I am now blogging at a new blog: erdman31.com

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Saturday, May 16, 2009

Kierkegaard and the self

“A human being is spirit. But what is spirit? Spirit is the self. But what is the self? The self is a relation that relates itself to itself or is the relation’s relating itself to itself in the relation.” (Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death, p. 13)

I am taking a brief respite from blogging on the spiritual/psychological/human consequences of our American economic system. The purpose of this hiatus is to discuss Kierkegaard’s notion of the self. “Self” is a term I use quite a bit in my blogging, so it seems worthwhile to discuss and dialog on what I mean by “self.” Kierkegaard is a great place to start. For Kierkegaard, “the self is a relation that relates itself to itself.” This carries with it the idea of a self as a process of understanding itself. A self has a certain consciousness of being a self. As human beings, we contemplate our place in the universe and the cosmos, we form a sense of identity, we look for meaning, try to discover our purpose, and we reflect on ourselves. We ask the “who am I?” questions. This capacity represents our capacity to be a “self.” In Heidegger terminology, we are beings for whom our very being is an issue. However, my understanding of Kierkegaard is such that even though we can begin to ask ultimate questions and contemplating existential issues of our individuality and personhood, this only represent the beginning of the possibility of discovering our self.

The self is a relation that relates itself to itself. But this process of understanding and becoming self is easily hijacked in the world. “Most men live without ever becoming conscious of being destined as spirit—hence all so-called security, contentment with life, etc., which is simply despair.” (p. 26)

We recall that Kierkegaard uses “spirit” and “self” interchangeably. Self/spirit is a process of “becoming conscious,” a process that most do not truly engage. We might ask questions of purpose and meaning, but these frequently remain somewhat trite, and they are often insignificant when compared with the securities and entertainments that life has to afford. In other words, we are easily distracted from deep knowledge of self. However, knowing one’s self and engaging the process of self-consciousness and self-awareness does not simply mean that one becomes the stereotypical brooding existentialist. This kind of brooding does not mean that the self is relating itself to itself in any meaningful way. (It could be a meaningful process, of course, but not necessarily so.) In fact, a person might live “full” lives, experiencing the wide range of emotions that human existence has to offer and yet still remain very unconscious of who one is as a self.

“…only that person’s life was wasted who went on living so deceived by life’s joys or its sorrows that he never became decisively and eternally conscious as spirit, as self, or what amounts to the same thing.” (p. 26)

Consciousness is a key component of self. There must be a recognition of a deeper connection that one can have with one’s self, a sense that there is a “me” that is much deeper than merely cruising through life, experiencing it’s joys and sorrows. Theologically speaking, I think that “self” also has to do with the imago dei, the image of God in all of us—the sense that as an individual, each person has a beautiful and majestic self; that we are capable of connecting with something divine within us, the “Inward Light” as the Quakers termed it.

“The self is composed of infinitude and finitude. However, this synthesis is a relation, and a relation that, even though it is derive, relates itself to itself, which is freedom. The self is freedom….
“Self-consciousness is decisive with regard to the self. The more consciousness, the more self; the more consciousness, the more will; the more will, the more self. The person who has no will at all is not a self.” (p. 29, emphasis added)

Will, freedom, and self are connected. To understand one’s gift as the image of God, a reflection of the divine—to appreciate the wonder of human existence—it is necessary to engage the process of becoming self, of being aware of self. In some sense, one’s ability to be human is at stake. “The world” is the environment where the self gets forgotten, where the deeper exploration of one’s soul is lost in the economics of daily life and the indulgences of the ego. No one cares about the loss of self. “Such things do not create much of a stir in the world, for a self is the last thing the world cares about and the most dangerous thing of all for a person to show signs of having. The greatest hazard of all, losing the self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all.” (p. 32)

In Kierkegaard’s philosophy/theology of self, God is an important aspect of self-hood, however, to lose one’s relation to their self means that the God relationship will be warped and perverted. To be related correctly with God means that one must be related correctly also with one’s self.

It is easy within the world to lose the self. It is quite common to get distracted from thinking and contemplating the self. It is often the case in this world, that we allow ourselves to become swept away and defined by the world, and to lose our sense of self and freedom. We lose our connection with ourselves, and we become fragmented. Or perhaps we define ourselves (by the standards of the world, of course), and believe we have some sense of identity. But the tragedy of the loss of self remains.

In the next post, we will look more closely about Kierkegaard’s insights about how a person’s relationship with “God” can become distorted if that person does not understand their self. That is, sometimes religious folk believe that they have escaped “the world,” but because they have still have no self/spirit, their view of God is, as Kierkegaard calls it, a fantasy of the infinite.

Part Two: Kierkegaard and the Self: The Fantasy of the Infinite


john doyle said...

This is an informative description of Keirkegaard's views on the self, Erdman. To what extent do you subscribe to his views?

Jonathan Erdman said...

I think that I subscribe to his general approach to the self, as I've described it here.

john doyle said...

Curious that K. regards not just consciousness but self-consciousness as the essence of self. There's a scifi novel called Hindsight that features Earth's first contact with a super-intelligent alien species with consciousness but without self-consciousness. This species could commit itself wholeheartedly to its actions, including the conquest of earth, because its members had no urge to protect themselves. Self-consciousness was revealed as a maladaptive trait in the intergalactic competitive environment (the author is a Ph.D. ecologist). The alien species was able to communicate interpersonally with humans by recording human conversation and simulating subjectivity on computers. An interesting thought experiment.

We've talked previously about how our language competence emerges only through interactions with other language-users; e.g., young children talking with parents. I regard self as a similar sort of emergent property. Our selves are partly imposed on us by parents, friends, culture, etc. And we partly define our identities in terms of our differences and similarities compared to others. Self-awareness is in no small part a matter of looking at ourselves from others' perspectives. I guess the general tenor of my remarks is that even self-understanding isn't a delving into our permanent core: it's significantly decentered. Or at least that's my view.

Jonathan Erdman said...

K: Self-awareness is in no small part a matter of looking at ourselves from others' perspectives. I guess the general tenor of my remarks is that even self-understanding isn't a delving into our permanent core: it's significantly decentered. Or at least that's my view.Yes, excellent comment, Doyle. I tend to agree with you, and I think even Kierkegaard might be inclined to agree as well. As such, I tend to avoid talking about finding our "true self," in the sense that there is some "permanent core." Even the contemplative (Christian and non) tradition seems to get at this, because the process of meditation and finding the "self" is primarily about accepting one's self for who one is. So, there is this sense that the contemplative life is both being aware/present to what surrounds and being aware/present of one's self. This is the case even if "self" is in large part (or even entirely) the result of external forces (social conditioning, familial conditioning, etc.), there is still a sense in which one can know the "self" by developing an awareness of one's emotional/mental/bodily state.

I think of self in terms of self-awareness, which seems to be Kierkegaard's point as well: the self is a process of "becoming." So, even if we are in large part decentered, becoming a self is that process of developing awareness of one's own decentered-ness.

Does that make sense?

Your line of inquiry is one of the things that pops up in my mind as I read Kierkegaard because I wonder about how various post-structuralist notions of self (or lack thereof, e.g., Foucault, Lacan) might interact with Kierkegaard's notion of self. I tend to think there is a good deal of commonality, b/c Kierkegaard doesn't see concerned to establish a Cartesian, centered "self." And on that note, it is interesting that post-structuralism emerged quickly out of structuralism, which was a reaction against French Existentialism and a desire to think philosophically without reference to Sartrean notions of self-hood.

What do you think?

(As a side note, one of the things that pomo guys like about Kierkegaard is his use of pseudonyms, so that people look at the text and not the author. Some of Kierkegaard's authorships under pseudonyms probably don't represent the complexity of Kierkegaard's own thought. Such is the case in Sickness Unto Death, where it seems as though the pseudonymous author's perspective is a bit more dogmatic and perhaps even simplistic that Kierkegaard's own thought.)

john doyle said...

It's curious, because I didn't get this decentered self-as-becoming vibe at all from your description of K's ideas. Self-as-relation I see in your quotes, but it's only a solipsistic relation of self to self, not of self to the world or to other. So it's a becoming in the sense of becoming-aware specifically of one's self. And it's this self-awareness that becomes, rather than a becoming-self vis-a-vis the other and the world. I'm suggesting that self-awareness develops only in conjunction with world-awareness and other-awareness: from your summary K. doesn't seem to think so. In a sense K. sounds like the heir of Descartes, where self-awareness becomes foundational.

I'd rather rely about empirical psychology of the self than on the (post-)structuralists. There is empirical evidence demonstrating that awareness of self develops in infants at about the same time as awareness of other as having a perspective distinctly different from one's own. And especially in adolescence your emerging sense of self is closely related to one's sense of how you believe that others perceive you. The unique genetic makeup of each individual doesn't destine that person to become a specific self. Rather, self seems to emerge from the ongoing gene-environment interaction. Who one becomes depends in part on one's history.

