability (unless you’re talking about the fledgling field of noetic sciences which, while very compelling, is not broadly regarded as entirely scientific).

    As such, neurobiology as a science cannot speak objectively to the notion of “soul” and thereby to the traditional Christian belief in the so-called “divinity” of Jesus.

  • Curtis

    I don’t see the conflict. “just neurons firing”, really? So we determine that all of human experience is “just neurons firing”. So what? I guess love is “just neurons firing”. Joy is “just neurons firing”. Gratitude is “just neurons firing”. Certainly, within love, joy, and gratitude, there is room for god and a soul in there too.

    Even if God is ultimately a network of “just neurons firing”, how does that in any way diminish God? Isn’t “just neurons firing” an awesome and unfathomable thing, the basis of our entire human experience? If that is what God is, what is wrong with that? Is there anything more worthy of praise than this “just neurons firing” thing? If so, what is it?

    • Aaron Berkowitz

      The point of the question isn’t to reduce human experience to “neuron’s firing” and denigrate it. My question is that orthodox Christology dating back to the Council of Chalcedon insists that Christ posessed both a human and a divine “nature” and a human and divine “will”. Those terms were defined in terms of Greek philosophies that most Christians no longer accept. Since I don’t want to abandon traditional Christology, the question is how can we frame those traditional Christological categories in terms of contemporary understandings of philosophy and psychology.

      • Curtis

        I don’t believe Jesus’ physical nature was different than any other human’s. But what do I know? If it were so, it would seem to introduce all sorts of conflicts with basic, modern science.

      • Aaron, why do you want to frame a mythical notion (i.e., traditional Christology) in terms of contemporary understandings of philosophy and psychology? What’s your aim?

        • Aaron Berkowitz

          I’m not quite sure where you are trying to go with the “mythical notion” idea. Is the suggestion that traditional Christology is obviously not true and therefore not worthy of study?

          Traditional Christologies were framed in terms of the contemporary philosophy of their age. An interesting feature of religion is that concepts like the Chalcedonian definitions often long outlive their philosophical underpinnings. As our philosophical categories have expanded (as has our knowledge of science), it seems reasonable to revisit traditional understandings in light of our current understandings, no?

          • Where I am going with the “mythical notion” thing is this: Christologies are mythical notions. Fictions. Worthy of study? As an academic exercise, sure. Why not. It’s interesting stuff. But such inquiry has zero practical application in the real world, which is why I found it rather curious that you would seek to frame the construct of an ancient myth within modern neurobiological terms. At best, you would achieve a type of science fiction.

            And that’s fine. Nothing wrong with seeking to frame a fictional construct in modern scientific terms. The folks behind Star Trek have been doing that for decades (transporters, warp drive, tricorders, etc.).

            I was just curious (and not judging) what your aim was.

            • Aaron Berkowitz

              I must admit that I haven’t spent much time in the comment section of Tony’s blog before, but I find it odd that someone who seems to think that Christology (and presumably theology in general) is nothing but a mythic notion comparable to science fiction would expend the energy to read and comment on a blog about theology.

              Not that it isn’t a perfectly reasonable view to have, it just strikes me as strange.

              • Because critique of theology is a vital element of emergent conversation generally, and the “E/emergence” movement specifically. It is therefore neither odd nor strange.

                • Aaron Berkowitz

                  It makes more sense to me when you phrase it like that! Thank you! 🙂

                  • My pleasure. 🙂 And by the way, your question is excellent. While I may maintain that theology and Christology are fictional, I nonetheless find both to be extremely intriguing (theology more than Christology; I actually find certain theological concepts to have critical practical application morally and ethically; a story for another day). About a third of my library is comprised of books on those very subjects.

              • I find it much more odd that a history professor interested in progressive theology would be surprised to find non-believers in this conversation. A core value of Emergence Christianity, at least so I’ve heard, is allowing the questioning of everything. But I frequently butt up against people who have some strange definition of “everything”.

                • Aaron Berkowitz

                  Consider me a neophyte, I suppose, then. My knowledge of “progressive theology” and “Emergence Christianity” largely consists of reading one of Tony’s books and browsing on his blog a few weeks ago.

                  While I certainly find the perspectives of non-believers worthy of respect, I’m not entirely convinced that they should have terribly much weight in debates and discussions on theology. Any more, for instance, than I would seriously invite people to play a board game with me if some of them denied the existence or relevance of the rule book. Theology feels like an insider’s game to me, and I don’t think there is anything wrong with that.

