IVP - Online Pulpit - Pastoring Puzzled Students (and Their Parents!)

October 4, 2013

Pastoring Puzzled Students (and Their Parents!)

by Malcolm Jeeves

Pastors and church leaders share the delight of parents when their brightest young people go off to college and university. As they embark on their courses they face many challenges, not least, real questions about how their Christian beliefs relate to what they learn from their college professors. And today there are certainly many challenges from the rapid discoveries in psychology and neuroscience. A typical pastor has neither the time nor the specialized knowledge to be up-to-date with what is happening in the range of subjects taught at colleges, including psychology and neuroscience. He or she certainly is aware that there are challenges. The media delight in seizing upon the latest scientific discoveries and explaining how they challenge this or that traditional Christian belief.

As a university teacher and researcher in neuropychology for more than half a century working in Cambridge (UK), Harvard, Adelaide (Australia) and for the past forty years in St. Andrews, Scotland (where we have just celebrated our six-hundredth anniversary, giving Hilary Clinton, among others, an honorary degree) and having had close contact with Christian student groups, I am very aware of the struggles some students face as they seek to be honest in all of their thinking.

Reflecting on recurring questions put to me over the years by Christian students of psychology and neuroscience, I have written a book in which, in a series of email exchanges, I engage in a conversation with an imaginary student as he progresses through the four years of his course, raising one question after another about how this or that discovery in psychology and neuroscience seems to challenge some of his cherished Christian beliefs. And he is a very determined student, repeatedly questioning the answers I give and asking for biblical warrant.

For example, one of his favorite older hymns is “Praise My Soul the King of heaven,” another more recent one is “Tell Out My Soul the Greatness of the Lord.” But today, his lecturers teach him that the converging neuropsychological evidence points unequivocally to the conclusion that we are not made up of parts such as the “mind” and the “soul” but are a unified whole. So despite the widespread belief that we each have a separate immaterial and immortal soul attached somewhere, somehow, to our material and mortal body, the message from neuroscience and psychology underlines the unity of the human person. Strangely this comes as a relief to our imaginary student because it helps him understand how an aged relative, a deeply spiritual Christian lady who has developed Alzheimer’s disease, has begun seemingly to loose her spirituality. Now he understands that it is not because she is “falling away” but it is a result of her progressive brain changes.

This enables me to describe how biblical scholars, recapturing the unity of the person, have urged us to recapture a Hebrew-Christian view of the human person, stressing our psychobiological unity and emphasising an embodied understanding of the soul—that we are “living souls,” not that we have souls.

Some of the other questions posed by my imaginary student include, How free am I? Don’t parapsychology and near-death experiences prove the existence of the soul? What makes me human? Does my brain have a “God spot”? Are religious beliefs the twenty-first-century opium of the people? What makes humans unique? And such questions are not, I believe, confined to students but cause understandable concern among widely read thoughtful church members.

By thinking through these contemporary challenges to faith I try to help avoid knee-jerk reactions that may be less than helpful. Since we believe that the God we worship is the Creator and Sustainer of all that is, we can rest assured that the knowledge that our God chooses to give us through Scripture will not ultimately conflict with the knowledge he chooses to give us by using the minds he has given us to understand his universe. And that includes ourselves, leading to a deeper understanding of how, as Scripture teaches, we are, indeed, “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14).

9562.jpgMalcolm Jeeves is the author of Minds, Brains, Souls and Gods and is emeritus professor in the School of Psychology and Neuroscience at St. Andrews University , Scotland. He is a past president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Scotland’s National Academy. He has been national president of Inter-Varsity Fellowship in Britain and in Australia, and is currently president of Christians in Science in the United Kingdom.

Posted by Nate Baker-Lutz at October 4, 2013 9:01 AM Bookmark and Share

Comments are closed for this entry.