FAITH Magazine September - October 2007
Explorations in Neuroscience, Psychology and Religion
by Kevin S. Seybold, Ashgate, 157pp, £50
The Soul: An Inquiry
by Francis Selman, St Paul’s, 142pp, £7.95
One of the most pressing questions on the interface between science and theology is that of the relationship between the body and what Christians call the ‘soul’ (this includes, of course, the question of the relationship between brain and mind). Academically, at least, this question remains an open one: rather than some consensus emerging, the range of ‘solutions’ proposed (physicalism, holistic dualism, non-reductive physicalism, dual-aspect monism), is ever-growing. Confusingly, each new solution seems to involve a novel definition of the basic terms. For the interested amateur theologian, engaging with this world of shifting ideas is a daunting prospect. A solid grounding in both the conceptual issues involved and the conclusions of neuroscientific research is needed. Fr FrancisSelman, a lecturer at Allen Hall seminary, and Kevin Seybold, an academic psychologist based in Pennsylvania, manage to cover each of these bases separately, but, sadly, neither combines both aspects in one book.
Fr Selman’s The Soul: An Inquiry is thoroughly Thomist in its approach to its subject. The soul is held to be the ‘form of the body’ (i.e. that which gives particular existence to the matter that makes up the body, what makes it a ‘living body’), and soul and body are united in a ‘substantial
union’, which means that what we refer to as ‘I’ is not something spiritual inhabiting a material shell, but that the body is included in this ‘I’. It is against this theological background that Fr Selman takes on those who ‘leave out the soul’, especially materialists, who, for example, assert that the mind is reducible to the brain. His arguments for the existence and immortality of the soul are well-articulated, original and refreshingly clear.
While well-acquainted with the tradition of philosophical reflection on the soul and its relationship to the body, Fr Selman’s knowledge of recent scientific research relevant to his subject appears less impressive and his terminology, and even some of his ideas and arguments, can therefore appear outdated or irrelevant. For example, in criticising Dawkins, he points out that “If every step in the series [of evolution] occurs by chance... the end cannot be ordered”, apparently unaware that Dawkins does not view evolution as entirely random, but allows for a certain direction, provided by the mechanism of natural selection (p. 51). Similarly, he appeals somewhat unconvincingly to the idea that “nothing is annihilated in nature” (p. 118, i.e. the principle of conservation of mass-energy)to support the immortality of the soul. A more thorough engagement with scientific thought would seem desirable, if only to match the depth of engagement with philosophical reflection.
This is precisely what is on offer in Kevin Seybold’s Explorations in Neuroscience, Psychology and Religion. Despite its somewhat patronising aim to “present some of the scientific findings coming from [psychology and neuroscience] in a way that is... non-threatening to Christian belief (inside flap), this book is a useful, understandable, and comprehensive introduction to the fields of neuroscience and psychology. It lacks organisation, however, and, unlike Selman’s book, it doesn’t say very much. Also, and more worryingly, the author seems to lack philosophical and theological precision, exemplified by the following dubious claim:
“From a trinitarian perspective, God is not an immaterial substance”. His apparent lack of theological formation leads him, in his chapter on evolutionary psychology, to follow the “many” biblical scholars who “do not believe that humans were [originally] created without sin” (p. 122, a case of the blind leading the blind, perhaps?). This same lack seems to lead to his being somewhat uncritical of the quasi-theological conclusions of certain scientists. For example, he writes that “a study in 2002 found that cancer patients defined their religious faith using primarily positive rather than negative emotion words, suggesting that religious faith can be understood using emotion terminology” (p. 79). The logic of this sentence escapes me.