                  I feel like I should dig up a quote or two from Stanley Fish here…

                  • I think this Caputo quote is relevant here:

                    “We should not let the theologians have the word faith. We should not give it to them. We should not give them the word hope, or other words like grace or even prayer. They don’t belong to the theologians; they belong to us. They are part of the furniture of human existence, part of the structure of human existence…Don’t give religion to the theologians. Don’t let them have it. It’s not theirs. They don’t get to build their fence around it. You have to keep the police away from literature, and keep them away from religious questions, too. Religious authorities are terrified of genuinely thinking about religion in a deep and probing way, because they know that will expose all the uncertainty in religion and the fact that nobody knows just what’s going on. The stronger and the louder you shout your confessional faith, from my point of view, the more insecure you prove yourself to be…”

                  • Excuse my outdated teenage language but, Oh My God Rob, that is awesome. And Aaron, sorry, I am enjoying your conversation, but really, you just nailed what is wrong with American Christianity and why it is on the skids. I assume you say you are about the world, about bringing peace and justice to it, about saving it, and then you say no one else can play except by your rules. The only way that could be right is if you are right about there being chosen people, separating the wheat from the chaff and the second coming.

                  • Aaron, take a good hard look at some of the words you used . . .

                    “they” shouldn’t have much weight in debates
                    I wouldn’t seriously invite
                    denied the existence or relevance
                    insider’s game

                    Now here are some opposites of those words, to offer you some sobering converse perspective of what’s beneath the sentiments you presented . . .

                    “we” believers
                    “our” voice matters only
                    don’t let “them” in the club
                    never step outside the rules
                    outsiders can’t play

                    The terms you use, and their flavor, are typical of the theological and ecclesial elitism within traditional Christianity that “Emergence” by its very nature resists.

                    And Rob Davis’ quote of Caputo is right-on.

                    We’re not here to preserve the old (and dying) tree. We’re here to examine what’s emerging anew on the forest floor.

                    • Curtis

                      With a little grafting, it may be possible to get some healthy shoots to grow from the old stumps as well.

                    • Maybe.

  • Curtis

    In terms of your more specific question: how did Jesus’ divinity interact with his neurons firing, if his neurons were the same as any other humans? All humans, including Jesus, have the same basic neurology physiology. But, at the same time, we all have unique, individual experiences. Christians believe that Jesus’ unique experience was that of being God on Earth. I don’t see that as any more a stretch than the basic concept of the Trinity to begin with, and Christians seem to tolerate that stretch just fine.

  • Ric Shewell

    This is a great question. Does the evidence of a lack of soul disrupt our thoughts about Christ?

    No, the evidence of a lack of soul puts right our thoughts about Christ and God’s love for the material.

    We do not have an immaterial whispy bit that is somehow our essence. It does not fly away when we die. It was not planted into us when we were born. None of these ideas are biblical (they’re more platonic than Jewish), but these are the ideas that we impose on the Christ story. When Scripture says that the Word became Flesh, we shouldn’t imagine that the Word is like a hand and the Flesh is like a glove. We shouldn’t imagine that Jesus “Wordness” is his soul and that his “Fleshness” is his body. Instead, we should read it as God became a man and retain the mystery.

    There’s no real biblical reason to think that souls exist. Joel Green of Fuller has this great book out, “Body, Soul, and Human Life: The Nature of Humanity in the Bible.” He basically argues that the current neuroscience is better inline with New Testament thought than the Christian mainstream belief in souls.

    So, since souls don’t exist, Jesus didn’t have a soul. He was just material. Doesn’t this thought better fit with the New Testament’s description of God’s humiliation in Christ? In Christ, God divests God’s godliness. Christ was human, without soul (because souls don’t exist). When Christ died, Christ was dead. God died. Then God raised Christ from the dead back to physical life, back to human, material, soulless life.

    What is lost in this interpretation? Nothing. What is gained? A renewed view of God’s love for the physical that is better inline with the whole of the Biblical cannon. Also, the death of Christ is much more dramatic, and much more of a sacrifice if we do away with that soul nonsense.

    • I think I’m picking up what you’re throwing down, but this:

      “When Christ died, Christ was dead. God died. Then God raised Christ from the dead back to physical life, back to human, material, soulless life.”

      …makes zero sense to me.

      Alas, I am not a trinitarian. Guess I need some of that “Spirit truth” (i.e. fideism) to get it.

      • Ric Shewell

        Welp, you know I make sense of it. Didn’t Moltmann say, “Monotheism is a heresy”? Anyway, trinitarian doctrine isn’t something that I assent to first and so makes it possible for me to believe in Jesus. Rather, I first believe that Jesus rose from the dead, and trinitarian doctrine is the best way to describe the situation and avoid saying things that the New Testament does not mean to say. I’m convinced.

        • Not sure if it came off this way, but I was trying to be funny…

        • It seems really strange to me to claim that one begins ones entire theology from a non-falsifiable foundation – i.e. that Jesus literally rose from the dead…

          Wouldn’t it be more in line with the consensus of knowledge, which we currently have access to, to concede that the resurrection is plausible, but that the question can be bracketed off in order to fully engage with reality-as-we-know-it?

          • Ric Shewell

            I think that it’s just as falsifiable as Washington crossing the Delaware or Hannibal crossing the Alps. It seems to me that if Jesus really rose from the dead, then it’s a historical event that deserves as much scrutiny as other historical events. Is that what you mean by falsifiable? In any case, I think Jesus’ resurrection can be falsified. And easily. But it hasn’t. All you need is a dead body, right?

