Brain, Mind, Soul, and Spirit—Unified in Personality

Brain, Mind, Soul, and Spirit—Unified in Personality

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The brain is a physical organ that transcends the machine-like regularities of mechanics, and thereby reveals that mechanism never was the whole story even about atoms and molecules.
Keith Ward1

What manner of thing [soul] is would be a long tale to tell, and most assuredly a god alone could tell it, but what it resembles, that a man might tell in briefer compass.
Plato, Phaedrus 246a

So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body.
1 Corinthians 15:42-44a

Resurrection Provokes the Development of the Concept

As the earliest Christians try to make sense of the resurrection of Jesus and their own hoped-for resurrection, a greater differentiation of terms and concepts begins to appear, but the biblical terminology is by no means consis-tent.2 For example, while soma (normally, “body”) may have been a fairly consistent term of continuing identity for Paul, in Matthew, Jesus says: “Do not fear those who kill the body (soma) but cannot kill the soul (psyche)” (Matt. 10:28). Where the Old Testament, especially the Deuteronomic writings, focuses more on a promised land and on flourishing in this life, in the New Testament, the promise of eternal life is already stimulating a more differentiated anthropology. While this incipient anthropology is not systematically developed in the Bible, it has been frequently addressed from patristic times to our own, as Christians have attempted to understand the relation of body, mind, soul, and spirit, and eventually how they might be personally unified in a continuity that begins in this life but does not end with it.

Generally, the tradition has at least agreed on the importance of the body, for neither Judaism nor Christianity has ever disparaged the significance of this present life; instead, the relationship with God is always developed historically and communally by embodied souls. From Old Testament emphasis upon dealing justly and mercifully with all, especially the poor, to the New Testament care for and healing of the sick, feet washing, and the supreme sacrifice of dying for others, the treatment of the body is an important focus. However, it is never an exclusive focus, for the immanent things of the creation exhibit an inherent openness to the transcendent purpose of the Creator and to a world beyond this one. Hence, our understanding of the soul must be flexible enough to handle the import of our embodied lives in history, our lives as history, and to account for a transformed life after death.

Because of the complexity of these demands, Christian thought, which has shown more or less agreement about the importance of the body, has ranged broadly on everything else, e.g., mind, soul, and spirit, associated with our embodied being. Once again, Christian solutions have generally insisted upon a continuing relation to the body, for such is the import of resurrection as opposed to immortality. Resurrection recognizes the break of death as a radical discontinuity of personal life; immortality would follow Plato in seeing death as the separation of body and soul, a separation that actually liberates the soul from its imprisonment in the material body (Phaedo 64c). Hence, even in those Christian accounts, e.g., Aquinas, in which the soul does continue upon death, the separation of soul and body is not usually celebrated as a superior state. Quite to the contrary, the state is temporary, the soul’s knowledge is confused, and, most important, the person is incomplete (ST I.89.3; I.75.4 ad. 2). At the other end of the spectrum, others have held that the soul experiences death with the body or else may sleep until the general resurrection of all. And variations on these positions abound.

Recent Proposals: The Engagement with Neuroscience

Recent advances in neuroscience have been understood by some theologians and neuroscientists to eliminate the need to speak of soul.3 The general trend has been to avoid substance dualism generally attributed to the errors of Descartes, emphasize instead the person as a body-mind unity, and construct a theological account whose strong emphasis on the body can incorporate developments in neuroscience. Thus Nancey Murphy “denies the existence of a nonmaterial entity, the mind (or soul). . . .”4 Murphy, who calls her position “nonreductive physicalism,” believes that the human nervous system, operating in concert with the rest of the body in its environment, is the seat of consciousness (and also of human spiritual or religious capacities). Consciousness and religious awareness are emergent properties and they have top-down causal influence on the body5

Likewise, Philip Clayton, who calls his position “emergentist monism,” discards the traditional conception of the soul as an unnecessary encumbrance to the theological engagement of science.6 For both Murphy and Clayton, their differences notwithstanding, the issue turns on how the mental is to be construed, since they treat soul as the equivalent of mind. Both Murphy and Clayton are aware of other traditional understandings of soul, including its spiritual capabilities, but in order to engage neuroscience on its own terms, this third level of reality is a fortiori ruled out along with the mind. Murphy claims that “we are our bodies,” but she also wants to retain, as does Clayton, “ ‘higher’ capacities” of our humanity, including, “rationality, emotion, morality, free will, and most important, the capacity to be in relation with God.”7 Let us briefly consider some of the relevant neuroscience, question some salient points of this “soulless” trend, and then offer our own assessment.

