Lesslie Newbigin on the social character of human nature

Lesslie Newbigin on the social character of human nature

Human beings find fulfillment not in the attempt to develop themselves, not in the effort to better their own condition, not in the untrammeled exercise of unlimited covetousness, but in the experience of mutual relatedness and responsibility in serving a shared goal. Recent surveys in Britain have brought out the fact that great numbers of people have affirmed that the best years of their lives were those in which they shared the experience of the war. The bombing of cities, the destruction of homes, the absence of rest or holiday, the shortage of food and clothing, and the constant presence of death were all part of the picture; but what colors it all is the memory of shared commitment to a common purpose. That is what brings human beings to their very best, and most of us know it.

From Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture, (Eerdmans, 1986), 122.

Book Notice: James K A Smith

I’m just now getting to a 2009 Baker title that I’d been neglecting: Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation by the Calvin College philosopher James K. A. Smith (PhD, Villanova). It’s the first of a projected three volume series in “Cultural Liturgies.” The second volume is also already available — Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works (Baker, 2013) — but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The first volume offers enough material to occupy our attention for the present moment. To give you a sense for its flavor and aims, here’s a longish quote from the introduction:

“Being a disciple of Jesus is not primarily a matter of getting the right ideas and doctrines and beliefs into your head in order to guarantee proper behavior; rather, it’s a matter of being the kind of person who loves rightly — who loves God and neighbor and is oriented to the world by the primacy of that love. We are made to be such people by our immersion in the material practices of Christian worship — through affective impact, over time, of sights and smell in water and wine.

“The liturgy is a ‘hearts and minds’ strategy, a pedagogy that trains us as disciples precisely by putting our bodies through a regimen of repeated practices that get hold of our heart and ‘aim’ our love toward the kingdom of God. Before we articulate a worldview, we worship. Before we put into words the lineaments of an ontology or an epistemology, we pray for God’s healing and illumination. Before we theorize the nature of God, we sing his praises. Before we express moral principles, we receive forgiveness. Before we codify the doctrine of Christ’s two natures, we receive the body of Christ in the Eucharist. Before we think, we pray. That’s the kind of animals we are, first and foremost: loving, desiring, affective, liturgical animals who, for the most part, don’t inhabit the world as thinkers or cognitive machines. […]

“This, I’m going to argue, should make a difference for how we think about the nature and task of Christian education — and thus what’s at stake at a Christian college. … In short, the Christian college is a formative institution that constitutes part of the teaching mission of the church.

“This vision of the mission of Christian education requires a correlate pedagogy that honors the formative role of material practices. Thus, … education at Christian colleges must be understood as liturgical in more than an analogical or metaphorical sense. Or perhaps to put it more starkly, … we need to move from the model of ‘Christian universities,’ identified as sites for transmitting Christian ideas, to ‘ecclesial colleges,’ understood to be institutions intimately linked to the church and thus an extension of its practices. If Christian learning is nourished by a Christian worldview, and if that worldview is first and foremost embedded in the understanding that is implicit in the practices of Christian worship, then the Christian college classroom is parasitic upon the worship of the church — it lives off the capital of Christian worship.” (32-4)

Not at all a bad start! My first impressions have been largely affirmative. I’ve got quite a bit of patience for a project like this. So far I’m liking these dimensions in particular: (1) its impatience with tired rationalist accounts of human nature; (2) its counter-anthropology that promotes instead human agency — brought to view in the objects and quality of our loves — as the saner entry point for thinking the human animal; and finally (3) its eye for the implications this whole discussion bears for Christian tertiary education (and, arguably, the Church’s catechesis and evangelism, though Smith doesn’t press this). The textbooks would call this a work in philosophical anthropology. Whatever the label, I’m looking forward to reading what else Smith has to say.

On the Soul

On the Soul

A. Nicholas Lash

“Any attempt to speak sensibly of God as ‘spirit’ must first take the long road through an effort to recapture a less distorted understanding of what being human means.

“Discussion about how ‘consciousness’ is best understood is at present a very lively field in a wide range of scientific disciplines and in philosophy. Are ‘mind’ and ‘matter,’ for example, best understood as different kinds of thing, as different entities? Those who answer ‘Yes’ are ‘substance dualists,’ because they think of mind and matter as two substances, or things. Unfortunately, most scientists and many philosophers are poor historians, thus perpetuating by assertion the widespread but quite mistaken belief that traditional Christianity is committed to some form of substance dualism. In a conference in which he and I took part a few years ago, I took issue with the philosopher John Searle for referring to ‘traditional dualism, the belief in the immortality of the soul, spiritualism, and so on.’ Where mind and matter are concerned, I pointed out that, in the tradition going back to Aristotle, ‘mind’ might be best defined as ‘the capacity for behavior of the complicated and symbolic kinds which constitute the linguistic, social, moral, economic, scientific, cultural, and other characteristic activities of human beings in society.’