            I guess why people make Jesus’ resurrection a “faith” issue rather than an empirical issue is the uniqueness of something dead coming to life. But it’s really a empirical, historical, scientific issue. Did Jesus rise from the dead? Yes or no? That’s an answerable question without the need of a faith in the Jewish God to answer yes. I think faith comes in after you answer “yes” to the Jesus rising issue.

            Since I accept that a dead man rose from the dead, I can’t exactly bracket that off. That moment is the center for my epistemology. Jesus’ resurrection challenges the systems. If it is fact, and I believe to be, I can’t exactly bracket it off as a quirk in nature. If it is fact, then its not a quirk in nature, but the center. Why should I have to let go of the cross and resurrection to interact with other disciplines and religions. If God was truly in the cross, why not invite others to meet me there and discuss it first. If God was not in the cross, and the resurrection did not happen, then we can go on without god. But I haven’t yet been convinced that the resurrection didn’t happen.

            I hope that makes some sense. If it happened, then I can’t interact with the world as if it didn’t. And I think that it is reasonable to believe Jesus rose from the dead.

            • Ric, you wrote: “But [the resurrection is] really a empirical, historical, scientific issue.

              No it isn’t. And not because of the “uniqueness of something dead coming to life.”

              If you admit something to be within the bounds of empiricism, it is then subject to the rules of empirical inquiry. Such as objectively verifiable and testable material evidence. As such, I’ll assume you have such evidence to back up your claim as to the “resurrection” of Jesus being historical and scientific.

              • Ric Shewell

                When I say that the resurrection is a empirical, historical, scientific issue, I mean that it is a claim that can be proven true or untrue, just like it can be proven true or untrue that we landed on the moon. You would certainly say that whether or not we landed on the moon is a historical, empirical, scientific issue. The claim that Jesus rose from the dead is similar. It can be tested, it can be proven true or untrue.

                The problem with verifying or discrediting the resurrection of Jesus is our distance from the proposed event. Evidence for either argument is hard to come by.

                So, you ask for my evidence. My evidence though, is similar to things that you know or have heard. Most of it based on reports in the New Testament. But it comes down to two big pieces: Empty Tomb and personal experiences of the risen Jesus.

                I know that that’s probably not sufficient for you, right now, but I am convinced by these two pieces. All anyone would have to do to change my mind is offer the body of Jesus or prove these experiences did not occur. Can you do that?

                So I don’t have video tape of the resurrection, but we do have personal testimonies. Right now, that convinces me. And if I’m convinced that a resurrection happened, then I have to change the way I look at everything.

                • You wrote: “All anyone would have to do to change my mind is offer the body of Jesus or prove these experiences did not occur.

                  The modern absence of Jesus’ first century corpse is no more proof of his so-called resurrection than the absence of anyone’s corpse from the first century is proof of theirs.

                  But the problem is this, Ric. The burden of proof is always on the claimant (that would be you). A claim does not become true just because someone (like me) cannot disprove it. This is what’s known as argumentum ad ignorantium. It is a completely false argument, and thereby an invalid standard of evidence.

                  The original claim is: the resurrection occurred. Therefore it is up to claimants to prove it, especially if they are asserting it as an observable event in history. In the absence of such proof, a claim is merely an opinion, not fact. If you cannot prove it happened, I can therefore assert that it didn’t. (And it is an additional non-argument to say “It doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.” Yes, it actually does mean that.)

                  You wrote: “My evidence though, is similar to things that you know or have heard. Most of it based on reports in the New Testament.

                  The writings in the New Testament which claim that Jesus’ bodily resurrection happened do not qualify as testimony. At best, they would qualify as hearsay, which has zero value.

                  The New Testament writings are not evidence. There are no existing original manuscripts from which current translations are based. As such, their authenticity as faithful copies of any originals cannot be validated, and thereby the veracity of their claims cannot be verified. Of course, even if the originals existed, the veracity of their claims still could not be verified.

                  People believe in the resurrection because they want to. No one believes in the resurrection because its reality was undeniably demonstrated to them materially. They believe because they want to.

                  By the way, do you believe the sun revolves around the earth? According to Joshua 10:13, it does. That passage claims the sun stood still in the sky for about a full day. Which would qualify it as a unique event similar to the resurrection, where the Bible stories are concerned. And it’s clear that there must have been more witnesses to this unique event than there were witnesses to the so-called resurrection of Jesus. And I don’t mean just the entire Israelite army and the armies of the Amorites. I mean the entire human population that lived in that region of the earth (which would’ve included Africa, Europe, Arabia, and western Asia) illuminated by the sun for that whole day.

                  So is Joshua 10:13 alluding to fact, or fiction? Is Joshua part of the “word of God” and therefore an equally valid witness to purported claims as any New Testament writing?

                  Do you believe the claim of Joshua 10:13 in light of proven science?

                  • Thanks, R. Jay, for saying what I was trying to say in a much more clear way.

                    The problem, yet again, is that for many Christians the resurrection is an entirely unique event that isn’t the same as every other event in the Bible. I’m not sure where this distinction comes from, other than the belief that ones Christianity is foundationally based on the resurrection actually happening.

