Chapter 5:The New View of Man

God in the New World
by Lloyd Geering

Chapter 5:The New View of Man

From within this new view of the world and its origins, we must now discuss the nature of man himself, as we have been led to understand him by all those sciences most closely related to him, such as anthropology, anatomy, physiology, neurology, psychology and sociology.

It has long been recognized that man has so much in common with the animals that he must be regarded as an animal, even if of a very special kind. The Bible itself placed men and animals in the same category by describing their Creation on the same day and thus distinguishing them as a class from all other created forms of life. In 1555 an early French zoologist, called Belon, showed from the comparison of the skeletons of a bird and a man that there was such a remarkable similarity, that man carried about in his own body the proof of his connection with the animals.

But man has also drawn a clear line of distinction between himself and all other animals, and in traditional Christian teaching this was done by stating that man consisted of two parts -- a body and a soul. It was the body which linked him with the animals; it was made of similar flesh and bone, and lived only for the limited period between birth and death, at which point the body fell into decay. That which made man unique was the possession of a soul, which, being spiritual and not material, was thought to survive the death of the body and go to live in a spiritual realm. The soul, involving the consciousness, the memory and the essential self, was thought capable of existing as a complete living entity apart from the body.

At a time when men knew very little about the functioning of the human body, this view seemed to be largely a matter of commonsense. The soul was what he knew in his own inner experience of thought, feelings and acts of decision. (In his dreams, just as real to ancient man as waking impressions, his soul often seemed to leave the sleeping body and visit far places.) Without even thinking about it, he projected this same spiritual entity into the creatures round about him. For very ancient man, the whole world was alive with the kind of life he knew within himself. Rivers, trees, mountains, birds, animals all possessed their particular kind of spirit or soul. This early attempt to explain the real world is called animism and it has been almost universal at a particular stage in man’s cultural development.

It was quite a step forward when men first began to distinguish inanimate objects, such as stones, from animate or living creatures. It was a further step forward when the uniqueness of man was recognized. This was not nearly as obvious as it may appear to us. In some societies the line of division was not drawn so clearly between men and the animals, as between the nobility and the peasantry, the latter being treated with much the same attitude as the animals. Even up till modern times class and caste divisions have obscured the unity of the human species, while animal lovers have frequently projected their own human consciousness into animal experience.

It further seemed a matter of common-sense to ancient man that this inner spirit or soul, which he knew from the inside and which he witnessed in his fellows, should be immortal or deathless. On the negative side, no living person had any subjective experience of death, and on the positive side, the dead person who appeared and spoke to him in his dreams seemed just as alive as ever. Indeed it is much easier to imagine the souls of the dead living on in some new kind of existence than it is to accept as fact that they have really died. Even in our own experience today we find it hard to realize completely what death means when it occurs to someone with whom we have lived closely. It is much easier to assume they are still alive but somewhere out of our sight. Archaeology has shown that from the beginnings of civilization man has evidently believed in the continuance of the soul after death, and has buried his dead in such a way as to provide for them the things thought necessary for the next life.

The speculation which accompanied the belief in a deathless human soul took different forms in different cultures. In India, for example, it took the form of a transmigration of souls, or reincarnation. The soul was regarded as an indestructible entity, which had neither beginning nor end, but which migrated from one body to the next, without any way of escaping from the endless procession. The souls of gods, devils, men, animals and insects were all of the same order, and so the kind of creature into which one’s soul would be reborn depended on the kind of life one lived. The soul did not carry over any memory, but it did retain traits, skills etc. The various gospels of salvation provided by Hinduism and Buddhism sought to rescue the soul from its endless wandering and attendant suffering.

The belief that man possesses a soul, or some kind of spiritual entity that survives death, is itself an almost universal phenomenon in primitive human culture and it has led to different kinds of development in more mature human civilizations. It was this primitive understanding of the nature of man which was given clear and classical exposition in the writings of the Greek philosopher Plato (427-347 BC.) He saw the soul as the source of movement in every body which moved of itself, and because the soul is thus self-moving, it must be unbegotten and immortal. For Plato, God is the Supreme Soul and all living creatures have souls created by God and these are the source of everything good and bad. When the body of a man dies, then the soul is released, as from a prison, for fuller life in a spiritual realm.

