Reflecting on St. Gregory of Nyssa’s The Making of Man (III)

Previous post: Reflecting on St. Gregory of Nyssa’s The Making of Man (II)

In the two previous posts, I looked at some of the comments St. Gregory of Nyssa made regarding science and being human in his book THE MAKING OF MAN.  In this post, the last in this series, I want to note some of Gregory’s ideas about the human body. We do get the sense from his writings that Gregory is aware of the science of his day and values it.  We have seen that he doesn’t assume just because something is claimed in scripture that we have to accept it as a literal truth.  He does not try to oppose science to the bible, but rather wants to create a synthesis of the truths contained in the bible and those known from nature/science.  His thinking might show us a way forward to day as the Church looks at scientific claims in the 21st Century.   The Patristic writers were aware that their entire culture accepted the science/philosophy of their day and so knew the Church had to deal with accepted truths that were not derived from Scripture.

Regarding the relationship of the mind to the body, Gregory is aware that brain injuries do affect the mind of a person, but he is not convinced that the mind is restricted to the brain, rather believing that the mind is in some mysterious fashion found throughout the human body.  The nervous system was not yet understand in his day, but they could observe that the mind did seem to control all voluntary movements of limbs and body parts.

“And although I am aware that the intellectual energies are blunted, or even made altogether ineffective in a certain condition of the body, I do not hold this a sufficient evidence for limiting the faculty of the mind by any particular place . . . for the intelligible nature neither dwells in the empty spaces of the bodies, nor is extruded by encroachments of the flesh . . . for the mind is somehow naturally adapted to be in close relation with that which is in a natural condition, but to be alien from that which is removed from nature.”  (pp 54-55)

The nervous system was not understood in the 4th Century, and Gregory cannot account how the mind can work in all parts of the body, but he does believe that because the mind affects every part of the body, it has to be present everywhere in the body.

“… for the purpose of our argument was to show that the mind is not restricted to any part of the body, but is equally in touch with the whole, producing its motion according to the nature of the part which is under its influence.” (p 70)

The mind is related to the physical body in some fashion, but he treats it more as if the mind occupies the body.  He is not sure why certain injuries stop the mind from working in different parts of the body.  He does think it is the mind which makes the various limbs and body parts move.  The mind seems more like a vital fluid which flows throughout the body, but that flow can be stopped by injuries.

Gregory does accept the basic idea that the health of the body is maintained by the body organs keeping a balance of the four humors of the body.  The organs have the job of trying to keep the proper warmth and moisture of the body.

We see then that the powers which control life are three, of which the first by its heat produces general warmth, the second by it moisture keeps damp that which is warmed, so that the living being is kept in an intermediate condition by the equal balance of the forces exerted by the quality of each of the opposing natures (the moist element not being dried up by excess of heat, nor the hot element quenched by the prevalence of moisture); and the third power by its own agency holds together the separate members in a certain agreement and harmony, connecting them by the ties which it itself furnishes, and sending into them all that self-moving and determining force, on the failure of which the member become relaxed and deadened, being left destitute of the determining spirit.” (p 146)

This schema of the three powers that control life in a person are worked out in the body organs.  The organs are compared to mechanical devices and thought to serve similar functions.

“The breath in the heart is supplied by means of the neighboring organ, which is called the lungs … draws to itself, somewhat as the bellows do in the forges a supply from the adjacent air ..”  (p 150)

“…we understand the principle of heat is to be found in the heart…” (p 151)

He holds to the idea of the body organs maintaining the heat of the body, even seeing the blood being red – a sign of its fiery nature.

“… the artery … receives the heated air from the heart and conveys it to the liver, making its opening there somewhere beside the point at which the fluids enter, and, as it warms the moist substance by its heat, blends with the liquid something akin to fire, and makes the blood appear red with the fiery tint it produces.”  (p 154)

Interestingly, the human digestive system is designed the way it is – the long colon – so that food remains in us for a long period, or otherwise we would want to eat all the time like wild animals.  Because God designed the long colon in humans, our bodies retain the food, and this gives us humans a chance not to be preoccupied with food and to develop our rational nature.  Even evolutionists do think that humans being omnivores, able to find many sources of food, and then learning to cook food, did in fact reduce the amount of time we had to forage for food and did enable the brain to grow larger.  So having to spend less time on finding food and chewing it allowed the brain to grow and for reason to become more prominent in the human animal.

“… and expels the sedimentary matter of the food to the wider passages of the bowels, and by turning it over in their manifold windings retains the food for a time in the intestines, lest if it were easily got rid of by a straight passage it might at once excite the animal again to appetite, and man, like the race of irrational animals, might never cease from this sort of occupation.”  (p 153)

Like many of the Patristic writers, who were monks, there is a concern that humans are too much like other animals.  There is a need to try to separate humans from animal and animal behavior as much as is possible.  Human appetite and eating are moral issues for Gregory rather than merely natural issues.  He does believe that having to eat physical food is a sign of our fallen nature and is not how God intended humans to be.  He does interpret much of the biblical account of the Garden of Eden as being a spiritual existence and not about eating physical food but about spiritual food.

