Brain vs. Brawn

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

By Steven H. VanderLeest


If the mind is godly and good while the body is worldly and evil, then why wouldn’t God have just created us as spirits?  Rather he created us as physical beings with mass and inertia, with blood and muscle.  If the ancient Greeks were right—production of knowledge with our mind alone is good, while production of things using our hands is the least noble—then why would God place us corporeally (bodily) in a Creation full of physical things and put us in charge of this physical stuff of creation?

Christians can get caught up in a Hellenistic way of thinking, conflating a focus on the mind with a focus on the spirit. But our soul is not synonymous with our brain.  Furthermore, we are not purely spirit—we believe in the resurrection of the body, after all, acknowledging that our soul is incomplete without our body.  Thinking about embracing my spouse is not the same as the actual physical act.  Thinking about serving my neighbor is not the same as actually filling their needs through offering physical, bodily aid.  Perhaps the relationship of spirit and body is related to the that of faith and works:  one without the other is dead.  Our faith is dead unless it is lived out in tangible acts that are the fruit of our faith. 

Why is this distinction and balance important for engineers, scientists, and all of us involved in technology either as a career or hobby?  Because technology is the work of our hands as much as of our minds.  It is the physical embodiment of our volition.  It is our will incarnate.  Philosopher Nicholas P. Wolterstorff underlined the importance of equal respect for both mind and body:  “The Protestant Reformation, and, in particular, the Calvinist branch thereof, represents a radical rejection of this scale of values in which the life of the mind is elevated over that of the citizen, in which both modes of life are elevated over ordinary life, and in which the work of our hands is regarded as having no more than instrumental value.“ (Nicholas P. Wolterstorff, “Should the Work of Our Hands Have Standing in the Christian College,” in Keeping Faith: Embracing the Tensions in Christian Higher Education , ed. Ronald A. Wells, Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1996, p. 144.)  Wolterstorff allowed no sacred-secular split: “...it was these [production and reproduction aspects of ordinary life] that the Reformers, for the first time in the history of the West, bestowed with inherent and not just instrumental worth—provided they were done to the glory of God and the good of the commonwealth.”

After praising the ordinary, corporeal work of our hands, Wolterstorff also calls us to responsibility.  It is not sufficient to rest on our laurels of inherent worth.  “One serves God and humanity in one’s daily occupation….But one does not serve God and humanity by going into business and then just playing the received role of businessmen, nor by going into medicine and then just playing the received role of physician, nor by going into the academy and then just playing the received role of the academic.  For those received roles are religiously fallen—not fallen through and through, but nonetheless fallen.  To serve God faithfully and to serve humanity effectively, one has to critique the received role and do what one can to alter the script …. The Reformed Christian will want to step back… to ask what is the purpose of business.” (Wolterstorff, p. 148)

Thus both the technologist and the teacher, both the machinist and the mentalist, both the physician and the philosopher have inherent worth.  All vocations are sacred.  All are callings from God.  As such, they all deserve respect.  As such, they all deserve careful consideration so that they live up to their high calling.

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(c) 2013, Steven H. VanderLeest