It is nowadays widely recognized that what became the orthodox Christian doctrine of the soul owes more to Platonic philosophy than to any other source. This may come as a surprise to those who have assumed that Christian doctrine has always drawn its substance from the Bible. It must be remembered that the early Christian community moved almost wholly into the Gentile world within a generation or two after its origin within Judaism, and that, as Christian thought took more definite shape within the next three or four centuries, it was inevitable that it should have been strongly influenced by the prevailing philosophy of the Hellenistic culture in which the church moved. This is strikingly illustrated by the fact that when the Renaissance initiated a revival of Platonism, some Christian scholars, known as the Cambridge Platonists, urged the return of Christian theology to ‘its old loving nurse, the Platonic philosophy’.

While Christian doctrine was still passing through its formative period, Christian scholars such as Clement of Alexandria (c. AD. 150-215), Origen (c. AD. 185-254), Augustine (AD. 354-430), the last being the most influential of all in Western Christianity, were strongly influenced by Platonism in their formulation of the Catholic doctrine of the soul. For them the soul could be understood, in clear contrast to the body, as the essential spiritual man; the soul included the seat of consciousness, it was the storehouse of knowledge and hence included the human memory, it was the cause of goodness and evil, and it was deathless or immortal. Although such a doctrine of an immortal soul is usually appealed to in order to answer questions about the meaning of death, it is logical to assert that the soul, whose existence is independent of the body, may therefore originate independently from the body. Christian speculation was sometimes led to debate whether God created the particular human soul at the time of conception, or whether the soul had a pre-existence which preceded the mortal life for which it was destined. Charles Lamb gives us a moving portrayal of pre-existence in his essay "Dream Children".

It is possible to trace the popular view of man, as the temporary combination of a mortal body and an immortal soul, back through Christian orthodoxy to Platonism and from there to primitive animism. It may have been noticed that so far the Biblical view has not been mentioned. Now it is true that certain Biblical passages were used to support this view, but this was largely because the doctrine was read into them, an easy temptation to fall into at any time. Modern Biblical scholarship has been able to show that this view of man is almost wholly foreign to the Old Testament and plays very little part in the New Testament. More will be said on the Biblical view of man later, but it is sufficient to point out here, that it is just because the Bible hardly anywhere reflects a doctrine of an immortal soul, that the Christian hope took the form of the resurrection of the body.

But in the modern world several sciences have converged to press home to us the rational conclusion that each individual man is a psychosomatic unity, a living physical organism whose various organs, both physical and psychical, can only function as part of the total organism. There are certain minor parts of the body which man can lose and yet still live and be truly man, such as hair, teeth, appendix and even limbs. But there are major organs, the loss of any one of which brings death to the whole organism.

Now words like ‘mind’, ‘will’, ‘spirit’ and ‘soul’ are abstractions, which we have found useful in order to describe the highest levels of human existence as they are understood by our thinking powers, and experienced in that most mysterious element of all -- our stream of consciousness. But what we are trying to describe, by each of these abstract terms, is essentially dependent for its reality upon the continuous functioning of the total organism, with all its essential physical organs and biochemical processes. Thus, just as the loss of an essential organ brings the death of the whole organism, so the death of the physical organism brings to an end those psychical or spiritual aspects of a man which are usually thought of as characterizing his uniqueness.

The whole animistic approach to man, which in both religious thought and philosophical analysis can be traced back to man’s earliest attempts to understand himself, has been destroyed by the modern sciences most closely related to the study of man. Now it must be confessed that this is a conclusion reached almost wholly on rationalistic, and, some would say, materialistic grounds. It is for this reason that it may be argued that these sciences have not exhausted all that is to be said about man, or even touched the most important questions about human existence. This we may readily concede, and many neurologists, psychologists, biochemists etc., would willingly agree; but no understanding of man can be any longer satisfactory, which is content to ignore what these sciences have taught us about the nature of man as a psychosomatic organism.

