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Christian materialism

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Against Christian Materialism

central nervous systemIs it possible for Christians to be materialists? A number of Christians say that yes, it is. Here, I will argue that the conjunction of Christianity and materialism is indefensible.

The Biblical Witness

Having read a bit on this topic, I realize that many who are Christian materialists do not think that the Biblical data is conclusive. However, granting that this is their position, I would maintain that the Biblical evidence is very strong: we are more than a material body. Here, I will examine only a small collection of texts.**

Matthew 10:28- “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (NIV)

What does this text mean if the soul and the body are not different things which compose the human being?

Ecclesiastes 12:7- “and the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.” (NIV)

When we die, our bodies–made of dust–return to the earth, but our spirit returns to God. What does this mean on materialism? Which part of our material selves go to God?

Revelation 6:9- “When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained.” (NIV)

The souls of those killed for their faith cry out for justice from under the altar. The objection may be made that this is apocalyptic language. In answer, I would simply point out that even then it makes no sense on materialism even in that context. What are the souls that are crying out in this vision? What is the referent for the alleged metaphor?

In Matthew 17:1-8, Jesus speaks with Moses and Elijah, who have died. Did God raise them bodily, and did they then die again immediately afterwards and decompose when they are no longer visible?

1 Peter 3:18-19- “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits…”

What was Jesus proclaiming the Gospel to? What is imprisoned? Where are the physical/material bodies in this passage? (Note that in context it is talking about those alive in Noah’s day–so again, where did their bodies go?)

Verses like these could be multiplied continually. Perhaps more telling is that the reasoning I’m using here regarding the texts and the distinction between body and soul is similar to the arguments put forth to justify the Trinity. That is, texts which discuss the Father and Son as different entities or even have all three persons of the Trinity in the same context are used to demonstrate that there really are three distinct persons in the Godhead. Yet this is exactly the type of argument I am here making for body and soul. They are used too many places together to be the same thing.

It seems to me utterly clear from the Biblical text that human beings are not purely material entities. Again and again texts can be shown to refer to the body on the one hand and the soul on the other. This is not to say that humans are necessarily one or the other; instead, it is to point out that humans are (at least) body and soul. (I say “at least” because there is a long tradition of trichotomy in Christianity wherein people hold that humans are body, soul, and spirit. I remain neutral in that debate and here only wish to show that humans are not merely material entities.)

The Philosophical Debate

Suppose that one maintains that the Biblical evidence is inconclusive. What then? Could we then say that Christianity and materialism are compatible, for materialism is not explicitly ruled out by the text? Here, I will offer two arguments against these conjoined propositions.

Identity Through Time

How do we maintain identity through time? Here, the problem must be answered by all materialists, not just Christian materialists.

The problem is, of course, that our bodies don’t maintain physical identity. We are continually replacing the physical parts of our body over time. Now, I am hesitant to make the oft-repeated claim that our entire bodies are replaced every so many years, as I have been unable to find any research confirming it. However, it simply is the case that large portions of our body are replaced. Given this fact, how do we maintain identity? What is it that keeps us the same person over time?

Another major problem is this: to which part of our body are we identical? Or, to put it another way, which parts of our body do we need to keep in order to be the same person? Here we can appeal to a thought experiment. A mad scientist has us captured and he wants to see how long we can maintain identity. Slowly, he replaces each part of our body with a new one with the exact same DNA, structure, etc. As he replaces these parts, he discards the old ones and destroys them. He starts with the legs. Then he moves to the midsection, replacing one organ at a time. Then the heart, the arms,  the ears, the eyes. When he gets  to the brain, he goes through and replaces only single neurons at a time.

The question is pretty obvious: When do we stop being the same person? The materialist simply has to admit that we are our bodies (for what else could we be?). But given that fact, to which part are we identical? The brain? If so, at one point in the experiment do we cease to exist? 51% of our brain is gone? 70%? All but one neuron? So is our identity grounded in that one neuron? If so, which one? Or is it just grounded in having any one neuron as the same? If so, how?

Frankly, I think this problem is devastating for materialists, but especially those who are Christians. Why would it be more acute for Christians? Well…

800px-Caravaggio_Doubting_ThomasIs There Hope in the Resurrection?

Central to the Christian hope is the hope for a future resurrection. The question which must be asked is this: Is this hope grounded in reality?