                    So, exactly as you said: “People believe in the resurrection because they want to.”

                  • Ric Shewell

                    I’m pretty sure you know what I’m going to say before I say it, but here it goes.

                    1. I’m not saying that the resurrection is proven true because there is a lack of proof to the contrary (argument from silence, as you said). I am only saying that there would be things that would convince me that the resurrection did not happen. No has offered them yet. Now that I am convince that Jesus rose from the dead, I can be convinced otherwise, but I don’t see any reason to change my mind on this yet.

                    2. The testimonies of the apostles were preserved in more ways that the New Testament manuscripts. They were preserved in the kerygma, the rule of faith, and the community of believers that persist today.

                    3. You say people believe in the resurrection because they want to. Yes and no. The story depicts disciples not wanting to believe in the resurrection. There is nothing in Jewish prophecy that says the Messiah will rise from the dead. There is no reason for the disciples to make such an outlandish claim of resurrection. Their evidence for their time? Empty tomb and personal experience, which we are told happened to over 500 at one time. These things of their time, were not refuted by simply presenting the dead body of Jesus. Also, what did the apostle have to gain for such a ridiculous claim? Why would they make this up? Anyway, these things don’t have to convince you, and it is perfectly reasonable that they don’t. But I am convinced.

                    4. I am not an inerrantist. So no, I don’t think that rabbits chew cud, the sun revolves around the world, or that Pi is 3. Rob said below that most Christians treat the resurrection uniquely. Yes and no. Everything gets a critical eye. Because of the implications and fallout of the claim of resurrection, the resurrection gets a vote of approval from me, where many things don’t, like Jonah and the Whale, etc.

                    5. You might think that arbitrary because you are convinced that I want to believe that Jesus rose from the dead. I really don’t know how to argue that. On some level, I think we are all just acting on our visceral reactions, and then using logic to support our gut reactions. So, maybe. How do you know that you are not doing the same? Where is this pure objective logic that we have access to apart from lens of our own desires and animal reactions? I don’t think it exists.

                    6. I like you and Rob, and I hope that me defending my belief doesn’t look like attacking your belief systems.

                    • Thanks, Ric, for contributing to this discussion. Sorry, Tony, if we’ve hijacked your thread. But, I think this is always an interesting discussion – and still related to the initial post.

                      I think I still own Wright’s book on the resurrection. I read it before I left the church, and I was entirely convinced that he was right. I then went on a mission to find many more arguments to defend my belief.

                      Since then, I’ve let go of that belief, and I’ve found a lot more people debunking those arguments. I’ve listened to dozens if not more debates (many with Mike Licona).

                      You’re right. I don’t think an unbiased, pure objectivity is possible – or even desirable. But, I there are degrees of reasonable probability. And the fact is that only those who have theological reasons to do so believe the resurrection actually happened.


                      This is why I think we can – should? – bracket this question off and discuss what the resurrection might mean – even if it didn’t happen. The difficulty is in arguments that require a literal resurrection for a conversation to even be possible – i.e. Christianity is nothing if the tomb was not empty.

                      To me, it’s very similar to trying to discuss climate change with someone who doesn’t think it’s real. That conversation is going nowhere. Unless we can agree to bracket the question off, and focus on how to better take care of the planet and everything and everyone in it.

                • Ric, to me there is a difference between saying that you believe that is sufficient evidence for you and the former claim that it can be proven true or untrue. No reasonable historian would say the resurrection can be proven true or untrue, using historical methods.

                  It seems to me that you are hijacking scientific and historical terminology to defend your personal belief that the resurrection happened.

                  And, by definition, a supernatural event like the resurrection cannot even be considered as a possibility using historical methods. So, there is no reason for me or anyone else who does not think that it happened to defend our non-belief.

                  • Ric Shewell

                    you write, “No reasonable historian would say the resurrection can be proven true or untrue, using historical methods.”

                    Really? It seems historians are in the business of saying whether claims about the past happened or not. And the resurrection is a claim about an event in the past.

                    “And, by definition, a supernatural event like the resurrection cannot even be considered as a possibility using historical methods.”

                    So the resurrection is not under the scrutiny of historical methods because it is “supernatural.” But if the resurrection happened here in our physical world, if it really happened — is it still supernatural? Or would we have to redefine nature to allow for resurrections?

                    I don’t think that’s too crazy.

                    I also think that “belief” is kind of a loaded term and a cop out (i’m guilty of using it). A lot of time people say “That’s what I believe” as a way of saying “You’re not allowed to disagree, it’s MY private and personal belief.” When I say that I believe that Jesus rose from the dead, I really just mean I think Jesus rose from the dead. So I don’t see people as non-believers, just people that don’t think Jesus rose from the dead. I think it’s an important distinction.

                    • “Historians are in the business of saying whether claims about the past happened or not.”

                      You used the words “proven true” (which I assume you mean “objective historical fact”). This is not how history works. Events in the past are not proven true or untrue. They either probably happened or probably didn’t happen, based on the methods and tools of historical research.

