Tag Archives: Oxbridge 2008

Do Humans Have Souls?

Many Christians consider this a settled question. Of course we have souls! … Right?

At the 2008 Oxbridge conference earlier this month, however, the question was very much open to debate. In fact, two of the plenary speakers gave talks that took polar opposite views on the matter.

The highly esteemed Richard Swinburne, Emeritus Professor of the Philosophy of the Christian Religion at Oxford, gave a rigorous argument for the existence of the soul as an entity of entirely difference substance than the body (substance dualism). Swinburne is about as dualist as you can get on the matter—even moreso than Descartes. I won’t go into Swinburne’s arguments (which were thorough and intriguing, if a little hard to follow), but it should be pointed out that outside of Christian philosophical circles, substance dualism is a rather marginalized position.

On the other end of the spectrum was Nancey Murphy, Christian philosopher at Fuller Theological Seminary. Murphy is a proponent of non-reductive physicalism, which is the notion that there is no separate mental realm or “soul,” apart from the physical, but that the mental cannot be reduced to merely physical properties. Murphy’s talk at Oxbridge was entitled “Why Christians Should be Nonreductive Physicalists.”

Essentially, Murphy’s main thesis is that humans are their bodies; there is no additional metaphysical element such as a mind or soul or spirit. She suggests that the perception that the bible teaches dualism is simply a result of bad translations. Whereas dualism is completely theoretical and has no scientific evidence, Murphy believes that there is ample evidence to prove that we are merely physical (rather than metaphysical) beings. In her book, Bodies and Souls, or Spirited Bodies?, Murphy suggests that the cognitive neurosciences give us reason to think that the human capacities we attribute to the soul can be understood as “processes involving the brain, the rest of the nervous system and other bodily systems, all interacting with the socio-cultural world.”

Of course, Murphy’s commitment to physical/material explanations of everything also means that she cannot accept the existence of angels or demons and is dubious about things like the “holy spirit” (in the metaphysical sense that Christians have conceived of it)… which maybe makes her a heretic. But apart from looking slightly goth, she doesn’t seem too heretical (she’s ordained in the Church of the Brethren)…

But does any of this abstract philosophizing make a difference on a practical, how-we-live-our-lives level? Perhaps. If Christians adopt physicalism (as Murphy hopes we do), we must put a greater emphasis on the significance of the body, and on the earthly reign of God, in which followers of Jesus participate by active love of neighbor and in struggle for justice and peace. If one adopts Swinburne’s hardcore dualism, our commitment to the body (which Swinburne is reluctant to say will even exist in heaven) is undercut and our motivation to redeem the physical all but made moot.

Alas, I will reserve judgment on the matter until I read books on both positions. I find the whole debate highly provocative and important to have… Though it does alarm me that Christians can be so utterly opposite on a matter so seemingly basic and vital to our faith. But in the spirit of healthy discourse, maybe the disparity should thrill me.

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The Communion of Saints

Tragically, the 2008 Oxbridge conference is concluded, and on Sunday I’ll be back home in the pseudo-reality that is Los Angeles. It’s been a wonderful two weeks though, and as usual the greatness and brevity of it leaves me longing for much much more. It is during conferences like this (and I’m sure most of you can relate) that I can most feel the divine discontent that C.S. Lewis and Chesterton and Augustine and many others articulate–the feeling that we are made for another world, that earth “is but a shadow of Heaven” as Milton writes in Paradise Lost.

The feeling comes, I think, mostly because of the people I meet and interact with, whether a bartender I befriended at the Lamb and Flag in Oxford or an 85 year old man taking his first vacation after the death of his wife. Who are these people in the crowd from all over the globe who I worship with? What are their stories? Their faces are so beautifully indeterminate. It is the great tragedy (and yet, perhaps it isn’t a tragedy at all) of an event like this that I can only get to know some people, and then only briefly before it is time to say goodbye. These are fleeting yet profound connections, and yet–to be sure–they are only connections, not community. Community is more long-term, more involved, more real, or so it would seem. And yet at times this week I think I’ve glimpsed pure, holy community in ways that are far, far too rare in our daily lives.

Last night was the closing service of the Oxbridge conference, a gorgeous Eucharist service in St. Mary the Virgin church in downtown Cambridge. The 300 conferees gathered here and took the Lord’s Supper, and what a symbol of community it was. Communion is about communing, after all, both with each other as the body of Christ and with Christ himself, and with the saints of bygone eras.

Speaking of that… You cannot help but feel the presence of long-dead saints, and poets, here in Cambridge. Two nights ago a bunch of us went punting at midnight down the Cam River, drifting past the ancient colleges (Trinity, St. John’s, King’s, Queen’s, Clare, etc) shrouded in darkness where so many minds have been formed and souls saved over the centuries. It made me think: at a conference on the theme of “The Self and the Search for Meaning,” I wonder if it is not crucial to our understanding of ourselves to have an understanding of history–of precedent, of examples set forth by those who’ve trod these paths before.