Whereas pre-scientific man had only vague notions of how the mind, spirit and consciousness of man were related to the body, we now have sufficient knowledge of the brain and the nervous system to know that man’s stream of consciousness could not function at all if it were not regularly receiving sense impressions from the eye, the ear, and touch etc. The human consciousness is dependent for its vitality, interest and development on keeping open at least some of these channels, which are the only means of contact man has with the world around him. Such controlled experiments, as it has been possible to conduct in order to learn what happens when a man is deprived of all his senses, suggest that the mind is soon subject to increasing hallucination, such as could quickly lead to the loss of the rational stream of consciousness so essential for true humanity. Thus man cannot be abstracted completely from his environment without soon ceasing to be human.

We know too that the memory, without which man could have no sense of continuity, is dependent upon the storage capacity of the unbelievably large number of brain cells, so that to the lay mind the brain is as close to an electronic computer as anything could be. We have learned how physical damage to the brain impairs the functioning of various parts of the body to which the nervous system connects it, and severe brain damage of a congenital nature can prevent the development of anything like a genuinely human personality altogether. Severe brain damage due to accident in later life, on the other hand, can make such radical changes in the personality, or destroy so much of the personality as to make it impossible to say whether it is the same person any more, even though it is fundamentally the same physical body.

In the light of this essential interdependence of mind and brain, spirit and body, we come to see that a disembodied soul is not only an unsatisfying state of existence to contemplate, but it is also bereft of any real meaning. What kind of existence can a soul have which can receive no sense impressions and make no physical response, and hence have no communication and no communion with other souls? What kind of a soul can it be that has no memory? The ancients, too, vaguely sensed these difficulties, and always imagined the spirit or soul as having some body or form, even though, of necessity, it had to be of a ghostly or ethereal ‘substance’, and pictured a spirit or soul world in which the soul found community.

Depth psychology and psychiatry have approached the understanding of man’s mind and soul (psyche) from an angle rather different from that of neurology and biochemistry. Instead of trying to penetrate to the mind and will by physical methods, they seek to understand the individual man through the channel of speech communication which constitutes one’s only means of access to what, for convenience, we call the mind. Psycho-analysis has brought to light the fact that the stream of consciousness of which each person is aware in his inner self is but the highest level of the complicated processes which are at work in the psyche. Below the conscious stream there is a great mysterious area, now called the subconscious, where, at differing levels, there move emotional forces set in operation by past experiences. It may be likened to that large part of every iceberg which lies hidden below the surface of the water. We now know that much of the emotions we feel, the thoughts we pursue, and the decisions we make, have at least been influenced, and sometimes largely directed, by those forces of which the subject himself is not consciously aware. Thus each individual is a far more complicated being than he realizes, and his own conscious assessment of himself, his motives, his emotions and his desires is only a rough over-simplification, and very likely a distorted one at that.

When the psychologist turns his attention to the study of religious behaviour, he can often give a new and quite different explanation for such experiences as dramatic conversions, visions or the sense of being impelled by a supernatural force from without. Whereas the religious believer has interpreted these as due to the influence of the Spirit of God, the psychologist is aware of the many emotional tensions at work in the human mind, only some of which are realized by the subject himself. For example, it is an observable fact that it is in those churches where dramatic conversions during adolescence are highly rated and are expected, that they actually occur in significant numbers. The psychologist interprets this as due to the fact that the adolescent is unconsciously under the pressure to do that which his particular community expects of him.

This leads us to see how sociology is bringing home to us the fact that a man must not be thought of as a self-contained unit in isolation from his social setting. Such a view is an unreal abstraction. Man is essentially a social creature, and it is due in no small measure to this, that human civilization has evolved, and man has reached the point where he is today. Each generation emerges out of the preceding one. Each man is a child of his generation, and of his immediate social setting. His family life, his school, his clubs and his whole cultural background have contributed to make him what he is. That is why we now recognize that the man with criminal tendencies is not always wholly to blame. He too reflects his upbringing, his environment and the tensions in his society. For the same reason the religious beliefs and allegiance of a man are nearly always those of his own family, or of his immediate cultural setting. In his own experience he may have consciously adopted them and made them his own, but because man is so dependent on the cultural influences around him, this was already largely predetermined.