                      (This conversation is strangely sounding familiar…)

                      The resurrection is not under the scrutiny of historical methods because it is “supernatural.”


                      I don’t see a difference between “I think” or “I believe to be true” or “this is my opinion.” But, none of those are the same as knowledge – or fact, or even “our approximate access to reality.”

                      But, again, this is where someone like Rollins is so important to me. Stating whether “I believe” the resurrection literally happened is one thing (for which historians need to be consulted). But, living in a way that embodies the resurrection is another thing – and, in my opinion, infinitely more important.

                    • Ric Shewell

                      “Living in a way that embodies…” Agreed. Of course.

                      I guess with the history thing, I feel like I’m splitting hairs. I mostly want to say, “These things are provable, they just haven’t been and we probably will never be able to prove them!” I hear you saying, “Then just say that they are probable or improbable!”

                      Okay. 🙂

                    • BOOM! Thanks again. This is fun!

                    • A few facts and methods for determining the truth of an historical event:

                      Bodies of the crucified were sometimes thrown into lime pits. Even if found, we have no way of identifying it as Jesus. Washington and Hannibal were observed by and documented by people other than their immediate followers. Their actions had traceable affects on the history surrounding them. Jesus’ actions did not begin to affect the larger world for many decades, even centuries after his death. Long after anyone could attest to his resurrection. Finally, and this should be the kicker, we have improved our ability to read the ancient languages and trace the errors of translation. In this case, it was St. Gerome who introduced the Latin word “resurrection”, wiping out subtler meanings of the Greek. We have killed the beautiful allegory of the 1st century and tried to make it history.

                      And Rob, this is not a stalemate. One way we measure truth is to compare interests to evidence. Intuitively, we all know to distrust what the Tobacco industry says about the health affects of smoking. The same goes for Christians who have no training in history defending the truth of the resurrection. So Ric, just because it is an action that can be determined true or not, that does not mean that we shouldn’t consider the case closed based on the probability of its truth being so low. But as with all truth, it is contingent. Future evidence could alter the current probability.

                    • By stalemate, I don’t mean both are right or both are wrong. We both still think we are right, but if we are playing the games of science and history, we should follow the rules. And, the rules declare that the case is (probably) closed.

                    • Ric Shewell

                      @ Lausten, how should we translate “anastasis” then? “Stand up”? What about phrases like “first born from the dead,” or “raised from the dead”? Did Jerome invent “ho anagagon ek nekron”?

                      When Paul is arguing against reports that Christ has not been raised from the dead (1 Cor 15), what exactly is he doing? Arguing that Christ is metaphorically raised from the dead? Very unlikely. The best way to read that is that some already thought that Jesus resurrection was metaphorical and he was arguing that it was physical. In any case, there was big discussions and fights about Jesus’ physical resurrection within decades of Jesus’ death.

                    • Not going there Ric. You kinda answered your own question didn’t you? They were arguing then. There wasn’t agreement then, when someone could have produced more proof, could have been sure to preserve some evidence for prosperity. Why didn’t they? And this is Paul, so we are back to “evidence vs interests”. The number of witnesses is at best an exaggeration, possibly completely fabricated, and as reported, second hand information.

                    • Hey guys. I had every intention of diving into this conversation yesterday, but then some client crises arrested my attention, and the rest of my Wednesday turned into sort of a bad Monday haha.

                      Anyway, glad to see how the discussion evolved. Great stuff!

                      Ric, I had some thoughts lined up to your six points from yesterday, but the trajectory of the conversation changed since then, so I’ll preserve those thoughts for another time. However, to your point 6 . . . I like you too. We (you, me, Rob, Lausten, et al) always have great dialogs, and I always enjoy them. I never take it personally, so no worries. 🙂 I don’t disrespect your beliefs, and I know you don’t disrespect mine. (Though I want you to know that it’s okay to be wrong haha! :-P)

                    • Ric Shewell

                      I was surprised you were so silent yesterday! Hope all is well.

                    • All is definitely well. Yesterday just turned out to be an avalanche of crises. Thankfully, all was resolved by the end of the night. (Who ever said writers’ lives are boring, ha!)

    • Aaron Berkowitz

      That’s fine, but I think it sort of misses the point of the question. If we imagine Christ (and all of us) as purely material beings without souls, it still doesn’t resolve the question of how to translate traditional Christological language about human and divine “natures” and “wills” into contemporary philosophical/scientific language.

      In your view, was Jesus physically any different from other human beings? If so, in what sense was he then “fully human”. If not, in what sense can we maintain traditional Christology? We could, of course, abandon traditional Christology, but that would sort of defeat the point of the question. 🙂

      • Ric Shewell

        I don’t think Jesus was physically any different from other human beings. I think he was fully human. So far I haven’t broken the Chalcedonian Symbol. Jesus is special in that he pre-existed his human form in the second person of the Trinity. Before he became flesh, he existed as God and with God. He was fully God before becoming a man. Then he became flesh, utterly and completely, flesh. Why should he cease to be God? He was fully God, one with God. While he was on earth, he was fully human and one with God. Now he is “where” God is, still fully human, still one with God.

