Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Nancey Murphy on Reimagining Christian History Without Souls to Save

"What might theology be like today, and how might Christian history have gone differently, if a physicalist sort of anthropology had predominated rather than dualism? It seems clear that much of the Christian spiritual tradition would be different. There would be no notion of care of the soul as the point of Christian disciplines -- certainly no concept of depriving the body in order that the soul might flourish. As some feminist thinkers have been saying for some time: dualist anthropology all too easily leads to disparagement of the body and all that goes along with being embodied. [. . .]

"Here are some questions: Without the Neoplatonic notion that the goal of life is to prepare the soul for its proper abode in heaven, would Christians through the centuries have devoted more of their attention to working for God's reign on earth? And would Jesus' teachings be regarded as a proper blueprint for that earthly society? Would the creeds, then, not have skipped from his birth to his death, leaving out his teaching and faithful life? Would Christians then see a broader, richer role for Jesus Messiah than as facilitator of the forgiveness of their sins? If Christians had been focusing more, throughout all of these centuries, on following Jesus' teachings about sharing, and about loving our enemies at least enough so as not to kill them, how different might world politics be today? What would Christians have been doing these past 2000 years if there were no such things as souls to save?"

--Nancey Murphy, Bodies and Souls, or Spirited Bodies? (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 27


  1. Ah. I've been contemplating for a little while now whether or not a sort of monism or physicalism or anti-dualism (whatever you want to call it) view of the human person should be preferred precisely because of these reasons-the effects of believing in a contingent body but a soul that does not die. The recent Rob Bell furor only confirms the point that by and large evangelical Christians are concerned primarily with a metaphysical reconciliation/salvation that stands apart from and beyond this world.

  2. Interesting question... I think the notion of 'a broader role than the forgiveness of sins' needs to be a fuller conception of what 'forgiveness of sins' means such that it is intrinsically related to victory over the dominion of death in this life and the life to come. It would be no good if such a anti-dualism was correlated to a inadequate conception of the problem of death's dominion.

  3. Yes. Love Nancey Murphy. I actually have an autographed copy of "Beyond Liberalism and Foundationalism." Nerds. unite.

    The thing that shakes me most is considering the creeds and our reading/encounter with the written Gospels being entirely shaped by knowing the end of the story (of Jesus) already, and also seeing it alongside Paul and the Epistles, not to mention Revelation. I do trust that the Spirit guides our reception even now of the highly mediated good news, but what freshness it would give to walk through the Gospel narratives not knowing how they would end, as a disciple, and not a self-assured "knower" of the deeper truth (speaking of neo-platonism/gnosticism).

    I have little doubt, though it is entirely conjecture, that history would be filled with more care of each other, especially within the Church, if we didn't have the extreme dualist pedigree in much of our thinking.

    I also am stirred by dbhamill's thoughts about death's dominion, and how it relates to this. It seems both sin and death have such immediate bodily effect, even the moral character of sin is felt-tactile, it is embodied. Obviously death, and Jesus' victory over it, is something of biological concern, to put it dryly. Forgiveness of sins really does have an embodied consequence.

  4. Coming to this post after reading your "Reflections on Universalism," I find myself wondering how drastically different Christian proclamation throughout the ages would have appeared without the possibility of so heavily relying upon inflicting suffering in this world (through shaming, fear-mongering, cultural subversion, and even war) which is made possible and even encouraged by heavy-handed dualism.