Advances in neuroscience have progressively revealed that specific mental processes and behavior can sometimes be tightly linked to either a localized area of the brain or to systems or networks in the brain. For example, in 1848, Phineas Gage, a foreman for a railroad company laying rail in Vermont, was the victim of a freak accident. As a result of a premature explosion, a tamping iron shot through Gage’s left cheek at high speed en route to piercing his skull and the front of his brain before exiting and landing about 100 feet away. This iron bar was about three feet, seven inches long, one and a quarter inches in diameter, and weighed a little over thirteen pounds.8 Somehow, even though part of his brain had been destroyed, Gage survived and even remained conscious and rational. However, according to the reports of his attending physician, from that point forward, his previously reliable, efficient character, including his likes, dislikes, and morals, changed drastically. He became irreverent, given to gross profanity, and apparently incapable of remaining at any one job. In Antonio Damasio’s assessment of this case, even though most of Gage’s rational abilities were intact, “Gage was no longer Gage.”9 The damage to his brain evidently changed something quite basic about him.

More about the brain and its link to human behavior was discovered in 1861 when Paul Broca demonstrated a strict correlation between a lesion of the middle posterior part of the frontal lobe of the left hemisphere and speech loss (aphasia). Much later, with the advent of new technologies, such as brain imaging done by positron emission tomography (PET), functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), and new developments in electroencephalography, the linkages have been drawn ever tighter. The new imaging technologies indicate differential distribution of electrical and chemical activities of cerebral regions that predictably vary with the psychology of the subject. Thus, according to French neuroscientist Jean-Pierre Changeux, from images of mental states, actual mental states can be inferred.10 Changeux conjectures that a PET scan of Theresa of Ávila’s brain taken during her mystical experiences could determine whether she was hallucinating or having epileptic fits. Similarly, he educes evidence to suggest that Blaise Pascal may have been experiencing symptoms of epilepsy during a mystical experience.11 More recently, experiments have been done on cats and monkeys in which the corpus callosum (the fibers connecting the left and right hemispheres) is severed. These experiments, along with data from the small group of human patients who had similar procedures to alleviate severe epilepsy, indicate that the patient ends up with two centers of consciousness.12 Additionally, in patients who have suffered a stroke and lose the ability to recognize faces, CT scans have been able to specify the damaged area. In consideration of such linkages between brain function and higher level behaviors, Murphy concludes that “nearly all of the human capacities or faculties once attributed to the soul are now seen to be functions of the brain.”13

But it is not clear why recent findings of neuroscience refute earlier understandings of the soul. After all, while Aquinas, for example, did not know of a certainty that the brain is the organ of thinking, he too posited a very tight linkage between soul and body. Does ignorance of specific brain functions refute a position that so strongly stresses the unity of soul and body? The scientific advances that have told us so much about how the brain functions would be unlikely to have troubled Aquinas. The ancients and medievals certainly knew that a blow to the head could cause someone to lose consciousness or to become “batty” in their behavior. Malcolm Jeeves, a neuroscientist well versed in theology, cautions that in neuroscience, the data “do not arrive with a label attached telling us what they all mean.”14

One possibility is that the data could lead to the belief that it is no longer possible to have a real relationship with a real God. This view, however, is not the position of Murphy and the nonreductive physicalists. Their position is that we can have a relationship with God, but we do not need an immaterial soul or even an immaterial mind to do so. Thus evaluating the data of localization studies that show a particular part or system of the brain involved in activities like “language, emotion, and decisionmaking,” Murphy tells us that “it is the brain that is responsible for these capacities, not some immaterial entity associated with the body.”15 Here the strangeness of the language used, “the brain . . . is responsible,” may betray a larger problem. Is the brain responsible for our higher capacities, or is it the essential (and remarkable) tool of those capacities? What is at stake here is whether there is anything immaterial in human consciousness.

Working in the 1930s, Canadian neuroscientist Wilder Penfield observed that while brain stimulation could force a patient to do certain things, the patient retained his freedom of belief, his will, typically responding, “I didn’t do that. You did.” Penfield concludes: “There is no place in the cerebral cortex where electrical stimulation will cause a patient to believe or decide.”16

Taking up the debate over neuroscience with Jean-Pierre Changeux, Paul Ricoeur questions whether scientific models can capture the richness of actual biological, lived experience, including spiritual experience. He allows that there is a causal link between neuronal dysfunction and the higher aspects of human behavior, but contends that things are quite different when the brain is functioning normally. Here “the underlying neuronal activity is silent in a way.”17 As we saw above in Chapter Two, lower level functions are typically necessary for higher level activities, but they are normally insufficient to explain those higher activities. The higher level can be perverted or destroyed altogether by lower level trauma, but given normal lower level functioning, what transpires on the higher levels cannot be explained in terms of lower level mechanics.

The silence of the properly functioning brain points to the seamless manner in which the unifying force of personality is our most basic identity. We never ask our brains to think; we just think. We do not normally ask our souls to detect and cherish the divine presence; we just do so. Neither from the silence of a well functioning brain, nor from the dramatic cases of brain malfunctioning should Murphy’s “ontological reductionism” be inferred.18 A brain is necessary for human consciousness, but it would be strange indeed to say that consciousness is in the brain.

