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The Person in Complete Context

The Whole of Theological Anthropology Distinguished

Section I: The Person in Human Context


Chapter 2   Human Development from the Beginning




Simple Object, Complex Subject

Human Identity Formation


Ch 1

Ch 2

Ch 3

Ch 4

Ch 5

Ch 6

Ch 7

Printable pdf of entire study

Table of Contents

Scripture Index



Who told you that you were naked?

                                                                                                      Genesis 3:11


            From the beginning, human development has undergone stages, with mixed results for who and what has emerged. As illuminated in the above text, what has unfolded from human shaping and construction, and who has emerged in human identity formation, cannot be predetermined or simply determined even with the best models, explanations or intentions.

            In these deliberations on human development—which should also include its lack of development—evolutionary biology has occupied center stage for the scientific audience. In this script various scenarios compose the human narrative, yet its denouement is unclear, nonexistent or still to be composed. This lack does not render the evolutionary narrative fiction, it only illuminates its limits or a gap in continuity to compose fully the narrative of what are human beings. I will not summarize the reality of the evolutionary biology context but hereby affirm its place in the development of Homo sapiens and the need to account for its position in human development.

            It can be said, of course, that to really get to human development from the beginning we need to shift from molecular biology back to quantum physics. A reasonable question is ‘Why is there nothing?’—that is, why does matter exist at all, much less evolve into human bodies? Scientists have theorized that matter is based on the Higgs’ boson, the misidentified God particle, whose existence has been confirmed this past year by the Large Hadron Converter. As significant as this is in quantum physics to explain the emergence of matter, it is insufficient to provide a definitive answer to the question of Goethe’s Faust: “What holds the world together in its innermost?”


Simple Object, Complex Subject

           Natural selection is a simple idea, according to biologist Richard Dawkins, who simply defined it thus: “That the bodies that survive are the ones that are good at surviving, and they pass on the genes that made them good at surviving”—a distinctly slow and characteristically selfish process that determines changes in the frequency of genes in the gene pool as generations go by—“and that is evolution.”[1]  

            From such a basis emerges a quite simple object quantifying human beings, or at least Homo sapiens. The question for anthropology, and theological anthropology specifically, is whether it is adequate to identify human beings as objects and sufficient to describe them only in quantitative terms. Is human life that simple?

            If I had “listened” to my genes, I never would have succeeded in football. To be told that I didn’t have a choice because of my genes, and that my survival on the football field depended on those very genes, is not only an oversimplified framework and lens but an inconsistent explanation. To observe others and to see myself in these quantitative terms makes us only objects of determinism (of whatever source), and often victims of the selfish process of natural selection, without any human agency of having a voice, choice and determining action as subject. For example, females (both women and children) have long been used as objects of sex that likely involved being victims of rape. Males have long prevailed, even boasted, of their dominance that many have assumed to be a natural outcome, that is, a result if not right of gender evolution. As simple objects, natural selection has reduced human ontology and function to the selfish genes of self-determination.

            The most distinctive anatomical trait for Homo sapiens is a large brain. Our brain, for example, is not only much larger than that of chimpanzees or gorillas but also much more complex. This complexity is expressed in human behavior, both as individuals and socially, in which primate societies do not approach the complexity of human social organization. Biologist Francisco Ayala highlights culture as a distinctive human social trait, “which may be understood as the set of nonstrictly biological human activities and creations.” He continues:

     There are in humankind two kinds of heredity—the biological and the cultural, which may also be called organic and superorganic, or endosomatic and exosomatic systems of heredity. Biological inheritance in humans is very much like that in any other sexually reproducing organism; it is based on the transmission of genetic information encoded in DNA from one generation to the next by means of sex cells. Cultural inheritance, in contrast, is based on transmission of information by a teaching-learning process, which is in principle independent of biological parentage. Culture is transmitted by instruction and learning, by example and imitation, through books, newspapers and radio, television and motion pictures, through works of art, and by any other means of communication….

     Cultural inheritance makes possible for humans what no other organism can accomplish—the cumulative transmission of experience from generation to generation. Animals can learn from experience but they do not transmit their experiences…to the following generations….

     Cultural inheritance makes possible cultural evolution, that is, the evolution of knowledge, social structures, ethics, and all other components that make up human culture. Cultural inheritance makes possible a new mode of adaptation to the environment that is not available to nonhuman organisms—adaptation by means of culture. Organisms in general adapt to the environment by means of natural selection, by changing over generations their genetic constitution to suit the demands of the environment. But human, and humans alone, can also adapt by changing the environment to suit the needs of their genes…. For the last few millennia humans have been adapting the environments to their genes more often than their genes to the environments.[2]

            In human development, we witness a distinct shift from simple object to complex subject. This complexity by its nature must be accounted for in order for anthropology to be sufficient and theological anthropology to be whole. Yet, this latter outcome can only emerge from a further and deeper epistemic field that can include the contexts necessary to complete the narrative of what are human beings. Whereas the cultural context is necessary for definition of social organization and the relationality of the social order, this all can be observed in quantitative terms that would render them inadequate for who and what emerge. In modern culture, for example, technology has compounded the issue of who and what emerge. Ironically, this reality is illuminated by Jaron Lanier, a computer scientist known as the father of virtual reality technology.

Something started to go wrong with the digital revolution around the turn of the twenty-first century. The World Wide Web was flooded by a torrent of petty designs sometimes called web 2.0.…

     Communication is now often experienced as a superhuman phenomenon that towers above individuals. A new generation has come of age with a reduced expectation of what a person can be, and of who each person might become.… We make up extensions of your being, like remote eyes and ears (webcams and mobile phones) and expanded memory (the world of details you can search for online). These become the structures by which you connect to the world and other people. These structures in turn can change how you conceive of yourself and the world.