Regarding Lacan, while his empiricism is demonstrably flawed, he's going to position the sense of self somewhere between the symbolic and the imaginary. The symbolic consists of the words which others use to describe you; the imaginary is the image you see of yourself in the mirror and in others' eyes. In both cases the self is defined by the other.

Jonathan Erdman said...

K: I'm suggesting that self-awareness develops only in conjunction with world-awareness and other-awareness: from your summary K. doesn't seem to think so. In a sense K. sounds like the heir of Descartes, where self-awareness becomes foundational.
Well, I think that Kierkegaard is suggesting something along the lines of what Heidegger suggests, which is that self-awareness does only develop through world awareness, however, there is still the phenomenon of experiencing one's self as an "I." It is certainly true for Heidegger (who borrowed so heavily from Kierkegaard) that we are most fundamentally being-in-the-world, involved and absorbed in a world. I would say it is probably also true for Kierkegaard, although this being-in-the-world phenomenon is not something that Kierkegaard develops in depth. Still, I don't think that one excludes the other. I think one can say (with Heidegger) that "we are our world existingly" and still search for an "authentic" self or the self as a relation to itself.

What do you think? Do you find these two ideas to be mutually exclusive?

Personally, I don't see a problem with agreeing with your empirical approach to self (infants develop in relation to the other, or as you say, "self seems to emerge from the ongoing gene-environment interaction. Who one becomes depends in part on one's history") and also holding together with that Kierkegaard's notion of the self as a self that relates itself to itself. Self does "emerge from the ongoing gene-environment interaction," true; but alongside of this is also the experience of the sense that we are an "I," as a unique self that makes decisions, can be free, etc. I don't think this is a matter of discovering an "inner core" as much as it is a matter of awareness and consciousness. Rather than just lose my "self" in the world, I seek to develop an identity and become aware and conscious of my own thoughts, feelings, will, and kinesthetics, even while recognizing that there is no "I" apart from the world. The Cartesian error seems to be the suggestion that there is an "I" that can be extracted from the world, or that there is an ego that developed (or was always present) apart from the world.

john doyle said...

Thanks for the elaboration, Erdman. I've never read anything by K., so I'm attentive to what you have to say about his ideas.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the elaboration, Erdman. I've never read anything by K., so I'm attentive to what you have to say about his ideas.

Phil Goldblatt said...

I like this discussion very much and am getting into K. for a writing project I'm doing. Are you amenable to continuing the discussion? I like his take on that without God it is impossible to become an authentic "self". The question though which I'd like to propose is that K. seems to link the self with the spirit. To K. the self and the spirit are identical. However, we should first like to question what the definition of the human spirit is. Can you hazard an answer to this? In Christianity an unbeliever has a spirit alright but it is a dead spirit. However this dead spirit can "come alive" with the conversion experience. Paul said in Romans 11:15 refering to the Jewish people: "For if their rejection be the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?". Can you firstly define what you consider the spirit to be? I will respond if you answer. Thanks. Phil

Jonathan Erdman said...


I would love to continue the dialog.

Yes, for Kierkegaard "spirit" and "self" are synonymous. So, if we understand "self" for Kierkegaard, then we understand "spirit." I think that Kierkegaard would say that from a biblical perspective, the salvation of the spirit comes from a regeneration of the self. This happens by way of taking a stand on one's being and self-hood, a leap of faith that is at once a trust that transcends (or is deeper than) rationality but that also defines the self in an unconditional way.

Let me elaborate.

Here is Kierkegaard's preliminary definition of self:
“A human being is spirit. But what is spirit? Spirit is the self. But what is the self? The self is a relation that relates itself to itself or is the relation’s relating itself to itself in the relation.”

My understanding of Kierkegaard is that he first wants human beings to step outside of "the crowd." The crowd is untruth. The crowd is the context within which each of us seeks our own self-advancement. As such, it becomes the focal point for power, control, and oppression. It is, I think, the New Testament idea of "the world." Only the individual can love selflessly and non-politically, those who allow themselves to be absorbed into the crowd lose their individuality and sense of self. (I dealt briefly with this idea in my post New Worlds. Also see Kierkegaard's own thoughts on this in TheCrowd is Untruth. Martin Heidegger picks up on a lot of Kierkegaard's themes, without giving him credit. Heidegger talks about "the they." Basically the idea is that we often times mindlessly refer to a set of givens. We say things like, "Well, they say that vitamin C is good for your immune system," etc.)

In the contemporary U.S. culture, I think that the crowd mentality is as strong as it has ever been. I think this is true in religion, politics, and particularly in our mass production, consumeristic mindset. Everyone pretty much wears the same kinds of mass produced clothes (usually from exploited Asian labor), drives the same kinds of cars, eats the same kinds of foods, etc. This same-ness in certain ways seems unprecidented. The result is that we define ourselves and our lives as "meaningful" based on the ques we get from culture. And most everyone kind of has the same sense of meaning: I have a meaningful life if I am doing something I enjoy, making good money, living in a nice house, driving a nice car, etc.

continued in the next comment....

Jonathan Erdman said...

In light of our propensity to lose our sense of self in the crowd, we need to recapture consciousness. We need to understand that the self is "a relation that relates itself to itself." For me, this means that we develop consciousness of what we think, believe, and feel, rather than simply drifting along with the crowd. But this is easier said than done. In fact, in our contemporary U.S. culture, the best advertising sells us on buying mass produced goods (thus basically looking and acting the same as everyone else) while convincing us that we are defining our own unique self. (For example, "Which color of ipod defines you as a person?"....skipping entirely over the fact that everyone and their mother has an ipod. In this Kierkegaard terms, we can only define ourselves as selves within the crowd.)

Kierkegaard is aware of how difficult it is to define one's self apart from the crowd. Maybe it is impossible. So, in terms of a true self, K turns to the example of Abraham on Mount Moriah. In Abraham, there is the ultimate act of faith and simultaneously the ultimate definition of self and spirit. Abraham becomes a true self by an leap of faith that goes beyond reason. Abraham's act of sacrificing Isaac was terrible and ethically obscene. Abraham thus had to suspend the ethical ("a teleological suspension of the ehtical").

This is what becoming a true self is: it is a radical act of faith to define one's self.

"Who gave strength to Abraham's arm? Who held his right hand up so that it did not fall limp at his side? He who gazes at this becomes paralyzed." (p. 17 of Fear and Trembling)

With this overview of Kierkegaard in hand, the answer to your question of "what is spirit for Kierkegaard?" would be to say that having the spirit of a believer is to make a radical act of faith and commitment. This radical act of commitment is a decision of "subjective truth" that discovers something real about one's self and thus takes one's self out of the crowd.

With this understanding of Kierkegaard in hand, I think we could critique a good deal of conventional, popular American Christianity (as Kierkegaard did in his day). Any religious movement that uses forms of crowd control or tries to spread faith by mass communication is operating according to the rules of the crowd. Even those who pride themselves on being anti-worldly often resort to the same worldly techniques of conforming. Kierkegaard was a radical individualist.

Well, I will stop there for now. That's quite a bit to start the conversation! I look forward to your thoughts, Phil. And I would also be interested in learning a bit about yourself. Could you tell me just a bit about yourself and the writing project that you are undertaking? I would love to know more.

Phil Goldblatt said...

like better to talk about “self-consciousness” because I see everyone as “conscious” who is not sleeping so to speak or who is not unconscious. But the person who has a keen perception of self is self conscious and therefore much more aware of what is “going on” inside themselves. In this regard I’d like to discuss two things. One which you brought up and one which I’m glad about that K. has brought up in his writings.
Even though I quite agree with you that K. was rebelling against the “crowd mentality” and trying to get the church to cease using worldly techniques and conforming to other worldly pleasures and paradigms which perhaps reject the “way of the Christian” i.e. the way of faith or the walk of faith as we might put it, it appears to me that even the most shallow among us often just “go along” to “get along” and that really if you asked them, you (or I) would find that they don’t actually define themselves by what they do in conforming with the crowd or contemporary culture or doing something which is enjoyable like driving a sporty looking car. I don’t believe people are really that shallow. Now that is how they act, yes, but I feel they do it out of necessity, not convenience. I actually see people as “being” very different from one another. Yeah, we all wear the same clothes and drive the same cars and eat similar foods but what else is there? Necessity as K. has observed means that we still all have to have clothes to wear and food to eat and transportation. But we also all think differently and have many varied tastes and desires. But now comes the crucial issue which I am glad that K. has written on. That is necessity vs. freedom. As it says in Gal. 5:1 “Stand fast, therefore, in the liberty with which Christ has made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage”.
Freedom is the real issue. If people were not so burdened with necessities, what would be their response? I’ve observed that many would be scared stiff of what that would mean for them because they would then be faced squarely with their own depravity and lack of real purpose in life. And we know that can lead to all kinds of psychological pathologies, not to mention crimes and ills on society. And this relates directly to what you implied about becoming a true “self”.
I also think you are correct about critiquing aspects of Christianity which can often even damage the faith of sincere people who are searching for the truth and for their true “self”. However as a Christian myself I know that that does not mean that God can not use even very

Phil Goldblatt said...