But it’s also about my Self in relation to others here and now–the unlikely meanings that crystallize in the vaporous space between two souls in communication, the fleeting encounters on boats at midnight or bars at 1am. I don’t know if I’ll see them again, or if I’ll even remember them (or them me), but I do know that to commune with another person in the transcendent sense that Buber and Lewis mean (as more than mere mortals or objectified “it”s…) is to experience something of the future life, the full communion of saints which will occur after the dead in Christ rise, the world is restored, and all is put to rights.

Here at the Oxbridge conference we like to sing Doxology anthems, particular the one that goes Praise God, from Whom all blessings flow… But the lesser known (in Protestant circles, at least) “Gloria Patri” is particularly apt for what I’m writing about here: a simple and yet declarative articulation of our communion in Christ, throughout time and space: Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost. As it was in the beginning, is now, and always shall be, world without end. Amen.

Such words are an immense comfort at times like this.

Talking Singularity at Cambridge

So the Cambridge week of the Oxbridge 2008 conference is underway (since Saturday), and it has been a marvelous experience thus far. The weather is cool and rainy (in a British sort of way) but the energy is high and all of our heads are spinning from the various lectures and stimuli being thrown at us.

A few highlights of Cambridge thus far include a stunning Evensong service at Ely Cathedral on Sunday, a dinner/dance at Chilford Hall (basically a barn-like structure in Kansas-like wheat fields), and some great lectures from the likes of Colleen Carroll Campbell, Bill Romanowski, and Nigel Cameron, the latter of which I found particularly provocative.

Cameron, Director of the Center on Nanotechnology and Society and Research Professor of Bioethics and Associate Dean at Chicago-Kent College of Law in the Illinois Institute of Technology, gave a talk entitled “Stewarding the Self: A Human Future for Humans?” Essentially the talk asked the question, “what does it mean to be human?” in an age (the 21st century) when all efforts seem to be moving toward a reinvention of the human project itself. He talked about three ways in which the human as we know it is being redefined: 1) taking life (abortion, euthanasia, stem cells, etc), 2) making life (test tube babies, cloning, etc), and 3) faking life (cyborgs, chips in human brains, robots, etc).

It’s interesting because just about a month ago I wrote a blog post about many of the things Cameron talked about. Actually, my review of Bigger, Stronger, Faster also fits into the discussion, as does my post about Iron Man. In each of these pieces I point out the increasing sense in our culture that the human being is becoming more machine-like… We conceive of our bodies not as carriers of a transcendent soul but as a material objects which can be manipulated, botoxed, pumped up, and enhanced in whatever way that pleases us. Cameron pointed out various technologies being developed that will make this sort of “faking life” all the more prevalent… such as BMI (Brain Machine Interface) which will allow our brains to work with embedded computer chips in them… so we can just think a webpage or some digital computation rather than go to the trouble of using a computer hardware external to our body.

He mentioned that the computing power in the world will likely increase by a factor of a million within a generation, which means we have no concept now of just what the future will look like. He pointed to a government study released in 2007 entitled “Nanotechnology: The Future is Coming Sooner Than You Think,” which featured some pretty remarkable assessments from noted futurists and nanotech scholars about what the future might hold. For a government study, it’s pretty sci-fi. Take this section which poses the potential of “The Singularity” happening within a generation or two (and for those unfamiliar with “The Singularity,” read about it here)…

Every exponential curve eventually reaches a point where the growth rate becomes almost infinite. This point is often called the Singularity. If technology continues to advance at exponential rates, what happens after 2020? Technology is likely to continue, but at this stage some observers forecast a period at which scientific advances aggressively assume their own momentum and accelerate at unprecedented levels, enabling products that today seem like science fiction. Beyond the Singularity, human society is incomparably different from what it is today. Several assumptions seem to drive predictions of a Singularity. The first is that continued material demands and competitive pressures will continue to drive technology forward. Second, at some point artificial intelligence advances to a point where computers enhance and accelerate scientific discovery and technological change. In other words, intelligent machines start to produce discoveries that are too complex for humans. Finally, there is an assumption that solutions to most of today’s problems including material scarcity, human health, and environmental degradation can be solved by technology, if not by us, then by the computers we eventually develop.

Pretty crazy stuff, eh? Who knew the government actually thought that The Terminator was going to come true? As Cameron pointed out, it’s as if the forecasts of Mary Shelley, Aldous Huxley, and C.S. Lewis (in The Abolition of Man) were all coming true. It means that Christians will need to address science and technology along with theology and postmodernism in the coming decades, raising questions that perhaps no one else will, such as: how do we reconcile a theology of suffering with a world that is trying its hardest, through technology, to rid us of all suffering?

