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Kevin J. Corcoran

A New Way to Be Human

A Christian materialist alternative to the soul.

In 1968 I lost my father to cancer. I was four years old. I can still remember the funeral home. And I can remember that as I looked into the casket, my mother told me that my father was now with God in heaven. I remember feeling perplexed. And why not? My father was lying lifeless before me. How could he be with God in heaven? I came to understand that my mother believes what most Christians have believed down through the centuries: humans are immaterial souls capable of disembodied existence.

Try as I might, I cannot bring myself to believe what my mother, and most Christians, believe about human nature. It's not that I don't understand the view. I do. It's not even that I believe, as is all the fashion these days, that dualism is responsible for everything from the oppression of women to the pillaging of the environment. It's not. And I do believe that some kinds of persons are immaterial—non-human, divine persons like God and the angels, for example. What I deny is that that human persons like you and me are immaterial.

God's persistent "Yes!" to embodiment reverberates into eternity in the resurrection, exaltation, and glorification of the embodied Christ.

There are, as you might imagine, different versions of dualism. For example, there is a Thomistic version of dualism (owing to Saint Thomas Aquinas) and an emergent version (most rigorously defended by William Hasker). And then there is the good old-fashioned dualism of Descartes and Augustine. According to them, the natural world is home to two radically different kinds of things—immaterial, thinking things (souls) and unthinking, material things (bodies). We—thinking things that we are—are immaterial souls. Thomistic dualism, in contrast, asserts that you and I are compounds of body and soul, or more accurately, form and matter, while "emergent" dualism claims that while you and I are in fact immaterial souls, our souls emerge naturally through the course of ordinary, biological evolution. They are natural, not introduced or added "from the outside" so to speak. I reject dualism in all its versions. Here's why.

If persons (or souls) and bodies are as distinct as Descartes and Saint Augustine thought them to be, then I wouldn't expect to find the level of dependence of the one (the mind/soul) on the other (the body/ brain) that we in fact do find. Take Clive Wearing, for example.

Clive is a 66-year-old former composer and musician who has completely lost the ability to lay down new, conscious memories. For the past twenty years he has lived in a tragic and perpetual state of "just waking up." Whether his wife has been gone for ten minutes or ten years, it doesn't matter: when she enters his room he embraces her ecstatically, believing that he is seeing her for the first time after a long separation. Several minutes into a game of solitaire, a game which he loves, he will have no recollection that it was he who dealt and played the cards lying before him. Even when he records copious notes for himself on the progression of the game, he will still insist that, although the notes are indeed in his handwriting, he did not write them. He claims that he has no idea how the notes got there or who may have dealt the cards. Imagine that—your whole conscious life lived out on a mental treadmill; no matter how far you run it is always the same well-worn path you travel.1 That's the character of Clive Wearing's conscious life—his sense of being a continuous self stretches no farther back than just a few minutes.

What is the cause of Clive Wearing's severe and unusual form of amnesia? Clive's amnesia is the result of a viral infection that insinuated itself into his brain, completely destroying his hippocampus, that part of the human brain responsible for storing conscious memories. That consciousness can be altered or even eliminated by altering or destroying certain regions of the brain demonstrates the degree to which our mental lives are radically physically based. My argument is not that soul/body dualism is logically incompatible with empirical discoveries in the neurosciences. My argument is simply that if we were immaterial souls, we wouldn't expect to find such a radical, causal dependence of the mental on the physical.

Moreover, dualism introduces an unnecessary and inelegant cleavage into the natural world; and that is not something we should expect to find within creation. In other words, if human beings are the only creatures in the natural order to be endowed by God with souls, then we are not—all appearances to the contrary—of a piece with the rest of nature. Perhaps it is an aesthetic fondness for order, simplicity, and elegance, but I would expect the natural world, as a product of Divine creation, to be a bit more elegant and seamless than that suggested by dualism. And indeed nature seems to suggest as much. Canines no less than gorillas, and gorillas no less than humans, evidence behavior suggestive of a robust conscious life. If you don't have a dog yourself, just ask your friends who do about the apparent conscious life of a dog. Then there's Koko the gorilla, who seems not only to feel complex emotions but also to understand and utilize language (American Sign Language) to converse with her caretaker. In any case, these are just a few, albeit controversial, reasons why dualism about human persons is problematic.

If materialism is so natural and dualism so odd, why do Christians typically reject materialism? Part of the reason we may be uncomfortable with materialism is that we falsely assume there to be only one materialistic alternative to dualism. We might believe that if we're not immaterial and immortal souls, then we must be nothing more than human animals, physical organisms, or biological beasts. Dualism has such a grip on us that we cannot imagine that we are animals. On the other hand, many find it just obvious that we are animals; human animals, to be sure, but animals. And it's not difficult to understand why. We're not dogs, computers, or gods. We're human beings, for goodness sake; and a human being is, by definition, a kind of animal, a member of the species homo sapiens. Some secular thinkers, of course, positively revel in our being animals; they assume that if whatever is is physical, then human beings must be merely animals.