“Nonreductive physicalism” and “emergentist monism” are intermediate positions. They represent attempts to carve out a position between “eliminative materialism” and “substance dualism.”19 However, in a passage cited by Clayton, Jaegwon Kim, one of the central figures in these debates, points out: “Nonreductive materialism is not a stable position. There are pressures of various sorts that push it either in the direction of an outright eliminativism or in the direction of an explicit form of dualism.”20 If everything is explained in physical terms, there is clearly no need for a mind or soul (and the same would follow for God); hence, the force of eliminative physicalism. By contrast, in the intermediate positions, the reality of different “levels,” “properties,” “dimensions,” or “aspects” is being asserted, but any kind of mental or spiritual substance, that unwelcome inheritance attributed to Descartes, is denied.21 But if nonphysical realities are claimed to exist and to possess causal power (“top-down” causality, where the mental level can affect the brain level), isn’t the nose of the spiritual camel already under the flap of the physicalist tent?

Since no theologian could accept eliminative physicalism, the issue comes down to this: What reality do the believed-in higher levels have? As Kim suspects, does denying any ontology beyond the physical inevitably lead to a gravitational collapse upon physicality? Clayton perceives this danger and counters it, but as he does, the fragility of the intermediate position is again revealed. He really does two things. He insists on monism because “only one kind of thing exists,” i.e., the physical. But then he tells us that something new emerges from the physical that cannot be understood in terms of the physical:

We need multiple layers of explanatory accounts because the human person is a physical, biological, psychological, and (I believe also) spiritual reality, and because these aspects of its reality, though interdependent, are not mutually reducible. Call the existence of these multiple layers ontological pluralism, and my thesis becomes clear: ontological pluralism begets explanatory pluralism.22

Pushing hard on this second component of his position, and explicitly rejecting “physicalism,” Clayton perspicaciously argues for an “ontological thesis,” namely, “that human persons, correctly and fully understood, include a spiritual dimension which, whatever else it is, is more than physical.”23 Given these clearly stated ontological claims, does it still make sense to speak of “monism”?

The monistic claim is further called into question when we consider that, if God is Spirit (John 4:24), then there is at least one truly non-physical agent upon which all theology is based. As Clayton puts it, “theologians . . . are committed to the existence of a spiritual being or dimension which, while it may include the world, transcends it as well.”24 But if we admit the spiritual ontology of both God and human persons into the discussion, monism no longer seems an adequate title for what is being claimed.

A common pattern is that almost all who enter this fray argue for different “levels,” “dimensions,” “aspects,” or “properties” while claiming to avoid dualism. Attempting to avoid prejudicing the discussion by a title, Jeeves suggests that we circumvent the terms “physicalism,” “mentalism,” “dualism,” and “monism.” Instead, he describes “the intimate relationship between brain and mind, or soul and body, as one of irreducible intrinsic interdependence and of duality without dualism.”25

Whether monism or dualism is defended, my thesis is that two things will be present in every sensible discussion: some form of twoness and a way to unify the twoness. The higher level of the twoness can be called an “aspect,” “dimension,” “property,” or “level” of the more basic brain, or described as “duality without dualism.” And some theorists such as William Hasker expressly advocate dualism.26 But in order to account for the range of human and divine activity, each account will have, under one title or another, some sort of twoness and some basic way to unify the twoness. And the most effective way to account for the overall unity is by some account of person that can be distinguished from nature alone.

Let us remember that what sparks the original entrance of “soul” language into the New Testament and the following Christian tradition is a concern for more than this life alone. Let us remove the “Cartesian” straw man and think instead about Paul, other New Testament writers, the Patristic leaders of the church, and Aquinas. These Christian writers do not endorse dualism, but rather, emphasize the connectedness of the soul to the body in this life, and insist on some form of embodiment in the next. In this light, is Jeeves, like many others, not essentially saying, “duality without dualism” is good twoness; dualism is bad twoness? Regardless of the terminology used to characterize a position, anyone who does not completely capitulate to materialism must assert the reality of the higher level. Once a higher level is asserted, one’s preferred label is of secondary importance. Whatever form of twoness is proposed is not the final word, because the twoness will be enveloped in a greater unity.

Since the hypostatic union settled upon at Chalcedon, in which the two natures of Christ were unified in one Person, Christian thought has consistently opposed dualism through the unifying force of the person. Just as the one Person unifies the two natures of Christ, so too are the different levels of body, mind, soul, and spirit unified in each human person.

The debate about neuroscience may display what Clayton insightfully calls a “fractal divide,” for it is the latest variation of an even older fractal divide — that between the allowance or rejection of transcendence in understanding the finite.27 In the postmodern trajectory from Nietzsche to Derrida, we have seen how the a priori denial of transcendence governs their discourse and how the battle over the finite context becomes a proxy battle for the debate over the human person. The debate about neuroscience, fought over the central system in the human body, follows suit. While Murphy wants to retain anthropological unity, her attempt to do so by “ontological reductionism” parallels the postmodern denial of transcendence.28 By eschewing the soul and stripping anthropology down to the brain, is there not an inconsistency between the physicalist ontology that remains and the higher goal of relationship with God?

