Jesus Christ and the Human Heart

Kevin Douglas FAITH Magazine January – February 2011

Fr Kevin Douglas is assistant priest in Livingston. Here he convincingly defends the existence of the human soul — a task strangely neglected by most Catholic thinkers today, yet in such urgent need of updating. Fr Douglas develops the approach used by Faith movement.

Jesus Christ is the answer to the deepest yearnings of the human heart. This is a bold claim. We find it articulated on the lips of Christ himself: "/ am the way, the truth and the life." (Jn 14:6) Yet, can we still in the post modern, scientific culture in which we live really assent to this truth. Is it not at least archaic, if not hopelessly irrational, to hold that one person, Jesus of Nazareth, born in obscurity two thousand years ago is, as the Second Vatican Council teaches "the goal of human history, he is that point in which the desires of history and civilisation converge. He is the centre of the human race, the joy of every heart and the fullness of all our hopes." (GS45)

In a short article one can only scratch the surface of such a subject. In order to make the best use the space allotted it is necessary to define the limits of our enquiry. Jesus of Nazareth claimed to be the Christ: he claimed to be God incarnate and the Church has reflected upon and refined its understanding of Jesus' identity and teaches that the one person of Jesus is true God and true man. In what follows I wish to take the truth of that claim and the Church's teaching as a given. I shall concentrate on how Jesus, true God and true man can be the fulfilment of humanity's deepest yearnings. This is a pivotal issue for our society. To establish that there is a deep complimentarity between our nature, our very being, and that of God made Man is a profoundly important task because itvindicates afresh the relevance of Christ to our sceptical and secular society.

Science and Spirit Complimentary

As far back as Copernicus, but especially from the 17th Century enlightenment onwards, the discoveries made by the scientific method about the nature of our universe seem to have chipped away at the Christian world view.[1] Our world is not at the centre of the universe; history starts fifteen thousand million years ago with the Big Bang, we human beings are the result of an evolutionary process, and we share a common ancestor with the other primates. In 1953 with the discovery of the double helix of the DNA molecule, which led to the eventual decoding of our genes, we now have access to what would seem to be the basic mechanism through which evolution occurs. Science has discovered all of this and it seems that the human species has beenthrown up by the developmental forces at work in the universe, without there being any design at work. Can we then still claim of the Christ child in Bethlehem, as the carol goes, "the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight'"?

Fittingly, we catch the first glimpse of an answer to our question at the very heart of the scientific project. Perhaps the most conspicuous of science's many achievements was to have put a man on the moon in 1969. So much of the technology we have today and so much of what we have learned about the universe we inhabit is a product of the space race. Neil Armstrong's achievement was made all the more remarkable because it was predicted and planned almost a decade before by President Kennedy. On 12th September, 1962, at Rice university in Houston Texas. Kennedy made one of his finest speeches:

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.

Kennedy was, of course, uncannily prescient but I draw your attention to the fact that, right at that moment which galvanised scientific endeavour for a generation, embedded in Kennedy's words are a fundamental truth. We choose to go to the moon, that is we human beings freely select and will a goal that is manifestly beyond the material conditions in which we live. The condition of possibility for such a consciously planned course of action is that we human beings are not wholly encompassed by our material environment. We are not simply another part of the material world which science studies. We are more than matter Let us show this carefully and its implications for our need of Jesus Christ.