        That’s about as traditional as Christology gets. And Jesus doesn’t need a soul to fulfill it.

    • Tim Chastain

      Well said!

  • Tony, here is your answer, enjoy!

    The problem here lies in how we think about causation. Kara above is right about looking at presuppositions, but in my opinion the Greeks may have been right on this one.

    Aristotle had four causes which result in change: material cause, formal cause, efficient cause and final cause or purpose. He emphasized the teleological or purposive element in the world and, therefore, explained things according to their functions or purposes.

    Somewhere along the way (MODERNITY!) science elected to explain things according to efficient cause only, which is equivalent to that which causes something to change.

    In a nutshell, the world is a machine (or a computer!) and the universe is composed of matter in motion, or in our case, thought is simply neurons firing.

    The problem with only explaining things by using efficient cause is that, if you don’t want to grant the existence of a supernatural God in the sky (secular science), you’re left with something like determinism.

    In the process tradition God is the farthest thing from supernatural, and with a teleological perspective in place, God’s immanence is restored. God is active in every moment of our existence, constantly luring us, calling us forth.

    Christ, then, is he who was fully receptive to the Divine aim for his life, open to God’s possibilities. To say it another way, Jesus is fully human and fully divine because to be “fully divine” is to be fully human.

  • Jason R.

    Along the same lines as Ric above, the January 2013 issue of Interpretation Journal has an interesting article by Nancy Murphy from Fuller (she has worked with Joel Green on the issue and cites his work mentioned above) entitled: “Do Humans Have Souls? Perspectives from Philosophy, Science, and Religion”. There she basically argues for “Physicalism” (humans don’t have a soul and separate body – Dualism). She sticks to how this impacts ethics and so doesn’t go into Christology, but I think if we start with a “Physicalist” understanding of human beings it will impact how we understand the nature of Christ. But figuring all of that out is above my pay grade so I’ll just point to her article.

    • Ric Shewell

      You know, Joel Green doesn’t really go in to Christology in his book either, but focuses on the bodily resurrection and the new creation. BUt I think it’d be okay for us to carry out some Murphy and Green’s work into their implications for the second person of the Trinity.

  • I don’t often comment on here but you asked for some psychologist types, I’m not quite a psychologist yet, but I am working on my Counseling Psychology degree.

    First I would like to say I utterly deny an Aristotelian Dualism (I am in fact plotting a book along these lines). I would also like to say that the psychological world is far from claiming one stance on the existence or explanation of the soul/mind/body problem. Some like to call them different names, ie Id, Ego, Superego, the transcendental self, the motivational self, etc. It is my view that when a non-Christ follower (whether atheist or theist) talks about this “otherness” of the human condition it is in fact the same sort of thing those who follow the ways of Jesus are talking about when they say soul or spirit.

    Some Christian psychologists would also split the soul/spirit into two parts, in effect mirroring the Trinity in a tripartite humanness. One prolific spiritual/psychological author of this vein is David G. Benner who is a trained PhD psychoanalyst and Episcopalian. He says, “Words seem to fail when we move into this place where dust is animated by the divine breath…It is impossible, therefore, to treat it as something inert and to place it beneath a microscope of analysis…Words like spirit and soul obviously come to us with a good deal of baggage.” From here his tripartite humanness is the flesh that is the physical embodiment of the imago dei, the spirit “as fire in the belly” that animates, sustains and gives purpose to life, and the soul “as the womb of experience…that enables us to bear what is intolerable in the world” it is the middle ground between matter and spirit.

    Now back to my point about dualism. We were made as humans. We can only experience humanly. When I have a “spiritual” experience, that very experience is wrapped in my being human. Whether you take Genesis 1-2 account as literal or figurative we are still made “in the image and likeness of God.” That is to say there is something humanly about Godness, and something Godly about humanness. Now if we flip to the other end of the biblical narrative we find God making THIS WORLD anew. There seems to be a very intimate connection between God and his creation. Jesus himself says, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” He doesn’t say “I came that you may have a spirit in the afterlife.” To have life abundantly is to be as fully human as we are each capable.

    Now onto the Christology. It is my belief that if we follow this sort of tripartite self, as a mirror of the tripartite Godness then Jesus would be the embodiment of the flesh portion, God being reflected in the soul portion, and the Holy Spirit in the spirit. So, when Jesus incarnated on our plane of existence he was in effect only 1/3 of the Godness. As Benner said the soul is the connection between the material and immaterial, then so does the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of Jesus in our existence to connect him to the Father/God that is outside of our timely experience. In other words the way that Jesus was most fully human was in his intimate use of the Holy Spirit and therefore also fully with God.

    Hope this helps some. Sorry I wrote so much, it is not an easy quick answer by any means. And thanks for reading for the few of you who read the entirety of my post.

  • Jonnie

    Fantastically complicated question. Two things I think are important to note.

