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The loss of the Church’s authority: nature

By Peter Sellick - posted Monday, 12 February 2018

When people ask me, what work I have done and I explain that I worked as a neuroscientist and as a Uniting Church Minister, the response is always one of mystification. This underlines the almost universal divide between the materialist (scientific) view of nature and that held by the Church that includes an immaterial or spiritual dimension. In this context "spiritual" refers to the existence of a supernatural realm within the material realm. These two realities are thought to both exclude each other (material/immaterial) and paradoxically, include each other since the supernatural may act on the natural and vice versus.

There is another meaning of the word "spiritual" that refers to an aspect of the psyche in which one sees through surface appearances to the human truth beneath as is referenced in the Nicene Creed with the phrase:

I believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
and of all that is, seen and unseen.


If we acknowledge the Hebrew background to the early Church in which the creation was entirely natural and thus did not contain "spirit" then the "unseen" cannot be a reference to the spirit world. The creations stories at the beginning of the bible are all we need to affirm this view. The "unseen" refers not to a spooky otherworld but to the limit of our knowledge of things not visible such as the inner promptings of the heart, human motivation, fear, love anxiety and the desire for God.

The New Testament reflects the materialism of the Old. This is most obvious in the way Jews understood that there was no life without the body. The disembodied life of the soul was unknown to them. This is evident in the New Testament in that Jesus was born a bodily child, lived a bodily life, died a bodily death, was raised as a body and ascended to heaven as a body. If the writers of the New testament had been influenced by Greek philosophy (both Plato and Aristotle believed in the immortality of the soul) surely, that understanding would have been reflected in the narratives they told. We would not find the emphasis on the Word becoming flesh nor would we have in all the gospels an extended passion narrative that relates the death of Jesus. The early Church dismissed the idea that the spirit of Jesus came to inhabit the body of the man Jesus and upon his death returned to the Father and that Jesus only appeared to suffer on the cross.

The great tragedy of the Medieval Church is that it fell under the influences of Greek philosophy and its dualism of body and soul, a dualism that we see even in the most modern of philosophers, for example in RenéDescartes. It is here that we find the source of popular Christianity that cannot conceive that a person can be a scientist and a theologian.

A major factor in the decline of the Church has been the resolution of the dualism of body/soul and nature/supernatural in favour of materialism. In terms of both the Old and New Testament this is the right answer! Our age has been marked by the gradual fading of séances, spiritual divination, or things that go bump in the night.

Popular Christian belief holds out against the times in its belief in the supernatural. This is explained by a false dichotomy between faith and reason and the projection of modern historiography that insists on "what actually happened". The latter difficulty is easily solved by over a hundred years of historical literary criticism of biblical texts. This research places the biblical miraculous in a prescientific but theologically and literally sophisticated age. Modern exegetes of the bible spend more time discovering what the author meant rather than what actually happened. Such work is the soul of preaching.

By clinging to a blank reading of biblical texts which necessitates the subjugation of our experience of the world, popular Christianity alienates itself from the world around it. This is often celebrated as being a mark of faith. Certainly, the early Church saw itself as being apart from the world, but that status was claimed because its claim that Jesus is Lord was so opposed to the emperor cults of Rome, not because they believed in the unbelievable.


The Medieval construction of Christianity that relies on an unbiblical duality between mortal body and immortal soul is unconvincing to the modern world for many reasons but one of its dark sides is that it encourages a turn away from the world and hope in going to a better place. This can only cause neglect of lived life. Hans Kung, when visiting India, wondered about the negative side of Indian religion: "Thus for example I ask myself whether the cyclical view of the world in Indian religion, according to which everything, the course of the world and the life of the individual, happens in a cycle of coming into being and passing away, is perhaps a reason for that individual fatalism and social determinism which form the main obstacle to reforms and the social improvement of the Indian masses."

A similar criticism of Medieval Christianity may be made. The physics of Aristotle, the medicine of Galen and the astronomy of Ptolemy all intertwined with Christian theology held the whole of Europe in thrall. Out of this mixture came the Galileo trial, a disaster for the Church. The description of history in terms of the Medieval dark ages followed by the age of Enlightenment has a point, except that the pendulum swung too far and alienated an ancient tradition of the Church that held insight into the "the things unseen."

The role of the Church in this confusion is to locate itself within the anthropology of the bible and the early Church in understanding human beings as ensouled bodies, i.e. we are bodies with psyches that cannot be distinguished. This conception does away with all dualities, even those of heart and mind. It also does away with Christian individualism that hopes to survive death. A return to the early Church would revive the emphasis on the Christian community as the sign of the kingdom of God breaking into the world to bring justice, peace and freedom. This is none other than the view of the Old Testament prophets and the proclamation of Jesus: "The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near." (Mark 4:15)

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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