“It may be, however, that some one feels shame at the fact that our life, like that of brutes is sustained by food, and for this reason deems man unworthy of being supposed to have been framed in the image of God; but he may expect that freedom from this function will one day be bestowed upon our nature in the life we look for; for, as the Apostle says, ‘the kingdom of God is not meat and drink’ (Rom 14:17); and the Lord declared that man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.  Further, as the resurrection holds forth to us a life equal with the angels, and with the angels there is no food, there is sufficient ground for believing that man, who will live in like fashion with the angels, will be released from such a function.”  (pp 91-92)

When humans are released from this world in the Kingdom, there will be no more eating or drinking – activities which belong to the fallen world.  For many Orthodox it might be shocking to note that Gregory does not envision an eternal Paschal Banquet – because for him there is no food in the Kingdom!   References to food and banquets for him are spiritual ideas.  Humans are destined to become like angels and be freed from food or a desire to eat.

One way that ancient science differs from modern science is that the ancients believed one could derive moral lessons from observing animals.  Animal behavior was anthropomorphized – seen as reflecting human life and values.  The goal of the “rational” life for humans was to become less like the animals and more like angels.  Gregory does see eating as a moral issue – it is a sign of the effects of sin on humans, so is something to be overcome in the world to come.  The Fathers ideas of fasting are related to their thinking about animal nature.  They are also related to their ideas about maintaining a balance between moisture and dryness, heat and cold in the body.  Fasting might work to make us less dependent on our bodies.  Drinking even water could throw off the moisture balance in the body which would lead to increasing one’s desires and passions.  For the Fathers this was both spiritual and scientific.  Our goal is to enter into a spirtual manner of living.

 

 

 

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Reflecting on St. Gregory of Nyssa’s The Making of Man (II)

Previous post: Reflecting on St. Gregory of Nyssa’s The Making of Man (I)

St. Gregory of Nyssa writing in the 4th Century wanted to present a clear image of how humans are unique in God’s creation.  In his ON THE MAKING OF MAN, he shows how adept he was at incorporating biblical ideas about humans with what was the commonly accepted science of his day.  Christianity in the 4th Century was becoming the dominant religion of the Roman Empire, providing everyone with a particular paradigm for how to understand God, creation and what it is to be human.  Gregory works hard on this new synthesis of ideas to show that the bible is compatible with the established science (philosophy) of that day.  Like most of the Christian thinkers of that time, they wanted to establish the superiority of Christian thought over pagan philosophy.  They believed that there is only one truth (Christ!), and so all “truths” are Christian truths.  These beliefs led them to work on a synthesis between the biblical understanding of science and humanity and the well established philosophical truths of the intellectual culture of the Roman Empire.

In the next post we will look particularly at some of Gregory’s understanding of the human body; this post will look at a few of his general claims and perspectives on the world, on Scripture and even on whether his ideas are in fact correct.

First, to one of his comments on the science of astronomy.  Note  in this comment that he reveals a lot about what the ancients believed about the world, and they certainly were no flat earth believers.  In the following quote, Gregory describes the size of the sun in comparison to earth, that the darkness of nighttime is nothing more than being in the earth’s shadow as the sun is shining behind the earth, that the earth is round and that they did think about what the space around earth  might be like.  All of this from a 4th Century Christian.   Of course they had to rely on scientific speculation and a logic derived from observation and mathematics – they had no instruments to prove what they considered to be true.

“For just as those skilled in astronomy tell us that the whole universe is full of light, and that darkness is made to cast its shadow by the interposition of the body formed by the earth; and that this darkness is shut off from the rays of the sun, in the shape of a cone, according to the figure of the sphere-shaped body, and behind it; while the sun, exceeding the earth by a size of many times as great as its own, enfolding it round about on all sides with its rays, unites at the limit of the cone the concurrent streams of light;

so that if (to suppose the case) any one had the power to passing beyond the measure to which the shadow extends, he would certainly find himself in light unbroken by darkness – even so I think that we ought to understand about ourselves, that on passing the limit of wickedness we shall again have our conversation in light, as the nature of good, when compared with the measure of wickedness , is incalculably superabundant.” (p 101)

What they believed to be true about the earth and the sun is surprisingly “modern” as the modern diagram describing an eclipse shows.  They were not trying to be superstitious, nor were they resistant to scientific claims or reasoning that could not be found in the Bible.  They believed that creation itself reveals the Creator just like the Bible does, but they did not assume that all knowledge about the Creator or about creation is derived from the Bible.  Some knowledge about creation and about the Creator is derived from scientific observation and from philosophical reasoning.

What is particularly ancient in Gregory’s comments is the willingness to derive moral lessons from nature and science.   So he describes space in terms of light, the sun and the earth, but then uses that as a model to understand the limits of human evil.  Those kinds of lessons the ancients would also have considered to be science.  They derived from observing the world lessons in what is natural and thus what is good.  Modern science would not see drawing such moral conclusions as science, and is much more willing to point out the endless exceptions to such thinking which also can be observed in nature.  It becomes a risky thing in modern science to derive moral ideas about what is good, normal or natural from by observing animal behavior.

St. Gregory appreciates that much knowledge is discovered through research, experimentation and observation.  Regarding human anatomy he writes:

“… any one too may learn everything accurately who takes up the researches which those skilled in such matters have worked out in books.  And of these writers some learned by dissection the position of our individual organs; others also considered and expounded the reason for the existence of all the parts of the body.”  (p 144)

Research has revealed knowledge that cannot be found in the Scriptures.   Humans are capable of not only dissecting organs but explaining their purpose as well (more on this in the next post).  And St. Gregory advocates study and research even if something is claimed Scripture.  While commenting on the bodily organ of the heart and whether it is the organ associated with human intelligence, he writes:

“Even if any should allege to us on this point the Scripture which claims the ruling principle for the heart, we shall not receive the statement without examination; for he who makes mention of the heart speaks also of the reins, when he says, God tries the hearts and reins; so that they must either confine the intellectual principle to the two combined or to neither.

