“NO ONE has yet endeavoured to set down in one volume what I have called an historical inquiry into what, over the course of nearly six centuries, a few prominent contributors to the foundations of Western culture have offered as their opinion about the complex reality of human existence and experience.”
So says J. Andrew Kirk, who builds on more than 50 years in theological education as writer, teacher, and international lecturer to rectify this omission.
In a lengthy but sustained critique of how such questions as “What does it mean to be human?” “How do we happen to be here?” and “What for?” have been addressed in the writings of key thinkers from the Renaissance to the present day, he gives the most celebrated despisers of religion a real run for their money.
This is a trenchant apologia for theism, and particularly for what he calls “mainstream” (post-liberal?) Christian theism in response to 500 years of secular humanism, materialism, and often militant atheism. He argues: “The West has a problem of major proportions . . . by abandoning its roots in a refined understanding of its Christian heritage.”
This “problem for the West” has been particularly evident in anthropological studies, and, given that anthropology has been something of a Cinderella subject in Christian theology, this robust riposte is welcome and somewhat overdue.
Kirk’s theologically conservative presuppositions will not be to everyone’s taste, but it is his incisive analysis of secularism’s account of what it means to be human which matters most, however varied may be theistic responses to those accounts.
Beginning with Renaissance humanism during a period that laid the foundations for the modern world, Kirk explores some of the most influential voices that have shaped European thought about the human condition, in the Reformation, in the Enlightenment, in the controversies aroused by Darwin’s theory of descent, in the thinking of the “masters of suspicion”, e.g. Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, and in a range of secular humanist thought of the past 50 years. The inquiry concludes with chapters dedicated to some of the most significant 20th-century Christian thinkers on the subject of human nature.
Of course, judgements can be made about his choice of dramatis personae, but they are appropriate for his purposes.
Kirk writes with such seductive clarity and confidence in his handling of ideas that others all too often render obscure, or even incomprehensible, that it is easy to lose sight of just how controversial his theistic conclusions have become, precisely because of the five centuries of thought which he surveys. So his fundamental revealing of fallacies, faulty logic, and distortions of theistic claims in these alternative treatments of the meaning of human existence is of great value.
His key conclusions are that neo-Darwinian theories of human origins are far from definitive; secular humanism posits a false dichotomy between science and faith; and materialism is deficient in its ability to explain, inter alia, consciousness, moral sensibility, and humanity’s longing for a sense of purpose — questions for which a theistic world-view gives “a perfectly adequate, rational explanation”.
While Kirk effectively challenges the hegemony of humanist, secularist, and materialistic ideas in the modern Western mind, he remains open to constructive dialogue between these ideas and traditional theism — but it might well turn out to be a dialogue of the deaf.
A comprehensive bibliography, index, and questions for discussion at the end of each chapter complete this provocative counter-cultural inquiry into who we are.
ALTHOUGH Richard Swinburne has written many books defending orthodox Christian doctrine using the tools of philosophical theology, his book is essentially pre-theology. God barely gets a mention. What he wants to demonstrate is the coherence of souls as essential to our understanding of individual personhood.
The extent to which such souls have theological significance when it comes to spiritual experience, salvation, or life after death is not his main concern here. Establishing the necessary existence of souls, however, clearly removes objections to such doctrines based on materialist or physicalist accounts of what it means to be human.
Such accounts are predicated on human beings as machines differing from other machines “only by being much more complicated and made of flesh and blood rather than plastic and silicon chips”. Swinburne maintains that we are essentially “non-physical beings: souls who control bodies”.
For many commentators on the relationship between science and religion, the issue of consciousness remains the mysterious frontier that defies empirical reductionist explanations. Swinburne would certainly acknowledge that frontier, but wants to go further than just another “God of the gaps” defence of theism. For him, it is scientists who have to come to terms with the incoherent consequences of their own materialistic prejudices.
He is an advocate for “substance dualism”, which holds that “each of us living on earth consists of two distinct substances — body and soul, but the part that makes us who we are is the soul”.
He begins by posing a key question when it comes to what determines or defines human identity over time. How do we know that the person we know as George is the same person we will know as George in ten years’ time? The question is further complicated by postulating the possibility that neuroscientists may one day be able to transplant all or part of George’s brain into someone else’s body. Is the person receiving George’s brain now George, or still themselves, or someone else?
This goes to the heart of theories about personal identity. These Swinburne divides between “complex” and “simple”. The former rely on physical and/or mental continuities between an earlier person and a later person to establish that they are the same person. The latter maintain that being the same person cannot be analysed in terms of having some of the same physical or mental properties. Something other than merely physical or mental continuities is required, and for Swinburne that “something” is a soul.
This separation of the soul from psychosomatic properties raises the question whether such a soul can continue to exist independently of the body. Here, Swinburne appeals, not surprisingly, to Descartes, whose case for substance dualism he affirms with some improving tweaks to the argument. It is possible for the soul to be disembodied, and, if I continue to exist as disembodied, it will be my soul that ensures that it is indeed I who continue to exist.
Swinburne concludes: “it is the ‘I’ of which each of us is aware in having any conscious experience which is the soul, the core of our identity; and it is the continued existence of our soul which constitutes the continued existence of each of us.” Are we bodies or souls? Both — for now.
Swinburne is seriously analytical in his treatment of rival theories and the evidence for them. This may prove heavy going for those who favour a less forensic approach to such issues, and, of course, such arguments are always hotly contested. But Swinburne’s argument is clear, assured, and unapologetic when it comes to providing firm philosophical grounds for Christian doctrines to be confidently asserted in defiance of the more extreme manifestations of scientific triumphalism.
The Rt Revd Dr John Saxbee is a former Bishop of Lincoln.
Being Human: An historical inquiry into who we are
J. Andrew Kirk
Wipf & Stock £38
Church Times Bookshop £34.20
Are We Bodies or Souls?
Church Times Bookshop £13.50