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Of Metaphysics and Theology

By February 1, 2011 No Comments

In the spring of 1976 I was hired to join the philosophy department at Hope College. The course schedule for the fall semester had of necessity been set up before then. It included an upper division elective in philosophy of mind, focusing on the mind/body problem. The understanding was that whoever was hired would be asked to teach that course, among others.

Fortunately, I was well equipped to give such a course, although it was not at all within the range of my special interests. I had already taught for eleven years without ever giving such a course. But I knew the classic discussions by such thinkers as Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, and Hume. I had carefully studied Gilbert Ryle’s behaviorist critique of the Cartesian view of the human person as a “ghost in a machine,” along with the background for his argument in Wittgenstein. And I had studied under two of the most sophisticated materialists of the day, defenders of the so-called mind-brain identity theory: Wilfrid Sellars and J. J. C. Smart.

So the problem did not stem from my being unprepared to give such a course. The problem arose because I, like the clear majority of my students, was a Christian and, like them once again, I thought my Christian faith just might be relevant to our discussion. We began with the hardline mind/body dualism we find in Plato and Descartes. For both the soul is an entity, substance in philosophical vocabulary, distinct from the body. The distinction is crucial because while the body obviously perishes, the soul, as immaterial, is inherently imperishable and thus immortal.

Two corollaries are attached to this theorem, quite explicitly in Plato and at least implicitly in Descartes. First, I am my soul but not my body. The latter is mine, to be sure, but in much the same way that my clothes are mine. They belong to me but do not constitute my identity (even if I have been brainwashed by Madison Avenue into thinking they do). I can dispense with them, as I regularly do, while remaining the very same self I was before. Second, the body, however necessary under present circumstances, is a limitation, more a liability than an asset. Plato puts this in terms of a nice pun in Greek. Soma, the body, is sema, a prison or a tomb from which the wise seek to free themselves. Here lie the roots of various gnostic heresies.

So I asked my students whether, if one came to these ideas as a Christian, one would be favorably or unfavorably disposed to them. The consensus, which no one was prepared to challenge, was that they would be favorably disposed. So I played “devil’s advocate” by reminding them of two utterly basic, non-sectarian Christian beliefs. First, we were created as bodily creatures and as such are to be understood as being in the image of God. While the rest of creation is declared to be “good,” it was only after the creation of humankind that God found the whole of creation to be “very good.”

There is no hint of God creating incorporeal, immortal souls and then finding some bodies in which to clothe them. Clothing appears, in the form of those famous fig leaves, only after Adam and Eve had lost their innocence and become sinners. Far less is there any hint that their bodies were prisons or tombs such that the fundamental existential task was to escape them. Their task was, first, to be fruitful and multiply and to have dominion over the plants and animals God had prepared for them, and then, to stay away from the tree of the (intimate, experiential) knowledge of good and evil.

Of course, temptations may come through the body, but that is not essential. Eve found that infamous “apple” tempting for three reasons, only two of which have their roots in the body: it was “good for food,” it was “a delight to the eyes,” and it was “to be desired to make one wise.” The serpent’s temptation makes no reference to the first two but only to the third. “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen 3:4-6, NRSV).

Two subsequent passages give intertextual support for this reading of Genesis. The fall of a tyrant and his imperial power over God’s people is celebrated in Isaiah 14. His titles reflect Canaanite deities, though whoever is intended (scholars can’t agree) is probably from farther east. The point is that he ruled as a “son of God,” that is, in the name and with the authority of deity. Yet the divine right of kings was not sufficient for him. Hence the charge

You said in your heart,

“I will ascend to heaven:

I will raise my throne

above the stars of God . . .

I will ascend to the tops of the clouds,

I will make myself like the Most High.

(Isa. 14:13-14 NRSV)

With encouragement from Milton and the King James version of the Bible, which renders Day Star or Shining One as Lucifer, this has often been taken to be an account of the “fall” of Satan from the heavenly presence of God to hell, for the taunt sees the fallen tyrant as “brought down to Sheol.” There is perhaps more truth than evidence for this reading. For if Satan represents the essence and the source of evil, the ontological pride which is the heart of the sinful heart here is the desire to be God rather than to serve God, even in a position of great authority and power. The link to our Genesis reading is simple. The body is not the source of this temptation.