Thanks for getting back to me so soon. I’m taking awhile so as to try to make this worthy of your good reply which was cool, informative and stimulating. As for me, I live in AZ having recently retired from a career in NJ. It’s not so important what I did in NJ except to say I’ve been an avid Christian for over 38 years. The writing project arose out of the journey I’ve been on and how my God has been leading me. Not to get into proprietary details but suffice to say the project relates to the differences between the spirit and the soul (if indeed there are any). You may be aware of two theories in theology; Dichotomy and trichotomy. Dichotomy says that man is composed of two parts, the body and the soul (or spirit). So people in that camp believe that a person’s soul and spirit are identical. Trichotomy says that man is composed of three parts, body, soul and spirit so people in that camp believe there are differences between a person’s soul and spirit. I tend to believe that Bible teaching leans towards the trichotomous view, with the spirit defined as that part of the immaterial part of man which is capable of relating to God and to spiritual things. Tho’ many do not see it this way and I think there are good arguments for both views in the Bible. And then if you have read any of John Eldredge’s books (from Ransomed Heart ministries) he really has some extremely helpful insights and talks about the heart of man a lot and the “false self” which I’ll get into later in this dialog. So how do we define what the heart of man is? There seems to be a lot of overlapping concepts here. It can be very confusing.
And of course I’d like to learn more about you as well. Like where you live and what your work is about generally. And are you really as young as the photo on your website implies??
Thanks for the intro into Kierkegaard. But allow me to say that what I was really asking was how is the “spirit” of man defined in an absolute sense and does K. really hit the nail on the head or not? K.’s statement that the self is a “relation” (that relates itself to itself) is somewhat meaningless to me. Now don’t get me wrong. I think I know what he means; it’s just that semantically the word “relation” infers a relationship between two or more things. If the “self” is a thing; a concrete noun, then it can not be a “relation” or relationship which is just a conceptual noun. Why not just say that the “self” is one’s own concept of oneself i.e. what and who he/she is?? And then we get into consciousness as you well related. But I

Phil Goldblatt said...

worldly techniques and actions; it just depends; I know God can and does use “anything” which may further His love, glory, faith and knowledge. But certainly I believe similarly to you that “one on one” is better and that the process of becoming “who one really is” is best for each individual. As John Eldredge has written: “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
Now the example which you cite from K. about the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham on Mt. Moriah is interesting. You say that this act of faith also simultaneously helped him to define his true self. Perhaps it did but I have a few modifications to suggest. It does not seem to me that Abraham’s act of faith was really the “defining moment” (or indeed the only defining moment) for Abraham because Abraham amazingly and blessedly had many such “encounters” on his “journey”. We read about these things in Gen 12 and Heb. 11:8 that Abraham by faith went out into a foreign land which he did not know about; and in Gen. 14 and Heb. 7 that Abraham met Melchizedek (priest of the Most High God) when returning from the slaughter of the kings and gave tithes to him; and then also the sacrifice of Isaac in Gen. 22 and Heb. 11:17-19. So was this sacrifice really a “suspension of the ethical”?? Well, I know what you mean so I would say “partially” it was. However, Heb. 11:19 indicates that Abraham fully believed God would “raise him from the dead” so that He could fulfill His promise to him regarding the promised land and nation. That is what made it still ethical for Abraham. I would like to suggest that it was not Ab’s faith but rather the anguish of soul which (although not mentioned in the Scripture) must have occurred with him when considering the sacrifice of his own son which is what “revealed” his true heart and “self” to himself. In other words, the “self revelation” which he received from God in going through this episode just may have consisted of how much he loved and respected God. You see what I’m declaring here. Namely that it is usually tragedy and trials and tribulation which are what God uses to open us up to revelation about ourselves and our true calling or purpose.
The same kind of thing probably happened with Ab. when he met Melchizedek because it was such an emotional event. The reason I’m inclined to believe that this was even a more “defining” moment for Ab. is because of what is said in Gen. 15:1 where God seems to calm Ab by saying to him: “Fear not, Abram: I am thy shield, and thy exceedingly

Phil Goldblatt said...

great reward”. You see, why would God have said such a thing to him unless Ab had just gone through a rather traumatic experience?? I think he did.
And this goes along well with Eldredge’s writing that “..it is out of your brokenness that you discover what you have to offer the community.” He continues on by saying that the “false self” is never wholly false but that the power in our lives comes from us, not from abilities (or gifts) which we were using to hide behind. So I agree that it is critical for us all to discover our true self and to therefore relinquish the “poser” or imposter who tries to control everything and not allow God to complete us and to intervene. But the process whereby this can happen is that we need to “enter our wound” and surrender the result to God. In so doing, God’s revelation regarding our true selves will become manifested to us.
In the home page of your blog title you mention the word “revolution” or personal revolution. I think the revolution can only come about through revelation and that this can only be from God.
Thanks for hearing all this out. I would surely like to hear your response and perhaps more on the structure of the “spirit” of man. I noticed on your blog that K. has said that “The person who has no will at all is not a self” relating the will as if it were a part of the self. However, in usual terminology the will (or volition) is a part of the soul; not the spirit. But K. has declared that the self is the spirit. Do you see the problem I have with K.’s definition?? My definition above is only very general and does not really define spirit very well but I think may be a start to stimulate some discussion. Thanks.


Jonathan Erdman said...


I am so glad you got back with me! Thanks for your insights and thoughts.

In terms of myself, I turned 31 this year. Thank you for saying that I look young. I graduated from seminary in 2008, and I've been working toward developing my writing and research a bit.

I would like to respond to a few side issues, but let's go to the main concern here, defining soul and spirit.

I am familiar with the theological trichotomous v. dichotomous debate. There is also a third option that believes that human beings are not divided into parts, following the more Hebraic conception of self. That would be my position. (The evangelical theologian Millard Erickson has a modified version of this unified view of the self.) I think speaking of spirit, soul, and body is extremely helpful and even necessary, but ultimately I do not believe these exist as separate substances.

Biblically, I believe that talk of "soul" and "spirit" is metaphorical (e.g., nephesh in Hebrew or ruhah in Greek). It is a metaphor used to describe our consciousness of the Holy, of God, of the Divine interconnection of all things....from reading your comments, it seems as though you are looking to nail down "what is" spirit or soul. Is this correct? Do you believe that the soul exists as a separate entity?

My thinking at this point is that perhaps it is mistaken to look for an absolute definition of soul or spirit. Hermeneutical question: From the perspective of the scriptures, what is the intention of mentioning spirit/soul/etc.? Is it to tell us what these are (as separate substances)? Or to point to something more abstract and indefinable?

My view at this point is that these metaphors are the best that language can do to begin to describe that which cannot be described. Like the word "God" describes what is ultimately ineffable, unspeakable.

You said: If the “self” is a thing; a concrete noun, then it can not be a “relation” or relationship which is just a conceptual noun.

At this point, I tend to agree with Kierkegaard in rejecting an absolute definition of spirit. K says that the self/spirit is a relation, but I think he needs to fill it out just a bit more. However, I do agree with he and other existentialist writers who see people more as verbs than as nouns: as human beings, with the stress on being. "Existence is essence." However, in contrast to certain existentialists (Kierkegaard in particular), I think we are deeper than our choices. I do not think we need to romanticize the "defining moment of choice." I think maybe we are in agreement here. My thought is that if we equate ourselves with choice, then we lose sight of our holiness, and our holiness seems deeper than our choices.....So, I am not an existentialist, though I sympathize with what they were moving away from (static models of the self/soul/spirit).

You mentioned consciousness as being an awareness of what is "going on" inside of us. I think this is what Kierkegaard is getting at when he talks about the self being a relation. The self-aware person is almost like a second person who observes their own self, their inner workings. The non-self-aware person often too easily associates himself with his inner workings, making him somewhat helpless to deeply felt emotions or thoughts.

So, probably to wrap up this first comment, my question back to you is this: If the soul (or spirit) is actually a "thing," what is it? How can a person concretely define it? And perhaps more to the point, why does it matter? I have many sympathies with the contemplative-mystical tradition of Christianity, so for me mystery is just as important (or more important) than that which we can describe.

Let me know if I am unclear on any of this, since we are dealing with such abstract ideas. It is easy to get lost in translation!

Cheers to you!

Jonathan Erdman said...

Here is a side issue, Phil....you said: “The person who has no will at all is not a self” relating the will as if it were a part of the self. However, in usual terminology the will (or volition) is a part of the soul; not the spirit. But K. has declared that the self is the spirit. Do you see the problem I have with K.’s definition??

It think that since Kierkegaard equates self with awareness and action, he is stating that the person who does not define himself through a defining commitment lacks self-hood.

I don't immediately see the problem you have with his definition, so maybe you could expand the thought a bit, if you like. If not, that's fine too.