“Think of your mind, then, not as a ‘thing,’ stuck somewhere in your head, but as your abiliity to do the kinds of things that human beings, distinctively and characteristically, do: they make plans, tell stories, dream dreams, and construct elaborate systems of organization and behavior. And then try to think in a similar way about the distinction between the ‘body’ and the ‘soul.’ In a similar way, but not identically. The distinction is similar because to speak of ourselves as ‘souls’ is, like talk of ‘minds,’ to speak of our ability to do the kinds of things that human beings, distinctively and characteristically, do. However, talk of ‘minds’ stops there, where as to talk of ourselves as ‘souls’ is (if what we say is to be within earshot of classical Christianity) to go further. To speak of ourselves as ‘souls’ is to recognize our creatureliness, to acknowledge that everything we are and have is gift; that we are ‘gift-things’ that have been given the capacity and duty to return the gift we are in praise and celebration.

“There is a quite straightforward distinction between, for example, a pineapple and its shape. But nobody supposes that its ‘shape’ is a second, different kind of thing, somewhere inside (or perhaps on the surface of) the pineapple! Think of the soul as the ‘shape’ of a human life: the body’s history, identity, direction — and, we hope, its destiny in God.

“As well as the distinction between ‘mind’ and ‘matter,’ and the distinction between ‘soul’ and ‘body,’ there is another distinction familiar to every reader of the Scriptures, between ‘spirit’ and ‘flesh.’ To recover some sense of the way in which this distinction works, however, we have to get back behind not only the ‘substance dualisms’ of modernity, but also behind all forms of the distinction between the body and the soul. The biblical distinction is not between living systems and their capacities (as distinctions between mind and matter, souls and body, are) but between things coming alive, and things crumbling into dust; between not-life, or life-gone-wrong, and life: true life, real life, God’s life and all creation’s life in God. The central metaphor is that of wind, the breath of life, the breath God is and breathes. Whether, sent forth from God, breathing all creatures into being, renewing the Earth and filling it with good things; whether whispering gently to Elijah, or making ‘the oaks to whirl, and [stripping] the forests bare’; or breathing peace on the disciples for the forgiveness of sins — it is one wind, one spirit, which ‘blows where it wills’ and we do not know where it comes from or where it goes. To confess God as Spirit is to tell the story of the world as something, from its beginning to its end, given to come alive.”

from Holiness, Speech and Silence: Reflections on the Question of God, (Ashgate, 2004), 34-36.

B. Herbert McCabe

To say, then that the cat ‘has a soul’ or ‘has life’ is not to say that there is an extra invisible organ or an ‘entelechy’ that the Pavlovian or behaviorist has overlooked. It is not to add to the description of the cat; it is to say what sort of descriptions are appropriate to it; it is to say what sort of being a cat is; it is to say ‘what it took for it to be a cat’ in the first place. It is to say which investigative techniques are appropriate to it and which are merely dealing with abstractions from the total reality.

from On Aquinas, (Continuum, 2008), 30.

Variations on a theme in theological anthropology

Variations on a theme in theological anthropology

A. Ernest Becker

Men aren’t built to be gods, to take in the whole world; they are built like other creatures, to take in the piece of ground in front of their noses.

from The Denial of Death, (Free Press, 1997), 178.

B. Rowan Williams

Theology must rediscover itself as a language that assists us in being mortal, living in the constraints of a finite and material world without resentment. […]

What we are are our limits, that we are here not there, now not then, took this decision, not that, to bring us here and now. And if this is true, understanding a person is understanding their limits, their materiality. […]

My unity as a person is always out of my field of vision (I can’t see my own face), just as the divine condition for there being fields of vision at all, for there being a world or worlds, is out of my field of vision (I can’t see my own origin).

from “The Suspicion of Suspicion: Wittgenstein and Bonhoeffer,” in Wrestling with Angels, (Eerdmans, 2007), 186, 193.

C. Nicholas Lash

My body is not simply this lump of matter by means of which I communicate with other people. My body is also the world constituted by the personal, social and economic relationships in which I share. These all form part of me. My language, my family, my city, are parts of my body. When I die, it is not merely this lump of matter that dies: the whole network of personal, family and social communications which I formed a part, dies a little too.

from Theology on Dover Beach, (Wipf and Stock, 2005), 174-5. Cf. Theology on the Way to Emmaus, 175; Seeing in the Dark, 112-3.