Being Human 5 (RJS)

Being Human 5 (RJS) May 31, 2011

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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  • DRT

    My wife and I call it Monkey control. My Monkey gets out [or I let him out] too often, still.

    Does the example change my mind? Not really, but it does highlight the dependent nature of our behavior and influence of biology, which may be total.

    However, I do not want to allow that people who are functioning in a nominal state are not in control enough to know good from bad and control their monkey adequately. That’s what bugs me about the whole Total depravity thing.

  • Jason Lee

    Not to deny a portion of our actions as deliberative choices for which we shouldn’t shirk responsibility, but the fact that many of our actions are more automatic (either by social/childhood conditioning or some biological traits) should give us pause. It becomes very difficult to justly mete out harsh penalties to people. Our childhood backgrounds (even within the same family: can be very unequal. This is difficult to take into account. Even more difficult to take into account is genome. All of this points in the direction of compassion, surely a direction we know our faith already leads to.

  • Susan N.

    Jason, exactly where my thoughts take me… I just finished Francis Collins’ ‘The Language of God’, which has me thinking a lot about biology/genetics as a determinant of behavioral outcomes. Lately, I’m also pondering the condition of the sociopath. If I’m remembering correctly, I watched a Dateline or 60 Minutes segment not too long ago that focused on the discovery of a gene for criminal behavior. The gist of the program was that even in individuals whom this gene was present, it was possible to overcome biology *if* their childhood environment (nurture) was healthy and conducive to building strong character.

    But what of those who have the genetic makeup of anti-social behavior, and who have negative environments growing up, through no choice of their own? I would say that the concept of free will has little to no meaning for these individuals. Compassion for such people does seem the Christlike response. However, trusting a child molester (even one who hasn’t willfully chosen to act on impulse) around my children isn’t part of my compassionate response!

    Still, I wouldn’t say that there’s absolutely no hope for any person to change, based on my spiritual convictions — common grace, prevenient grace. What if…God worked a miracle in their “heart” (soul) to bring them out of total darkness (DRT, is this the same as “total depravity”?) into the light of truth? I tend to think that all of us are to varying degrees represented on the “darkness spectrum” of really achieving “meta cognition” — or that ability to step back and look at ourselves as if from a distance, and make a conscious choice what we’ll do in response to an impulse or external circumstance.

    “Second, how should an appreciation for the embodiedness of human behavior change our approach to Christian faith, life, and gathering as the church?” Faith without works is dead. Ultimately, what we think or believe amounts to nothing if it doesn’t result in right action.

    Francis Collins believes that the innate sense of Moral Law in human beings is a sign of our spiritual connection to the Divine. I tend to believe that we are more than the sum of our parts; the spiritual aspect of being human can’t be totally explained by science or reason.

  • Re your second question. What comes to mind is the detailed nature of the laws in the Law, and how so many of them address the mundane, the – sometimes grossly – physical issues of us humans living together. No hesitation there to address soul and body.

    As the church, many of us would think it too odd or cultish to start paying attention to physical health, to mental health, to the food we eat, to how much we eat, to hygiene, etc. Not “spiritual” enough. Yet body and soul influence one another.

    And to agree with others, compassion first. And let’s make sure we distinguish between “determined” and “influenced”.

  • rjs


    Good observations, this is along the lines that this discussion will take in the future I think.

  • Joe Canner

    If you can wade through the panentheism, Michael Dowd has an interesting take on this subject in Thank God for Evolution. He notes that various characteristics acquired during our long evolutionary history are a mismatch for the sensibilities that arose (and continue to evolve) a few thousand years ago. Understanding our sexual drives, our eating habits, addiction pathways, etc. (the “monkey” brain that DRT alluded to in #1), helps us to better understand and deal with these things.

    Having said that, I agree that we are a lot less “free” than we think and that there are some (like in the example) that are not very free at all. These situations deserve extra grace on our part. We have a tendency to assign black or white categories to things (“it’s genetic so it can’t be helped” or “it’s a sin so it’s wrong no matter what”), when there a lot of shades of gray in real life. In any case, open and frank discussions with liberal helpings of love and grace are the only way to make real progress.

  • Wm

    An important discussion. A degree of ‘choice’ isn’t the same as free will. Free will would require having all the facts, an unbiased ability to examine the facts, and the intelligence to match the task. None of us have that. Culture, biology, experience, etc – bias us in untold ways. All that being said, understanding an unfortunate etiology of a particular noxious behavior, doesn’t require society to permit that behavior. It does, though, give us pause in judgment – which, in turn, does impact our notions of ‘hell’.

  • Richard Beck has some great essays, insights and references on this topic and indeed, just had a post on the topic that generated quite a bit of dialogue. Looking into his archives on the topic of free will provides a rich summary of the issues and thinking on this topic.