Here St. Gregory shows his willingness to consider both what the Scriptures say as well as what science has revealed.  Simply quoting a verse from Scripture does not prove the point to him – proof texting still has to be researched by comparing the ideas to what else we know to be true about the world.   He doesn’t make a distinction between the heart as a bodily organ and the scriptural mentioning of the heart in a metaphorical way.  For him, references to the heart mean both things.  And though he holds to certain ideas which he defends, he is also willing to admit that his ideas may be proven wrong:

“Well, whether our answer is near the truth of the matter, the Truth Itself may clearly know; but at all events what occurs in our intelligence is as follows.”  (p 104)

There are ideas about the human body to which he adheres and teaches, and still he is willing to admit that his ideas when it comes to anatomy may be proven wrong.  He strives to work out a truthful understanding of the body based on scriptural statements and the knowledge from philosophy and yet allows for the fact that future research may prove these ideas inadequate.

St. Gregory does accept the science of his day.  He believes all physical things are made up of the four elements, Air, Earth, Fire and Water affected by the humors of heat and cold, moisture and dryness.  Such ideas were common in the ancient world.  So he writes:

“As it is then acknowledged by all that there is in us a share of all that we behold as elements in the universe – of heat and cold, and of the other pair of qualities of moisture and dryness – we must discuss them severally.”

This “science” is reflected even in the Orthodox blessing of water when the priest prays:

by Your providence You order the world. When You had joined together the universe out of the four elements . . . You have established the earth upon the waters. You have surrounded the sea with barriers of sand. You have spread out the air for breathing

The Church Fathers worked hard to make sense of the world, which included not only what they could observe of the physical world, but the claims of the Scriptures as well as the science of the philosophers.  Truth was the very basis of the Church, and thus all that was known to be true was incorporated into their anthropology and theology.

Next:  Reflecting on St. Gregory of Nyssa’s The Making of Man (III)

Insights from Science

I’m not a scientist and I don’t read science journals, but do enjoy reading the more “popular science” reported in DISCOVER magazine.  In the November 2017 issue there were two articles that had quotes that caught my attention.  These are a bit random, but here goes:

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(Photo by Seth Bobosh)

 Max Tegmark in an article, “Our Next Billion Years: Humanity only just arrived on Earth.  But its future is in the Cosmos” writes:

“Thirteen point eight billion years after its birth, our universe has awoken and become aware of itself. . . .  Although these self-aware stargazers disagree on many things, they tend to agree that these galaxies are beautiful and awe-inspiring.  But beauty is in the eye of the beholder, not in the laws of physics.  So before our universe awoke, there was no beauty.  This makes our cosmic awakening all the more wonderful and worthy of celebrating: It transformed our universe from a mindless zombie with no self-awareness into a living ecosystem harboring self-reflection, beauty and hope – and the pursuit of goals, meaning and purpose.  Had our universe never awoken, then it would have been completely pointless – merely a gigantic waste of space.  Should our universe permanently go back to sleep due to some cosmic calamity or self-inflicted mishap, it will become meaningless.”

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The appearance of conscious beings on earth – namely us humans – has impacted the entire universe.  This is not merely the claim of believers, but is now acknowledge in the scientific world as well.  Humans by being not only observers of the universe but conscious and intentional participants in it have altered the universe.  Humans give meaning to the cosmos as well as derive knowledge from it.  We are not merely along for the ride with no ability to affect our destiny.  Humans do not merely observe, but even have taken our own development (our genetics, our evolution) into our hands.  (see also my blog The Antropocene: Are Humans Really in Charge?)  We can and do impact not just human development, but we now affect the entire world and our influence is expanding into space.  The arrival of humans, self-conscious beings, in the universe is awesome, and that awe has led humans to acknowledge their own coming into an already existing cosmos.  We stand in awe before the cosmic reality, but we give it meaning and purpose.  In awe we celebrate creation by worshiping the Creator.  Our self-awareness serves a purpose, allowing us to come to know not just the empirical universe, but the God in whom the universe itself exists.

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Not only are humans self-aware, but they are also very creative and have managed to take items which occurred in nature and reshape them into useful tools, which further advanced human development.  This is the segue into the second article.

2.  Bridget Alex writes in “Stone Cold Science”:

“Because stone tools are a forgotten technology, the purpose behind different styles is not self-evident.  Scholars in the 19th century devised names, like scraper, point and burin, based on shape and assumed function.  But they had no evidence that scrapers scraped or points impaled.  Unsure how stone tools were used, archeologists fared better at determining how they were made.”

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Something I’ve not thought much about in terms of archaeology.  Stone items are discovered which are thousands or tens of thousands of years old.  We look at those items from a 21st Century perspective and try to determine what purpose the item served.  But we are anachronistically reading into the item what its use must have been based on modern tools, methods and assumptions.  We really don’t know what the original intent of the tool was.  Tools might have been invented for one purpose but then through time it is discovered the tool is very good for a purpose totally different than its original intention.  The original purpose is lost in history and all that remains is what purpose the tool served later in history.  We may never know what a stone knife was originally conceived as.  All we can know is how the knife became used at some point in history – a use which was passed down from that point on to our generation.  Thus when looking at archaeological finds, we have to be careful not to overly read our understanding into an early time period. What we might use a tool for today may never have been conceived by the first inventors of the tools.