    First, regarding the presuppositions/categories and the instigation of the problem (the “just neurons firing” issue), it is exactly the billiard ball kind of causation that gets this fear going that our mental lives are ‘merely’ the output of our event to event chains of prior neural firings. Nancey Murphy (and similar thinkers) want to preserve a genuinely mental causation (i.e. one not simply determined from the bottom up) by arguing that this is an over simplified model of the brain. I think, if we are going to take our experience seriously, including the way we use words in an unscientific sense (which is very important– science doesn’t define what mental means, phenomenology and experience does!), we must hold scientific theories to the fire of preserving a genuine causation from above and the seamless unity and ‘feel’ of phenomenal experience (qualia). It seems that only a presumed scientism could convince someone that contrary to their experience of the world, everything has only worked its way into (and out of) their life through (inexperienced) neural activity. In Wittgenstein’s terms, when we use mind or mental language THAT way, ‘words have gone on holiday’. So, in other words, we need to push back on the assumption that “just neurons firing” is even an acceptable way to frame what current neuroscience says. Many physicalists for their part are uncomfortable with it and working on other theories that gel better with experience.

    I also think Murphy’s proposal (I also have spent some extended time with her and thinking through her proposal) has some profound insights that bear on the Christological issue here. First, in wanting to define the mental as the brain-in-its-environment, she offers a unique understanding where we think in terms of the mental life as paradigmatically outside of our heads, already including and participating in the world. Perhaps this might help (especially for process folks) in conceiving of Christ’s divinity and humanity not simply as two Greek substances cohering ‘inside’ one machine of a person, but rather as something more akin to Jesus bearing divinity in a through fully participating in (and bearing) God’s presence and redemption of the world. On a model where ‘who we are’ is much more than simply what’s inside of our skin (or head—homuculus stuff), but rather the whole of our action in the environment, I think there is some room to fudge with the two natures categories. In Jesus’ full participation in God in the world (the real physical world) he was God in the flesh. I also think coheres this more with the biblical emphasis on Jesus as fulfilling the divine prerogative and bearing a special relation to the father through his ministry.

    This is not to say that Murphy’s model doesn’t have some major issues, particularly dealing with how she can relate intentional states (beliefs, hopes, feelings, etc) to action outputs in any temporally relevant sense. I’m working on a paper for a conference on this issue in her work if anyone has read her stuff and is interested in reading and critiquing for me. 🙂

    Ugh, that was too long. Hope it’s worth reading.

    • Aaron Berkowitz

      Definitely worth reading! Thank you! 🙂

      • Jonnie

        Good. I think it’s such a difficult question precisely because it can easily get bogged down in trying to cram concepts across categories (and millennia!). I wanna hear Jesse do some more ‘process-ing’ on this line of thinking…

        Terrific question Aaron. It’s gotta be an open format (like Tony’s blog) for some discussion like this to go beyond concept cramming.

    • Are you saying process folks “concieve of Christ’s divinity as two substances cohering inside one machine of a person?”

      I would say that’s the exact opposite of what process people would say. See my comment above.

      I’m with you on the first part though, efficiant cause leads to domino like reductionistic scientism and/or supernaturalism.

      • Jonnie

        No! I’m saying, that traditional philosophical view is what causes lots of hick-ups in the reasoning I think. I may have written confusingly. I actually meant the opposite. 🙂

        • Gotcha! Yeah, process theology has a fantastic answer to this question. John Cobb’s written extensively on Science’s problem with “purpose.”

    • Steve Pinkham

      If you want to know what you have to give up when you let go of ideas like mental causation and teleology, I highly recommend Alex Rosenberg’s “The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life without Illusions”.

      Personally I come out much closer to Rosenberg rather than people like John Cobb, but I can understand why people would reject and rage against that view.

      • Jonnie

        I respect Rosenberg for boldly forcing an ideological consistency, but I think his severe critique from other phsyicalists should cause us to give pause when looking at out and out Scientism. Claiming that everything but the hard sciences is virtually epiphenomenal with regards to reality is not a pill many physicalists or monists are willing to swallow, especially in the midst of less-ideological reflection and experience. And this is NOT simply because it is hard to swallow, but because it is a totalizing kind of dogma that doesn’t make sense of so many other seemingly causal and ‘real’ things happening in the world. Again though, I respect his (and your) consistency.

        • Good reply Johnnie. I dont get this Sciemtism/physicalism stuff, I must not be smart enough. Is not the study of science a purposeful endevor in and of itself? For me its plain to see that we’re not just objects in the world, we’re also subjects.

          • One thing I got from exposure to Rosenberg awhile back was that he is trying to be more consistent. Beyond that, I will need to revisit his work.

