Christian philosopher to speak at SOU

The widespread idea that we have and need souls is a "mistake" because humans can survive death in physical state, just as Jesus did — this coming from a Christian philosopher set to lecture at Southern Oregon University.

Nancey Murphy, a professor of Christian Philosophy at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, says most Christians believe in the duality of body and soul, with the body dying and the soul going on — but she lauds the cultural trend to see us as purely physical, an understanding supported by neurobiological science.

This "physicalist" view was held in ancient religions, including Judaism and early Christianity and is backed by recent science, showing that "functions once attributed to the soul or mind, such as reason and moral judgment are associated with particular neural systems or structures."

Murphy, a guest of SOU philosophy professor Prakash Chenjeri, speaks at 7 p.m. Wednesday on "Do Christians Need Souls? Current Debates in Neuroscience and Theology on the Topic of Human Nature." She speaks at 3 p.m. Friday in the Science Lecture Hall on "Moral Responsibility and Free Will: Neurobiological Perspectives."

In her studies in philosophy, theology and science, Murphy said she became convinced that physicalism was the only account of human nature that can be justified by all three disciplines.

Murphy, in a phone interview, described the afterlife as a "transformed kind of body that can appear and disappear and is physical enough to eat, as Jesus did. It's half-way between a physical body and a soul."

The idea that the soul goes on after the death of the body comes from wishful thinking and has its roots in ancient, non-Hebrew religions and Greco-Roman philosophers, she said, including Zoroastrianism and Plotinus.

"The majority of lay Christians disagree with me, but with none of the hostility you get in the evolution debate," said Murphy, who has published 12 books, including "Theology in the Age of Scientific Reason," which received the American Academy of Religion Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion.

Murphy said the details aren't known about "where the community will gather" (in afterlife) or whether admission will be based on behavior in this life, but current beliefs break Western people into three groups, all with strong supporters — those who believe in heaven-or-hell, heaven for all or death and nothingness for all.

Murphy disavows reincarnation and says humans are here "for the chance to acquire the ability to love God and other people."

The word "soul" appears in the Bible, she said, but it doesn't refer to a separate, nonmaterial entity, but rather to an aspect of human life.

"Contemporary Christians are free to return to the physicalism of the Bible," she notes, "with its emphasis on bodily resurrection as the source of hope for eternal life."

In her lectures, Murphy will address the question: "If humans are purely physical, and if it's the brain that does the work once attributed to the mind or soul, then how can it fail to be the case that all our thoughts and behavior are determined by the laws of neurobiology?

"Looking step by step at the cognitive capacities that are required for moral responsibility and free will," she says, "it is in fact our complex neural systems — along with culture — that enable these higher human abilities."

Murphy has a bachelor's degree in psychology and philosophy from Creighton University, a PhD in philosophy of science from University of California at Berkeley and a doctorate in theology from Graduate Theological Union. She was a Catholic until age 30 and belongs now to the Church of the Brethren, which, she notes, is similar to the Mennonites.

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