Jonathan Erdman said...


I would also be interested in hearing more of your thoughts on how "depravity" ties in with your view of the self.

Phil Goldblatt said...


Thanks for the response. You got me thinking in a few directions at once and about some things I had not before. So that is good. Thanks also for the ref. to M. Erickson; I think that will assist my research. Allow me to answer the second comment first and then I'll get to the others in a few days. The reason is, I would like to learn which seminary you went to? Your comments seem to suggest that it may have been a Jewish seminary because your views seem more consistent with that than with Christian theology. Also because you probably would have understood some of the things I said better had you been more familiar with Xtian theology. But maybe not. I'm just guessing here. In any case I'd like to know before I answer your main points as it may help me to know how to answer. Thanks.
Regarding the comment I made about K's statement that "the person who has no will at all is not a self". In usual Xtian theology the soul is defined as consisting of the intellect, the emotions and the will (volition) as well as the "heart" (or affections and desires) also being a part of the soul. The spirit on the other hand is that part of the self which is capable of being conscious of God and able to communicate (i.e.pray) with God. Therefore when K. says that the "spirit" is the self I guess I was assuming that the spirit was ALL there was to the self and therefore that "action and awareness" was excluded. However your explanation I think cleared that up. K.'s concept of the spirit is no doubt different than mine and different than perhaps most contemporary Christian definitions. Normally I would have said that "awareness and action" are functions of the soul, not necessarily the spirit.
I just want to also mention that yes, I would like to "nail down" a definition or structure of "spirit" if possible but that does not mean that I believe they are entirely separate entities. I do believe there is some "overlap" as in a Venn diagram (correct term??) Parts of the spirit are separate and parts overlap. I'm ok with the std. definitions of "soul". But defining "Spirit" of man is the more difficult task. I will get back to you later with the other issues.

Jonathan Erdman said...


I attended Grace Theological Seminary, a very conservative, evangelical school. However, my views diverged greatly from the norm both while I was attending and also after.

I am fairly well schooled in the Christian tradition, however, it would be good for you to review where you are coming from, both because I may need a refresher and to keep us both on the same page. And "the Christian tradition" is quite a large umbrella! So, there are many areas I still need to learn about.

Thanks for keeping the discussion going. I look forward to more of your thoughts.

Phil Goldblatt said...


Ok, I’ve heard of Grace Seminary; very good. I’d like to know how your views diverged so much from theirs or if you can give an example I’d certainly be interested. Anyway, to address your question of how depravity ties in with my view of the self, allow me to say I believe pretty much in the biblical view of original sin (seems almost synonymous with depravity) which I’m now sure you are well familiar with. Ever since Adam and Eve sinned, the whole human race was/is destined to be born in sin. The only way we can therefore become holy or sanctified is by having God’s Holy Spirit indwell us. And the only way the Holy Spirit can then “take up residence” in us is by the faith decision to accept the sacrifice of His son Jesus. You’ve probably heard also then of the concept of double imputation. When we accept Christ our sin is imputed to Him. At the same time Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us so that we become “positionally” righteous and therefore the curse or penalty for sin is wiped away. Now that does not mean that we do not still retain the “old” nature, for we do. But then we also possess a “new” nature as is strongly implied by II Cor. 5:17 and Eph. 4:23,24. So then life becomes a journey of progressive sanctification. Since none of us has “arrived” as yet this means that as it says in Rom. 6:10,11: “For in that he died, he died unto sin once; but in that he liveth, he liveth unto God. Likewise, reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ, our Lord.” So we are all “works in progress” insofar as sanctification is concerned until we are “glorified” and changed and resurrected after death. That is why I said before that everyone has a spirit but that in the unbeliever his spirit is dead unto the things of God but in a believer the spirit is alive unto the things of God i.e. spiritual things.
So with the above background perhaps I can get on with what I’m fairly confident was your original concern in asking this question, namely why I said that if a person had LOTS of freedom on his hands, he would find himself staring straight down the abyss and void of his own depravity. Yes?? And this it seems to me has much to do with how the self “relates itself to itself” in K.’s terminology. We’ve both no doubt heard people use the phrase “he/she is not ok with him(her)self”. This means that such a person has difficulty relating himself to himself. And indeed I’d like to say that all of us are familiar with the despair and sense of uneasiness which sometimes accompanies isolation and a great deal of “having nothing in particular to do”. People in general have difficulty relating themselves to themselves. Especially without God. And how a person deals with this depends a lot on what is “inside” themselves; whether good or evil….. but the unregenerated person without the presence of the Holy Spirit as I mentioned above (and before) will surely develop some type of pathology or addiction of one sort or another to “fill the void” so to speak. And this can also happen with the Xtian person tho’ hopefully he/she will recognize the spiritual resources available to help. Girls/women who fall into prostitution seem also to have this problem as the root cause of their addiction. And we see this especially in children I think because they are more likely vulnerable to not even having a “counterfeit” purpose for their own existence. And we are all familiar with mom’s who tell their young child that they “don’t know what to do with themselves!” etc. That is why I think K. is called the father of modern psychology. And why he also realized that without the help of

Phil Goldblatt said...

the Holy “other” and relating oneself to God, the self is hopelessly lost in despair and what I would like to call an endless “If/then” loop of purposelessness. As K. has said regarding faith: “In relating itself to itself, and in willing to be itself, the self rests transparently in the power that established it.” In other words as in the “Sickness unto Death” the person needs to submit to the will of God and accept the “self” that one has been created to be (by God (the power) who established it). K. believed that only religious faith could save one’s soul from despair. That is why I like his brand of existentialism which I’ve read is also called Christian Existentialism.
I could also expand a bit on how we become “who we really are” by faith in God but I want to keep this brief. I mentioned before that revelation is required for this to occur but there are several types of revelation. The Word of God (the Bible) is one way because it is “.. living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.”(Heb. 4:12); general revelation in nature is another way; and the ministry of the Holy Spirit inside us is a third way.
Well I think I’ve said enough on this for now and I’m not even sure I answered your question directly though I believe all of the above has to do with the soul (that is the intellect, the emotions, and volition) which is a part of the self in my way of thinking but not the entire self.
I hope to answer the main or first part of your response soon. I guess and somewhat hope you can then respond to all of it once my contribution is posted. Ok? Thanks again.


Phil Goldblatt said...


Now to get to the main comment which you posted.
It does not seem to me that talk of the soul and the spirit is meant to be metaphorical. The soul or spirit is not “like” something else. Although yes, the spirit is “likened” to the “wind” sometimes in Scripture but then the word “wind” would be the metaphor. I think soul and spirit are real even though they/it are/is a part of the immaterial part of man; but no one would say that we are not valuable and worth much; just as God is a spirit but he is so much more than just a “will o’ the wisp”. He for example is attributed with character traits such as love, patience, peace, kindness, goodness, judgment, and many others etc. all found also in the person of Christ Jesus. And no one would say these are not of great worth. I had a feeling you might say something like you said about language not being really capable of describing words like the soul or spirit. And really from my study, I also am realizing that maybe I can not glean an all inclusive definition of spirit but just trying to understand it better and produce a definition which illuminates us more. As I said previously, I think there is real overlap with the soul and the spirit; they seem to interact a lot and parts may be shared in common tho’ parts are not shared as well it seems to me. What do you think?
But as for your question about what the intention is of Scripture mentioning these words it seems to me that they are part of the overall illumination and teaching of whatever is being talked about in the respective passage. Scripture surely assumes that we understand all the words of a given sentence so we can understand the whole idea of the sentence or paragraph. Now sometimes we can infer what is meant when the word soul or spirit is used and other times as in I Thess. 5:23 it sure seems it is assumed that the reader knows what is intended.
Your comment about us being holy in relation to being deeper than our choices causes me to want to explain more about what I meant about the “self” being a concrete thing.
As you imply it has to do with dignity. If we are only a “self-relationship” (a relationship with ourselves) then the “self” which we are is not very significant or of having worth. But I don’t believe that is true. The “self” which we are has lots of worth and value. More so than the body since the “body without the spirit is dead” (James 2:26). Yes, I agree that we are deeper than our choices though I believe that our choices tend to reflect who we

Phil Goldblatt said...