    I’m convinced that we do not have anything like “Platonic”, idealistic free will. Instead, we are significantly “causally constrained” by our neurology, psychology, upbringing and situations. This has, as Beck points out, real implications for our ideas of sin and salvation. The fundamentalist theological presupposition of radical free will is simple untenable in a modern understanding of human physiology and psychology. And if that’s true, fundamentalist and even broader evangelical ideas of sin and salvation are problematic and require rethinking.

    Having said that, I remain, if not a substance dualist, then an interactionist with regard to the idea and concept of a non-material “soul” as a component of human existence. It seems to me (as I commented at Beck’s blog in response to the recent Free Will post) any meaningful understanding of choice, rationality and reason rests upon some independence from the purely mechanical (i.e., electro-/biochemical) machinations of the human brain.

  • Dana Ames

    I think I have always believed that the rationality Green describes is characteristic of humans. At the same time, I have learned that, like the man in the example, stuff happens. At some level, we all choose, but the whys of the choices are indeed complex and certainly have to do with the integration of the physical with the non-physical.

    This is simply another area where I appreciate the perspective of the Eastern Church. That such things are often unknowable is accepted. The question is, will we love and pray for and care as we can for those folks, or will we simply condemn them from our place of limited knowledge? Only God knows the whole story. In the Eastern tradition, condemnation of others is viewed as the greatest sin, because at bottom it is the opposite of the Jesus Creed: it’s a constant slighting of both our potential/actual love for someone and God’s total love for that person.


  • rjs

    jeff r,

    I agree with you on the fact that there must be some independence from the purely mechanical and this may mean some sort of wholistic dualism – maybe this is what you mean by interactionist.

    But I also think that the constraints and the ability of “past” to impact future should have an impact on how we view church and the Christian life. As my son must train to pole vault or wrestle, and I must study and practice to be a scholar, so too must we study to practice the Christian life.

  • Todd Erickson

    An ongoing factor in this, to my mind, is that if somebody has freedom to choose, but is not aware of the choice (and many of us, due to upbringing, culture, etc. may not even be aware that various choices or alternatives exist) what does that indicate?

  • DRT

    Susan, I hope to write later on that topic. I left a long reply earlier and got a javascript error, argh.

    Todd Erickson#11, about 15 years ago I went through an educational experience where one of the big items was in bringing intentionality into our lives and choosing what we want. For instance, never say that I have to go to work today, or I have to do something with my kids, instead choose to do those things or choose not to do them.

    That is a very powerful concept and leads to all sorts of insights into one’s life if you have not done it before. But, as you have noted, it seems that people are encouraged to do things out of obligation while not truly choosing to do them. Big problem.

    Much of the stress in people’s lives is due to their feelings of anxiety and lack of control (perhaps Ms. Scot should check me or someone else here with a degree should check me on this), so putting myself into the position of choosing my life has made me a much happier person.

    I can’t think of a time where Jesus said to do things out of obligation or such, did he?

  • DRT

    Susan N#3, yes, I think we are speaking of the same thing. Your darkness amount at close to 100% darkness is the same concept as total depravity, imo.

    The point I want to make about it is that I find the concept to be counterproductive because I feel adopting that view leads to a rejection of the “will to” concept of human ambition. If I am to think that I am potentially so depraved/dark by human nature (or monkey existence) that all that can pull me out of it is god’s grace, then my worry is that it takes the existent burden of trying for many people.

    I am not arguing that you are considering us all to be dark, since you state that we are all at different darkness stages, but arguing for removing the necessity for grace being the thing that must be in place for it to happen. Now mind, I am fine with grace being the origination of the desire to change, and feel that it should be taught with zeal that we should pray for the grace to have the desire to change, but question the attribution of grace for the means by which we are able to change.

    Yes, I think we are singing from the same hymnal, do you?

  • DRT

    ..and now this morning all I can think is that it is all grace. So much for those thoughts….

  • Susan N.

    DRT — our concept of “total depravity”, “grace”, and “free will” must be pretty close, if not identical. For the average person, that innate “moral compass” allows us the freedom to pause, consider, and consciously choose. What of those people who, for various reasons (nature, nurture, or a combination of the two) are, for all intents and purposes, by outward appearances, “in the dark”? When we look at someone ravaged by mental illness, anti-social disorder, or alcohol/drug addiction, often their behavior can look inhumane, beastly, brutish, irrational, etc. Does this make them technically less human? If the soul is “lost” and in darkness, we don’t say that someone isn’t still human… Just a shadow of what God created and intended for us to be, maybe?

  • Susan N.

    DRT – #14, 🙂

    Thinking of the most famous examples of “nearly normal” people (based on relative cultural context) who came out of darkness/spiritual blindness (of which they were formerly unaware) as a result of the sheer grace of God:

    The Apostle Paul (formerly Saul of Tarsus)
    John Newton (‘Amazing Grace’ ballad-hymn)

    “I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see.” — Amazing, indeed.