I’ve had a small email exchange on this topic with a PhD student at another seminary and so I’m going to raise the topic here. Can your body make you sin? Obviously, I’m going to tackle this question from a Christian perspective that cares about sin and wants to think carefully about our ontology (what it means to be human).
The major questions behind the question are (a) are we made up of 2 substances (body and soul), and (b) even if we are, does it matter when considering what causes people to do what they ought not? I am not going to even try to defend (a) but I do want us to think about (b).
Some background might help. (If you get bored with background, just scroll down to the questions below.)
1. In the Christian life sin matters. Sin is that which we do that violates God’s definition of holiness. Sin is that which fallen creatures do all the time. Thankfully, God provides a way of escape from the logical consequences of sin (grace via the cross). Despite (no, because of) this gift from God, Christians still care about eradicating sin even though it is not possible. It stands to reason, then, that it can help to discern the sources of sin in order to stop them.
2. The classic Christian view of human nature is that we are made of two substances: body and soul. We are not just our physical bodies but something intangible was imputed to us when God breathed life into Adam. Our soul allows us to worship God. The bible refers to our soul in various ways: will, heart, desires, etc. The soul is the driver of the will and therefore responsible for the moral direction of our actions. Early theologically oriented scientists (think Descartes) assumed the existence of the soul but looked to explain how the intangible soul connected to the tangible body. Now with the advances in neuroscience we have better explanatory power in describing the action of thoughts, feelings, and knowing. However, the will remains a mystery. While we can explain neural networks and what the brain does when desiring something, we cannot yet explain WHY we want or desire certain things.
Some philosophers and theologians have attempted to deal with classic dualism by suggesting that we are only one substance. I am not capable of succinctly defending this position so I point you to Nancey Murphy and a review of her book here. She does a masterful job defending non-reducible physicalism.
Okay, now if you think humans are made of body and soul you have these questions to consider.
- Is it possible that my body (against or apart from my will) might cause me to sin?
- What is gained and/or lost if we say yes? If we say no?
- If it is possible, am I culpable for such sins?
- What is the consequences of saying yes to this question?
During this week I plan to give a feeble defense of a yes answer to both questions 1 and 2. We’ll see how this unfolds.