are and that by trust and faith we are able to understand a deeper reality of who a person is if we have a whole lot of choices which that person made in mind. And I also agree that the self-aware person is like a second person who observes his own inner workings but I don’t understand why that means that a person is a “relation” as K. would say??
And are you saying that the non-self aware person becomes trapped and captive to his own deeply felt emotions and thoughts? And if so, how does that relate to self control? Is a deeply self-aware person therefore capable of a lot more self control and self discipline?? I’m not sure those two go together?
You also mentioned “static” models of the self/soul/spirit vs. “dynamic” models. My understanding is that as mentioned previously we are “works in progress” and our souls and spirits certainly “grow” (hopefully into greater Godliness) as life progresses i.e. progressive sanctification. But just because we change and grow I’m not sure that means that the structure of the soul/spirit is not static. The structure can be static while the content of each grows and changes. So I’m not sure what you mean by saying that K. and others were trying to get away from static models. Can you elaborate?
Now to me the most important thing you mentioned is the question “Why does it matter” to define the soul and spirit and the idea of mystery in Christianity?? At first I was somewhat taken off guard by your “why does it matter” question. Sure sounds existentialist to me! But here’s why I think it matters a great deal. Many feel that the soul is nothing more than composed of biological material matter which comes about through combining of sperm and egg. So the abortion debate very much revolves around how we define “what life really is” and when it has likely begun; at conception, sometime during the gestation period, or at “birth”. I’m purposely being a bit contradictory here so as to keep you as objective as possible. The “self” it seems to me is the same as “life” because we can not have a life without a “self”. Another reason these definitions matter has to do with the end of life and with the doctrine of the “resurrection”. Many folks facing the end of life are fearful of what will happen after they die. If their souls/spirits are intimately intertwined with their bodies, then when their bodies die, guess what? So do their souls. But if this is not true, then what the Scripture says about “absent from the body is present with the Lord” (II Cor. 5:8) makes more sense. But then what is supposed to happen at the “resurrection” of the body?? Our understanding of

Phil Goldblatt said...

the soul and the spirit is crucial to understanding certain Scriptures. Additionally, Paul refers to those who are “asleep” and the “dead in Christ rising first” in I Thess. 4:15,16. What does he really mean; that’s the issue.
Concerning “mystery” I would very much agree that God Himself is mysterious and that we would never wish to “demystify” Him in any way as that would detract from our awe and wonder and honoring of Him. May it never be. However, when it comes to us humans I think we are less mysterious than God surely and that God in fact has made the earth and the study of humanity and man “discoverable” so as to increase the likelihood of revelation about both Himself and ourselves. This it seems comes out of God’s desire for relationship with man and of providing purpose for his “children”. Maybe you are implying that when it comes to the very soul and spirit of man we may be probing just a bit too far and that these things are unknowable. Maybe so; I’m not sure. But psychology and anthropology I think are well served when we understand better what man is all about. In fact, mankind itself and connections among the nations of the world depends on relationships and how they can be improved. Yes? Do we need “divine providence” and intervention of the Holy Creator of the Universe for this to happen? Oh yes, we do but we do not stifle growth in ourselves for this to happen. Our “Father in Heaven” would not desire that either. So that is where I’m coming from. How do you respond to all this? But please take your time as I look forward to your good reply.


Jonathan Erdman said...

Hi Phil!

I am back. I finally gave up on being able to read and respond to your recent comments in one sitting, so I saved the web page onto my laptop, and now I am relaxing with some extra time in Phoenix with the ability to give your thoughts the reasoned response that they deserve.

First, let me respond to the issue of the believer/unbeliever distinction. This is something I have been thinking a good deal about, and I have even posted recently about it. (And I plan to post a bit more on the subject.) You can see my recent post on Galatians chapter for more detail, but what struck me was that Paul compared an unbeliever who had not yet "believed" to an "heir" who was still "under age" and had not yet become master of his inheritance, even though he was still "lord of all." See verse 3 in particular: "And we, we also were under age (nepioi), enslaved under the elemental spiritual forces/powers of this world." The word nepioi or "under age" is the same word used in verse one of chapter four: While the heir is "under age," he is no different from the slave, even though he is lord of all.

There is also my 31 years of life experience with and as a Christian. I have seen many "believers" who do not live up to all that they desire to live up to. I have also seen many "unbelievers" who seem to live out the important things of the faith (love, the fruits of the Spirit, etc.) better than "believers. In fact, truth be told, there is no one who seems to live a life (and to internalize) their beliefs with 100% consistency.

So, taken together, I think there is good reason to question whether the believer-unbeliever dichotomy can hold its water.

On the other hand…..I think it is still useful to use the terms "believer" and "unbeliever." There are those who are consciously engaged on a spiritual quest to love others, demonstrate grace, live in gratitude, make the world a better place, and become deeper people who display what Paul describes in Galatians 5 as "the fruits of the Spirit."

to be continued....

Jonathan Erdman said...


You said: everyone has a spirit but that in the unbeliever his spirit is dead unto the things of God but in a believer the spirit is alive unto the things of God i.e. spiritual things.

I think this is drawing too sharp a contrast between believer and unbeliever. Personally, I have met several unbelievers who are not "eat to the things of God" and are open to "spiritual things." In fact, Tamie and I just finished a wonderful and refreshing visit with a gay atheist friend of ours. His life is open to sacred things, even though he has his own rational reasons why he does not believe in "God." He has been through many trials in his life, but he has responded with what I can only describe as substantive spiritual growth and a demonstration of the fruits of the spirit.

Phil: but the unregenerated person without the presence of the Holy Spirit as I mentioned above (and before) will surely develop some type of pathology or addiction of one sort or another to “fill the void” so to speak. And this can also happen with the Xtian person tho’ hopefully he/she will recognize the spiritual resources available to help.

I'd like to also kind of question this conclusion. My experiences with unbelievers has not been such that I can agree with you. I have interacted with unbelievers who do not have pathologies or addictions. So, perhaps we can just agree to disagree….but if you have more to add to this, then I am certainly open to reconsideration.

As a side note, I also do not believe that we are told anywhere in the biblical scriptures that God will "fill the void." The idea of God "filling the void" goes back to Augustine, I would say, when he said: Our hearts are restless, until they find their rest in you. Billy Graham popularized this idea by making his evangelistic appeal foundational as a God who fills the psychological void: Everyone has a God-shaped hole that only God can fill. This has been significant to 20th century Christianity, perhaps one of the most significant shapers of 20th century faith, because it makes Christianity the faith of the psychologically well-adjusted. But personally, I think we need to be realistic about the reality of psychological struggles and also get back to what the New Testament says about faith. The appeal in the New Testament does not seem to be rooted in helping us feel good or in filling the "gaps" and "holes" of the soul…..at least, that's my take on things, Phil. What say you?

Jonathan Erdman said...


Here are a few other, sundry issues.

Phil: The “self” which we are has lots of worth and value. More so than the body since the “body without the spirit is dead” (James 2:26).

But as I see it exegetically, the point of James 2 seems to be that we cannot have faith w/o works (or visa-versa). So also is the case with body and spirit: we cannot separate them.

Phil: And I also agree that the self-aware person is like a second person who observes his own inner workings but I don’t understand why that means that a person is a “relation” as K. would say??
And are you saying that the non-self aware person becomes trapped and captive to his own deeply felt emotions and thoughts? And if so, how does that relate to self control? Is a deeply self-aware person therefore capable of a lot more self control and self discipline?? I’m not sure those two go together?

Yes. This is the general direction of my thinking. The self-aware person seems to be less controlled by passions and emotions. Now, I don't think we should say that emotions and passions are "bad," oh no! Never. On the contrary, we should recognize "negative" emotions (and that they are not as "negative" perhaps as we are led to believe) and allow them to emerge, they should not be suppressed. I have heard the spiritual teaching (in a very simple form): Do not cling to nor reject anything. "negative" emotions are most damaging (so it seems) when we either cling to them (i.e., we identify with them) or we reject them. When we let them be, then we can learn from them. At least, that has been my experience. This general idea is a part of some versions of Buddhist spirituality.

But just because we change and grow I’m not sure that means that the structure of the soul/spirit is not static. The structure can be static while the content of each grows and changes. So I’m not sure what you mean by saying that K. and others were trying to get away from static models. Can you elaborate?

Unfortunately, I'm not sure that I can elaborate! I view the soul/spirit as metaphors for the "deeper" parts of us, the self-aware parts of us, the parts of us that question our own existence (in ways that other living creatures like plants/animals do not seem to do). As Heidegger put it, we are "beings for whom being is an issue." Our very existence is an issue for us. This is the heart of existentialism, and although I am not an existentialist, I do agree that contemplating our existence is at the core of what it means to be human.

However, I do not necessarily think that there is actually a "thing" or "substance" inside of us that is the "soul." Most Christian theologians (as far as I know) agree that the soul is immaterial. If it is immaterial, then how can we say whether it actually exists in a way that is separate from the body? This is at the heart of the Modern debate: the question of mind-body dualism. I am a Monist: I believe that human beings are one. There is no separate heart, soul, spirit, body, etc. (Sometimes these distinctions can be handy to use, but ultimately none of these "parts" can exist without each other and they are so radically interdependent that none of them actually exist as separate entities or substances.)

Jonathan Erdman said...

The other question is: Why does defining "soul" or "spirit" matter?

You mentioned two significant reasons that definition matters: the current abortion debate and the doctrine of the resurrection.

Regarding the abortion debate, you said: The “self” it seems to me is the same as “life” because we can not have a life without a “self”.