A Stretched Ontology: The Emergence of the Soul

Because reasoned faith cannot be sustained if its referent does not exist, people of faith must be committed to multiple levels of being, i.e., at least two levels, for God is Spirit. Unfortunately, when the debate devolves to accommodating the concept of mind to advances in neuroscience, the ontology of spirit, whether of God’s or of the human soul, is too often missing from the discussion.29 Is mind equivalent to soul without remainder?30 From the New Testament to the present, soul has normally found its place in the context of an ontology that portrays the human being as the created partner of the God who is Spirit. The tight mind-body correlation that advocates of nonreductive physicalism propose could possibly account for such things as athletic accomplishment. But is a mind-body relationship sufficient to account for the highest exercise of human freedom in response to God?

Interestingly, Warren Brown, one of the advocates of nonreductive physicalism, describes something quite close to what I am arguing about the soul, but he does so while denying its ontology. As Brown puts it,

Despite the physicalist accounting we are attempting in this volume, it is difficult to avoid use of the word “soul” in this discussion as well. The word designates something within us that is at once both deep and transcendent. While arguing for a more embodied understanding of this aspect of our experience, the experience itself cannot be denied. Thus, “soul” (or at times “soulful” or “soulish”) is used herein to designate not an essence apart from the physical self, but the net sum of those encounters in which embodied humans relate to and commune with God (who is spirit) or with one another in a manner that reaches deeply into the essence of our creaturely, historical, and communal selves.31

When Brown writes of reaching “deeply into the essence” as a result of communing with God, when he tells us that “something within us . . . is . . . deep and transcendent,” and that its “experience itself cannot be denied,” he has, in spite of his protestations about remaining a physicalist, affirmed virtually everything non-physical at issue about the soul. However, he apparently would have us accept the non-physical descriptions without the non-physical actuality. His denial of “an essence apart from the physical self” is something of a straw man, for it is not clear that anyone actually holds that position.32

Similarly, Joel Green, who sets out as the biblical defender of monism or nonreductive physicalism, ends up concluding, “Paul’s language is dualistic but in an eschatological, not an anthropological, sense.”33 Green’s admission is significant, because “eschatological” dualism, i.e., anthropology reassessed in light of the resurrection, is precisely what prompted the early Christian conceptual development of the soul. Jesus’ resurrection and the hope for our own provoke a new kind of thinking about our own humanity, never one that is ultimately dualistic, but one that recognizes the ontological difference between God and humanity, for a full human life is one lived in ever greater openness to the ever present Spirit of God. As T. F. Torrance has pointed out, “The doctrine that in Jesus Christ God’s own eternal Logos had personally become man within space and time shattered all forms of cosmological dualism, whether Platonic, Aristotelian, or Stoic, which did not allow for any interaction of God with the empirical world.”34 The unified view of the world and humanity in relation to God is quintessentially Christian. It does not require Murphy’s “ontological reductionism” to be accomplished. Instead, the Christian focus on person, both Christ’s and our own, functions to unify the inherent tension of different natures.

The Counterpart of the Spirit

The primary application of the term spirit is always to God, who is infinitely actual and active Spirit. Being made in the image and likeness of God, the human spirit, the higher aspect of the soul, comes alive only as it ceases to resist cooperation with God. Sin has many meanings and forms, but its primary one is to deny the gift of relationship with God. Relationship with God is never static, and all those who enter into this relationship in faith cannot but be changed, not just once, but in every event in which this relationship occurs. In Irenaeus’ second-century account, something happens when we receive the Spirit — the soul undergoes a process of sanctification; likewise, something happens when we refuse the Spirit — we remain in animal, carnal nature and thereby fail in the appointed essence of our humanity — to become ever more than we currently are.35 Capturing this sense of process and movement in the relationship with God, Brian Daley comments upon Gregory of Nyssa’s understanding of soul: “Perfection . . . is a never-ending process of growth towards God, an endless growth in the human subject’s reflection of, and participation in, God’s infinite qualities of goodness and beauty.”36

The import of this early Christian understanding is not adherence to a dualism of substances, since these thinkers emphasized the unity of the human person just as they came to emphasize the unity of Christ’s one Person in two natures. Rather, the import is that the relationship to God initiates a stretched ontology, where the human partner is always becoming something more than in the leading edge of its being, that is, in its soul. The spiritual dimension of the soul emerges because of the relationship to God, and thus cannot possibly be understood in terms of neurobiology, even though the emergence will not take place apart from neurobiological functioning. Unlike the veritable dualism of the Gnostics, the importance of the body has always been integral in orthodox Christian doctrine. The unique opportunity of human personhood is that the spiritual soul can be evolved in a historical, mostly material being, not by withdrawing from the world, but by properly engaging it. The character of eternity, emerging in the soul, habitually draws its strength from powers that are not its own. These powers are given as faith, hope, and love, and they are developed in devotion to the true, good, and beautiful, the qualities of the emerging soul.