Whereas sociology studies the nature of society and the interplay between the individual and society, education studies the learning ability of man at various stages and tries to find those teaching methods which will be most fruitful in leading the individual to full maturity within his society. As an infant, the human creature is more helpless and dependent than most other creatures. It is this initial helplessness which gives him the freedom to learn most from his social environment. The period of his greatest readiness to learn coincides with the period in which his body and physiological functions are growing to maturity. Some time thereafter the learning ability usually tapers off, though it may vary considerably from person to person. Patterns of thought and behaviour grow more rigid, and it becomes increasingly unlikely, though never impossible, that the person will abandon those patterns for new ones. This leads to two relevant observations about the nature of man. The religious beliefs and attitudes, with which a man will go through life, will be largely those which he has been led to embrace during the first twenty-five years. In later life he will not be as free as we often think him to be to make a favorable response to the claims of Christian allegiance. On the other hand, in the case of a person who has embraced certain Christian beliefs and attitudes in his formative years, his continued manifestation of these in later years may be due not simply to strength of conviction, but to the fact that they have become so much a part of him, that it would require a very strong challenge to cause him to abandon them.

All these studies bring home to us as never before the creatureliness and earthliness of man. Man himself is all a part of the natural world. As with all forms of life on this planet, man as an individual has a beginning at birth, he grows to maturity, he proceeds to a period of flowering, and then, if his life has not been terminated prematurely, he experiences a period of slowing down in both his physical and mental powers before these signs of wear and decay finally lead up to his death. While man is a many-sided and most complex creature, he is essentially a unity in whom the physical and psychical so penetrate one another as to be necessarily interdependent. When man dies, it is the whole psychosomatic organism which dies. Man, like all other forms of terrestrial life from which he has evolved, is a physical mortal creature, whose life is lived within those limits of space and time to which his creatureliness subjects him.

It is not that this view of man is wholly new. Aspects of it have forced themselves on man’s attention from time to time, at least as far back as we can trace his thoughts. But because man has risen to the spiritual level where he has become aware of his creatureliness and knows he must die (and so far as we know he is unique in this respect), he has also rebelled against this prospect and sought to escape from it. The chief avenue of escape he found was by way of that animism which led in turn to a belief in the immortality of the human soul.

It hardly needs to be said that the new view of man, to which today’s studies and sciences are leading us, constitutes a severe challenge to the doctrine of man assumed and taught by Christian orthodoxy. For one thing, man’s free-will is a good deal more limited than is often supposed, and a few people have even been led to the conclusion that it is an illusion. While there are still good reasons for believing that man does have some freedom of choice at his highest level of consciousness, it is a freedom within a context of very severe limits, which have been imposed upon him by his creatureliness. The kind of person he is, the values he acknowledges, the beliefs he holds, have been to quite a large extent determined by forces over which he has had no control. They constitute a tremendous complex of instincts and inherited traits, family and cultural background, education, and all the aspects of the individual’s own past experience which remain in his memory and in his unconscious as continuing motivating forces.

The dogmatic way in which the church has often declared itself on matters of personal salvation and judgment has rested on an inadequate understanding of the complexities of the human situation. Further, the challenge of the new view of man to the traditional form of the Christian answer to the question of his ultimate destiny is almost as devastating as it could be. It is not at all surprising that in the last two or three generations this answer has been regarded in the lands of Christian culture with rapidly diminishing conviction. Not only has there been a complete collapse of the world view of heaven, earth and hell, in which the answers concerning human destiny were expressed, but the very nature of man, as two separable parts of body and soul, which Christian orthodoxy has long taken for granted, can no longer be reconciled with our present knowledge of man.

Let it be said here and now, however, that we need not conclude that the very sciences which are forcing us more and more to abandon as invalid our traditional understanding of the nature and destiny of man, have thereby solved the riddle of life and of the mystery of man. Far from it! They have shown up that problem in stark relief. The enigma of human existence has become a greater mystery than ever. They have shown us that the form in which man’s eternal hope was expressed is no longer a satisfying one, and that any fresh expression of this hope must take fully into account all that we have learned about our creatureliness and our mortality. But because man cannot live for long in a context which has for him neither meaning nor hope, a fresh and satisfying expression of the answers to these basic questions has become a matter of extreme urgency for the future of mankind.