The second intertextual support comes from Galatians 5:16-26 where Paul lists the works of the flesh in contrast with the fruit of the spirit. It makes abundantly clear that we cannot read his contrast between the spirit and the flesh as one between the soul and the body conceived dualistically (a la Plato and Descartes). The sins of the body are in the list, to be sure: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, drunkenness, and carousing. But so is a variety what can only be called sins of the spirit: sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, and envy. Here again there is no essential link between sin and the body. Our bodily nature can be a source of temptation, but so can our “soulish” or spiritual nature. As Luther puts it nicely, to distinguish body, soul, and spirit is to give an analysis (trichotomist) of the nature of the person, while to distinguish spirit from flesh is to distinguish qualities of the self, qualities that may apply to each of the three parts separately or to the complex whole that is the person.

In my role as “devil’s advocate” I probably did not go into this much detail to make the first point. I was eager to get on to the second point by moving from our origin (arche) to our destiny (telos). So I reminded my students that the Christian hope for life after death has the form of the resurrection of the body and not the immortality of a disembodied soul. I called attention to 1 Cor. 15 and to the creed that many of them had memorized in catechism class (Reformed or Catholic, the two largest groups of Hope students at the time), according to which, as members of the church they believed “in the forgiveness of sin, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.” Christianity has no vested interest, I suggested, in incorporeal Platonic/ Cartesian souls.

The class was not without some budding theologians, and my suggestion was immediately met with a double objection. What about Jesus’ promise to the repentant thief on the cross, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43 NRSV)? And what about the story of Dives (rich man) and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31)? The clear implication was that there was an intermediate state in which, prior to the resurrection, the dead had personal consciousness. Wouldn’t Plato and Descartes be helpful here?

I might have called attention to the fact that the dead on both sides of the divide between Abraham’s bosom and Hades are represented as embodied. Dives wants Lazarus to be sent to dip his finger in water so as to cool the former’s tongue, “for I am in agony in these flames.”

I might have argued that by using the imagery of Abraham’s bosom that was well known to his hearers, though without biblical authority, Jesus was not necessarily affirming this cosmology but rather making the point that those who would not believe Moses and the prophets would not believe “even if someone rises from the dead.” If a preacher, in order to make a point, asks the congregation what they plan to say when they meet Peter at the pearly gates of heaven, he is not committing himself to the belief that heaven is a place with literally pearly gates, nor that Peter is the first one we all will meet in the life to come.

What I chose to do instead was to suggest that “today you will be with me in Paradise” might be a way of saying to the dying thief, “You and I are about to lose consciousness, as when we go to sleep. When you awake, in the resurrection, you will be with me in Paradise. You will experience no lapse in between.” After all, both Jesus and Paul speak of death as a kind of sleep (John 11:11 and 1 Thes. 4:13).

I made two points about this possibility as carefully as I could (which turned out not to be carefully enough). The first concerned my personal view of “soul sleep,” as this view is typically called. I said a) that I did not think that the Bible teaches this view, b) that I did not think there was any clear biblical reason not to entertain this as a possible answer to the question of the “intermediate state,” and c) that I had no strong views one way or the other about the truth of this account, given the lack of any clear biblical teaching for or against.

The second point was the important one, I tried to suggest. Even if, with the mainstream of the Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant churches, we reject the doctrine of “soul sleep” and hold to some form of personal, disembodied consciousness between death and the final resurrection, that is only temporary. It is like the pre-game show and not the game itself. It is not the fulfillment of our highest destiny, which is to be, as in the beginning, embodied creatures not subject to death. The task is to live in hope of the gift of everlasting bodies, not to flee the body as much as possible in this life so as in the life to come to be perfectly free of all bodiliness, as if the body were not an essential part of our identity, but at best disposable clothing and at worst a prison or tomb. In short, Christian hope and Platonic/ Cartesian mind-body dualism have little if anything to do with each other.

One of the young women in the class was disturbed by this. Perhaps she had heard too often the not obviously Christian words of comfort, “We’re going to put Grandma’s body in the ground, but her soul has gone to heaven to be with Jesus.” Well intentioned Christians fail to notice that this way of speaking, in spite of references to Jesus and to heaven, belongs to the thought world of pagan Greek philosophy more than to the very Jewish world of biblical thought. In any case, she took the matter to her father, who thought I sounded like a heretic. He in turn went to their pastor who hummpft, “Soul sleep. He must be a Jehovah’s Witness!” He was right about where to look in order to find someone who actually held soul sleep to be the truth of the matter, but somewhere along the line the fact that I had not done so seemed to have vanished.