The true, good, and beautiful, the transcendentals, are the created and creative potentials of the human relationship to God. These transcendentals are coterminous with the infinite being of God, and they may become increasingly present as the stuff of which the soul is being made in the divine image and likeness. In every cooperative encounter with God, the gift of the true, good, and beautiful emerges in the soul. As they are realized, the soul, spiritualized through grace, may manifest a new sensitivity to, recognition of, and desire for the transcendentals. Possessed of such a soul, the human person who now actively pursues the true, good, and beautiful cannot be explained in terms of neurobiology alone.

Personal Continuity, the Break of Death,
and the Hope of Resurrection

What is most important in our hoped-for resurrection, as it was in Jesus’, is that “It is I myself” who after death reenters into community, knows and is known, loves and is loved (Luke 24:39). But what does it mean to be myself after death? Ted Peters gets the issue into focus:

What is raised is the whole person inclusive of our various aspects: body, soul, and everything else. This does not forbid positing the existing of a human soul. What it forbids is the notion of a permanent disembodied soul that bears the essence of a person’s identity.37

Even those who advocate the existence of a separated soul after death, such as Aquinas, would agree with Peters, since Aquinas holds that the separated soul is a temporary state, and that resurrection means rejoining body and soul. In fact, Aquinas explicitly rejects the notion that the soul is a person (ST I.75.4 ad 2). For Peters and for Aquinas, as well as for Murphy and Clayton, the unity of the person is rightly held as the most important principle.

Absent some kind of unifier, the multifaceted character of human being, including the body, feelings, emotions, intellect, will, mind, self-consciousness, character, and soul, not to mention roles, relationships, and experience, becomes incoherent, for these various aspects cannot stand alone. Because each of these aspects undergoes change, their continuing identity is derived from adherence to the abiding identity and unifying potential of the personality. The particularity of a mind (likewise, the soul), with all its ideas and commitments, and with the way it is understood and is experienced by others, is always the mind of a particular person. We never interact with minds or bodies in the abstract; we interact with the body and the mind of a particular person. The coherence of saying, “My friend has changed his mind,” is that we can understand both of his positions, the former one held and the latter, and, most importantly, we can understand the significance of the change for the persons who have not changed: he is still he; I am still I. The perduring identity of personality is the only guarantee of the meaningfulness of change, including changes in body, mind, and soul.

The Significance of the Body

Why have Christian theologians, even in creedal statements, insisted upon the resurrection of the body? First, the body is our rootedness in creation. Unlike rocks or automobiles, our flesh and blood, DNA-architected bodies are alive with the life of creation. In them we feel the immediacy of things first hand, and we experience a kinship with all else that has life. We sometimes share our lives and homes with pets, almost as if they were our children, and we can take delight in landscaping and decorating our homes with the living beauty of plants. The uniqueness of human spirituality is its embodied engagement of the world, with all its risks, joys, difficulties, and dangers, including the inevitable confrontation with death.

Second, the body is the living marker of our personhood. Because each human body is personal, coming too close or staying too distant sends personal signals. The body establishes each person in a separateness that is prerequisite to all meaningful relationship because it is the material condition of human freedom. Interpersonal communion would be meaningless if it were automatic. Our physical location at any point in our lives says something important about us and our current conditions, choices, and commitments. To speak of the resurrection of the body is to speak of our continuing identity in separateness, a separateness that enables the freedom of fellowship understood by the intellect and affirmed by the will. We do not want to become “a drop of water that becomes one with the ocean,” as some Eastern thought would have it. As a recognizable form, the body is the positioned life of our person. The belief in resurrection of the body is the belief that in some recognizable form that can be called our own, persons will continue.

What exactly is meant by resurrection of the body has long been disputed.38 As Paul addresses the controversy, “It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body (soma pneumatikon)” (1 Cor. 15:44). Moreover, Paul declares that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 15:50). Something more than our current bodily state is required. Reflecting upon the change and continuity of human life, Origen sees the resurrection, including the resurrection of the body, as a transformation:

For souls which are in bodily places must have bodies to suit the places. And just as, if we had to become water creatures and lived in the sea, we would surely need gills and the other features of fish, so, as we are to inherit the kingdom of heaven and live in places superior to ours, we must have spiritual bodies.39

Even during this life, how is our body the same and how is it different? Normally, the body of an infant girl becomes that of a teenager and eventually that of an elderly woman without becoming what we would call a different body. Since an unchanging material identity is not present in this life, neither should a completely unchanged material identity be required in resurrection, only some form of continuity, where an analogous commensurability of body and soul is recreated in personal unity. Whatever body is given, it must be experienced as my own. Its belongingness cannot be like that of an external object, but rather, like that of seamless continuity with myself, now functioning in the resurrected environment.

