Moltmann Monday: Body, Mind, Soul are a Whole

Happy Moltmann Monday! Today’s excerpt comes from God in Creation in a section on the soul and the body:

In the history of civilizations, ideas about ‘the self’ have undergone a remarkable transmigration. As long as the living character of the human being was seen in the inhaling and exhaling of air, the self was localized in the diaphragm…his life ends when ‘he breathes his last.’ Later on,…the center of life was localized in the human heart. When the heart stops beating the person is dead. Bu then the human being came to be viewed as the subject of reason and will; and the self migrated once again…and came to be lodged in the human brain…Today ‘brain death’ counts as a real symbol for the death of the human being. As the self moved upwards in this way, the person is centered no longer in the middle of his body but in the head…It is no longer the breathing community of the human being and his natural environment which is declared to be ‘the human act of living’; it is now the acts of cognition and will through which the human being dominates the world and his own body. The result is ‘the primacy of the mind’ on the one hand, and, on the other, the corresponding de-sensualization of ‘scientific and technological civilization.’

The image of our center of focus moving from the center of the body to the head is powerful, isn’t it? It’s also true, of course, now that we understand that the brain is responsible for thinking and feeling and doing. But what Moltmann rightly names is the sense that this shift upward has disconnected us metaphorically and otherwise from an integrated sense of self. Consider all the philosophical conversations in the last twenty or so years over consciousness. When and how does the body ever get brought into those discussions? Descartes of course is the quintessential example of this with “I think therefore I am” but it’s taken on so many other forms since then. Same message. Well, then. What does the wisdom of scripture have to tell us? Moltmann continues in a section on thinking with the body in the Old Testament:

Soul and body are not analyzed as a person’s component parts…We are told that ‘man became a living soul’ (Gen. 2.7). He does not have a soul. He is a living soul. He does not possess his flesh. He is flesh. Body, mind and soul are never used as parallel anthropological terms and cited as mutually complementary. Apparently the person is always affected as a whole, though he assumes a different specific form in different relationships. Nor does he find in his God any opportunity for withdrawing to an immortal, spiritual substance, so as to surmount the happiness and pains, life and death of his body. He can only appear before God as a whole. The Shema Israel makes this plain: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might’ (Deut. 6:5). Hebrew thinking does not enquire into the essence and individual components of a thing. The Hebrew asks about its becoming and its effects.

Quick pause to take that in: what would shift if we focused on how our humanity is becoming as a whole (both as individual persons and in community and society) and also on the effects of our actions as a whole? How do our priorities shift? How does our perception change? Then Moltmann ends with this doozy:

The human being has really no substance in himself; he is a history. That is why the anthropology of the Old Testament does not deal so much in definitions as in narratives. These do not establish what the person is by way of definitions. They present him in the relationships in which he lives…Because Israel experienced its God in the covenant, it liked to express its correspondences to that God in relationships of covenant as well. The unity of soul and body, what is inward and what is outward, the center and the periphery of he human being is to be comprehended in the forms of covenant, community, reciprocity, a mutual encircling, regard, agreement, harmony and friendship.

The idea of the human being as a history is so jarring to our Western sensibilities. We are happy to concede we are known in relationship, but we cling doggedly to the idea that outside of all of those relationships, there is a definite and definitive ME that is our true identity. It seems the more we learn about consciousness, the more we realize that might not be true. What we can say for certain is that the Old Testament does not approach humanity in this way. Scripture is not interested in the inner machinations of Abraham. It is interested in the telling of a story, of a people connected to God through covenant, and how that plays itself out over and over again.

I think it’s interesting how this requires us to appear before God as a whole, while at the very same time it requires us to see ourselves on a bigger scale as parts of an even greater whole. That sounds like healthy self-knowledge to me.

What could shift if you saw yourself not as a determined individual subject but as an unfolding history? What would happen if you focused on your humanity in terms of your becoming and your effects?

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