I think that at this point I disagree with you. I think that we become living human beings long before we become conscious of who we are as a self. Psychologists define the "mirror" stage of an infant's development as being that point at which the infant recognizes that s/he is separate and a separate and distinct self. Until that point, there is no sense of self. Also of equal importance is language. Language is a critical part of communication and self-awareness.

But while still in the womb, there certainly seems to be no sense of "self." At least, as far as I can see. I am not a strict Pro-Choice person (but not really a Pro-Lifer either), but not because I believe that a fetus is a "self." Rather, I think that human life begins sometime in the early weeks/months of pregnancy. When a human is biologically formed, I think that at this point we should respect the fetus as a human life.

That's my thought on the issue.

In terms of resurrection doctrine, I don't really have anything to add at the moment.

Phil: However, when it comes to us humans I think we are less mysterious than God surely and that God in fact has made the earth and the study of humanity and man “discoverable” so as to increase the likelihood of revelation about both Himself and ourselves. This it seems comes out of God’s desire for relationship with man and of providing purpose for his “children”…..But psychology and anthropology I think are well served when we understand better what man is all about.

I guess my tendency is to think that psychology and anthropology are best served when they understand that they can never understand the complicated nature of human existence! But I do agree with you in the general sense that we should attempt to understand ourselves better. I just think that we should be okay if we run into mystery and paradox.

I do not think that a proper relationship with God means to understand better. This strikes me as a very Modern view of theology. John Calvin takes this position in his Institutes. I tend to believe that our relationship with God depends on many things, one of which is to be able to live with ambiguity, mystery, and paradox. The Old Testament books of Job and Ecclesiastes seem to be grappling with this. In these books, faith is not so much about knowing God or ourselves better but about being able to live despite our lack of knowledge. In Ecclesiastes, the teacher warns against those who say they understand it all, and Job's friends are chastised because they tried to explain away Job's trials. The kicker in Job's case is that Job himself is reprimanded, presumably because he "spoke of that which he did not understand."

But, again, I do think it is appropriate to try to better understand ourselves, we just cannot make understanding the central issue to what it means to be human----I guess that's what I am trying to suggest.

Phil Goldblatt said...

Dear Jon,

I just want to begin by sayin’ how much I enjoyed meeting you and Tamie in Flag and that I really appreciated your taking the time to talk over lunch and get to know each other a bit. I trust that you and Tamie are back in IN now and I hope settled back in.

I’ve realized that so much of our dialogue is having the effect to help me think more clearly about and to come to some conclusions about some of the issues we are discussing. In that sense it is very helpful to me and I hope to you also. Even tho’ we may hold varying viewpoints on some things, that helps us (I hope) to sharpen our own viewpoint and to know better why we believe what we believe. I am tempted even against my better judgment to want to try to convince you that a di or tri-chotomous view of man is more accurate and akin to Scriptural truth than monism. But I will try to overcome that temptation as I know it is not wise to try to persuade you thus. I do want to try to address some of the issues and arguments you made in your last blog however. So allow me to begin with your exegesis of Galatians 4 vis-à-vis “believer” and “unbeliever” notions. Firstly, I think I explained when we met what I meant about unbelievers who act like, talk like, live out things like love and fruit of the faith(so it seems) and which we all have experienced for sure. We may not know if they really believe or not but even if they are professed atheists, this does not mean that they are not acting that way for other reasons, reasons which our God may actually not approve of. I feel it really boils down to being filled with the Holy Spirit. In Eph. 5:18 and in Eph. 4:30, Gal. 5:16-18,25; Eph. 1:13,14 and Phil. 2:1 we realize that believers are indwelt by the Holy Spirit (H.S.). And we see also that as I mentioned when we met, that once we become one of God’s family, we are also part of the cosmic spiritual warfare of flesh vs. the Spirit (please see II Cor. 10:2-5). So the environment in which we find ourselves changes radically because we are trying at least to “walk by faith” rather than by sight. So we can not tell really whether a believer is acting less loving/righteous/holy etc. than an unbeliever. It is a hard act of discernment to achieve that kind of insight given the warfare which he is in versus the lack of warfare which the unbeliever is in; tho’ surely he could be in a different type of battle.

But regarding Galatians 4, I have to say that I can not agree with your interpretation. For one thing the issue with that church was that they had already become believers but now were falling back into Judaizing by adopting various aspects of the Mosaic law. In Galatians Paul was attempting to show them why they could not “obey the truth” (vs.3:1) and be “made perfect” by the works of the flesh through the law. As it says in Gal. 3:5:”He, therefore, that ministereth to you the Spirit, and worketh miracles among you, doeth he it by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?” It is a rhetorical question; obviously God does it by the hearing of faith. Now the key to the correct exegesis of Gal. 4 is the very last verse of Gal. 3; namely verse 29: “And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise”. So the Galatians were already heirs (see vs. 4:7 as well). Now of COURSE a “child” in the faith does not differ much at all from an unbeliever with regard to behavior. But I do not agree that Paul was speaking of Galatians who had not yet believed. He was just speaking of carnal believers who in their actions, words, deeds differ little if at all from an unbeliever. So I think we come to the same conclusion in any case; namely that as you said in your blog on Galatians, that we all are always still coming into our own as heirs and that becoming wise, discerning, and benevolent is a life long process. Of course it is! I do not disagree at all. We are “works in progress” and always will be until we “go to be with our Lord.”

Phil Goldblatt said...

But it seems the real thing you are questioning is whether we should be so dichotomous in distinguishing between a believer and an unbeliever. Now of course if any motive to show favoritism is behind it, then certainly we should not be so dichotomous. However, the desirable thing about being discriminating between these two types of persons is that doing so should greatly help us to PROPERLY minister to each. Do we approach an unbeliever with regard to helping them in the same way and with the same language as a believer?? Probably not. And the answer it seems is right in Gal. 3:3: “having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh?” May it never be. A person who already is a believer with the appropriate word of truth and with the encouragement to faith and trust in the spirit of grace can better deal with whatever he/she is facing. An unbeliever however firstly needs to believe and receive the Holy Spirit so that he can appropriate the “grace which comes by faith alone”. (See Rom. 4:3, 9:30, 10:10) Otherwise any attempt at faith will be in vain and/or in the inappropriate entity and therefore will not be helpful to him. Make sense to you?? Of course at times the initial outward ministry may look very much the same; i.e. both need food for instance. However, the inward ministry to each will differ. One may need to believe; the other may need help to believe more or to trust God more or even be encouraged in a different way so as to appropriate grace to endure etc.

I also want to say that I differ with your interpretation of James 2:26. Logically speaking it does not follow that if a statement is true then it’s inverse must also be true. That is not the case. The inverse can either be true or false if the statement is true. The works that James is talking about are good works which issue out of faith. No one would say that faith issues out of good works. The good works are the evidence (not the other way around) that the person has been saved by faith and the faith must ontologically precede the good works (even if just by a thousandth of a second). Otherwise one could make the assertion that we are saved by works rather than by faith alone. Same way for the body without the spirit. James is making the case that just as it is obvious that the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without good works is dead (faith) also. It does not follow logically that the spirit without the body is a dead spirit. Now does it? And it does not follow at least from this verse that we can not separate body and spirit. One needs to quote other verses perhaps if you wish to make that assumption.

Phil Goldblatt said...

Now getting on to more philosophical things. Recently I’ve been reading (as I mentioned in Flag) a book on substance dualism by JP Moreland and Scott Rae. They make some truly excellent arguments for that view and the implications to ethical and moral decisions based on this view of personhood. I’ve also been reading a bit in a book I obtained a long time ago by Francis Schaeffer entitled “How Should We Then Live? (the rise and decline of western thought and culture)”. Perhaps you have heard of him. In this book he gives an admittedly short account of the thought of some of the great philosophers of the eighteenth and nineteenth century’s including Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, and Kierkegaard (K.). And then an account of the more recent existentialists such as Sartre, Heidegger, Jaspers, Huxley, Barth, Tillich and a few others. He explains that most of these philosophers were all trying to find meaning as being related to non-reason or the “upper story” and that it was only in non-reason that optimism and value could be found but reason always led to pessimism and despair (i.e. the “lower story”). He proposes that modern man’s predicament arose from adoption of these philosophies so that the ideal of objective truth was eventually eradicated and man was left with a form of bondage and manipulation by societies trying to impose some sort of order. He seems to blame the “existentialist” method on all of this. By insisting that reason was completely separate from the “noumenal” world of meaning and optimism, this method led to the inevitable conclusion that “God is dead”.

But the interesting thing about his writing is what he says about K. He makes the comment that “there will be a continuing discussion among scholars as to whether the secular and religious thinkers who built on K. did him justice.” I’ll say!! He mentions the theological existentialism of K. but still affirms that that only led Barth to then place “theology” into the upper story of non-reason and blind optimism while retaining the existentialist dichotomy between reason and non-reason with no interchange between them at all.

But it sure seemed to me that K. was affirming the role of God in all of this by saying what I’ve said before in our blogging. Namely that without God, it was impossible to avoid despair because one would not find meaning in life without Him. What do you think?? Do you agree or not?

