Tuesday, June 7, 2016

The Danger of the New Monism: Fidelity to Science, Infidelity to the Gospel - Part 4a

The Danger of the New Monism:  Fidelity to Science, Infidelity to the Gospel - Part 1
The Danger of the New Monism:  Fidelity to Science, Infidelity to the Gospel - Part 2
The Danger of the New Monism:  Fidelity to Science, Infidelity to the Gospel - Part 3
The Danger of the New Monism:  Fidelity to Science, Infidelity to the Gospel - Part 4a
The Danger of the New Monism:  Fidelity to Science, Infidelity to the Gospel - Part 4b
The Danger of the New Monism:  Fidelity to Science, Infidelity to the Gospel - Part c
The Danger of the New Monism:  Fidelity to Science, Infidelity to the Gospel - Part 5a
The Danger of the New Monism:  Fidelity to Science, Infidelity to the Gospel - Part 5b
The Danger of the New Monism:  Fidelity to Science, Infidelity to the Gospel - Part 5c
The Danger of the New Monism:  Fidelity to Science, Infidelity to the Gospel - Part 6
The Danger of the New Monism:  Fidelity to Science, Infidelity to the Gospel - Complete Series


What follows is a series of posts regarding the New Monist movement which combines neuroscience with theology and argues that science has "proven" we have no soul.  The problem I have with such a suggestion isn't just the challenge it presents anthropologically, but soteriologically. How does denying the existence of our soul affect our understanding of the gospel? That's one of the questions I hope to answer.  This debate is another example of the challenge that science can present for Christian theology.


Monistic Gospel
Part 1

In all of this, how does a monistic anthropology driven by advances in neuroscience affect one’s view on the gospel? Since soteriology is shaped by one’s understanding of anthropology, harmitology, and other key Christian doctrines, then certainly embracing monism would affect how proponents of the new monism understand the gospel.

It is here that Nancey Murphy challenges us to play a children’s game. Imagine what the world would be like if certain theological variables were different. She cites the example of what a student at Oxford University would be like today if the English Reformation had never happened. In regards to theology and the subject at hand, imagine what theology and specifically the doctrine of salvation might “be like today, and how might Christian history have gone differently, if a physicalist sort of anthropology had predominated rather than dualism?”[1]

Murphy’s point is to reevaluate what the gospel could be, or really ought to be, with a more correct understanding of soteriology. Notice her point. Because traditional dualisism is wrong, so is the traditional gospel of Christianity. Furthermore, notice how she indirectly makes dualism a byproduct of Greek philosophy developed by Christians centuries after the New Testament instead of the byproduct of divine revelation. Her previous exegesis suggested that the New Testament was unclear on the makeup of man and thus she is forced to assume that the predominance of dualism is the result of Greek philosophy not biblical theology or revelation.

Nonetheless, she continues the game. Imagine that monistic physicalism became the predominant view of the Church. What would the gospel look like? Murphy suggests:
It seems clear that much of the Christian spiritual tradition would be different. There would be no notion of care of the soul as the point of Christian disciplines – certainly no concept of depriving the body in order that the soul might flourish. As some feminists thinkers have been saying for some time: dualist anthropology all too easily leads to disparagement of the body and all that goes along with being embodied . . .
Here are some questions: Without the Neoplatonic notion that the goal of life is to prepare the soul for its proper abode in heaven, would Christians through the centuries have devoted more of their attention to working for God’s reign on earth? And would Jesus’ teachings be regarded as a proper blueprint for that earthly society?  Would the creeds, then, not have skipped from his birth to his death, leaving out his teaching and faithful life? Would Christians then see a broader, richer role for Jesus Messiah than as facilitator of the forgiveness of their sins? If Christians had been focusing more, throughout all of these centuries, on following Jesus’ teachings about sharing, and about loving our enemies at least enough so as not to kill them, how different might world politics be today? What would Christians have been doing these past 2000 years if there were no such things as souls to save?[2]
One can see that to Murphy this is not just an intellectual exercise but the outworking of her anthropology. Notice what is missing in these paragraphs: the gospel. In her attempt to imagine how nonreductive physicalism shapes Christian soteriology what is missing is any language of the blood of Jesus, the cross, the resurrection, sin, propitiation, justification, forgiveness (she seems to write it off) or anything remotely close to salvation. What is left is an emphasis on the incarnation (which makes sense given her monistic convictions), politics, life here and now, and sharing instead of the language of redemption.

To clarify (“at great risk of oversimplication,”), Murphy goes on to add her conviction that Christianity changed in the early centuries once believers embraced a dualistic anthropology. Original Christianity, to her, “is better understood in socio-political terms than in terms of what is currently thought of as religious or metaphysical.” Dualistic anthropology, on the other hand, “provided something different – different from socio-political and ethical concerns – with which Christians became primarily concerned.”[3] This is a classic emphasis on working for the present reality of the Kingdom of God long promoted by theological liberals. Murphy says as much:
This is not, of course, to deny the afterlife. It is rather to emphasize the importance of bodily resurrection. It is important to see how the contrasting accounts of life after death – resurrection versus immorality of the soul – lead to different attitudes toward kingdom work in this life. Ted Peters whimsically describes the dualist account of salvation as ‘soul-ectomy.’ If souls are saved out of this world, then nothing here matters ultimately. If it is our bodily selves that are saved and transformed, then bodies and all that go with them matter – families, history, and all of nature.[4]
Murphy argues that “looking forward to the resurrection and transformation of our bodies leads naturally to the expectation that the entire cosmos will be similarly transformed.”[5] Again such language is more in line with Protestant liberalism than traditional Christianity, but then again, it is traditional Christianity, at least to her, that bases its anthropology on Greek philosophy.

Most of the other monists present similar arguments in their writings. Like Murphy they suggest salvation is primarily about the here and now and not about propitiation and “saving one’s soul.”[6]  Because monists see humans as a holistic one, how one lives in the hear and now is central to their understanding of Christianity and the gospel. By affirming both monism and the resurrection, the new monists promote restoration in the here and now.


[1]  Murphy, Bodies and Souls, or Spirited Bodies?, 27.
[2]  Ibid.
[3]  Ibid., 28.
[4]  Ibid., 28-29.
[5]  Ibid., 29.
[6]  Monists live in the false dichotomy of religious dualism that is nothing more than a caricature of what dualists actually believe about the gospel. Cooper refers to this as “dualophobia” defined as the “suspicion that an ontic body-soul distinction inevitably leads to other dualisms and dichotomies which not only conflict with the biblical view of human nature, but are down right harmful to people.”  More specifically, “Traditional anthropology undermines Christian orthopraxis.” Cooper, Body, Soul, & Life Everlasting, 198.
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