The difference between Selman and Seybold is seen most clearly in their treatments of the question of the immortality of the soul. Seybold takes the currently trendy line that the idea of the immortality of the soul is extrinsic to Christianity, a Platonic addition that obscures the eschatological essential of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, the resurrection of the body (p. 51). Selman, on the other hand, seeks to subvert this same trend by constructing an extended argument in favour of the immortality of the soul (chapter 10). He argues that the current emphasis on the resurrection of the body is incoherent without the idea that the soul is immortal – “belief in the resurrection of the body without the immortality of the soul... fails to secure the resurrection of the same person” (p.115). Here Selman displays the benefit of a keen philosophical mind. Seybold’s in-depth knowledge of the relevant scientific issues is no replacement for careful inquiry.
Neither of these books is without its flaws. However, the strengths of one make up for the weaknesses of the other and, read together, they form a helpful introduction to a confusing field.
Kings College Cambridge
A Church That Can and Cannot Change:
The Development of Catholic Moral Teaching
by John T. Noonan, Jr., Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 297pp, $30
Few matters of Church history and doctrine have been as significantly and disastrously misrepresented as the so-called ‘changes’ in the Church’s teaching on morality. This book stands as a part of this tradition of misrepresentation. It aims to show that the Church has not developed but, rather, has reversed her position on three moral teachings (slavery, usury, religious freedom) and can thus do so on other issues (in particular, the indissolubility of marriage). As Cardinal Avery Dulles put it, “Noonan manipulates the evidence to make it seem to favour his own preconceived conclusions. For some reason, he is intent on finding discontinuity –but he fails to establish that the Church has reversed her teaching in any of the four areas he examines” (First Things, Oct 2005). Thisbrief review cannot refute all of Noonan’s claims, but it will attempt to indicate some problems with his approach and give an example of how it fails.
First, what is good about this book? Noonan is a judge and an historian, and as an historian this work gathers together a large volume of historical data that will be useful for orthodox and heterodox scholars alike. As Charles Curran has reminded us, Noonan’s 1965 historical work Contraception “led many theologians and others to conclude that change on this issue was both possible and necessary” (The Tablet, 2 April 2005). Of course, Pope Paul VI judged otherwise, but, Noonan’s work on contraception is still used today as an historical reference. What his present book offers that other studies have not is a detailed historical account of the Church’s attitude to slavery.
Secondly, what is problematic about this book? In addition to its prejudice in favour of discontinuity (as indicated above by
Dulles), this book is problematic because of its methodology. As an historian, Noonan can be expected to write as an historian, however, as an historian of ideas (namely doctrine) he needs to offer a more systematic and analytic approach to the doctrines whose history he is investigating. Without such a systematic approach an historian will inevitably fail to see the internal coherence of notions that a superficial glance might otherwise misinterpret as contradictory.
Noonan’s analysis of usury indicates some of the problems with his approach. If his approach was more analytical then he would consider the definitions of usury, the sources of any differing definitions, and the authority of those who taught. In contrast, however, far from carefully analysing such things, his treatment fails to distinguish between the views of theologians, the opinions of early Church Fathers, and the status of various statements from popes and councils. All of these are blurred together in a manner that accentuates the impression that the Church in her Magisterium has reversed herself and is thus untrustworthy as a moral guide. The notion that the Church has actually consistently held to something while the context has changed seems to be a notion that is pre-judgedin the negative. He refers to the various exceptions to the prohibition on usury that theologians and Church authorities allowed, but these exceptions are cited in an attempt to discredit the teaching, not in an attempt to indicate what was actually being taught. In fact, he closes his treatment by dismissively quoting Jacques Maritain’s statement that the Church has taught something consistent about usury, something that she continues to teach today.