Phil Goldblatt said...

What about the mind/body dualism? You indicated that you do not think that the soul/or spirit exists separate from the body and that it is because the soul/spirit is so “radically interdependent” on the body. I know what you mean but the way JP Moreland (and I agree) looks at it many Christians make the error of assuming that because something is dependent on something else, that therefore it is a part of it. For instance, my stomach is dependent on blood flow from my heart but that does not mean it does not possess it’s own identity and function, unique cells and so forth. Of course it does. The heart is still a separate organ. So could it not be that the “spirit/soul” is dependent on the brain for instance but yet still be a separate and distinct entity?? A really good example of this is part of the abortion debate. A fetus is very dependent on its mother host but that does not mean that it does not possess it’s own identity as a separate person. Right? I know you indicated that you believe “life” begins in the first few weeks of pregnancy. But then during those weeks you would need to conclude that the fetus is not yet a person it seems to me. To me that unfortunately leaves one off the hook morally.

In various places Scripture affirms the idea that the “spirit” can indeed exist in a disembodied state. Consider the following Scriptures: Heb. 12:22,23 (i.e. angels can appear in bodily form or not; and in heaven the “spirits of just men made perfect” are what? Are they not the essential part of those saints??) also Rom. 8:11,16 refers to the Holy Spirit dwelling in us and “bearing witness with our spirit”. Since God himself is a non-material spirit with attributes as I’ve described before (love, power, patience, goodness, majesty etc.) then for Him to relate to us, would it not follow that we also must have a separate spirit? But even better proof of this comes from II Cor. 12:2 and following. Paul is relating that he once knew a man in Christ who was “caught up into paradise” and saying that he “could not tell” whether this man was “in the body or out of the body”. So he is affirming that the very real possibility existed that this man could have been outside his own body. Otherwise it would be meaningless for Paul to use such a description. The only way that could happen is for our spirits to be able to (have the possibility to) exist in a disembodied state. Yes?

In the next section of your response you critique my drawing too sharp a distinction between believer and unbeliever again. You cite your visit with your atheist/gay friend as an example where it is hard to draw such a distinction. I agree it is hard and I agree again that his behavior may very well parallel/mimic that of a growing believer who wonderfully demonstrates the fruit of the Spirit and a deep appreciation for sacred things. But I also believe there is an important principle here which Christians need to keep in mind. Do we try to make Scripture conform to our experience or do we try to make our experiences conform to Scriptural truth as we read it?? It is because we really do not know “what’s inside a person” that we can err with respect to trying to make Scripture conform to our experience. I admit I sometimes try to do things like that also in an attempt to harmonize what I read in Scripture with what I observe in life or in the cosmos. For instance, how do I harmonize what science seems to say about the age of the earth and the universe with what Scripture says in Gen 1 and 2?? There are various theories (such as the “gap” theory) which try to explain those apparent inconsistencies but still we need to be extremely careful if we try to make the Bible conform to our experience instead of the other way around. It is much better in my opinion to exercise faith and affirm biblical truth.

Phil Goldblatt said...

Regarding God “filling the void” I feel like you may have misunderstood my meaning. I agree that we are never promised lack of trials or complete psychological health. But that does not mean that God is “powerless” to do such a thing for a person or that the potential for better psychological health does not exist with God. Of course it does. And yes, I still believe that there is a void within man which only God can fill. We read similar such verses in our Bible and I’m sure that is where Augustine and Billy Graham first obtained such notions. They were not trying to be unbiblical for God sakes. No, Christianity is not the faith of the psychologically well-adjusted but it is the faith of those for whom God’s spiritual resources can in time bring solace and the “peace which passes all understanding” (Phil 4:7) guarding our hearts and our minds. Consider also verses like Ps. 37:3-7, Ps. 116:4,7,8, Heb. 13:5,6, and Josh. 1:5. And besides, what would you then say IS the appeal of the New Testament?? Heaven only?; the blessed hope?? That is one appeal yes, but is not the only appeal. How would you respond to this?

On the subject of the abortion debate I remember saying in Flag that a fetus does not need to be “self aware” in order to have a self; that even though they have no sense of self, that that doesn’t mean that they don’t have one. I guess it depends on how you define “self”. And with it “personhood”. One could easily say that the fetus is then not a person until he/she recognizes his/her own “self”. But I believe this arises from a more naturalistic view of life which as I’m sure you know by now I don’t adhere to. You also mention language. Now here may be where we radically differ. I only view language as a tool or instrument for communication; not a means for conceptualization even though I admit it can help us do that. But language in my view is nothing more than that. I believe for instance that a fetus can and does have certain basic conceptualizations (more so the later in the term) even though he/she does not know which words express them. And all of us experience concepts for which we find it hard to find the words to express. So I’m not sure I understand why you state that language is a critical part of self awareness?? Can you respond?

I think your comment on having a proper relationship with God does not mean to “understand” better I agree with. But what I was leaning or heading towards had to do with helping others. We potentially can help others better if we understand more. But yes, having a good relationship with God requires “faith” above all else, not understanding. As it affirms in Heb. 11:6: “But without faith it is impossible to please him; for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.” And I think a good dynamic relationship with God needs prayer and communication and meditation to look for His working about us 24/7. And it requires faith to do that as well. But remember all I said was that psychology and anthropology are well served when we understand more; I did not say that our relationship with God is improved through that. Ok?

Well I think I’ve now made all the comments and responses to what you wrote and I pray you are edified by it and that our epistemology is improved also. As I’ve been reading, a theory of knowledge is quite important to the philosophic basis of being or of man.
Be well and write when you can.


Jonathan Erdman said...


A quick comment. I am still in process of reading your thoughts.

First, You can certainly feel free to present your arguments and thoughts regarding di/tri-chotomist viewpoints. I am open for more discussion on this issue. As I said when we chatted in Flagstaff, this is a very tricky (and vague) area. I'd love to keep hashing it out.

Second, a thought about the believer/unbeliever dichotomy. I do think that it is okay to make the distinction, however, my point is that if we really push the dichotomy, we will find that it doesn't hold. So, we need to understand ourselves as "believers" only with a large measure of humility, knowing that many of the traits of unbelievers that we despise are often true of believers and the best traits of believers can be found even among the most staunch unbeliever. So, I say, let's use the terms believer/unbeliever but not invest too much in our superiority as believers.

So, one of the things you have said is that believers have better resources, namely, the Holy Spirit. But a quick thought here. Maybe it is necessary to be an "unbeliever" for a while to truly understand the Holy Spirit. That is, so often being a part of the church crowd (and doing the things of the faith) can take us away from a better practice of the fruits of the spirit. Sometimes religion (even at its best) takes us out of contact with our humanity. That is, we become so "spiritual" that lose touch with our humanness. There is the saying "He's so heavenly minded that he's of no earthly good."

There is also an passage in To Kill a Mockingbird where the "footwashin' Christians" say that anyone who tends their garden will be going to hell. They need to be indoors more and reading their Bible. This is a bit of an extreme example, but the point is that we need to sometimes experience life in the raw, without being sanitized by our faith communities or beliefs.

Jonathan Erdman said...


Regarding the James 2 passage. I think I am still leaning toward my interpretation. James says, "I will show you my faith by what I do." He links faith and works together. In the context, I believe he is responding to those who divorce faith and works, which seems to me to be the thing that you are doing. Correct me if I am wrong, but you seem to say that faith must come before works "even if just by a thousandth of a second." But James says, "Show me your faith without works and I will show you my faith by what I do." So, I would say a similar thing to you: how can you have faith without works? This, I believe, is where Paul and James actually agree. I don't think Paul meant to dichotomize faith and works. He meant to dichotomize faith and works-that-establish-righteousness-apart-from-faith.

I see James two as a direct assault on any separation of faith and works. As such, I think it actually supports the monist viewpoint that the spirit needs some sort of embodied form.

Jonathan Erdman said...


Regarding Schaeffer.....I have never really liked his approach. I think it is too general and does not do justice to the individuals philosophers he deals with. The idea of blaming all of our troubles on an "upper story" and "lower story" dichotomy is a bit suspicious to me. Schaeffer was also something of a presuppositionalist, of the Westminster crowd that was taught by Cornelius Van Till. I think that Van Till was an extreme rationalist and onto-theologian. I think he made God a God-of-the-gaps. The general approach of Van Till (like so many twentieth century apologists) is to find a way in which humanity is lacking something (meaning, rationality, answers, etc.) and then plug in God.

For twentieth century apologists of the faith, evaluating secular philosophers was simply a practice of combing through the texts and finding problems with it that God could be plugged in to solve. The favorites were meaning and rationality, to say that without God there would be no meaning or that without God life could not be rational. The latter was Van Till's approach and also Schaeffer's (to a lesser degree).

