Post Author: Darrell
Recently, I have been studying the Eastern Orthodox tradition of Christianity, and quite honestly, I have found it to be a very intriguing faith. They have a rich history and their faith is filled with traditions that hark back to the early Church. Their approach to the Christian life and worship is unique, refreshing, and in many respects quite inspiring.
The Orthodox view of the human person is especially interesting. Many Western Christians hold to a dualistic view of the mind and the body, believing them to be separate types of reality with the mind being equivalent to the spirit and the body being purely material. While there are many profound advantages to this view, it is not without some serious challenges. For example, dualism fails to account for the dramatic change in personality and character that can occur from physical damage to the brain and/or chemical imbalances within the body. If the mind and spirit are separate entities, why do such changes in personality take place when a purely physical entity such as the brain is damaged? It appears that any rational explanation for this would have to account for a profound connection between mind and body, yet this connection is precisely what the dualistic view seeks to avoid.
The Eastern Tradition of Christianity takes a different approach to mind/body duality, essentially saying that it doesn’t exist. Instead, Orthodox view human personhood as a unity between the mind and the body. In The Orthodox Church, Timothy Ware says:
The west has often associated the image of God with the human soul or intellect. While many Orthodox have done the same, others would say that since the human person is a single unified whole, the image of God embraces the entire person, body and soul as well. . . . Our body is not an enemy, but a partner and collaborator with our soul. [emphasis mine]
This is not to say that Orthodox believe that God has a body… they don’t. They hold to a very traditional view of the Godhead, believing the Father to be spirit. However, to the Orthodox, Christ’s incarnation united the physical and the spiritual. Fourtenth century Saint of The Eastern Orthodox Church, Gregory Palamas, has been quoted as saying, “By taking a human body at the Incarnation, [Christ] has made the flesh an inexhaustible source of sanctification.”
This unified view of the body and soul has a few similarities (although there are still many stark differences) to the mind/body theory known as Emergentism. Emergentism says the human mind is not wholly separate from, nor entirely connected to, the body. Instead, the mind, while produced by the brain, is entirely distinct from the brain. As an analogy, we can look at magnetic fields and gravitational fields. Both fields are produced by a generating physical object; however, they are also distinct from the generating physical object. In the same way, Emergentism says that the mind emerges from the body (brain), but is still distinct from the body.
While this view has its challenges as well, it does appear to answer some of the questions left unanswered by the dualist. Perhaps we Westerners have something to think about?