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More than Naked Apes

More Than Naked Apes | Lecture by theologian Frances YoungMore Than Naked Apes | Lecture by theologian Frances Young | Thursday 19 April 2018 | 19.30 – 21.00 hrs | Lounge UB, Radboud University

Video - Peter Nissen over Frances Young

The modern world dismisses creationism, especially in the form which takes Genesis literally. What is not so well known is the fact that so would the early theologians and bishops of the church. The modern world dismisses the soul and its immortality; again, so did the early theologians and bishops of the church.

As an academic I’ve studied those ancient theologians all through my career as an historical theologian or historian of ideas. What I tried to do in retirement was to ask whether they (the fathers of the church) had things to say of more than historical interest. Just like theologians now, they were in dialogue with contemporary philosophers and intellectuals,  both influenced by commonly accepted scientific understanding and differentiating themselves from it.

The results of this research should challenge oversimplistic views of what Christianity is all about, whether those of believers or unbelievers.  The outcome was my book, God’s Presence. A contemporary recapitulation of early Christianity,which shows I hope, that Christianity has always been a much more open intellectual tradition than many imagine in this post-Christian era.

So in today’s lecture I focus on the question:  Did they have things to say that could bear on our current debates about creation, evolution and the nature of humankind?

Foto: Ted van Aanholt

Creation in general

Ancient philosophy speculated about the origin of everything, as myths gave way to the search for a single underlying arche (beginning), an explanation of the world that needs no explanation, a first cause having priority both in time and power. An early suggestion was water, which obviously exists in solid, liquid and gaseous forms. That idea led to more complex theories about opposites in interaction, about the universe consisting in eternal process or repeated cycles with no ultimate beginning. Where Greek philosophy canvassed the eternity of the universe, the Bible spoke of a beginning,  and of God as the originator of the created order. Cosmology was bound to be an area where the earliest Christian theology interacted with the prevailing culture.

Creation was a hot topic from the 2nd century, and the outcome of debate is clarified in a number of works dating from the fourth century where Genesis and creation is a key topic. The thing that comes across most strikingly is the insistence on the fact of creation, on the fact that the universe had a beginning and that that beginning arose from God’s creativity.

So, in his work, The literal meaning of Genesis, Augustine (most important father for Western Christianity through to the Reformation and beyond) takes it for granted that questions are more appropriate than solutions. Reflecting on ‘God said’, he asserts that we must “never think in a literal minded, fleshly way of utterances in time throughout the days of divine works.” He rebukes wilful ignorance of human knowledge

about the earth, about the sky, about the other elements of this world, about the movements and revolutions or even the magnitude and distances of the constellations, about the predictable eclipses of moon and sun, about the cycles of years and seasons, about the nature of animals, fruits, stones and everything else of this kind.

Such wilful ignorance can only bring Christianity into disrepute. Questions, on the other hand, are essential to the never ending search for the depth of the mystery of God. The literal meaning of Genesis is not in the surface of the text, but is uncovered by probing its implications, through theological questioning, through bringing it into association with human knowledge of the way the cosmos is. Neither Augustine nor any of the others were afraid of what was for them contemporary science, though they distanced themselves from the constant disagreements of philosophers. The words of Genesis are signs, and what the text signifies is that creation was a happening, a completely unique and incomparable event that does not take place within history but instead is the basis of time and history.

Now such discussion of the beginning still has relevance. The ‘steady-state theory’ is the modern equivalent of the ancient philosophical preference or the eternity of the universe, a view which has a deep philosophical appeal – the universe existed, from everlasting to everlasting, in a uniquely self consistent state.

But with the discovery, among other things, of the cosmic microwave background radiation, scientific cosmology moved to the theory of the ‘big bang’. That might seem congenial to those committed to the biblical insistence on a beginning. But warned by the fathers of the church we should be careful not to wed Genesis to the physics of a particular era. In various ways scientists are already going behind the ‘big bang’.

Interpreted by the fathers, Genesis invites theologians neither to devise some artificial integration with current physics , nor to deny the findings of science, nor its fascination. Science, its data, its assured results and the philosophical enquiries generated by science – all have the same status vis-a-vis theology as the hypotheses, questions and knowledge about the natural world which the early fathers both challenged and embraced. As the Astronomer Royal put it

despite all we are learning about our cosmic environment I don’t think the interface with philosophers and theologians is, in principle, any different from what was in Newton’s day.[1]

In the last analysis the theological claim about the beginning is of a different order altogether from the discernment of the ‘big bang’ through analysis of astronomical evidence. It is truly incomparable, beyond replication, utterly beyond time and space, rooted in the ultimate first principle, the will of God to create something other than the divine self, and to create that other something from nothing.

