Universities came to life in the high Middle Ages, driven by their overarching purpose to provide scholastic service to the “Queen of the Sciences”—theology, that is—the study of how we can and must speak of God and things divine. But this definition has fallen out of favor in modern times, as our idea of science brings to mind not religious understanding, but rather understanding of material things in the physical world which can be measured, like quarks, heat, the cosmos and money supply.galaxy_atomic_jet.jpg

One unfortunate result of this shift in popular thought, which no longer views theology as a “science”, is the idea that theology should be relegated to the arena of faith, as if reason and the scientific pursuit of knowledge were somehow foreign to the practice of theology. If this mindset is allowed to constrain our thinking about theology, we end up with an emaciated and impoverished theology stripped of its inherently exciting and necessary desire to seek the truth through every God-given means, including reason, mathematics and the hard sciences.

Here is something the universities of 800 years ago seem to have understood better than we today—theology is “science” in the pure sense that it is truth-seeking.[1] As the ultimate truth-seeking exercise, one characteristic theology shares with the modern “hard sciences” is its experimental quality. Jürgen Moltmann, a leading modern theologian rightly says:

“…it is essential …to develop a theologia experimentalis, an experimental theology which, together with the modern world, faces up to the experimentum veritatis, the experiment of truth.”

[2]

The Bible leaves us no other possibility; theology must be experimental because our vision of reality and of God is imperfect—“for now we see in a mirror, dimly”

[1 Cor. 13:12], and yet in spite of our imperfect vision, we are called to seek wisdom continually.

This begs the question, how then are we to create in our study of theology and every discipline the spirit of hopeful openness and discovery which marks good experimental science? I propose three guidelines—

· Theologians need to stay abreast of scientific developments, be in conversation with all the sciences, and ask theological questions of new theories.

· In conversation within our faith community, we need a spirit of testing theological ideas. This drives the practice of theological research within the academic community.

· Hold our faith securely, but gently, knowing that we do not comprehend God, but apprehend him.

In keeping with the experimental aspect of theology, learning is growth. Some of our conceptions will fall to the ground and die in order to bring new life to our faith and understanding.

[1] Let us not forget the classic definition of theology given by Anselm of Canterbury (12th c) as, “faith seeking understanding (fides quaerens intellectum).

[2] Jürgen Moltmann, Science and Wisdom, translated by Margaret Kohl, (London: SCM, 2003), p. 7.

   

He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit.
                                                                                                1 Pet. 3:18b

Some have asked me why I am here to do this research degree. The verse above points to my reason…

How are we to interpret this verse and the language of the Bible in general when it speaks of the contrast between “flesh” and “spirit”?

The nature of the human soul demands fresh scholarship, because genetics, biochemistry and neuroscience are producing a wealth of data to show how the mind and body are linked though brain chemistry and genetics. This abundance of fresh insight into human nature has spawned a profound debate known as the “mind/body problem.” In theology this debate revolves around whether the mind and body are separate substances, and whether it makes any sense to speak of the human soul as existing in reality, or whether the soul is essentially an idea–that is to say, a mere concept we use to describe our first-hand experience of consciousness.

This begs the question, how then are we to read the Bible’s language regarding flesh and sprit, mind and body? I would suggest that the right hermeneutic is the one that leads us into discipleship, engages our hearts, builds up the church, and spurs maturity in Christ. The test of our exegetical methodology then will be Christian ethics, which I might define as the search for meaningful answers to the question, “how then shall we/I live?” This is why I speak of ethics as the epistemology of the soul—because ethics is the test of the spirit, the test that reveals what we believe about our souls, our selves. It’s in ethical questions that we discover what we believe about our souls.

So the debate over human nature, specifically the question of the soul’s transcendence over physicalism, demands fresh insight in light of the new questions being raised by our growing scientific understanding of neuroscience, the mind, the behavioral aspects of personality, and the physical links among these aspects of persons.[*]

If our interpretation leads us to understand the human person as merely physical, then we will consider the soul to be no more than an artifact of our complex biological and material existence, and we will interpret the Bible in those terms. Does this type of physicalism result in ethics that put primacy on physical existence? I suspect the answer is yes, and I criticize such ethics as hampered by determinism which leaves no room for some crucial aspects of soul. A more robust (and more biblical) ethics, results from understandings that shed light on the transcendent nature of the human soul and personhood. I believe these ethical considerations point to theology that sees the soul as transcending physicalism–not denying our physical, embodied reality, but transcending it. This is the fascinating question of the soul to which I feel a call to study.

[*] For a good survey of the mind-soul link, see for example Malcolm Jeeeves, “Human Nature: An Integrated Picture,” in What about the Soul? Neuroscience and Christian Anthropology, edited by Joel B. Green (Nashville: Abingdon, 2004), pp. 171-190.