Update from Oxford: Part 2

Things are going extremely well here at Oxbridge, as the Oxford portion of the conference comes to an end tomorrow (Cambridge starts on Sunday). A few highlights and thoughts from the last few days:

  • Dr. Francis Collins, the Director of the National Human Genome Project and author of The Language of God, spoke in a plenary address on Wednesday. If you haven’t heard of him or read his book, you should check him out. He presents a convincing case for why evolution and Christian faith are NOT incompatible, and how an appreciation for science does not mean we have to check religion (or theism) at the door. Collins is also a great musician and led the whole group in singing hymns and Christian folk songs. How great it was to sing such songs as “Hallelujah, the Great Storm is Over” with one of the world’s most preeminent geneticists. Oh, and during his address he showed a clip from when he was on the Colbert Report. Totally awesome.
  • Thursday night, at Great St. Mary the Virgin church in Oxford (the ancient church where Thomas Cranmer was tried as a martyr), there was a fantastic “evening of poetry and song” which featured poetry recited by Dana Gioia (the current Chairman for the National Endowment for the Arts), piano played by Paul Barnes (including amazing Liszt and Philip Glass pieces), and poems sung by mezzo-soprano Kate Butler. One of the highlights, however, was an emotional reading of the poem “As the Ruin Falls” by C.S. Lewis. Lewis, of course, was never hailed as a great poet, but this poem–which he wrote after the death of his beloved wife Joy Davidman–is achingly beautiful:

All this is flashy rhetoric about loving you.
I never had a selfless thought since I was born.
I am mercenary and self-seeking through and through:
I want God, you, all friends, merely to serve my turn.

Peace, re-assurance, pleasure, are the goals I seek,
I cannot crawl one inch outside my proper skin:
I talk of love –a scholar’s parrot may talk Greek–
But, self-imprisoned, always end where I begin.

Only that now you have taught me (but how late) my lack.
I see the chasm. And everything you are was making
My heart into a bridge by which I might get back
From exile, and grow man. And now the bridge is breaking.

For this I bless you as the ruin falls. The pains
You give me are more precious than all other gains.

  • Today’s plenary address from Dana Gioia was absolutely wonderful. It was provocative and beautiful and challening, posing the rather large question: What is the human purpose of beauty? Of art? What are the existential purposes of art? Gioia proposed that art is crucial to existence because it shows us what is truly human; beauty synthesizes the unknowable truths and transcendent complexities of the world. It’s not just about pretty decor but rather about seeing into the nature of reality and seeing the order of things, the terrifying and dizzying sublime of which art is uniquely capable of distilling. Gioia made statements like this, which doubtless ruffled some feathers: “Michelangelo, Mozart, and Dante have brought more souls to Christ than any minister.” Of course he IS the head of an arts endowment, so of course he should say things like this. But I actually might agree with him. “Art,” says Gioia, “awakes us to the full potential of humanity. It leads us to truth, the secrets of being.” In this way you might see it as the ultimate evangelism–though I think Gioia would point out that we don’t use art and beauty as much as it uses us. Beauty is not something we make, it’s something we participate in. For Gioia (a very Catholic aesthetician), beauty is bound up in the world already in its materials and forms and presences. We only need to thoughtfully re-connect with it and frame it to become artists. As Psalm 19 reminds us, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” Beauty is out there–we just have to find it and make it more manageable (whether on a canvas, in a sonnet or a story, etc).

More updates to come from Cambridge next week!

Update From Oxford

I arrived in Oxford on Saturday afternoon for the 2008 Oxbridge conference, and things have been great so far! Saturday night I attended a small dinner/reception at The Kilns, the lovely home of C.S. Lewis which is now owned and maintained by the C.S. Lewis Foundation.  There’s something truly magical about being in this place–the gardens and study where Lewis found his inspiration to write such classics as The Chronicles of Narnia among most of his other pivotal books. Its a comfortable place, quiet and stately, very English but not at all pretentious. You can almost feel his presence here.

Other highlights of the conference so far include:

  • A beautiful opening worship service at St. Mary’s the Virgin Church in Oxford, in which the preacher, Derick Bingham (of Christ Church, Belfast) quoted a glorious passage from C.S. Lewis’ famous sermon, “The Weight of Glory,” which Lewis delivered in the same pulpit 67 years earlier.
  • A plenary address by Richard Mouw (president of Fuller Seminary) which included him joking about being happily Calvinist and yet deeply respecting the ideas of Lewis (who tended toward Arminian thought).  Mouw also showed a clip of Mick Jagger and made references to Derrida, Gergen, and other “postmoderns” in a way that was suprisingly not so tiresome.
  • An amazing theater performance in which the famous “Addison’s Walk” conversation between C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Hugo Dyson was reenacted. This was the walk (in the gardens of Magdalen College) where Lewis supposedly was convinced that not only was there a God, but that Jesus very likely was his true son.  Lots of great, theological dialogue inspired by Tolkien’s notions that in ancient myths we see the divine preparation for the one True Myth (Christ’s death and ressurection)… a sort of working-out through the arts of God’s mystical revelation and incarnation.

Overall the conference is just as magical as it always is, what with the towering spires of this ancient land and the spirit of Lewis hovering over it all… But most of all his legacy, which includes such great ideas and articulations of the Christian (nay, human) experience. Take this quote from “The Weight of Glory”:

“Indeed if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised by the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

It’s nice to be reminded that as dire as our human condition is and as corrupted as our desires may be, there is still a spark within us–a longing–that pushes us towards a higher satisfaction. You can feel glimpses of that here at this conference, and as such it’s an event that beautifully embodies Lewis’ legacy.

Many more great things to come in the next 10 days, doubtless. I’ll try to post another update soon!