From nothing - that was another important point on which the fathers insisted. The craftsman analogy is inadequate because the carpenter needs wood, the silversmith silver, and so on, while it is sacrilege to suggest that God needs anything at all. So when Genesis says, ‘in the beginning God made heaven and earth’, it implicitly refers to the formless matter which God made from nothing  to be the seed of everything.

This stance goes back at least to the second century. The arguments used betray engagement with Platonism and the need to read Genesis in distinction from that philosophical position.

It was possible to read Genesis in terms of God shaping preexistent, formless stuff – after all Genesis speaks of initial chaos. In the second century it’s clear that there were some Christians who correlated Genesis with Plato’s Timaeus, and took Plato’s myth literally, that is, they understood Plato to speak, not of an eternal relationship between mind, matter and form, but to describe an initial creative act by the demiurge (term for craftsman/creator), who imposed form on a pre-existing material substrate, a kind of chaos.

Against this Tertullian (1st Latin Father) stated that God neither created out of the divine self, for then everything would be divine, nor out of eternal existing matter, or there would be a second eternal first principle; so, if neither out of God’s self nor out of some-thing, it must have been out of no-thing.

Earlier, in the 2nd century, others had asserted that God was alone – matter is not, like God, without beginning – it was brought into existence by the one who alone framed all things. Plato was criticised for regarding matter as uncreated and therefore equal to God.  They argued for God’s unique monarchia, a word which ambiguously carried the notion, not only of sovereignty but of sole first principle (arche). The craftsman analogy would not do – a human artisan creates out of preexistent material, so there is nothing remarkable about God doing likewise. God’s power is evident in the creation of whatever God wants out of nothing.

The Christian position, then, was grounded in God’s absolutely uncontested priority. Yet the formula ‘out of nothing’ was a daring thing to espouse in a culture where “nothing comes from nothing” was a commonplace, taken to imply that anything coming from nothing was a sham.

Christianity would affirm the absolute otherness of the Creator over against everything made out of nothing, while maintaining the reality and goodness of the physical creation as the work of transcendent divine goodness – a novel cosmological position in the ancient world, affirmed over against Platonising interpretations of the world and of the book of Genesis.

The idea of creation out of nothing had significant consequences. It broke the hold of necessity and chance, substituting the notion of a created order with its own rationality, so ultimately permitting the rise of modern science.  But, besides that, it desacralised Nature, allowing its utilisation and exploitation for human benefit through technology. … you may or may not think that a good thing …

But perhaps the key theological question is this: has the doctrine of creation out of nothing yet had its full impact on claims about God’s creation of the world? The point to consider is how much further the critique of the craftsman analogy needs to go. Doesn’t it mean that the whole argument about ‘intelligent design’ has to be rejected?

“The creation is an abandonment” , wrote Simone Weil, French mystic of 20th century. “Creation is abdication”. “God has emptied himself”. “The apparent absence of God in this world is the actual reality of God,” she says. What she meant was that if the eternal, infinite God were to create something other than the divine self, it would be necessary for God to “withdraw”, allowing “space”, as it were, for something other than God to be.

Doubtless this spatial metaphor is inappropriate to the divine: as the fathers so often emphasised, we speak of what we cannot know in inadequate and limited human language and conceptuality. But another inadequate, though pertinent, image might be that of a loving parent letting the child take risks so as to mature and become herself. As any parent knows, there is love and self emptying involved.

If God, who contains everything without being contained, has to let nothingness be so that something other than God might come into being, then God’s creativity is hardly comparable to human creativity. We need a critique, not just of the craftsman analogy, but of all ‘demiurgic’ accounts of God’s creation, including intelligent design. “God is not an alternative to science as an explanation… God is the ground of all explanation”.[2]

So God might be a reasonable inference, arising from a response of wonder to the giftedness of existence. But reserve is required. Containing, yet uncontained, the infinite God emptied the divine self in a creative act of self constriction – something like that might describe the beginning of the finite, time-bound universe, astonishingly brought into being out of nothing.

