Tuesday, July 19, 2016

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 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 4c
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.

A Critique of the New Monistic Soteriology

Where is the blood?
The Persistent Strawman 


The question of the doctrine of sin also arises. For the most part, the new monists discuss sin in the context of free will.[1] Rarely do they offer a theological or biblical exegesis of the doctrine. This is all understandable of course. In their attempt to devoid man of a soul reducing him to neurological impulses and at the same time avoiding reducing man to a mere machine, the new monists are forced to take up the question of free will.

The two examples cited above by Green raise the question of free will. There one man was a sexual pervert seemingly due to a brain tumor while another man become a nuisance following a work-related accident that affects his brain. Such examples, and others can be given, imply that free will is an illusion and that we are simply the byproducts of our genes and brains. Though a full discussion goes beyond the purpose of this paper, suffice it to say that much ink has been used on this issue because it is a difficult one for the new monists to answer.
Nevertheless, their doctrine of sin remains undeveloped and incomplete. However, that does not mean that the new monists have said nothing about sin. One of the fullest treatments is given by Joel Green. In his book Body, Soul, and Human Life, he dedicates an entire chapter to the question of sin and free will splitting the content between the evidence of science and the voice of Scripture. To begin, Green acknowledges the challenge science presents in this area but also rejects any notion of dualism and the answer.[2]

But in the end, Green argues that neuroscience and the New Testament affirm three basic principles.  First, “We do what we are. That is, our behaviors are generated out of, and so reflect, our character and dispositions.” Secondly, “Who we are is both formed and continually being formed socio-culturally and especially relationally.” And finally, “‘Choice’” is contextually determined, especially vis-a-vis ongoing relational influence and self-reflexive contemplation on the bases and futures of past and prospective decisions.”[3]

In his discussion (of which he focuses on Peter, James and Paul), Green denies original sin[4] preferring to understand texts like Romans 5 as suggesting “that Adam’s sin set in motion a chain of effects.” As a result, all have sinned, not because of his natural constitution, but because humanity simply continues to follow “Adam in his sinfulness.”[5]

In addition, Green points out the “virtual absence in Paul of the language of ‘forgiveness of sin.’” As a result, “Sin needs to be addressed, but given Paul’s perspective on  ‘sin’ as less ‘act’ and more ‘disposition’ or compulsion,’ mere forgiveness or absolution is insufficient.” Likewise, to Green, Paul says little to nothing regarding repentance, “after all, the condition of enslavement is not mitigated by repentance on the part of the slave.” What is required, then, “is human change, a theological transformation – a deep-seated conversion in one’s conception of God and, thus, in one’s commitments, attitudes, and everyday practices.” Thus, Paul, at least not in Romans 5-6, does not promise the remission of sins, “but liberation from our enslavement to sin and decay and participation in a new humanity whose home is the new life ushered in by means of the faithfulness of Jesus Christ whose death on the cross comprises one of the most profound visual representations of the character of God.”[6]

What is missing in this discussion is as troubling as what is addressed. By embracing a monistic understanding of human nature and adopting the findings of neuroscience while seeking to find in Scripture a similar worldview, Green undermines the gospel. Certainly the gospel liberates, transforms, and restores. One need not go beyond the Gospels and the ministry of Jesus to witness that. But clearly, what Green promotes here as the remedy of human sinfulness is well short of traditional orthodoxy. While acknowledging that God “takes sin seriously,”[7] by limiting the gospel to just here-and-now, he undermines the need for repentance, forgiveness, and  reconciliation. Transformation, liberation, and restoration cannot take place so long as God and man’s eternal relationship remains broken due to our sin.

In Green’s book, this all leads to a broad discussion of salvation. Like other new monists, Green embraces a salvation that heals and liberates on this earth. For example, he suggests that conversion is not “a single point of decision-making. Instead, conversion is a journey, not an instantaneous metamorphosis.”[8] Likewise, conversion should be seen “as an ongoing process of socialization,” thus “Seen from this vantage point, conversion entails autobiographical reconstruction.” This community is seen primarily in what we may call the church.

