“What is Life?”

Yesterday morning I was honored to speak with the congregation of University Lutheran in Cambridge, MA on the question “What is Life?” In typing up a brief handouts, I think I made a decent two-bit summary of my research program to date.


Science and Theology

1) Accounting for the physical universe vs. accounting for the Cosmos, a unified picture of life, the universe, and everything. Both should be critical, communal, and open-ended

 2) It’s important to compare the educated professional scientist with the educated professional theologian, the general scientifically minded public with the general religiously minded public. Scientist vs. believer on the street is like comparing apples and carrots.

What is life?

In the Bible:

ruach (רִיחַ), pneuma (πνεῦμα) – breath, wind, spirit

nephesh (נפש), psyche (yuch) – that which has breath, soul

The breath belongs to God; the rest is dirt. We are dirt with God’s breath in it.

In Greek Culture:

expneusen (ἐξέπνευσεν) – to breath your last, to give up the ghost

eidos (εἶδος) – the form, shape, afterimage (Homer); subsistent Form (Plato)

dunamis (δύναμις) vs. energeia (ενέργεια) / entelecheia (ἐντελέχεια)

            – potentiality vs. actuality, activity, end, or completion (Aristotle)

You are neither a body with a soul, nor a soul with a body,

            but activated (“informed”) matter.

Soul gives the “organism” explanatory power,

            Including nutrition (plant soul),

perception and motion (animal soul), and

reason including intent (rational soul).

In Medieval Theology:

anima – rational subsistent soul, human form part of the spiritual creation

contrasted with plant and animal souls

which are part of the physical creation

(Aquinas, following what he thinks of as Aristotle)

In Enlightenment Reason:

      Dualism: human intellect is shifted the realm of mind.

      Entelecheia is rejected as intent, inconsistent with science.

Organism level explanation is lost, leaving us confused about individuals and functions.

Our modern theology seems divorced from biology because so much was invested in dualism and the subsistent soul. The individual seems necessary for ethics, but we don’t now how to map it onto our scientific picture of reality.


One thought on ““What is Life?”

  1. Pingback: Zombie Church | Science, Spirit, and Scripture

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