And if we seek to find another way of speaking of divine creativity, if we abandon a creationism which argues from intelligent design, then surely there is space for acceptance of evolution as coherent with the claim that God is ultimately the Creator of all things.


Nor is it impossible that the early fathers would have found the idea of evolution compatible with their understanding of how human creatures belong to the created order.

Augustine noted that in Genesis humankind was made on the same day as the beasts, observing all are land animals. There is, of course, a difference. The innermost and principal element in humanity, that is, the mind, the rational nature, separates humankind from brute beasts. But other things in us are still common to us and animals. Augustine suggests that there may be a physical representation of this difference in that “the human body is constituted to stand erect” and to look up to the sky, while “the bodies of other animals… are laid out prone on their bellies”.

An Eastern father, by name Gregory of Nyssa, wrote a treatise on humankind. He describes humanity as the greatest wonder of the world, the human creature alone being made like God. Genesis, in speaking of humankind as made in the image of God, indicates the unique nature and status of humankind within the created order: the autonomous soul can exercise sovereignty because it is in the image of the sovereign of all. God is mind, word, love, all seeing and all hearing; in humanity these divine capacities are imitated, so that humankind may act as steward of God’s creation..  NB, Godlikeness is important, but it is within the created order.

Gregory turns to the differences between humanity and other creatures, adopting a number of ancient philosophical commonplaces: uprightness, lack of defence from cold and predators, dexterous hands. These demonstrate human capacity to tame creatures providentially adapted to serve them. The biblical order of creation, beginning with the vegetative and ascending by the beasts to rational beings, is confirmed by the fact that there are three orders of soul: the nutritive, the sensitive and the intellectual. There is, then, continuity between different levels of living beings, with the highest order of bodily life found in humanity, which combines all these forms of soul. The concepts of evolution and emergence almost seem anticipated.

Suppose Gregory of Nyssa had been faced with the post-Darwinian question, “Apes or Angels?” He would surely have answered, ‘Both’. Indeed, neither the fathers nor the Bible itself provide endorsement for rejection of the notion that humankind belongs to the natural order. In Genesis (as Augustine observed) humanity was created on the same day as other land animals, and in the Bible, the preacher in Ecclesiastes mused as follows:

I said in my heart with regard to human beings that God is testing them to show that they are but animals. For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same: as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over the animals: for all is vanity. All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turned to dust again. (3.18 – 20)

The fathers were, of course, clear that we are not mere animals – naked apes with exceptional intelligence but no soul.  Indeed, their understanding of soul might seem to be the place where they are at loggerheads with modernity.

For most modern theologians, shaped in their thinking by scientific research, would now question the dualism of soul and body. Pannenberg, for example, wrote in the 1960s:

There is no independent reality of a ‘soul’ in contrast to the body, just as there is not a body that is merely mechanically or unconsciously moved. Both are abstractions. The only reality is the unity of the living creature called man.[3]

Since then there have been many challenging the conventional religious soul-body dichotomy. Biblical scholars insist that it comes from Plato not the Bible. Theologians challenge the modern distinction, common since Descartes, between Mind and Matter, a mechanistic view of the body whose ills may be diagnosed as the motor mechanic treats the malfunctions of the car engine, and the conscious subject or mind which is the real ‘me’. At first sight it might seem that the ancient soul-body has simply morphed into the Cartesian dualism of mind and and matter. But in fact there is more to the fathers’ position than meets the eye, and maybe they have something to say to some of the contradictions in modernity – for modernity struggles with the incompatibility of this Cartesian self-understanding with evolutionary theory, not least in its failure so far to make scientific sense of our consciousness.

The fathers adopted the classic position of antique philosophy. One named Nemesius wrote a treatise On the Nature of Humankind. “General consent”, he states, is that “the soul deserves more regard than the body and that, indeed, the body is only an instrument employed by the soul”, the proof of this being death: once the soul has left, “the body lies completely still and passive, just like a workman’s tools after he’s gone away and left them lying”. Nemesius’s main interest was humanity’s place in universe and the experience of making moral decisions but he realises that these matters require an understanding of the human constitution, a complex subject.

So the bulk of his work treats various ways of analysing the components which make up a human being and their various functions: the soul, its relationship with the body, the elements which the body is composed, sense perception, the imagination, the functions of the intellect, the different capacities of soul, passions and the irrational soul, nutrition, respiration, generation, and so on.