Green thus concludes:
Conversion is inseparable from the human experience of embodiment, a reality that undermines claims that conversion is an ‘inner’ change, or that conversion of individual can be understood in individualistic terms, or that conversion might engage one’s intellect but not one’s effect (or vice versa), or that conversion might be pinpointed on a temporal map.
Conversion, then, is a transformation of conceptual scheme – conceptual, conative, and behavioral – by which life is reordered . . . Accordingly, conversion is both gift and response.  Luke’s perspective on conversion thus takes seriously that the first and initiating act is God’s.
Luke’s perspective thus refuses any facile distinctions between conversion as act and process, between cognitive and moral change, between external and internal transformation, between movement from one religion to another and deepening commitment within one’s religion, and between personal and community formation.  ‘To welcome the word,’ as Acts 2:41 ha sit, is a transformative act that places embodied life in a new light, that leads one inexorably into a multiethnic and communal existence with others who incarnate and propagate this vision of God’s restorative purpose, and that cannot but be exhibited in behaviors congruous with the way of Jesus Messiah.[9]
So, then, should Christians feed the soul or feed the hungry?  Should souls or the planet be saved?  Green argues that only in a dualistic world are such questions necessary. But monism, which takes “seriously the message of a salvation oriented toward embodied human life,” does not live in an either-or world.  The inner life should not be “substantively different than,” our outer life.  Likewise, the individual should not be bifurcated from the community. [10]

In simplest of terms: this is not the gospel. This does not mean that feeding the hungry or helping the planet are unnecessary or unneeded, but that our ultimate priority is to proclaim the gospel that redeems man from his sins, reconciles him with his Maker, liberates him from sin, and transforms him to be like his Savior. All of this is the result of belief and repentance based on the work of Jesus Christ on the cross and resurrection who saves both body and soul. It is a holistic salvation. Such a message more adequately answers the question of feeding the soul or hungry better than the monists. Why not both?  The gospel, as properly understood, is big enough to accomplish both as the history of the Christian Church has shown.[11]

[1] The most complete book on the question of nonreductive physcialism and free will is Nancey Murphy and Warren S. Brown, Did My Neurons Make Me Do It?: Philosophical and Neurobiological Perspectives on Moral Responsibility and Free Will (New York:  Oxford University Press, USA, 2009).
[2]  Green writes, “Paul Jewett, for example, urged that ‘the choices we make are really free because the will, as a faculty of the spirit, transcends brain functions and therefore is not causally determined.’  By way of response, on the one hand, given the neurobiological evidence regarding decision-making I must admit that it is unclear to me what role a second ontological entity like a soul or spirit would have other than an epiphenomenal one.  On the other, it is worth asking how a biblical theology of sin might look in relation t the neurobiological considerations already outlined.” Green,  Body, Soul, and Human Life, 87-88.
[3]  Ibid., 104.
[4]  He writes, “Earlier, Paul had sketched why this is o, contrasting the deeds of Adam and Jesus Christ (5:12-21).  Through Adam’s disobedience, many were made sinners.  This is not because Paul holds to a doctrine of original sin . . ., a view that owes itself far more to Augustine’s reading of Romans 5:12 than to the apostle himself.”  Ibid., 99-100.
[5]  Ibid., 100.
[6]  Ibid., 102-103.
[7]  Ibid., 101.
[8]  Ibid., 137.
[9]  Ibid., 137-138
[10] Ibid., 138
[11]  As C. S. Lewis once wrote, “Hope is one of the Theological virtues.  This means that a continual looking forward to the eternal world is not (as some modern people think) a form of escapism or wishful thinking, but one of the things a Christian is meant to do.  It does not mean that we are to leave the present world as it is.  If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next . . . It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this.  Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither.” C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (New York: Harper Collins, 2001), 134.
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