Resurrection presents the greatest dissymmetry of the divine-human relationship. Everything about it depends upon God’s action. Here our hope must be stronger than our understanding, for at death we are either children of God or we are nothing at all.

The Significance of the Soul

For all the distinctive weight that Christians have consistently placed upon the value of the body, something greater than the body has always been recognized in the human person, and this something greater has generally been attributed to the intangible soul. So we recall Jesus’ sayings: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul” (Matt. 10:28); and his paradox about losing our lives to save them (Mark 8:35). Like all that is alive, we have a strong drive to preserve our lives, but we can overrule that inherent drive; we can give up our own treasured life for the sake of others, for the sake of truth, for the gospel. Mind can be conceived in strictly physicalist terms, where it functions as a result of increased brain capacity and serves to protect one’s own evolutionary interests. But something higher than this sort of mind is meant when a person is so dedicated to truth, goodness, or beauty, to love for others, even strangers, that biological self-interest is overruled in favor of these higher qualities. To be an ensouled body or embodied soul may mean that the soul is the life of the body, but the distinctive possibility of the soul is that it can perceive something higher than its own life, and that the intellect and will can then choose the higher.

In the resurrection, if my character, deepest commitments, developed dispositions, and relationships were altered without my participation, could these treasured aspects of personhood still be said to be mine? I may be led to see things in a new light that transforms the way I perceive my surroundings, my past, others, and myself, but I myself must consciously participate in this kind of transformation. There is no way beyond the break of death without the strong action of divine grace, but the God who has so graciously respected human freedom in this life is unlikely to violate it in the next. Not unlike the way all of us receive our bodies in this life, with no original effort on our part, we can imagine receiving a greatly transformed body, but we cannot imagine having our relationships, character, commitments, and developed dispositions changed apart from our own participation in the process. Hence, these higher level aspects of our personality — these functions of the soul — cannot be eliminated.

The body will be transformed, and with it the mind will be renewed. The soul will be changed, even transformed. But like the resurrected Jesus’ proclamation to the stunned apostles, it will still be “I myself,” for personality remains the identity that makes all of the changes of body and soul fraught with meaning.

The Christ-Formed Person

As the one who receives his being from the Father and then bestows it in his incarnate life, teachings, death, resurrection, and sending of the Spirit, we can truly say that the Son is grace. To ponder the being and work of the Son is to confront the meaning of gift and the depth of divine generosity. As the Son is the gift of the Father, so too does every human person receive their life and their possibility as a gift. Grace is person-constituting, and as we participate in it by following the teachings, leadership, and mission of the Son, grace is person-fulfilling, but only as the inclinations and drives of nature are restrained, and sometimes reversed: “For those who want to save their life will lose it.”

The Christian understanding of the true, good, and beautiful is not an abstraction, but rather, is personal, Christ-formed. As Geoffrey Wainwright puts it, “Jesus embodied the character of God and his purpose for humankind. That is the Christian definition of the Good.”40 The Incarnation not only initiates the trajectory of the concept of the person, it is itself a revelation of the personal. In Christ we see the revelation of God to humankind and the revelation of exalted humanity to all human cultures and times. The Incarnation is a personal opening that disrupts any closed and self-sufficient ontology, because humanity is now to be understood as referred being — being that is always in relation to Christ, not as sheer divinity, but as the God-man, the one in whom divinity and humanity are joined and who now confronts humankind not from beyond, but from within its own ranks. In the coming of Christ, the Creator illuminates the creation from within its own processes.

The telos of human personality is realized only as persons are stretched beyond the flat confines of human nature in relation to God, as persons are increasingly made in the image and likeness of God. This sense of humanity’s being referred to the being of God has seemed outrageous to many since its inception. As E. L. Mascall puts it, “Greek thought could not have tolerated . . . the idea that a being could become more perfect in its kind by acquiring some characteristic which was not implicit in its nature before.”41 Persons, however, are not equivalent to their natures. A human person has a nature, but being drawn into relationship with the Trinitarian God has a transformative effect upon that nature. In every good relationship, Thomas Langford notes, “two contrary things happen: one is drawn out of oneself, one is reinforced in one’s self.”42 The relationship with God is the apotheosis of this simultaneous drawing out and reinforcing.