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Egyptian Deity: Genius

Naming Every Living Creature

“So out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every beast of the field…”  (Genesis 2:19-20)

“And yet man was created for this possession, he was called to it when in paradise God appointed him king of creation, invested him with the authority to give names to “every living creature,” i.e., to know them from within, in their deepest essence.  And thus the knowledge that is restored by this thanksgiving is not knowledge about the world, but of the world, for this thanksgiving is knowledge of God, and by the same token apprehension of the world as God’s world.

It is knowing not only that everything in the world has its cause in God – which, in the end, “knowledge about the world” is also capable of – but also that everything in the world and the world itself is a gift of God’s love, a revelation by God of his very self, summoning us in everything to know God, through everything to be in communion with him, to possess everything as life in him. … and again we witness to the world as a new creation, recreated as the ‘paradise of delight,’ in which everything created by God is called to become our partaking of the divine love, of the divine life.”  (Alexander Schmemann, THE EUCHARIST, p 177)

Pleiades Star Cluster

Today science continues to name created things in this world –  we name new elements, new bacteria and viruses, new species, dinosaurs and other extinct animals, as well as stars and even cosmic events.  We continue to do what God commanded humans to do from the beginning, to name things as a way of understanding and knowing them.  And, thus for those who believe, even science continues to be a means for us to give thanks and glory to God.

Faith and Reason

Though opposing faith against reason seems to be a modern issue resulting from a scientific mindset opposing faith, the difference between faith and reason has been long understood in the Church, centuries before the modern scientific age.   St. Isaac the Syrian for example sees faith as greater than reason/knowledge because knowledge really deals only with the things of this world while faith deals with things beyond this world.  Knowledge is thus limited to the study of nature, but then there exists the world beyond nature – divinity, spiritual beings, heaven, the soul.  The natural world has its edges and limits, and thus knowledge is bound and limited.  The life beyond nature is an existence which might be boundless, and thus is greater than nature itself.

“For knowledge is opposed to faith; but faith, in all that pertains to it, demolishes laws of knowledge—we do not, however, speak here of spiritual knowledge. For this is the  definition of knowledge: that without investigation and examination it has no authority to do anything, but must investigate whether that which it considers and desires is possible… but faith requires a mode of thinking that is single, limpidly pure, and simple, far removed from any deviousness. See how faith and knowledge are opposed to one another! The home of faith is a childlike thought and a simple heart… But knowledge conspires against and opposes both these qualities. Knowledge in all its paths keeps within the boundaries of nature. But faith makes its journey above nature.”  (The Spiritual World of St. Isaac the Syrian, page 257)

September 1: The Day of Prayer for Creation

Poster Creation

Since the time of the Byzantine Empire, the Orthodox Church has kept September 1st as The Church Liturgical New Year.  In recent years, following the inspiration of the Ecumenical Patriarch, Orthodox churches have also kept September 1 as The Day of Prayer for Creation.   This year, His Beatitude, Metropolitan Tikhon of the Orthodox Church in America issued an archpastoral letter on The Beginning of the Ecclesiastical Year & The Day of Prayer for the Creation, giving mutual recognition to the New Year and day of prayer for creation.   The Roman Catholic Church this year also joined the Orthodox in honoring September 1 as a day of prayer for creation.   The Church has always recognized that “The earth is the LORD’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein; for he has founded it upon the seas, and established it upon the rivers” (Psalm 24:1-2; 1 Corinthians 10:26).  We Orthodox recognize God is the creator of the world and the Lord of all the universe.  We are stewards of God’s creation.  As such, we have a prayerful responsibility for the environment.

Here is one of the traditional hymns honoring the Church’s liturgical New Year:

Creator and Master of time and the ages,

Triune and merciful God of all,

Grant blessing for the course of this year

And in Your boundless mercy save those who worship You and cry to you in fear:

Savior, grant blessing to all humankind.

(Kontakion of the New Year)

And a more recent hymn from from Vespers for the Environment, September 1:

Joy of heavenly hosts, Christ our Savior, Lover of humankind

Who brought all things into being from nothing,

And with ineffable wisdom arranged for each one

To accomplish unerringly the goal which You laid down in the beginning,

As You are powerful, bless the whole creation which you fashioned.

 

 

 

Soul, Mind, And Brain

Mind & BrainOne interesting question ponder is: What is the exact relationship between the mind and the brain?   It is a question for scientists, as well as philosophers and believers.  The materialist says the mind has no existence apart from the brain for it is merely a function of the material brain.  Philosophers and believers look beyond the material existence, to the existence of self or soul and what it means to be human.

The Fifth Century Christian author, St. Mark the Monk, reports on a conversation which deals with these very issues of the relationship between the physical and spiritual worlds.  Christians of the 5th Century were well aware that the desires and passions of the body often went against what a person willed to do by choice.  That spiritual warfare is obvious to anyone who attempts to practice self denial or self control.  The ability to exert self control was often thought to be a hallmark of the human being who was not guided by animal instinct but had free will.

The attorney then asked, “Does the flesh have will apart from thought?”

The monk answered, “It does, in accordance with what the Apostle says: ‘We ourselves were once disobedient, doing the will of the flesh’ [Titus 3.3; Eph 2.3], and again, ‘What the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh’ [Gal 5.17]. So, you see, the flesh has desire and will, and we are ignorant of this fact on account of the carelessness and assent of our thoughts. Because of this fact, not only those who neglect prayer, but also those who do not pay heed to their thoughts are injured.  (Counsels on the Spiritual Life, Kindle Location 4523-4529)

braingodWhat was obvious is that apart from the mind or the self, the body has a will of its own, which the goal of the Christian life was to control.  We are always trying to exert our spiritual will to govern the body, rather than having bodily urges control the person.  The mind in this worldview is not identical to the physical brain and the rest of the human body.  The body is capable of creating desires which might go against what the mind wants to do.