I propose that there is a kind a materialism available that accounts for our being animals without being merely animals. First some clarifying remarks. Though we are right to reject the reductionist's claim that whatever is is physical (we're theists, after all), it seems to me that the reductionist is at least partly right—we are human animals. However—and this may sound surprising—while we are human animals, we are not identical with human animals.

How can one be an animal without being identical with an animal? Think about it this way. I am willing to bet that most of you believe that a particular copper statue is constituted by a particular piece of copper. But I'm also willing to bet that you agree that the piece of copper could conceivably outlast the statue, that is, that the piece of copper could continue in existence even if the statue should not. Suppose, for example, that the piece of copper composing the statue is hammered flat. This would cause the statue to cease to exist but not the piece of copper. Moreover, the piece of copper could have existed for some time before the statue came into existence. The statue is a piece of copper even if it is not identical with the piece of copper. The statue can't be identical with the piece of copper because the piece of copper can exist without the statue existing.

Here is my proposal. I propose we think of the relationship between a particular human person and his or her biological body in the same way. We are animals in the sense that we are wholly constituted by our bodies; every material part of me is a part of the biological body that constitutes me and I have no immaterial parts—just like the statue and the copper. We human beings are wholly physical creatures constituted by our bodies without being identical with them. To borrow words U2's Bono used for more poetic ends, "We are one, but we're not the same."

The materialist view of human persons I am proposing is compatible with every important Christian belief related to human nature, including beliefs about the afterlife and the claim that human beings have been created in the image of God. Indeed the Christian doctrines of creation and incarnation are actually more hospitable to a materialist view of human nature than they are to the more extreme versions of dualism.

For example, since dualism identifies us with immaterial souls capable of disembodied existence (or attributes to us such souls as parts), dualism is quite obviously compatible with belief in an afterlife. But for Christians it is important to recognize that the relevant Christian doctrine with respect to an afterlife is that of resurrection of the body. None of the ecumenical creeds of the Church confesses belief in a doctrine of soul survival. It is curious, then, that contemporary dualists seem to have forgotten this in a way that our Christian ancestors did not. While most, if not all, orthodox Christian theologians of the early church were anthropological dualists, they nevertheless struggled in systematic ways to make sense of the Christian doctrine of bodily resurrection.2

Even Saint Thomas Aquinas recognized the need to provide an account of the resurrection of the body. And like the dualists who preceded him, his view seeks to account for the sameness of the resurrection and earthly body. In fact, it is plausible to believe that providing an account of the sameness of earthly and resurrected body is constitutive of an account of resurrection of the body. For the Christian doctrine is not the doctrine of reincarnation. Neither is it the doctrine of acquisition, that is, the acquisition of some body or other. No, the Christian doctrine regarding the afterlife is a doctrine of resurrection. Consider 1 Corinthians 15:42-44a:

So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised 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 natural body, it is raised a spiritual body (NIV).

St. Paul seems to assert that it is the same body which exists before and after death, although after death that body is glorified and radically changed.

The resurrection of the body is a difficult notion to comprehend on any view of human persons. Both dualists and materialists have the problem of telling a coherent story about how a body that peters out and ceases to exist can somehow turn up in the New Jerusalem. If the Christian materialist in particular happens to believe in an intermediate state of conscious existence between death and resurrection, then she's got to tell a whopper of a story about how a body that has apparently died nevertheless continues to live. I say the story must be a whopper because often the corpse is right before our eyes. How can a dead body be enjoying any kind of meaningful, intermediate state of conscious existence? I have provided a detailed answer to these questions elsewhere3 and do not aim to do so here. My aim here is much more modest. It is simply to point out that materialism about human nature and a belief in the afterlife are no more at odds than are Christianity itself and belief in the resurrection of the dead.

Materialism about human persons admittedly raises difficult questions. For example, if it is true that we are wholly material beings, what does it mean to say that we have been created in God's image? Doesn't having been created in the image of God just mean having an immaterial soul and the features of intellect, will and emotion that characterize soul? In a word, no. Our being created in God's image does not mean that we are immaterial as God is immaterial. What then does it mean?

There are many ways that we human beings image God. For example, we image God when we care for creation and contribute to the terrestrial flourishing of the created order. This is what the Bible means when it speaks of our having been given "dominion." We are God's vice-regents, as it were. To have dominion is to care for others, including non-human "others" like ocean and stream, octopus and salamander; to have dominion is to tend to the well being of all the earth. Second, we image God when we live in loving relation to other human beings and invest ourselves in their flourishing and well-being. God is a Trinity, so it should come as no surprise that we image God in social and not just private ways. The tenor of the relation between the three persons of the Trinity is one of a harmonious and free exchange of love and joy. Therefore, engaging in acts of mercy, hospitality, love, kindness, and so on is to act like God. In fact, we image God best when we image Jesus, who welcomed the outcast, fed the hungry, clothed the naked, hated evil, and delighted in doing the work of the Father. We also image God in our suffering. God is love. To love is to open oneself up to suffering. And suffering love is God-love. When we lay down our lives for our friends, and yes, our enemies, too, we image God, who laid down his life for us in Jesus.