This is where the story gets interesting and why I am motivated to tell it. I have no interest in contributing to the discussion of the intermediate state as such since, as you doubtless have gathered, I am quite agnostic on the matter. But what happened next may be more significant than that (not very lively) debate. Our young woman went to the Religion Department to interview quite a few, if not all, of its members. It turned out that to a man (women having not become part of the department at that time) they were Jehovah’s Witnesses in pretty much the same sense that I was. They thought that scripture was very clear that our ultimate hope and destiny was as resurrected bodies and that scripture was not very clear at all about our status between death and the final resurrection.

After my student reported her findings to me, I was discussing the matter with one of my colleagues in the Religion Department. He made a suggestion I found quite frightening. Why do Christians so easily Platonize their faith by talking as if God had created incorporeal, immortal souls and then placed them in bodies? Perhaps, he suggested, just to the degree that we think this way we convince ourselves that we do not really die because our inner, essential being is already inherently imperishable.

Moreover, and this is the crux of the matter, just to the degree that we think this way we cease to think that in death we become once again wholly dependent on God for our life. Faith as trust in the promises of God is dramatically diminished. Insofar as we manage not to go all the way with Plato and think of heaven as a realm of disembodied souls (which it is quite possible to do while regularly reciting the Apostles’ Creed), we still acknowledge our dependence on God and the promises of God for our new embodiment. But the significance of this has changed; it has become relatively peripheral insofar as it affects the mode of our being but not the very fact of our being, our life as conscious persons. In relation to this rather deistic God, covenantal promises and faithfulness are no longer the heart of the matter.

One implication of this is that the problem of death has been solved in creation rather than in the cross. To be sure, Christ can remain the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, and his death can be understood as a vicarious or substitutionary atonement. But the Christus Victor theme, which is also deeply biblical, loses its intelligibility. It no longer really makes sense to see in the death and resurrection of Jesus the ultimate defeat of death and all the powers of evil that entice us to choose death over life. This victory was already won in the beginning, without any help from Jesus.

A more general issue is at stake here: the relation between metaphysics and theology. Platonizing interpretations of the Christian gospel have been part of its history from very early on. This has primarily been the work of what we could call academic theologians. There are lay theologians, whose interpretations of the Bible come in their private or small group readings; there are pastoral theologians, whose interpretations are oral and given in sermons to a particular congregation; and there are academic theologians, whose interpretations are written and thereby addressed to a wider “congregation”, whether or not they are affiliated with a college, university, or seminary.

There has been a long and complex tradition of academic theologians who, for better and for worse, have drawn on Platonic resources in the attempt better to understand the gospel (hermeneutics) or better to defend it (apologetics). So the conceptual resources underlying the story about putting Grandma’s body in the ground while her soul goes to heaven to be with Jesus (and perhaps to look down on us) are “out there” for lay Christians to appropriate. But metaphysics is not necessarily innocent, and sometimes there is a hermeneutical price to pay for the sake of some presumed apologetic or pastoral advantage. Whether the metaphysical ideas with which we interpret the gospel are from Christian thinkers or pagan thinkers, and whether their employment is deliberate on the part of academic theologians or unconscious on the part of lay and pastoral believers, they may do more to distort biblical truth than to illuminate it.

What this means is that sola scriptura can never be for Reformed Christians merely a policy to adopt, much less a weapon with which to slay theological opponents. It will always have to be an unfinished task. Eternal vigilance is not only the price of liberty in politics but also the price of faithfulness to Scripture in theology. We will constantly need to be asking, What are the metaphysical categories implicit in our theology? Where have they come from, and, most importantly, do they enhance understanding or enable misunderstanding?

In an early version of the political version of this idea, Demosthenes said that the only safeguard against despotism is distrust. A hermeneutics of suspicion needs to be part of the methodology of any theology that would be truly biblical, suspicion not just of their theology but first and foremost of our own. Jesus tells us to be more concerned about the log in our own theology than about the speck in the theology of others (Matt. 7:1-5).

Metaphysics is not the only dangerous “ally” of theology. There are many cultural forces and social institutions that can infect and corrupt sound doctrine. But to explore these would take us far beyond these reflections, triggered by the discovery some years ago that Hope College had been invaded by Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Merold Westphal teaches philosophy at Fordham University in New York City.