In a more recent book, Dr. Clark Elliott (The Ghost in My Brain: How a Concussion Stole My Life and How the New Science of Brain Plasticity Helped Me Get it Back), writes about his personal experience with brain trauma and the effect it had on his life.  In the book he describes the effect the brain trauma had on his spiritual life and reflects exactly on the relationship of the brain to the self and one’s spiritual life.   To be honest I didn’t find the whole book that compelling a read, but I did find this one section interesting.

DIALOGUE WITH GOD AND THE MATTER OF SENTIENCE.

Since my very early teens, I’ve had the sense of a dialogue with God. Though I did not grow up religious, praying was easy for me. I talked to God, and God listened. God talked to me (in pictures, and through intuition), and I listened. Dialogue with the spirit was easy and natural: comforting, occasionally demanding, real. Almost immediately following the crash, this dialogue disappeared. I recall very distinctly entering the small chapel at DePaul’s downtown university campus, sitting alone on one of the chairs to pray for my students, and for my ability to serve them as their professor—something I often did. In a profoundly disturbing moment I realized that there was no longer anyone there. No one was listening. I thought: These are just empty words I am saying to myself. My prayers are no different than if I were reading aloud from an auto repair manual. I felt a deep sense of loss, but in a weird way. Though I understood, intellectually, about the loss of dialogue with God, and I felt quite disturbed about how sterile my life had become because of it, I nonetheless couldn’t quite “see” what was missing. It was like trying to remember a dream. I still believed in God, but viscerally it was an entirely different experience: there was no longer anyone there. When we consider the nature of my later recovery, and the many examples we’ve seen of how our internal world is so very symbolic in nature, it becomes apparent that it was the loss of my visual/spatial ability to represent symbolic relationship that was at the heart of my troubles with God. If so, then losing the closeness to God I felt pre-concussion raises some interesting questions about our connection to the larger universe around us. Could this sense of connection be located entirely in one of the visual/spatial centers of our brains? After all, in my case I had this easy faith up until the moment of the crash. I lost it in the days after the crash. I didn’t have it for eight years. I got it back again after treatment for my concussion. This is pretty strong evidence that it is our brains—our physical brains—that support this kind of spiritual faith. What this means is still up for grabs, however. As scientists, we have to allow for at least two possibilities. On the one hand we could take this as evidence that a sense of God, and the spirit, is just an artifact of the neural, and possibly other, programming in our brains—a purely physical uprising from a locus in our heads. Certainly there are researchers who talk about the “God spot” in the parietal, and other, regions of the brain that are thought to give rise to spirituality. Some have even have claimed to have created a “God Helmet” that artificially stimulates a profound religious experience via artificial manipulation of the brain.* On the other hand, we could just as easily imagine that these parts of the brain allow us to connect to a real channel of spirituality, and that without them we have simply lost one dimension of our sensory capabilities. That is, if we lose our hearing, the world is still full of sound; in the same way, if we lose our sense of God, that doesn’t mean that God is not still out there.     ( Kindle Location 1350-1373)

Obviously the mind and the brain, or the self and the brain, have a relationship.  One enters into relationships in and through one’s physical body.  And yet, we believe that the self is not identical to the body.  The self can have a relationship with God, using the body as a means of voicing prayer and of physically moving one’s body to correspond to one’s prayer and thoughts as in bowing in repentance.  The soul comes into existence when the breath of the Spirit enters into the physical dust of the earth to cause into being a living soul.  Acts of the Holy Spirit, touching a human will register in the brain of a person.  The physical and spiritual are not in opposition to one another but rather are united in the human being.

The Human Being: A Spiritual Animal

This is the 16th  blog in this series which began with the blog Being and Becoming Human. The previous blog is St. John Chrysostom on Humans as Beasts and Saints.

“For the devil has always been eager, through these philosophers, to show that our race is in no way more honorable than the beasts.”   (St. John ChrysostomWOMEN AND MEN IN THE EARLY CHURCH, p 231)

It is not only modern scientific materialists who think humans are nothing more than another animal.  In the Fourth Century St. John Chrysostom was engaged with philosophies and philosophers of his day which had decided that humans are nothing more than a brute beast. [Certainly through the centuries many rulers have thought that human life is cheap – just look at how troops were used in warfare, nothing more than ‘cannon fodder’ and hoping to use up enemy arrows and spears before one ran out of men].   Prior to the Fourth Century Christianity had spent a great deal of its apologetic arguments against various form of Gnosticism beginning with Docetism in the First Century, all of which had denied the value of the physical nature of humans.

“By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit which confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit which does not confess Jesus is not of God.“   (1 John 4:2)

“For many deceivers have gone out into the world, men who will not acknowledge the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh; such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist.”  (2 John :7)

The incarnation of God in Jesus Christ showed the extent to which God valued humanity’s physical nature.  God had created the humans with a physical body which was capable of being united to divinity.   Humans though having a physical body like any animal were viewed by the early Christians as not being merely animals.

