29 November 2006

body and soul

I'm not going to say much here since I'm writing a longer review for another context, but Kevin Corcoran's book Rethinking Human Nature: A Christian Materialist Alternative to the Soul (Baker 2006) is raising eyebrows in some evangelical circles with its argument that the human person is constituted by our material bodies and, thus, there is no immaterial "soul". The book's attention comes, in part, due to the most recent Books and Culture in which Corcoran, who teaches philosophy at Calvin College, provides a precis of his argument.

Now, I don't agree with the conclusion of Corcoran's argument, though I'm not exactly a modern sort of dualist either. And Corcoran's argument is designed less to prove the truth of materialism over against alternatives as it is to demonstrate that Christian materialism is a viable option within the bounds of orthodoxy (even if an admittedly minority position). As others have pointed out, Corcoran's Christian materialism is a hardly unique on the contemporary scene, but is shared by philosophers such as Peter van Inwagen and Lynne Rudder Baker.

Moreover, Corcoran's argument is well-crafted and presented in a highly accessible way. If there's an argument to be made in favor of Christian materialism, this is it. And that is the importance of Corcoran's book. Even if one disagrees with his ultimate conclusions, the kinds of questions he raises and arguments that he deploys are the ones that any Christian philosopher of the human person must grapple with.

This, in part, is why a response such as John Piper's is so disappointing, and I say that as a person who agrees more with Piper's position than Corcoran's and who would appeal to some of the same biblical texts that Piper does. I grant that Piper, despite his penchant for Jonathan Edwards, is not a really philosopher and so should be cut some slack.

Still, Piper's comments are based simply upon the brief article in Books and Culture, thereby ignoring the ways in which Corcoran does wrestle with the biblical data which, arguably, says much less about the intermediate state and with much less clarity than Piper supposes. Moreover, Piper does nothing to interact and grapple with the substantive arguments to support the coherence of Corcoran's views and their consistency with both catholic orthodoxy and biblical data.

I guess, in part, I'm just weary of seeing figures in the conservative Reformed community: [a] reacting against a position which, properly understood, does little to threaten traditional orthodoxy or biblical theology and [b] reacting without really taking the time and effort to delve into the issues, assess the arguments, and genuinely understand how another position functions from within its own perspective.

Again, I say that as someone with deep sympathies for Aquinas' hylomorphism and who remains unconvinced by Corcoran's position. Further, I would even question the orthodoxy of such materialism up against the measure of Chalcedon, which asserts that the incarnate Christ is "the same truly God and truly man, composed of rational soul and body."

But there are ways to make arguments with integrity that will convince and persuade. And there are ways to make such arguments that will only impress those want their own views reinforced, while baffling onlookers. While the former certainly takes more effort, in the end it is the kind of argumentation that we owe our neighbors.

Update: Here's why John Piper is, despite my earlier remarks, a cut above many sorts of critics: "Email Interchange Between John Piper and Kevin Corcoran." Even if Piper didn't do his homework before sounding an alarm, it is encouraging to see that he is nonetheless willing and able to listen to criticism and interaction.