What might be a different way to analyse the issue of usury? Perhaps to start by considering the context of the early Church and to consider what it was that the early Fathers of the Church were
defending when they condemned usury. In the society of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas money was a static entity and so to charge for the use of it was seen as unnatural, contrary to the nature of what money was. In such a context, interest on a loan was nothing less than a means for a rich person to get money out of a poor one while losing nothing himself. To charge interest on a loan was nothing less than extortion. In the modern world, however, money cannot be judged to be such a static entity and if Aristotle was judging the ‘nature’ of modern money he would judge it to be of-its-nature capable of changing value, capable of having risk attached to it, and that to lend it to someone else would therefore be a loan one could charge for, i.e. charge interest for. Thus it is consistent forthe Church to teach at one moment in history that interest on money is immoral, and to teach at another moment in history that interest on money is moral. Money has changed. At both times she has sought to defend the poor against the rich, and has taught that a loan can be extortionate, but the context has changed what is or is not extortionate.
In short, Noonan’s work is not useful for the typical reader. It provides a useful set of historical references, but the lack of subtlety and analysis in the way these references are cited means that the reader must use great discernment and significant other resources if he is not to find the book more of a hindrance than a help to his study of these topics.
Fr Dylan James
Built on Love. An Autobiography for Two.
by Valerie and Denis Riches, Family Publications, 175pp, £12.99p
The names of Valerie and Denis Riches will be familiar to many, probably most, readers of FAITH magazine as great campaigners in defence of marriage and family life. Valerie has appeared many times on television and radio in debates on topics ranging from divorce law to the types of sex education currently being imposed on schools, and Denis is the founder of Family Publications, one of the success stories of modern Catholic publishing.
Now they have told their joint story, in a readable and rather charming book which will be a real delight to their many friends, and is a record of an era in which many social and moral values were changed and in which Christians were challenged to defend things that really mattered.
Valerie and Denis’ story starts conventionally enough with descriptions of 1930s childhoods, British wartime experiences (Valerie’s family lost their home in a bombing raid) and a postwar romance complete with a wedding photograph with Denis in RAF uniform. The early years of their married life are described with humour and charm, with some nice anecdotes – my personal favourite is of Valerie taking their little daughter regularly to post letters to Denis when he was working abroad, and small Venetia expressing concern: “Poor Dadda, he must be very uncomfortable in that pillar-box!”.
It was when their children were in their teens that the Riches became aware of the way in which, through changes in the law, through the media, and through official policies in education and health, a whole anti-family and anti-marriage line was being foisted on society. Giving children contraceptives without parental knowledge or consent, promoting
abortion as a standard part of health-care provision, insisting on programmes of sex education that promoted a range of sexual activities and downgraded marriage... all this and more gave great cause for concern and brought together a group of doctors, teachers, social workers and others anxious to take some action. The result was a group, initially called The Responsible Society, which as Family and Youth Concern became a strong voice for family values. The group still thrives and is doing excellent work.
Tellingly, it has been the experience of FYC that whenever they have been able to present their case fairly in the media, they have won public support. The facts are at the core of this: as more and more contraceptives have been distributed to young people, the abortion rate and the illegitimate birth rate have both gone up, not down. As sex education has become more and more explicit, teenage sexual activity has increased. Policies adopted by successive governments have been proved wrong over and over again.
In Built on Love we re-live some of the earlier battles, and become uncomfortably aware of how any group or individual who tried to speak up for marriage and for parental rights experienced being marginalised, ignored, or openly insulted both by officialdom and in the media.
Throughout, the Riches’ happy family life, and their Christian beliefs – which would eventually bring them into full communion with the Catholic Church – were a source of strength. Their journey towards the Church is told without undue sentimentality and with conviction and common sense. They also write touchingly of friends with whom they have shared various adventures, and especially of young people with whom at different times they have shared their home and their lives.
This is a happy and inspiring story – the only sad thing is that the Riches are unable to recount that the various battles – for example to ensure that marriage is once again established as the foundation of community life, or to ensure protection for unborn babies from abortion – had been won. They haven’t. The next generation must now take up the banner. This is already happening, as the cheery picture of the young team at Family Publicationsreveals. There are more adventures ahead yet. The final words of the book apply to all campaigners as well as to Denis and Valerie themselves: “We face the uncertainties of the future with confidence, in the knowledge that God will provide us with the grace and strength we may need.”