He reviews the following questions: is the soul corporeal or incorporeal? Is the soul real – that is, a substance? Or is it the harmony or temperament or ‘form’ of the body? What is the origin of the soul? Is there more than one kind of soul? Are there many individual souls, or is there one world soul? He concludes, on the basis of Plato’s arguments, that the soul is incorporeal and immortal.

The soul, however, is no simple entity – it has rational and irrational parts, and the interaction of the various faculties of soul with each other and the body are sometimes conscious, sometimes unconscious. The irrational is partly susceptible to reason’s control, partly not. The elements (earth, air, fire and water) constituting the body have an effect on human temperament, and emotion provides the driving force of action. Thus, passions are necessary to human life; there are good as well as evil passions, and pleasures are necessary and natural to the good life.

Only in the light of this complex analysis of human being can conclusions be drawn about human responsibilities and moral potentialities. Human behaviour is affected by temperament, upbringing and habit; but humankind has free will to make choices in certain spheres, and ideally rationality should be in control.

Nemesius’s underlying conception is that a human being has a footing in two orders of reality, but his physiological statements presuppose a psychosomatic unity:

whatever movement takes place by the operation of nerves and muscles involves the intervention of soul, and is accomplished by an act of will.

Soul provides the energy in respiration: panting and sobbing accompany moments of grief, and soul keeps respiration going during sleep, since it is essential for human life. So the physical and  what pertains to the soul are intimately woven together. Thus

a living creature is composed of soul and body; the body is not a living creature by itself, nor is the soul, but soul and body together.

Indeed, his picture of the soul pervading the body is remarkably similar to our conception of the central nervous system.

How to give an account of the union is the thing which Nemesius finds most puzzling, basically  because there are no natural analogies. Normally what comes together to form a single entity is made completely one only if the constituents undergo change. So how is it possible for body and soul to be united without the body losing its corporeity or the soul ceasing to be incorporeal and self subsistent? Juxtaposition is not a true unity.

So, having ruled out juxtaposition and mixture, Nemesius adopts the Platonic view that the soul puts on the body. Intelligibles can unite with things adapted to receive them and, without undergoing change, remain unconfused while in union. The soul is united to the body through sympathy – the whole living being sympathises as if one thing. The soul, itself incorporeal, is yet in every part of the body, giving it life and movement, while also being transcendent, that is, not confined to some portion of space (the evidence for this is dreams). The soul  is said to be in the body, not because it is located in it but because of its habitual relation of presence there.

Nemesius not only defends the compound unity of the human being during life on earth, but also speaks of the body being immortalised – a privilege of the body which is for the soul’s sake. Resurrection meant for him, as for other Christians, that human nature would be reconstituted as a complex being, body and soul.

Indeed, 2nd century Christians had denied the immortality of the soul as a discrete entity. Confronting those who disbelieved the resurrection, early apologists had asserted that such sceptics had to demonstrate that God, despite being Creator, either cannot or will not restore dead bodies so as to reconstitute the human beings which were before. Without the composition of soul and body you would not have a human being; so even a transformed and resurrected human being must be such a composite. Resurrection thus reflected back on the nature of human being from the beginning – the idea that the naked soul is the real human, which is only temporarily embodied, is ruled out. All the arguments offered to confirm the resurrection spring from the same basic idea namely the origin of human beings in the act of creation.

Thus, early Christianity not only affirmed the goodness of the body, but also insisted that the union of body and soul constituted a created human person. The soul’s immortality was incompatible with the doctrine of creation. Both reach dissolution in death, and neither can rise without the other.The soul dies, dissolved with the body, if it does not know the truth; but, united with spirit it may ascend. In other words, the creative activity of God is at the root of any afterlife. Like life in this earthly existence, eternal life is sheer divine gift.

To sum up: the sharp dualism between soul and body which is assumed to be the long-standing Christian position is not in fact the position to be found either in the Bible or in the fathers. Indeed early Christianity was very close to recognising the continuities between different levels in the created order, and the profound unity of the created human person. They were much closer to the evolutionary and naturalist positions of modernity than we might expect.

So what was it that the talk of soul enabled, and should we take it seriously. In antiquity soul implied recognition that each of us is, and is not, entirely identified with the body which we inhabit, with its needs and cravings, even its limitations to a particular place and time. The ‘I’ that remembers, makes decisions and hopes, as well as feeling hungry or lost, experiences itself as both being a body and having a body. Whatever our concept of human nature, it must be able to account, not only for our self-consciousness and morality, but also that sense of transcendence.