Science Hints at Spirit

First we need to examine the presuppositions that are held by many in the scientific community and which have influenced much of contemporary society. These presuppositions are materialistic, that is there is nothing more to reality than matter, and they are nihilistic, that is everything that exists is a product of chance and is ultimately meaningless. The philosopher Bertrand Russell summed up this worldview when he said "There is darkness without and when I die there will be darkness within. There is no splendour, no vastness anywhere, only triviality for a moment then nothing."[2] This worldview purports to be rational and scientific. It is not, it is a prejudice because actually the new knowledge yielded by the scientific method itselfpoints towards a meaningful and law-governed universe. Moreover the scientific method reveals mankind to be unique and anomalous among the life forms discovered on Earth. new factor which is proper to us human beings allows us to transcend the process of material causality."
Increasingly science reveals that our universe is one single inter-related cosmos that is not random but law-governed. Physics discovers the constants that obtain in the material world and we formulate these constants into the laws. Biology again concerns the laws that govern living beings and so forth. The dynamic universe that the scientific method has revealed is moving in a meaningful direction from greater to less complexity. Even the theory of evolution is not random: it presupposes an ordered relationship between the life-form and its environment. It is precisely this interaction of the life-form with its environment that constitutes the mechanism of natural selection, or "survival of the fittest" to work. But it therefore follows that natural selection is not random because itpresupposes an ordered relationship. Moreover natural selection moves from life forms possessed of lesser complexity to those of greater. From single cells right up to the complexity of the primates. Neither cosmic evolution nor the evolution of life on Earth are random: evolution presupposes constant laws, ordered relationships and the process is goal-directed.

An important distinction to note here: we are not claiming, as those do who adhere to the "Intelligent Design" school of thought in the USA, that the universe is essentially a mixture of mechanism and chance but occasionally God miraculously intervenes and "nudges" the process in the right direction. We claim that the whole of science reveals one unified process and that process is moving towards a goal. The whole process from beginning to end is established and governed by God.

Evolution's goal is an organ at the very limit of the complexity which matter can achieve: the human brain. The scientific method has uncovered a universe that is perfectly poised to bring forth us. We recognise that we share so much in common with the material universe around us. We, like inanimate matter, have mass and volume and are subject to the laws of gravity. We, like the plants feed ourselves, we grow and reproduce. And the parallels between us and the animals are so manifest as to require no elaboration. One statistic suffices: humans and chimpanzees our nearest primate relatives share 96\% of the same DNA.

Yet there is something extra-ordinary about us. One can give many examples of characteristically human behaviour. We use symbols, language, write music, we make artefacts. There are, however, analogies to these activities in the animal kingdom. Birds sing, the dance of the bee seems to be a kind of symbolic language, beavers build dams. One could reasonably contend that these are not true analogies (and I think one would be right) but the net effect of these apparent analogies is to raise the question: is the dividing line between humans and animals is one of kind or of degree?

Clinching the Distinction of Matter and Spirit

There is a definitive distinction. If we return to Kennedy's speech:

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win,

We hear in Kennedy's words a human being choosing a goal. That in itself is extra-ordinary because no animal chooses its own goals. Animals are conditioned by their environmental niche. They draw their life pattern from the environment in which they live. The more complex the animal the more flexible is their life pattern, but nonetheless the pattern is determined. Though an animal may have a variety of possibilities as to the means it might use to achieve its goal, classically fight or flight, an animal does not set its own goals. These are given to it by its environmental context. We hear in Kennedy's words something different. A human being who does not receive a purpose and pattern of life from the material factors that make up his environmental niche, rather he sets before himself agoal of his own choosing.

Moreover, it is a goal that entails us going beyond our environmental niche. Human beings are adapted to the material circumstances of many of the locations on our planet; we cannot survive unsupported in outer space. We human beings can surpass any local environmental limits and we choose to do so.

Two implications flow from this. First, although we have much in common with the animals we are clearly distinct from them. Secondly, the scientific method has revealed that animals are a product of natural selection. Natural selection presupposes the ordered relationship between animal and its environmental niche. It would go directly against this balance if the process were to throw up an animal that is greater, that escapes the determinism of its environment. Yet we human beings do precisely this.

Natural selection is a process of material causality. The material factors of the environment act upon and influence the life-form. This purely material process cannot account for an animal that transcends its material environment and therefore stands over the process of material causality. Yet we human beings do just that. Therefore we must posit a new factor in our make up as human beings. The distinction between us and the animals is not of degree of complexity but of kind. The new factor which is proper to us human beings allows us to transcend the process of material causality: it means that we are not determined by our material environment. We choose a life pattern that transcends our material environment. Because this new factor in our makeup allows us to transcendmaterial causality, we must conclude this factor itself transcends matter. In the Catholic tradition we call this new factor the spiritual soul.