I studied twentieth-century apologetics a good deal (sometimes I forget that this is how I spent my early twenties!), and I concluded that this approach was not satisfying. God is not meant to be the magic wand to all of our needs for rational answers or for meaning in life. Textually, I believe that the book of Job and Ecclesiastes are directly opposed to this approach.

Jonathan Erdman said...


Great point about interdependence. Just because something is dependent upon something else does not mean that it is not its own separate entity. I agree with you.

You then said So could it not be that the “spirit/soul” is dependent on the brain for instance but yet still be a separate and distinct entity??

I want to say that I do believe in this possibility. I may be a monist, but I am certainly open to the possibility of being wrong. The problem is that when it comes to "spirit" and/or "soul," these are immaterial categories for which we have no concept or framework for imagining. You used the term "separate and distinct entity." But what kind of "entity" is a soul? It may very well be that when we speak of "spirit" and "soul," we are speaking of the collective accumulation of our physical bodies, memories, sensations, and our present moment consciousness. Certainly this is something that is real and seems to be in its own category, but that does not mean that it is a separate entity. I don't mind speaking of the soul or spirit of a person, but I use the term loosely.

For example, we talk about the "spirit" of a corporation. The "spirit" of Google is very open to new ideas and very progressive. The spirit of other corporations are very traditional, profit-driven, and inflexible. We might say things like, "customer service is the heart and soul of this business." We don't really mean to positive a separate entity called "soul." But we are still referring to something that is equally real and substantial.

We talk about "the spirit of the age." But we don't mean that the age actually has a literal spirit, do we? No, we are speaking of the collective accumulations of the ways in which people think and feel and interact in their world.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Thanks for the discussion, Phil.

Peace to you.

Enjoy the beauty of Flag!

Phil Goldblatt said...


Thanks so much for responding to my comments so quickly. I will want to say something about them soon but early next week I go to near NYC to visit family for Thanksgiving so I won't be able to respond for at least a couple of weeks. I trust this is ok with you and that you and Tamie have a good good Thanksgiving holiday yourselves. Keep praising and looking up.

Phil Goldblatt said...

Dear Jon,

Ok, I’m back and finally able to begin to answer some of the very stimulating content which you wrote. I do hope you had a good Thanksgiving (and Tamie also). I spent the time with my niece and family including my sister in Armonk, NY. Lots of people but very worthwhile.
Regarding the believer/unbeliever dichotomy. I never said and was not trying to imply that believers are superior in some way to unbelievers. Only that our gospel is superior to save a soul because it indicates that in the bible. For instance take Heb. 8:6 and 7:19. We have a better covenant established on better promises and we have a better high priest i.e. “..the law made nothing perfect but the bringing in of a better hope did, by which we draw near unto God.”
In the next paragraph on p.1 of your reply you imply that being part of the church crowd is doing things of the faith but I was not trying to tie in the Holy Spirit or doing churchy things with the practice of the fruits of the Holy Spirit. One thing may or may not have anything to do with the other. As the book I am reading (The Prodigal God by Tim Keller) says, “there are lots of “elder brothers” in the church”. That means that there are lots of folks in the church who try to “be righteous” by doing good works but not really appreciating the “work” which Jesus did to save us and the enormous price which it costs him. Let us not confuse culture (as may exist in the church) with our pure Word of truth. I think we agree here that we should not lose touch with our humanity. I was trying to be completely objective. The church is not the exclusive residence of the Holy Spirit at all. Believers are tho’. If the Holy Spirit is in the church it is only because believers are there; as the scripture says: ”where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them”.(Mt. 18:20) Ok?

Phil Goldblatt said...

On page 2 of your reply, you seem to think that I am saying that faith comes before works but really I’m just saying what I think you are also; namely that we are not saved by works but by faith alone. We are not saved by BOTH faith and works. As Martin Luther once said: “We are saved by faith alone (not our works), but not by faith that remains alone.” I agree with that! Do you?? And I also agree that Paul and James are in complete agreement.
But then you ask: “How can you have faith without works?” I’ve always believed that good works will come as a result of our faith; not the other way around. And I would affirm that by quoting Rom. 4:5,6 regarding Abraham. It says in that chapter that Abraham was justified by his faith apart from works. And verses 5 & 6 say: “But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness. Even as David also describeth the blessedness of the man unto whom God imputeth righteousness apart from works,..” Now how do you interpret that? It sure sounds like a person can have faith without works though I have a feeling it depends on how you define the word “works”?? Jesus himself said in answer to a question his disciples were asking in John 6:28,29: “Then said they unto him, What shall we do, that we might work the works of God? Jesus answered, and said unto them, This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent.” (emphasis mine)
You then say that James supports the monist viewpoint that the spirit needs some sort of embodied form. I would only add “………..in this world”. Yes! The spirit requires some embodied form in this physical realm because God chose to make us both body and soul and spirit; not just one or two; not just the other. To underscore my point, consider God for instance; the first person of the trinity. He surely does not need an embodied form but still possesses attributes of power, wisdom and love. The fact that He took on an embodied form in Jesus was only so he could communicate with mankind who existed in the physical realm. But God exists in the spiritual realm. As the Scripture confirms in John 4:24: “God is a Spirit; and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.” So I would conclude that James 2 supports nothing concerning either the monist, dichotomist or trichotomist viewpoints. We need to find that elsewhere in the Bible as I hope I’ve shown above. And this brings up even what you might believe about the trinity. Or do you even believe in the trinity?

Phil Goldblatt said...

Concerning your p. 3 I think I like what you said about Schaeffer. He is a bit too general even for me. However to be fair to him, he wrote the book (How Should We Then Live?) which I referenced, back in 1976 and at that time he was considered quite astute in his analysis of what was ailing mankind at that time. The rise of governments which were materialistic was seen as a result of a world view which left reason out of meaning and values. Faith in God was an alternative but could not be purely existential because if it was then that would leave reason out as well. Schaeffer argued persuasively as to what the logical consequences of such a world view would be and they weren’t good!! My opinion is that he gave Christianity a real gift by providing intelligent and effective tools to oppose those who acted upon their own godless beliefs…but again “at the time”. I have a feeling we are faced with other challenges now though in this present time. What are those? I think you must have some ideas. Yes?
But you then say that “..God is not meant to be the magic wand to all of our needs for rational answers or for meaning in life.” Ok, I’ll bite. For heavens sake WHAT IS THEN??? What answer would you suggest to your own statement oh wise one????
I’ve read Job and Ecclesiastes several times and they are among my favorite books of the Bible.. …. .. but certainly not because I think they are based on the idea that life is meaningless even with God. What they do say is that life “under the sun” is meaningless without God!! Just the opposite it seems to me of what you are saying. And both books do suggest some answers as to what we should do while “under the sun”. For instance Eccl. 8:15 says that “ .. a man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry; for that shall abide with him of his labor the days of his life, which God giveth him under the sun.” And Eccl. concludes with the admonition to “fear God and keep His commandments; for this is the whole duty of man.”
And Job indicates that faith will reap both physical and spiritual rewards if we persevere in it. That was the outcome of what happened to Job and we can apply it to ourselves. Rather than showing that God is not the answer to our need for answers and meaning in life, Job (to me) shows just the opposite and here’s why. The book of Job is the proof text for understanding how we fit into the spiritual warfare which is going on in heaven even as we speak. It shows that often when things happen to us for which we are totally without answers or meaning to, it can be attributed to warfare in heaven in which we are a factor. And many other scriptures support this notion. I for one am grateful that our Lord has provided this insight to help us in our journey “under the sun”. But what exactly my friend would you suggest in place of “God providing meaning and answers” to life? If God is not the answer, then what would you say is????

Phil Goldblatt said...

I finally come to p. 4 of your response. I agree completely that there are many uses of the words “spirit” and “soul” as you well described and I also agree that the Bible uses these words differently at times. So what is the heart of the matter if I may use this metaphor as well?
The heart of the matter is that in Eph. 6 for instance the connotation is that we “wrestle not against flesh and blood” which implies a literal spirit world and in Matt. 24:30,31 the second coming of Christ is described as “the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” and sending his angels to gather together his elect from one end of heaven to the other. Angels are by definition “spirit beings” so if they are coming down to earth, from where did they originate?? You see we ARE provided with some ideas in our Bible as to what kind of entity a spirit is. And the crux of the matter I believe is that it always alludes to the “essence” of whatever the object is. Sometimes this is allegorical but often it is literal and the intent in those passages (where the literal sense makes sense and no other sense makes sense) is that the text assumes we will understand it as literal.
Another implication though is that if you assume there is no literal “spirit world”, then you are left with the inescapable conclusion that everything must derive from a physical origin; i.e. you become a physicalist or what is usually called a naturalist. And that implies that you believe that man is a “property-thing” rather than a “substance” in philosophical terms. Is that true or are you open about it and have not concluded anything definite as yet??
Well that about wraps it up as far as my response to your comments is concerned. I hope we are achieving a greater degree of agreement on these issues but who knows; I can not assume because we may be arguing from different places. I hope you are doing well now back in Indiana.