“It is not only in our possessing a rational (logikon) soul that we surpass beasts…, but we also excel them in body.  For God has fashioned the body to correspond with the soul’s nobility (eugeneia), and has fitted it to execute the soul’s commands.”    (St. John Chrysostom quoted in WOMEN AND MEN IN THE EARLY CHURCH, p 125)

Humans have an animal body but the human corporeal nature is not controlled by or limited to the body.  Each human has a soul, the very place where divinity and the physical world interface.  God bestowed upon the human God’s own image and likeness, which is how humans differed from all other animals – humans are related to God in specific ways which other animals are not. Each individual human has a nobility and a value bestowed upon them by God:  this is certainly a great contribution Christianity offered to the world- even the “impoverished masses” are seen by God as beings to be loved and cherished and all have worth and nobility in God’s eyes, and so are also to be loved by all other humans.

“God has given us a body of earth, in order that we might lead it up with us into Heaven, and not that we would draw our soul down with it to the earth.  It is earthly (geodes), but if we please, it may become heavenly (ouranion).  See how highly God has honored us, in committing to us so excellent a task.  ‘I made Heaven and Earth,’ He says, ‘and to you I give the power of creation’ … Make your earth heaven, for it is in your power.”  (St. John Chrysostom quoted in WOMEN AND MEN IN THE EARLY CHURCH, p 146)

The human is created to be both the connection between God and creatures, and the mediator between them, enabling all of the rest of creation to have a full relationship to the Creator through the human’s relationship with God.  St. Ephrem the Syrian makes an interesting, if allegorical interpretation of the humans having both physical and spiritual qualities.  He sees these qualities as interrelated and intertwined with both the world of agriculture and the liturgical year.  Everything is arranged by God:

“… Ephrem points out that human beings possess both a physical and a spiritual side and that they need to cultivate these two aspects equally: physical labor on the land receives its reward in October, with the ingathering of its produce and the arrival of the rain after the long hot summer months of drought;  spiritual toil, however, is rewarded in April, the month of the Feast of the Resurrection—and it was on Easter eve that in many places it was the custom for baptisms to take place.  Agricultural labor and spiritual toil turn out to be closely interrelated, for October provides the oil for the baptismal anointing in April.”   (Ephrem the Syrian, SELECT POEMS, p 181)

For St. Maximos the Confessor humans share a relationship with both plants and animals, but then have beyond either intelligence and a intellect.  This gives humans a means to share in immortality.

“The soul has three powers: first, the power of nourishment and growth; second, that of imagination and instinct; third, that of intelligence and intellect. Plants share only in the first of these powers; animals share in the first and second; men share in all three. The first two powers are perishable; the third is clearly imperishable and immortal.”   (The Philokalia, Kindle Loc. 13154-59)

In the writings of Saint Gregory Palamas the human naturally has a relationship with God, but if that relationship is lost or distorted, then the human too becomes unnatural and loses his/her humanity.  Being dehumanized, or becoming inhuman is in his mind a form of hell on earth.

 “‘A mind removed from God becomes like either a dumb beast or a demon.  Once having transgressed the bounds of nature, it lusts for what is alien.  Yet if finds no satisfaction for its greed and, giving itself the more fiercely to fleshly desires, it knows no bounds in its search for earthly pleasures.’ . . . Life becomes a hell, freedom a burden, and other people a curse.”  (Archimandrite George Capsanis,  THE EROS OF REPENTANCE, p 9)

Life on earth becomes a hell when we lose our godliness, even if we gain all the riches of the world.

“‘What good will it do a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul?’ Christ asks His disciples (Matt. 16:26); and He says that there is nothing equal in value to the soul. Since the soul by itself is far more valuable than the whole world and any worldly kingdom, is not the kingdom of heaven also more valuable? That the soul is more valuable is shown by the fact that God did not see fit to bestow on any other created thing the union and fellowship with His own coessential Spirit. Not sky, sun, moon, stars, sea, earth or any other visible thing did He bless in this way, but man alone, whom of all His creatures He especially loved.”  (St Symeon Metaphrastis, THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 34642-54)

Christian theology has through the centuries highly valued each human being and viewed human life as sacred because God the Trinity bestowed on each human being a sanctity by creating all in God’s own image and giving each person a soul and imprinting the image of God on every human being.  Orthodox Christianity continues to defend the sanctity of human life and to defend the dignity and nobility of every human being whether saint or sinner, believer or not.  Christianity is not opposed to science, but rejects the reductionist thinking of materialism which denies that humans are related to God or can aspire to something greater than our brutish animal nature.  We believe that even science shows humans have conscious awareness, consciences and free will.  As many scientists now acknowledge humans are no longer predestined by their genetics but have even gained control over some these natural forces of evolution.

Darwin caused controversy, not merely because his ideas contradicted Genesis, but because they fell foul of the way in which Genesis had been read by those influenced by the Enlightenment, for it was the Enlightenment that conceived of the human as almost exclusively rational and intellectual, and set the human at a distance from the animal. When the Fathers interpret Genesis, they see the human as sharing a very great deal with animal, and indeed plant-like, creation. The possession of reason, the gift of being in the image of God, makes the human distinctive, indeed raises the human to a position that transcends the animal and the plant-like, both as being nobler, and also as bearing responsibility for the rest of creation, but the human still shares a very great deal with the rest of creation, both animal and plant-like, and even with the inanimate”     (Andrew Louth , Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology, Kindle Loc. 1469-75)

We humans are biologically, chemically and genetically related to all other animals on earth.  However, we believe we are not only or merely animals.  We are rational and intellectual beings.  However, rationality and intellectualism neither completely define delineate what it is to be a human being, for we believe we are created in God’s image and we are embodied souls or ensouled bodies, and thus are spiritual beings.