Suppose materialism were true. If that is the case, then humans are identical with their bodies in some fashion. I am intentionally vague here because I admit I’m not convinced as to how identity works within a Christian view of materialism (see above). If this were the case, then when we die and our material body decomposes, it may go on to become all sorts of different things, which themselves later pass away (plants may grow from the nutrients broken down from the body; then those plants may be harvested and eaten by other humans/animals/etc, which then die and are broken down, etc.). In the resurrection, then, God creates our body anew, complete–I assume–with our memories, experiences, etc. built in (perhaps they are simply functions of our brain, which God recreated perfectly, which thus contains our experiences).

Is there actual hope on this scenario?

Suppose the mad scientist were to come and kidnap you. He gleefully announces that he is going to use you for excruciatingly painful experiments which will take place over several years until you die. But, do not worry, because once you die, he is going to create a new body which is an exactly perfect copy of you, which will of course have all your experiences (minus this torturous one) and memories in place, and then he is going to give you billions of dollars.* Would you be comforted by this scenario? After all, you’re not going to remember the pain and you are going to come out the other end extremely rich!

Well there is a problem: the new body is not you. It is just a copy. For any materialist, this is problematic. We seem to know that identity transcends the body. But let us not delve into that difficulty right now. Instead, we will focus on Christian materialism. Now, it seems to me that this problem is almost the same for the Christian materialist with the Resurrection. After all, we are going to die. But we are told, don’t worry, we will be raised bodily by God! But whose body is going to be raised? How will God gather the material from our body (and at which time of our body–see above) in order to recreate us? And will not this body purely be a copy, rather than actually us?

There is a real disconnect here. Christian materialism cannot offer us the hope of the resurrection, without which our faith is worthless (1 Corinthians 15). Instead, it offers us the hope for our future copies, which will themselves have our memories and experiences, but will not be us. Our bodies will die and distribute throughout various portions of the world (even the universe–who knows if an asteroid might hit and distribute the molecules which made up our body elsewhere?). Then God will create us again in some fashion, and that body will live on in the Kingdom. But that body is not us. It will be a new body. This isn’t begging the question, it is merely stating a fact. The body that will be raised is not the body I have now. Thus, if I am my body, I am not raised.

Interestingly, Peter van Inwagen, a Christian philosopher who is himself a materialist, concedes the point I made in this section. In order to escape this extreme problem for Christian theology, he comes up with a rather unique solution: “Perhaps at the moment of each man’s death, God removes each man’s corpse and replaces it with a simulacrum which is what is burned or rots. Or perhaps God is not quite so wholesale as this: perhaps he removes for ‘safekeeping’ only the ‘core person’–the brain and the central nervous system–or even some special part of it… I take it that this story shows that the resurrection is a feat an almighty being could accomplish. I think it is the only way such a being could accomplish it…” (Van Inwagen, 121, cited below).

What response can we have to this? Well surely, it is possible for God to do this, but it raises all kinds of speculation. First, what Biblical evidence do we have to support that our bodies or our brains/nervous systems are  transported by God somewhere in order to preserve them? Honestly, I think that someone who posits this kind of miraculous working holds a burden of proof to support it. Second, where is this storage yard of brains/nervous systems? This question is not intended to beg the question. Instead, my intent is to point out that they would have to be somewhere in the physical universe. Thus, we should be able to find a planet where all the brains/central nervous systems of everyone who ever died are being stored. Third, given this, could we potentially destroy this planet and thus destroy all possibility of the resurrection? Fourth, other than as a completely ad hoc measure to preserve the possibility of hope, what possible justification (philosophical, theological, and/or Biblical) do we have for this?

On the whole, it seems to me that Peter van Inwagen’s proposed solution fails. It fails because it is extremely ad hoc and because it may not even solve the problem it is intended to solve. Thus, it seems to me that Christian materialism fails as a worldview. 

Conclusion

I have offered several arguments against the conjunction of Christianity and materialism. I think any one of these arguments is successful on its own (I should note that I also think the argument from the ego is successful–I have argued here against atheistic materialism, but this argument would be equally successful against Christian materialism). If any one is successful, the conjunction of Christianity and materialism must be false. Frankly, I think all the arguments are successful. I leave the Christian materialist to justify their position.

Links

Like this page on Facebook: J.W. Wartick – “Always Have a Reason.”

If Materialism, are there Subjects?– I contend that a materialist worldview cannot account for subjects. This post was written specifically to address atheistic materialism, but is perfectly relevant for theistic materialism as well.

Sources

*I am indebted to Alvin Plantinga and Stephen Parrish for this type of argument.

**I am indebted to Kevin A. Lewis for his list of texts provided in his “Essentials of Christian Doctrine II” syllabus.

Peter van Inwagen “The Possibility of Resurrection,” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, 9:2 (1978), 114ff.

SDG.

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