Following the example of Christ, being drawn out of the self has a kenotic quality, an emptying and humbling of the self (Phil. 2:5-8). As we “let the same mind be in [us] that was in Christ Jesus,” humility is a prerequisite, an invitational openness to being formed by Christ, the source, exemplar, and measure of all that is true, good, and beautiful. In being formed by Christ, we become active partakers of the strange narrative in which the first become last, the last become first, the master becomes servant of all, and sinners are turned and sanctified. In this narrative of grace we remember that Christ is also for, we might even say especially for, non-Christians (Luke 15:3-7), and we must be as well. The disciples of Jesus are to take the initiative in returning good for evil, and in loving and forgiving even the most difficult of our fellows. Since the ultimate purpose of our lives is given in the divine gift of personal relationship, our response should be to remember that we find ourselves only as we are opened beyond ourselves to Christ, to the divine Person in whom transcendence became immanent within our history. The Son of God, having so graciously become one of us, calls us to become the sons and daughters of God, and thereby take on the eternal identity that confers inexhaustible meaning and purpose on human personalities.


1 Keith Ward, Religion and Human Nature (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998), 143.

2 Terms such as sarx (flesh), soma (which could mean body or even the continuous identity), psyche (soul or, on occasion, the living being), kardia (heart), and pneuma (spirit) are used in various ways with varying degrees of consistency. One gets the overall sense that these writers were witnesses to a truth that needed urgently to be proclaimed in an apocalyptic ethos that often included persecution. For them, calm, systematic articulations were not the order of the day.

3 See, for example, Warren S. Brown, Nancey Murphy, and H. Newton Maloney, eds., Whatever Happened to the Soul? Scientific and Theological Portraits of Human Nature (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998); Robert Russell et al., eds., Neuroscience and the Person: Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action (Vatican City and Berkeley, Calif.: Vatican Observatory and Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences, 1999); Malcolm Jeeves, ed., From Cells to Souls — and Beyond: Changing Portraits of Human Nature (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004).

4 Nancey Murphy, “Nonreductive Physicalism: Philosophical Issues,” in Whatever Happened to the Soul? 130-131.

5 Murphy, “Nonreductive Physicalism,” 131.

6 Philip Clayton, “Neuroscience, the Person, and God,” in Neuroscience and the Person, 181-214, esp. 209-211. Clayton contends: “To introduce a soul substance at this critical juncture would be to abandon the debate all together, for that move, almost by definition, leaves no common ground with natural science” (204).

7 Murphy, “Human Nature: Historical, Scientific, and Religious Issues,” in Whatever Happened to the Soul? 2.

8 The figures are taken from Henry Bigelow, professor of surgery at Harvard and contemporary with Gage, as cited in Antonio R. Damasio, Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1994), 6.

9 Damasio, Descartes’ Error, 7.

10 Jean-­Pierre Changeux and Paul Ricoeur, What Makes Us Think? A Neuroscientist and a Philosopher Argue about Ethics, Human Nature, and the Brain, trans. M. B. DeBevoise (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), 53.

11 Changeux and Ricoeur, What Makes Us Think? 55, 57.

12 Malcolm Jeeves, “Brain, Mind, and Behavior,” in Whatever Happened to the Soul? 79-80.

13 Murphy, “Human Nature,” in Whatever Happened to the Soul? 1.

14 Jeeves, “Brain, Mind and Behavior,” 87.

15 Murphy, “Human Nature,” 1.

16 Wilder Penfield, The Mystery of the Mind (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975), 76-77, as cited in Terence L. Nichols, The Sacred Cosmos: Christian Faith and the Challenge of Naturalism (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2003), 172-173.

17 Changeux and Ricoeur, What Makes Us Think? 48-49.

18 Murphy, “Nonreductive Physicalism,” 130. Interestingly, the brain is the physical organ of our consciousness, but we cannot consciously perceive the brain itself. For example, headaches are not experienced within the brain, but in the meningeal envelope that protects the brain. In fact, surgeons can use a scalpel in the brain to remove a piece of the cerebral cortex without the patient experiencing pain. As a result, neurosurgical operations are normally done with the patient awake, so that the surgeon can speak with the patient and ask what is being experienced. Hence Ricoeur states: “The cortex will never figure in the discourse of one’s own body” (What Makes Us Think? 51-52).

19 Although a complete comparison of the two positions would take us too far afield, Clayton makes a good case that his “emergentist monism” is not just another version of “nonreductive physicalism.” See “Neuroscience, the Person, and God,” 209-212.

20 Kim, “The Myth of Nonreductive Materialism,” in The Mind-­Body Problem, ed. Richard Warner and Tadeusz Szubka (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994), 242-60, as cited by Philip Clayton in “Neuroscience, the Person, and God,” 200. Clayton’s cartography of the issue is excellent.

21 For an excellent article on the classical understanding of substance and how that understanding was misunderstood by some major modern philosophers, see W. Norris Clarke, S.J., Explorations in Metaphysics: Being, God, Person (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1994), 102-122, esp. 104-113.