None of the ways I have mentioned that we image God rules out that we are thoroughly material beings. Although they don't imply it either, there is certainly the suggestion that we are in some fundamental sense social as well as embodied creatures. Indeed it is hard to imagine how we might image God in the ways described in introspective isolation or as atomistic and disembodied souls. At the very least, nothing in the doctrine of the imago Dei, rightly understood, entails a dualist view of human nature.

What I want to suggest is that the Christian story, from the beginning of the narrative in Genesis to its dramatic climax in Revelation, is an "earthy" story, a story that celebrates materiality, laments its perversion by human sin, and eagerly awaits its ultimate glorification in the resurrection life. Looked at from this perspective, the doctrines of creation and incarnation underwrite a very high regard for embodiment and materiality. I grant that creation is not exhausted by material creation (angels are created beings after all), but it is the material world whose creation is chronicled in the opening pages of Genesis. And the story of creation is not merely a story of Divine production or origination. It is a story of Divine delight, delight in the material world brought into being by the Word. Indeed the creational refrain "It is good!" echoes through the pages of Genesis and beyond. Though far richer than I can indicate here, the doctrine of creation minimally includes the goodness of creation (Gen. 1:31a; John 1:10), the initial Divine affirmation of materiality and embodiment.

The doctrine of the incarnation, the taking on of flesh by the second person of the Trinity, signals God's re-affirmation of embodiment and creation. Jesus from Nazareth is identified with the Creator of the world insofar as he is understood as the Divine Word (John 1:1ff) through whose power and rule the world was created. He is the beginning of creation (Col. 1:15) and, at the same time, rightful heir to creation insofar as all things were created through him and for him. And we must not forget that the incarnation of the second person of the Trinity, his taking on of flesh, was neither momentary nor provisional. God's persistent "Yes!" to embodiment reverberates into eternity in the resurrection, exaltation, and glorification of the embodied Christ. The humanity of Christ, his embodied nature, is not shed in the New Jerusalem. It is taken up, exalted and glorified. In addition, the most prominent image used in Scripture for what awaits us in the hereafter is that of a great banquet, nothing short of a Eucharistic feast of carnal delight. There is not a whiff of disembodied or ghostly existence anywhere in that image.

It is shocking to realize that Jesus Christ, the very incarnation of the second person of the Trinity, shows us what creatureliness means. Shocking too that if we want to know what it means to be human, we must look to the embodied Christ. What we discover is exactly what sober-minded theologians have been telling us all along: that an authentic human existence consists in a fully embodied life rightly lived in relation to God, to neighbor, and to the rest of the terrestrial world.

What does all this mean for you and me? What are the practical payoffs of a materialist view of human nature? I think there are several. For one, a recognition of the fact that God's kingdom has come to us in the embodied Christ helps us to avoid misconceiving our eternal destiny vertically, as "up in the heavens." Instead it encourages us to re-conceive the kingdom of God horizontally, as here and now, even if its eventual fulfillment lies in a future—an embodied future—that we anxiously await.

Second, wrapped as we are in flesh and bones, and embodied in ever-expanding circles of social relations—family, neighborhood, community and world, a materialist view of human nature makes good sense of the urgency and importance of our call to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and pursue justice. Why? Because we are material beings; starvation, want, and physical impoverishment are kingdom concerns. The world of bullfrogs and butterflies, of economic systems and environmental hazards, the world of sex and love, of loneliness and connection, the world of factory farms and consumer goods—in short, the world that depresses and delights us, is precisely the world that matters to God. Contrary to the sacred hymn, this world is our home. It is broken, disfigured, and diseased to be sure, but it matters to us. It matters to us because we are created for this world in all of its physicality.

Finally, a materialist view of human nature serves to protect us against turning our longings for a new day into longings for a disembodied existence in some far off and distant heaven. Like the prophets of long ago, whose longings were for this world finally to be as God intends—a world where lions lie down with lambs and swords are beaten into plowshares, where the hungry are fed and the broken hearted are lifted up—a materialist view of human nature can encourage us to actively anticipate, and eagerly long for, this embodied future that only God can realize. The way of Christ incarnate offers us this future. What it offers is a new way to be human.

Kevin J. Corcoran is associate professor of philosophy at Calvin College.

1. For more on Clive Wearing go to www.news. telegraph.co.uk/health/main.jhtml?xml=/health/2005/01/12/hforget12.xml&sSheet=/health/2005/01/14/ixhright.html.

2. For fascinating reading on the importance of bodily continuity and numerical sameness in patristic and medieval reflections on the resurrection, see Caroline Walker Bynum's The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, 200–1336 (Columbia Univ. Press, 1995).

3. For several different accounts of resurrection of the body, see chapter 5 of my Rethinking Human Nature: A Christian and Materialist Alternative to the Soul (Baker Academic, 2006).

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