“When we read in the writings of the Fathers about the place of the heart which the mind finds by prayer, we must understand by this the spiritual faculty that exists in the heart.  Placed by the Creator in the upper part of the heart, this spiritual faculty distinguishes the human heart from the heart of animals: for animals have the faculty of will or desire, and the faculty of jealousy or fury, in the same measure as man.  The spiritual faculty in the heart manifests itself—independently of the intellect—in the conscience or consciousness of our spirit, in the fear of God, in spiritual love towards God and our neighbor, in feelings of repentance, humility, or meekness, in contrition of the spirit or deep sadness for our sins, and in other spiritual feelings; all of which are foreign to animals.” (Bishop Ignatii Brianchaninov, THE ART OF PRAYER, p 190)

Next:  The Human Being: A Spiritual Animal (II)

Brain and Mind; Flesh and Spirit

“The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

Mind & BrainOrthodox Christian writers have had at times a hostile relationship with Freudian psychoanalysis, seeing its assumptions and goals as being godless and hostile to religion.

Psychoanalysis has also been held in disregard by neuroscience which has often doubted and sometimes discredited the ideas of Freud as being philosophical/religious rather than based in the scientific method or in materialism.

Despite Orthodoxy and neuroscience sharing a suspicion of psychoanalysis, the two have not found having a common enemy makes for friendship on any level.  Neuroscience has been founded in scientific materialism and to the extent that its practitioners hold to materialistic assumptions there is no common ground between neuroscience and  Orthodoxy.   In fact a number of atheists in their arguments against religion have pointed to neuroscience as having disproved any idea of a self or of consciousness.  They claim free will is a delusion created by the brain’s chemistry.

Because of these apparent oppositional ideas between neuroscience and psychoanalysis, I found an article by Kat McGowan  in the April 2014 issue of DISCOVER, “The Second Coming of Sigmund Freud”, to be interesting because it is showing some of the dividing walls of knowledge are coming down between the science of the brain and the science of the mind, and this might have implication for how believers approach these sciences. McGowan points out that:

“By the end of the 20th Century, the two disciplines (psychoanalysis and neuroscience), did not seem to be talking about the same thing.  Psychoanalysis was hostile to the idea of testing hypotheses through experiments.  Neuroscience claimed to explain the brain but ignored its finest product: the dazzling, intimate sensations of human consciousness.”

brain scanBut a few scientists have begun to realize the brain and the mind are not separable and must be understood as a whole, which has resulted in the creation of Neuropsychology which blends knowledge from both sciences into a more holistic understanding of the human.   One of  the founders of this new science, Neuropsychologist Mark Solms says the purpose is:

“to put the study of the mind back in the study of the brain … ‘What neuropsychoanalysis is all about is this: How does the actual stuff of being a person relate to the tissue and physiology and anatomy and chemistry of the brain?’”

The questions,”what is to be human?”, or “what does it mean to be human?”, become scientific questions.  They are also the questions religion has been asking for centuries.  The relationship of the ‘self’ or soul to brain tissues, to the  “anatomy and chemistry of the brain” are questions that are of great interest to the believer who also values the work of science.

“These observations, and the experiments that followed, led (Neuroscientist Antonio) Damasio to conclude that emotions are not irrational intrusions into reason.  They are intrinsic to rational thought.”

brain2The relationship between emotions and reason are issues discussed frequently in the fathers of the church.  That science might now be recognizing these issues as real  knowledge opens many doors for Orthodoxy and medical science.  The new thinking of neuropsychology should be of interest to all those who study the fathers and their discussion of depression.

“Psychoanalytic thought is fundamentally humanistic.  It honors the unique experience of individual human beings – something often overlooked by the current medical approach to the mind.”

“Depression is a perfect example.  The prevailing theory in biomedical research is mechanistic: Depression is just another biochemical problem, essentially no different from diabetes or gout.   That approach leads to the creation of dozens of medicines that tamper with serotonin and other brain chemicals – drugs that, for more than half of patients, don’t work.  ‘Pharma has dumped a gazillion dollars down the drain and never [has] come up with a new concept,’ say (Neuroscientist Jaak) Panksepp.

Like most psychiatrists, he and Solms say the place to begin is with the existential reality of depression—the soul-crushing hopelessness and despair.”

Raising LazarusThe approach being described will be of interest to those Orthodox who are interested in the relationship between Orthodoxy and medical science including psychological illnesses.  The book RAISING LAZARUS: Integral Healing in Orthodox Christianity  comes to mind

“’What is most significant about the brain, in comparison to other bodily organs, is that it’s not just an object but subject,’ says Solms.  ‘To truly recognize that has massive implications.  That’s really what’s motivated me consciously in my scientific life.’  We must embrace the fact that a brain is also a mind, that it thinks, it experiences, it suffers.  In a word, that it is us.”

The ideas of Mark Solms should be welcomed by Theists as a possible bridge between psychoanalysis, neuroscience and Christianity.   They may also have an impact on the ideas being pushed by some atheistic materialists that say the consciousness and free will have been disproven and so our efforts to deal with criminals, addicts and miscreants is totally misguided. (see my blog Environmental Clues, Shaping Behavior and Free Will)

Though some like evolutionist Jerry Coyne seem to think that modern science is the first to consider these issues, St. Basil the Great  (d. 379AD) raises similar issues in the 4th Century.