22 Clayton, “Neuroscience, the Person, and God,” 210.

23 Clayton, “Neuroscience, the Person, and God,” 212.

24 Clayton, “Neuroscience, the Person, and God,” 211.

25 Jeeves, “Toward a Composite Portrait,” in From Cells to Souls, 244.

26 See William Hasker, The Emergent Self (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1999).

27 Clayton, “Neuroscience, the Person, and God,” 209.

28 Murphy, “Nonreductive Physicalism,” 130.

29 In “Nonreductive Physicalism,” Nancey Murphy asserts that just as mind supervenes on the brain, so too does religious experience “supervene on combinations of ordinary experience” (143). After looking at some accounts of religious experience provided by Carolyn Franks Davis, Murphy concludes that “religious experiences do not depend on any special faculties over and above humans’ ordinary emotional and cognitive faculties” (147). She suggests that the cognitive, behavioral, and physiological can “cluster” to become a religious experience (147, n. 39). But this account leaves much unexplained. After the religious experience, does Murphy’s “cluster” disappear? Does it revert to its “cognitive, behavioral, and physiological” components?

30 The French and German terms, esprit and Geist, are notoriously ambiguous on this issue. Both esprit and Geist can be translated as either “mind” or “spirit.” The English differentiation of mind and spirit is quite useful here.

31 Warren Brown, “Cognitive Contributions to Soul,” in Whatever Happened to the Soul? 101.

32 Brown may have Aquinas in mind, but any separation that Aquinas would allow is only after death, is temporary, and leaves the person and its soul in an incomplete and epistemologically confused state. If he has Descartes in mind, even Descartes, for all his strongly dualistic statements, also insists, “By means of these feelings of pain, hunger, thirst, and so on, nature also teaches that I am present to my body not merely in the way a seaman is present to his ship, but that I am tightly joined and, so to speak, mingled together with it, so much so that I make up one single thing with it.” Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy VI.81, trans. Donald A. Cress (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 1979), 50.

33 Joel B. Green, “What Does It Mean to Be Human?” in From Cells to Souls, 193. Also see his article, “ ‘Bodies — That Is, Human Lives’: A Re-­Examination of Human Nature in the Bible,” in Whatever Happened to the Soul? 149-173. Both articles helpfully present source material, even material that cuts against the thesis of nonreductive physicalism.

34 T. F. Torrance, “The Soul and Person, in Theological Perspective,” in Religion, Reason, and the Self: Essays in Honour of Hywel D. Lewis, ed. Stewart R. Sutherland and T. A. Roberts (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1989), 103-104.

35 As Irenaeus puts it: “For the perfect human being consists in the commingling and the union of the soul, as it receives the Spirit of the Father, and the mixture of that fleshly nature which was molded after the image of God. . . . When the Spirit, here blended with the soul, is united to [God’s] handiwork, the person is rendered spiritual and perfect because of the outpouring of the Spirit; this is the one who was made in the image and likeness of God. But if the Spirit is lacking in the soul, he who is such is indeed of an animal nature, and being left carnal, shall be an imperfect being, possessing indeed the image [of God] in his formation, but not receiving the likeness through the Spirit — and so his being is imperfect.” Irenaeus, Against the Heresies 5.6.1, as cited in Brian E. Daley, “A Hope for Worms: Early Christian Hope,” in Resurrection: Theological and Scientific Assessments, ed. Ted Peters, Robert John Russell, and Michael Welker (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 144.

36 Daley, “A Hope for Worms,” 158-159.

37 Peters, “Resurrection of the Very Embodied Soul?” in Neuroscience and the Person, 323.

38 From the concern to stipulate identity by means of the resurrected body, the somewhat strange (to us) notion was put forward from the second century on that the same body would be resurrected. This view, the so-­called “material identity” thesis, maintains that every bit of the bodily composition will be identically reconstituted in the resurrection. Aside from the kind of problems that our contemporary biology would have with this material identity view, such as that every cell of the body is replaced within a seven year period, the early Christians generated their own conundrums, as in the following example: What if a person were eaten by a large fish that was subsequently eaten by another Christian and so entered into the latter’s flesh? Whose resurrected flesh would it be? The arguments in support of this position are untenable in light of contemporary biology; indeed, even in their own era, putting forward such arguments fostered some scornful opposition to early Christianity, as when Celsus refers to the desire that the same body be raised as “the hope of worms” (see Daley, “Hope for Worms,” 138). What is most significant for our purposes is the seriousness with which our forbears were concerned with bodily resurrection as a necessity of retaining personal identity in the resurrection.

39 Origen, a passage from his commentary on Psalm 1:5 in Methodius’ On the Resurrection, preserved by Epiphanius, Panarion 64.14.7-8, trans. Frank Williams (Leiden: Brill, 1994), 143, as cited by Daley, “Hope for Worms,” 155.

40 Geoffrey Wainwright, “The True, the Good, and the Beautiful: The Other Story,” Journal of Theology for Southern Africa 107 (July 2000): 31.

41 E. L. Mascall, The Openness of Being: Natural Theology Today (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1971), 246f., as cited in Zizioulas, Being as Communion, 70, n. 11.

42 Langford, Reflections on Grace, 104.