  • Mary

    Speaking of assumptions… the assumption here is that thought (i.e. consciousness) IS the “soul”. I propose that the soul is something far different than thought. Perhaps the “neurons” are the brains’ “calculations”, the “brain” just the “processor” but then that is assuming the modernist mechanistic view that our friend Jesse mentioned above is the way of things. This view overlooks the concept of the sum being more that the parts.
    The process view cannot be emphasized more than in the case of “soul”. Soul animates; permeates. The home of the soul in literature, especially scripture, is the heart not the brain; perhaps literally. (I am not much for quoting scripture in this forum but this one is cool: “Psalm 84:2 I long and yearn for the courts of the Lord; my heart and flesh cry out for the living God.”). Because we do not yet understand soul scientifically does not mean it is not a real force.

  • Aaron Berkowitz

    I think that the opening comments in my question which referenced souls may have unintentionally derailed some of the discussion here. The reality or non-reality of souls vis-a-vis modern psychology is not so much the issue I was trying to hit on as what I brought up in the second half of the question: re-conceptualizing the Christological debates of the 4th-7th centuries in light of contemporary views of philosophy and psychology. (Which just goes to show the importance of properly framing questions before asking them, I suppose.) 🙂

    • Ric Shewell

      Thanks for bringing in back. One of your questions:
      “And if Jesus doesn’t have a brain that is noticeably different from you or I, how does his divinity interact with his thought process?”

      I don’t think he had a divine will that somehow existed separately and simultaneously with his human will. I guess I think of his divinity more as birth right. He was entirely human, but God since he pre-existed his human form. When he became human, he gave up his rights and powers of divinity. He was fully human. “How does his divinity interact with his thought process?” – It didn’t, because he gave it up. He gave up his divinity.

      Loop hole: Jesus (human) did the will of God through his relationship with the Father and power of the Holy Spirit. So, he preached, healed, and rose from the dead not by his power, but by the Father’s will through the power of the Holy Spirit.

      How about that?

      • Aaron Berkowitz

        That makes a lot of sense, actually. I’m not sure I’m 100% sold, but I’m definitely going to have to pray and think on what you wrote.

        That way of looking at the Incarnation makes Philippians 2 even more powerful, I think…

        Thank you! 🙂

        • Aaron Berkowitz

          One question just came to me, though: What does identity with God mean in this understanding? If there is no soul or divine will that gets put inside Jesus, what separates him from other people? What I mean is, is his ore-existent origin as God reflected someway in the physical world? Is he even aware of it independently of it being revealed to him by the Father? I guess it doesn’t need to be…

        • Aaron Berkowitz

          One question just came to me, though: What does identity with God mean in this understanding? If there is no soul or divine will that gets put inside Jesus, what separates him from other people? What I mean is, is his pre-existent origin as God reflected someway in the physical world? Is he even aware of it independently of it being revealed to him by the Father? I guess it doesn’t need to be…

          • Ric Shewell

            For me, I take comfort that Jesus was a human just like any of us, who so deeply depended on the Father that he was able to completely obedient and love without reserve. We have that hope of that kind of one-ness because Jesus had that. I think everything Jesus knew and accomplished was a result of the human in a relationship with the Father.

  • Brian P.

    Whoa. This is like reading a bunch of trekkies trying to explain something in some episode.

    • If you missed the last episode of Big Bang Theory, look for it online. The guys go off to ComicCon so the girls try to figure out what is so interesting about comic books. Substitute the Bible for comic books and it still works.

  • Craig

    Explaining the incarnation has always been rife with paradox. I don’t see that modern psychology/neuroscience adds any new ones–except insofar as they arise for issues other, and more basic, than the incarnation.

    • Curtis

      I’ve always felt the whole point of Jesus was paradox. If Jesus could be explained, he would lose much of his meaning. At least for me.

    • Ric Shewell

      If we better understand what a human is, we better understand what we mean when we call Jesus fully human. I don’t think it explains away the mystery of how Jesus is both God and human, but it better explains human.

  • Jonnie

    Ok, so aggregating where this is at (now back on track with Aaron’s question), the puzzle fundamentally seems to be: how can we make sense of the creedal statements of Jesus’ humanity and divinity, metaphysically, if the current insights of neuroscience/psychology are debunking ‘soul’ or Cartesian dualism talk? Historically (and crudely put), it seems to be the co-inherence of two intangible substances (or natures/or essences/or other metaphysical identity-bit) ‘inside’ Jesus that gave him the magic double 100 percent quota needed to be the God-man.

    Without intangible natures where can the God-stuff be in Jesus? On the traditional model, it seems to necessitate Jesus having it, possessing it within him.

    The difficulty with the process model Jesse glossed, and perhaps the ideas like Ric’s which looks like a beefed up Spirit/kenotic Christology with metaphysical implications where Jesus doesn’t ‘have’ his Godness while incarnated, is that Jesus seems to have no qualitative (substantial) difference, metaphysically from other humans. My question is, does he need to?

    I think, barring a reversion to some sort of metaphysical model which mirrors the creedal context, something wherein Jesus’ divinity is something he bears by participating in God’s activity in the world (is this adoptionism… like the birthright idea?), but this must be shown to still be HIS identity, by arguing that we are not simply what’s ‘inside’ us but or actions in our environment, something I think Murphy’s model of physicalism has some resources for (that I discussed above).

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