In general terms we can draw this distinction between matter and a spiritual mind. Matter is that which is controlled and directed. Mind is that which controls and directs. We can see that the animal kingdom is material. The animals are controlled and directed: they draw their life pattern from their material environment. We human beings to some extent are controlled and directed by our material environment. We can't fly, we need food and warmth and so on. But as Kennedy's speech show we can also choose to go beyond the limits of our natural material environment, even, it would seem, to the extremes of the universe and the extremes of matter-energy manipulation and configuration. Hence we are not completely controlled and directed by our material environment. We transcend our environment.This is because we are a unity of both material body and spiritual soul. This truth that we are body and soul, that as matter we are controlled and directed but as mind we control and direct is not some esoteric philosophical doctrine; it is embedded in every decision we make. I choose to lift this coffee cup because I know that as a material object it can be controlled, and my decision to act shows an implicit awareness that I can control and direct. This basic duality is intimate and basic to human self-consciousness: that is the distinction between matter and mind, between deterministic things with limited life cycles and goals, and my ability to manipulate these things beyond these limitations for my own goals.

Our Hearts Will Not Rest

It is in the light of this distinction between freedom and determinism that we can reassess the above examples of characteristically human and characteristically animal behaviour to determine whether animals have these two orders of being within their individual identities. One would submit that bird-song and bee-dance fit with the natural, physical purposes of those species, whereas human language and artefacts which have sophisticated goals and meanings within human culture do not.

Holy Scripture presents the truth of the human condition in poetic terms. It talks of Adam being fashioned from the dust of the earth, that is matter, but then receiving the breath of God, that is the spiritual soul.

Because we transcend our material environment we yearn for a fulfilment that this environment cannot provide. We can see right back at the origins of humanity, which archaeology dates to about 350,000BC, we humans have buried our dead, because we yearn for something beyond the material conditions that mark this life.

This something is a new environment that will, like all environments, complete us and provide us with a life pattern. Ultimately this new environment is God. It is because we have a spiritual soul that we yearn for a spiritual fulfilment that can only be found in God. The great saints like Augustine bear witness to this. In his Confessions he wrote: Fecisti nos ad te et cor nostrum inquietum est donee requiescat in te. You have made us unto Yourself and our heart is restless until it shall rest in You.

However as we have noted above we are both spirit and matter. This entails that we encounter our new spiritual environment in a way that is material and corporeal because that is an inalienable dimension of our human nature. If we can paraphrase St. Augustine: O Lord you have made us unto yourself incarnate and truly present in the material universe, and therefore our hearts will not rest until they rest in Christ.

The scientific method has revealed a dynamic universe that moves towards the human body which requires a new type of environment. We require a material encounter with our spiritual environment. We require the Incarnation. The findings of the scientific method do not settle the truth claims as to whether Jesus Christ is the Messiah but it does point us toward an unified vision of the cosmos which has the incarnate God at its heart. It is reasonable in our post-modern scientific culture to hope for some definitive revelation of God as the fulfilment of mankind.

The poet and satirist Alexander Pope once described humanity as "The glory, jest and riddle of the world." All that science has revealed to us about the universe and ourselves throws that riddle into sharp relief, Jesus Christ born for us in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago claimed to be the answer to that riddle. It is the faith of the Church and the mystery proposed to us by the Christmas season that Jesus Christ is in fact the answer to that riddle. It is our sure and certain belief that we are right to sing of Christ "the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight"

[1] In what follows I am indebted to James Le Fanu's account of the ascendency of modern science in Why Us? How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves. (London 2010) Though I wouldn't necessarily share all of his conclusions.

[2] Quoted in James Le Fanu Ibid. p. 234.

Faith Magazine

January - February 2011