All interest in disease and death is only another expression of interest in life.” Novelist Thomas Mann penned these words long ago, and they continue to prove true in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and the national police protests we’re experiencing today.
These ongoing challenges present litmus tests for our beliefs about ourselves. Our answers to questions like “Should I wear a mask in public?” or “How should I respond to police brutality?” are rooted in our answers to more foundational questions, such as: What does it mean to be human? How much is a human life worth? Who are my neighbors, and what do I owe them? What is the destiny of humankind?
In other words, our divided responses to the pandemic and protests expose the fact that we’re deeply divided over the nature and purpose of humanity. Any meaningful effort to address our nation’s challenges, then, must be grounded in a deep understanding of what, who, and why we are.
It’s precisely these three categories that Joshua Farris explores in his new book, An Introduction to Theological Anthropology: Humans, Both Creaturely and Divine. A theologian and philosopher, Farris has been writing and lecturing on a host of anthropological issues for years. This latest book represents his attempt to distill these issues into a single, accessible volume that traces his answers to the what, who, and why questions.
“Humans live and die by stories,” writes Farris. He means that each of us possesses a “narrative identity” that’s made up of the stories we tell ourselves to help us make sense of ourselves and our place in this world. The question, then, is not whether we identify with some overarching narrative but which narrative it is. According to Farris, what primarily distinguishes one narrative from another is its account of human nature. That is to say, our beliefs about who we are and why we exist depend a great deal on what we believe ourselves to be.
There’s no shortage of views on human nature, and Farris does a careful and balanced job of presenting the ones that have been the most influential. Yet he devotes most of his attention to contrasting the two most pressing narratives: physicalism and substance dualism.
In each of its varieties, physicalism is the view that humans—and everything else in the universe—are made entirely of physical parts. We have no souls or minds or any other immaterial parts that contribute to making us what we are. A physicalist could say, “I am my body (or some part of my body), and my body is me.”
By contrast, substance dualism is the view that humans are made up of dual parts: a material body and an immaterial soul. Farris supports a version of substance dualism that sees humans as being identical to their souls. Fundamentally, he argues, each of us is a soul who happens to have a body. “It is not that the body is unimportant to personal identity,” he writes. Our souls are united to our bodies in such a way that they functionally depend on one another. But when our bodies die, our personal identities don’t disappear. We continue to exist as the same persons, albeit in a disembodied state. This means that, though our bodies are important to our personal identities, they’re not essential.
In a time of global pandemic and protests against racial violence, it would seem the last thing we need to hear is that our bodies aren’t essential to our identities. Farris would argue the exact opposite: We can’t reclaim the full dignity of our bodies without recovering the doctrine that, first and foremost, we are souls.
According to Farris, what’s at stake in the debate between physicalism and substance dualism is the permanence of human identity. Because physicalism is based on a materialistic, evolutionary view of human origins, he argues, impermanence is built into its metaphysics. If each of us is swept up in a cosmic sea of evolutionary flux, can there be any stable ground upon which to fix our personal identities? What makes you you? Your body? As it changes over time, so would your identity. Your memories? They come and go just as quickly.
By failing to establish personal identity, physicalism inevitably opens the door for private, totalizing interpretations of the self, in which people are valued or devalued based on sliding scales of physical characteristics like stage of development, sex, race, ability, and so on. In a world with such arbitrary value systems, individuals are motivated to treat their bodies (and the bodies of others) as malleable means of self-realization. In short, if personal identity has no permanent basis, neither does personal dignity.
The picture is drastically different for substance dualism, says Farris. He’s sympathetic to a modest account of biological evolution—broad enough to include the possibility that God created life on earth gradually, over a long period of time—but he argues that God brings about each person’s particular soul and thereby permanently grounds each person’s identity. Because each of us is identical to our soul, our identity remains intact regardless of the status of our bodies. In effect, substance dualism gives us a sturdy foundation upon which to claim the essential, universal, and permanent goodness of our bodies and all that they comprise: sexuality, gender, race, work, and so on.
Because this is a key benefit of substance dualism, it’s regrettable that Farris doesn’t devote more space to exploring ways that our bodies might inform our personal identities. For instance, if we’re souls, first and foremost, why is it significant that God chose to bind us to particular times and places via our bodies? Why are our immaterial and immortal souls tethered to bodies that require food, sleep, and medicine? Even when Farris addresses body issues such as sexuality and gender, he seems mainly focused on how our bodies bear the marks of the souls that belong to them.
To be fair, Farris devotes more time to body-related issues than most similar books on the subject. Careful readers can extrapolate even more from an ongoing theme he develops: that our bodies allow us to experience God sacramentally in a world where sex, gender, ethnicity, birth, and death all carry theological meaning. Still, his arguments for personal identity and personal dignity would benefit from more explicit and thorough answers to the question, “What are bodies for?”
But if Farris undersells human creatureliness, it’s because he’s intent on selling a more neglected matter: human divinity. As its subtitle suggests, the heart of Farris’ book is to defend the historic Christian view that humans are both creaturely and divine. By “divine,” Farris is referring to what’s historically been called “deification.” He doesn’t mean literally that we’re gods or parts of God. Rather, he means there’s some transcendent aspect of our being—our souls—that bears resemblance to God.
Because all humans are souls created in God’s image, we all bear some resemblance to God. Yet our sin, Farris writes, “dirties the image of God” in us, preventing us from resembling God as he intends. We’re like seeds, he says, who can only grow into mature fruit-bearing trees after we’ve been showered with the redemptive water found in Christ. By his incarnation, Christ “unites the creaturely nature of humanity with divinity.” By his resurrection, Christ makes it possible for those united in him to fulfill their destiny as humans: to see, know, imitate, and have fellowship with God in ways that mere creatures cannot. In short, we have a creaturely nature but a divine purpose that’s fulfilled in Christ.
During this time of pandemic and protests, we sorely need Farris’s reminder that we humans are both creaturely and divine. When we overemphasize our creatureliness and neglect our divine purpose, we run the risk of totalizing our bodies and reducing the gospel to our preferred set of social policies. When we overemphasize our divine purpose to the neglect of our creatureliness, we diminish our bodies and end up living as though the gospel doesn’t have extensive social implications. As Farris shows, it’s only by emphasizing that we’re both creaturely and divine—body and soul—that we can affirm the full dignity and true destiny of every person.
Politics always swims downstream from nature, so a robust understanding of the what, who, and why of our humanity must be the starting point of any meaningful proposals to fix what’s broken in our society. Farris doesn’t answer every question, and one could disagree with any number of answers he gives. But his keen understanding of the issues together with his God-glorifying vision of humanity makes his book an excellent place to begin.
Timothy Kleiser is a teacher and writer from Louisville, Kentucky. His writing has appeared in The American Conservative, Modern Age, The Boston Globe, Fathom, and elsewhere.