In fact abandonment of the soul is by no means universal in philosophy and theology. What many fear is that

the sense of moral obligation, and of the uniqueness of the human soul in responding to it, will disappear in the rising tide of realisation that human beings are without purpose, without uniqueness, without future, in a world originating by chance and ruled by necessity.[4]

They insist on the fact that human beings are subject as well as object. We are biological, and hence physical, beings, and under the purview of biological and physical laws. But we are also conscious beings with purpose and agency.

So, in our post-Cartesian, post-Darwinian world, what legacy might be salvaged from the patristic discussion? The principal benefit might be a balanced perspective. Modern philosophical and scientific discussions have inherited a tension between reductionism and an exaggerated humanism. Painting with a very broad brush and acknowledging the complexities, we could say that what we now need is a mean between the Enlightenment tendency to overestimate the superiority of human rationality and the tendency of naturalism to treat our whole being, personal and social as explicable through biochemistry and evolutionary theory. And we need it urgently if we are to take moral responsibility for the effects of being the most successful species on earth. Ecological disaster, overpopulation and climate change scarcely suggest that humankind has been the Royal steward of creation that the Bible and the fathers thought was the human vocation. Accepting our own creatureliness is perhaps the spiritual shift required.


The doctrine of creation was a crucial factor in forging a distinctively Christian discourse, reflecting a distinctively Christian sensibility in relation to nature, alongside a distinctively Christian spirituality in relation to God.

Christianity has been blamed for treating nature as created for the good of humanity, for justifying human dominance and exploitation on the basis of Genesis, and for promulgating the superiority of humanity to the rest of the animal creation. Humanity has frightening, if often unintended, domination over the planet’s ecosystems; if the consequences of the indiscriminate human spread of plants and animals to alien environments were not enough of a warning, we are now faced with human induced climate change.  Ironically, the more the human race has acquired awareness of its insignificance in the perspective of deep space and time, the more it has dominated this planet and the less it has been mindful of its integral place in the created order.

The fathers understood humanity to be in a sovereign position in relation to the rest of the created order. But their overall outlook was different. Royal rule meant responsibility and stewardship – the conventional model was a somewhat paternalistic philosopher-king. They would not have endorsed colonialism, capitalism and pursuit of ever expanding economic growth. Darwin should be seen as having done a service to Christianity by restoring us to our proper place in creation.

Throughout nature there is fragility and vulnerability – indeed of all species, the naked human is one of the most fragile and vulnerable. Yet the prime argument for atheism  has been the problem of suffering. The lack of concern with this problem in past centuries is striking. Ordinary people in earlier centuries suffered – indeed, high infant mortality, brief life expectancy, inability to alleviate most medical conditions, epidemics and unrelieved famine meant they suffered far more than most people now troubled by the question. Why was the atheist critique not so powerful in past centuries?

Part of the answer must lie in the reality of living precariously, close to nature, which was as awe-inspiring as it was sustaining: the fear of the wolf haunts European legend and literature. People knew they were small and vulnerable. The fathers recognised that human beings belong to a context dominated by changes and chances, hurt and death, accepted the human condition as creaturely, vulnerable and mortal, made out of nothing and liable to return to the nothingness from which they were created.  They were concerned with finding the wisdom to face and cope with the hardships of life. Moderns have been offended by them.

Humanity, the fathers affirm, is no exception to the general order of creation, but subject to the mortality and vulnerability of the rest of the natural world, and necessarily limited. Yet, oriented to God, receiving life as gift, learning how to relate in love to all that God has made, humankind not only points beyond itself as God’s image on earth, but is also fitted to receive God’s promise of new life.

For me, a shift from struggling with theodicy was facilitated by discovering, not just the natural vulnerabilty and mortality of human creatures, but a profound thanksgiving for my disabled son and enjoyment of him for his own sake. Wonder in the everyday, thanksgiving for the sheer gift of existence – these are the potential gifts of early Christianity.

[1] Martin Rees, Before the Beginning. Our universe and others (London: Simon and Schuster, 1997)

[2] John C. Lennox, God's Undertaker: has Science buried God? (Oxford: Lion, 2007)

[3] Wolfhart Pannenberg, What is man? Contemporary anthropology in theological perspective, ET: Duane A. Priebe (Philadelphia: Fortress press, 1970; German original 1962).

[4] Keith Ward, Defending the Soul (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1992)

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