New Malden Surrey
Unfolding the Mystery, Monastic Conferences on the Liturgical Year
by Dom Hugh Gilbert, OSB, Gracewing, xiv + 154 pp, £9.99
The word “Conference” has a peculiar meaning in a monastery, derived from the famous “Conferences” of St John Cassian, which St Benedict directed should be read regularly to his monks. The word “conference” is still used for addresses to the community, even though the Abbot, or another senior Father, speaks without interruptions.
Here we overhear the Abbot of Pluscarden speaking to his monks, but the texts have been edited to make them accessible to the general reader, and only occasionally do we find passages of specific concern to the community at Pluscarden. The selection is arranged to follow the liturgical seasons from Advent to Christ the King, after an initial three conferences on prayer.
A theme which soon emerges and is maintained throughout is that “our whole time becomes sanctified time”. (p. 38) Prayer is not something we do for specific times and then switch off as if we could return to secular life – no, the set times of prayer serve to leaven the whole day so that we are never out of the presence of God. In the same way the various moments of our Redemption, celebrated in the various seasons, suffuse and interpenetrate the entire year. Thus “it is always Epiphany” (p. 49) “always Lent, always Easter” (p. 107), “Pentecost is now, too” (p. 106-7), “the Parousia is among us, in the Eucharist” (p. 142). The Eucharist is indeed the key to it all, for in the Mass we are brought into the presence of Our Lord’s birth, death and resurrection, His ascension, the descentof the Holy Spirit, the final consummation of all things.
All time is always sanctified: there is no such thing as “ordinary time”. It is a strange comment on our present calendar that half the year is so designated, as if Epiphany were not still relevant, as if we do not still live in the light of Pentecost. It is greatly to be hoped that the liturgical reforms initiated by our present Holy Father will find some way of expressing this sanctification of the whole year in the calendar. In this selection of Conferences, indeed, we jump from the Baptism of the Lord straight to Lent, from Pentecost almost straight to Christ the King (though the Assumption and All Saints do punctuate the gap). This may be because author and publishers are saving more conferences for a second volume.
The liturgy is naturally the centre of a monk’s life, but Abbot Hugh stresses that the monastic round of prayer is also essentially apostolic: a monk always prays for the people, even though not always with the people. Yet even in the remote fastnesses of Morayshire, people find their way to the monastery, and the Easter celebrations are “the greatest public service a monastic community can perform”. (p. 103) Those who attend the liturgy on the great days can be inspired to live the Christian life in a hostile world: we are reminded of the effect the Easter Liturgy of Pannonhalma had on the faithful in Hungary during the years of persecution. (pp. 80, 103)
The phrase “the Paschal mystery” occurs frequently: it is quite modern, from the writings of Louis Bouyer in 1945 (p. 87), but it is rooted in the earliest Patristic tradition. The death and Resurrection of Our Lord is what gives all death and life its meaning. In the celebration of the Easter Triduum we come to the essential purpose of our own existence, already, now, caught up into the Resurrection,
finding the consummation of all things in the Eucharist. The so-called Parousia is already now. Incidentally the use of the word parousia to mean the Last Judgment is another very modern usage, and it can rather distort our reading of the New Testament if we project a twentieth-century definition back into the first century. The word really means “presence”. To “recognise the presence of the parousia” (p. 140) is to get to the real meaning of the word in St Paul: Christ is in us now, and we can only live the Christian life if we are aware of that Presence, which is dynamic, always coming towards us, as in the ancient concept of a King’s “advent” or “epiphany” to show that he is with his people. (p. 34) In the words of the Easter Vigil: “Christ yesterday and today, the beginning and theend; Alpha and Omega; all time belongs to him and all the ages – to him be glory and power through every age for ever!”
Jerome Bertram C.O.
St Aloysius Oxford