“If the origin of our virtues and of our vices is not in ourselves, but in the fatal consequence of our birth, it is useless for legislators to prescribe for us what we ought to do, and what we ought to avoid; it is useless for judges to honor virtue and to punish vice. The guilt is not in the robber, not in the assassin: it was willed for him; it was impossible for him to hold back his hand, urged to evil by inevitable necessity. Those who laboriously cultivate the arts are the maddest of people. The laborer will make an abundant harvest without sowing seed and without sharpening his sickle. Whether he wishes it or not, the merchant will make his fortune, and will be flooded with riches by fate. As for us Christians, we shall see our great hopes vanish, since from the moment that one does not act with freedom, there is neither reward for justice nor punishment for sin. Under the reign of necessity and of fate there is no place for merit, the first condition of all righteous judgment.”    (St. Basil  the Great,  A Patristic Treasury: Early Church Wisdom for Today, Kindle Loc. 3624-31)

Predestination whether ordered by Fate or by genetic determinism is an old idea which Christians rejected long ago as being pagan mythology and not capable of fully understanding humanity.   We might hope that the new science of neuropsychology might be open again to the insights of those great observers of humanity and human psychology, the Fathers of the Church.  And while neuropsychology admits that both mind and brain are real, their interests in the mind/brain will continue to be different from that of Christianity which further understands that the mind and brain relationship is also looking at the soul, the very place where the Spirit of God interfaces with the physical brain/body.

“God formed the human out of dust from the ground, and breathed in his face the breath of life; and man became a living soul.”  (Genesis 2:7)

Seeing The Truth of Colors

The truths of science can help us spiritually because they can challenge our understanding or misunderstanding of the world around us.  What we see may not give us the exact insight into what is actually transpiring on a scientific level. Vision in itself is a perfect example of this as there is a difference between how we conceive of sight and what is happening in scientific terms.  Consider for example the colors we see every where and every day.  We can function perfectly well in the world with a non-scientific understanding of sight and color and can assume that things all have color in them.  But if we look into the scientific understanding we come to see the world quite differently.  Take for example the description of color and sight from  Rodney A. Brooks,  Fields of Color: The theory that escaped Einstein (Kindle Loc. 941-54)

“Colors are determined by the frequency of radiation, with red being the lowest visible frequency, followed by orange, yellow, green, blue and violet, in that order. When all colors are present, as in sunlight, our eyes perceive the result as white. The component colors of white light can be demonstrated by passing it through a prism, or by looking at the rainbow created by “nature’s prisms” (water droplets). However, and it’s a big however, the colors we see do not exist outside of our minds .”

It is actually our brains that turn the wave frequencies into color.  Our eyes translate the wave lengths into colors.  Our eyes and brains are thus constantly interpreting the world around us which help us to distinguish things and to make sense of them.   Brooks continues his description of Electromagnetic (EM) radiation:

 “EM radiation has no color; it is simply an alternation in the EM field intensity. It is only when this radiation reaches our eyes that it starts a process that turns the oscillations into sensations of color. What happens is this: There are three types of photosensitive molecule in the eye that respond predominantly to three different frequencies of light. (This is why display devices such as a TV screen are able to reproduce the full range of color using only three phosphors.) Each photosensor, in turn, is connected by a different neural pathway to the mysterious part of the brain where the sensation of color is created. However, we are not aware of the separate intensities of the three neural signals; our brain combines them to create a host of color sensations, depending on the amount of each component that is present.”

“It’s a bit like a chef mixing different flavors to create a new taste, or a composer putting tones together to create a chord, except that a good chef can detect the individual elements in a mixture and a good musician can distinguish the component tones in a chord. This is not the case with color. The component colors do not survive, but are lost to the new color sensation produced by the combination. For example, if red and blue combine to produce purple, the red and blue hues can no longer be separately identified (although they are still present). Our brains process color very differently from the way they process other sensory signals.”

The observer (you, me, any human) interprets and makes sense of the radiation waves which strike our eyes.  It is a marvelous and mysterious process in which the brain is translating the various wave lengths into the sensation of different colors.   What is also known is that other creatures on earth whose eye structures are slightly different than human eyes, “see” the world slightly differently than we do.

What fascinates me in this scientific world is the essential role of the observer in being able to see anything, let alone understand it.  Objective reality is dependent on an observer.  This is a truth which quantum mechanics fully recognizes as well.  Even the mathematical truths of the universe are there only in as much as there is a conscious observer of them, someone who can then make use of them for further action.  At the heart of science and math is the need for an anthropic principle: the observer is essential to doing math or science.  Circumference and radius only have a mathematical relationship if there is a someone to relate them and to make use of that relationship.   That is the simple truth which is reflected in Shroedinger’s thought experiment for quantum physics.

The existence of conscious beings in the universe brings us to an understanding of the universe that enables us to interact with the universe and even cause change in the nature of events.  Cause and effect are operative, but humans can and do alter the causes of things and the effects of things.  Just by observing things, we can alter the course of cause and effect.  It is an anthropic principle.  Humans are changing the course of events merely by observing them at the quantum level.  We also have the ability to change the course of events because we know how to interrelate with our universe at a macro level as well.  The mere existence of humans, or really of any sentinel beings, means the course of the universe is being altered.  Humanity interacts with the universe and affects the course of events.  The cause and effect initiated by the Big Bang is not a mindless process for it produces minds which interact withe the process and can change the course of events.

And obviously for believers, there never was a time when the universe wasn’t being observed by its Creator.  And as we know from science, the very existence of an observer changes everything.