The Human Person in Science and Theology

Written by Niels Henrik Gregersen, Willem B. Drees and Ulf Görman (eds), Reviewed By Mark W. Elliott

These are the plenary lectures from the Durham conference of The European Society for the Study of Science and Theology in 1998. They bode well for the future work of this forum. Gregersen’s introductory essay is especially helpful for those unfamiliar with these discussions. To the fore is the reasonable, perhaps even self-evident claim that there is more than biology at work in the way people think and intend: it is ‘the co-evolution of brain and culture’. This is not, as earlier 20th century personalities (secular and Catholic) have done, to see the mind as transcending the brain (‘different levels’), but rather of viewing human thought in at least two different ways. As Gregersen boldly states: ‘the appearance of this book marks a break with the bogus dichotomy between personal and empirical features of human existence’ (7). We can say that Jewish-Christian heritage is to see the person as having ‘openness to others’, but the Trinitarian analogy, as Studer warned, may not be altogether helpful for understanding human personhood.

Mary Midgely’s essay is a bit polemical, full of italicised phrases for emphasis, but must have been fun to listen to as she lambasts Richard Dawkins for thinking we are run by our genes to the point of conscious effort being futile. Whither personal responsibility? Where is there a place for original thought? Where indeed! Midgely seems to want a return to Descartes in the sense that the humanities and the natural sciences are distinguished—here there is surely lacking a treatment of Dilthey. It is the same terrain (the human being), but we use many (or at least more than the reductionist biological one) maps to make sense of it.

Fraser Watts, in the lucid and coolly thoughtful style that we have come to expect from him, seems to beg to differ, holding that Pyschology is the science, which can serve as an umbrella to social and biological science. He advocates the concept of affections as mediating between thoughts and passions.

Philip Hefner gets positively bullish when he writes: ‘I interject the ironic observation that although Dennett and Dawkins are, by their own admission, hard reductionist thinkers, neither one friendly to religion, by introducing culture and memes as essential for human evolution and personhood, they admit an element into their thinking that renders their own reductionism wholly contradictory’ (78).

The person ‘is defined in its intercourse with the challenges it must face’ (83). They are not just other people in relationships, but the world as a system, a bit like Pannenberg’s ‘openness to the world’ and the wholeness (greater than the sum of parts) and the personality of that system—which we might call ‘God’. ‘Culture consists of learned and taught patterns of behaviour and the symbol systems that interpret and justify those behaviours’ (90). It is culture (with its ‘memes’ and ‘values’) which organises our consciousness.

Just when it felt that the reader was being taken quite far away from theology in the essays by Bielfeld and Lagercrantz, there is a tour de force by the prominent Heidelberg systematic theologian, Michael Welker. After a lightning tour of modern philosophical anthropology, he states his thesis, which has echoes of Eberhard Jüngel: ‘faith constitutes the person’. It is better when subjective faith is built up and nourished by the objective faith of the church, and its ‘dynamic structure of persuasion’. In this way the worth of the person is not reduced to absolute subjectivity, since faith means being one with the Risen One and what is avoided is: ‘vacuous faith as immediate relationship to that which is wholly other’ (111).

Mark W. Elliott

Liverpool Hope University