     How so?

The central mistake of recent digital culture is to chop up a network of individuals so finely that you end up with mush. You then start to care about the abstraction of the network more than the real people who are networked, even though the network by itself is meaningless. Only the people were ever meaningful.…

     The new designs on the verge of being locked in, the web 2.0 designs, actively demand that people define themselves downward.… The deep meaning of personhood is being reduced by illusions of bits [b(inary) (dig)its].[3]

            There remains a gap in the complexity of human development between biological evolution and cultural evolution that cannot be filled by quantitative terms. Something qualitative is needed both to balance the quantitative and to constitute human development in its primacy.

            Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio appears to get at something qualitative in function integral to the human brain. In his explanation of how consciousness (a mind with a self) develops, he promotes the following:

Feelings are often ignored in accounts of consciousness. Can there be consciousness without feelings? No.… I hypothesized that feeling states are generated largely by brain-stem neural systems as a result of their particular design and position vis-à-vis the body.

Why should perceptual maps, which are neural and physical events, feel like anything at all?... In brief, in the complex interconnectivity of these brain-stem nuclei, one would find the beginning of an explanation for why feelings—in this case, primordial feelings—feel like something.

Another layer of the answer as to why perceptual maps of the body should feel like anything calls for evolutionary reasoning. If perceptual maps of the body are to be effective in leading an organism toward avoidance of pain and seeking of pleasure, they should not only feel like something, they actually ought to feel like something.… A related aspect of the answer points to the functional divide between pleasure and pain states, which are correlated, respectively, with optimal and smooth life-managing operations, in the case of pleasure, and impeded, problem-ridden life-managing operations, in the case of pain.

The neural design that enables qualia provides the brain with felt perceptions, a sense of pure experience. After a protagonist is added to the process, the experience is claimed by its newly minted owner, the self.[4]

Yet, since Damasio points only to the brain as the source of these qualitative feelings for a conscious self, his epistemic field is too narrow to adequately give definition to the qualitative that is needed to constitute the primary for human development. Consequently, neuroscience’s notion of the qualitative is determined by the limits of the quantitative, which is certainly insufficient to answer what is primary in holding together the complexity of persons in the innermost.

            The human person in physical-material context is incomplete and must be examined in the surrounding context in which humans live. This certainly includes culture but cannot be condensed into culture, especially in limited quantitative and referential terms (as does Ayala). There is further social dimension to the surrounding context that is dynamically integrated with the qualitative to constitute the primary for human being and the primacy for being human. In the surrounding social context, human consciousness must be distinct from ‘self-centricity’ in order for human development to progress. Human consciousness is consciousness either of one’s self (self-consciousness) or person (person-consciousness) within one’s surrounding context, of which one is only part—and to be apart from is problematic. Self-centricity, however, is an even more narrowed-down focus on self than self-consciousness, around which the surrounding context directly or indirectly revolves that skews this social context to constrain human development—for example, as evident in individualism and a me-generation. A parallel distinction was illuminated in the universe by a heliocentric model (cf. human consciousness) versus a geocentric model (cf. self-centricity), with similar consequences for the development of human ontology and function. Science in general has yet to discover the surrounding context of human development that indeed distinguishes the human person; evolutionary biology in particular can be considered still to have a geocentric lens of the universe and the human narrative. At the same time, theological anthropology has not clearly illuminated the surrounding context with a heliocentric lens to distinguish the human person from fragmentary shaping and construction.

            Remarkably, in an interrelated function with the qualitative (in terms of feelings) is a social function (about relationships), which appears also integral to the human brain. In conjoint function with the qualitative, there is the relational that emerges for neuroscience to explain what it means to be human. Consider the social function of the brain in neuroscientist John Cacioppo’s research on loneliness:

To understand the full capacity of humans, one needs to appreciate not only the memory and computational power of the brain but its capacity for representing, understanding, and connecting with other individuals. That is, one needs to recognize that we have evolved a powerful, meaning-making social brain. 

Our research suggests that “not lonely”—there is no better, more specific term for it—is also, like “not thirsty” or “not in pain,” very much part of the normal state. Health and well-being for a member of our species requires, among other things, being satisfied and secure in our bonds with other people, a condition of “not being lonely” that, for want of a better word, we call social connection.

It should not be surprising, then, that the sensory experience of social connection, deeply woven into who we are, helps regulate our physiological and emotional equilibrium. The social environment affects the neural and hormonal signals that govern our behavior, and our behavior, in turn, creates changes in the social environment that affect our neural and hormonal processes.

Because early humans were more likely to survive when they stuck together, evolution reinforced the preference for strong human bonds by selecting genes that support pleasure in company and produce feelings of unease when involuntarily alone. Moreover…evolution fashioned us not only to feel good when connected but to feel secure. The vitally important corollary is that evolution shaped us not only to feel bad in isolation, but to feel insecure, as in physically threatened.

Our brains and bodies are designed to function in aggregates, not in isolation. That is the essence of an obligatorily gregarious species. The attempt to function in denial of our need for others, whether that need is great or small in any given individual, violates our design specifications.… Social connection is a fundamental part of the human operating (and organizing) system itself.

Social neuroscience shows us not only that there is no magical boundary between mind and body, but that the boundaries we have always assumed to exist between ourselves and others are not nearly as fixed as we once imagined.

A great deal of what it means to be human, perhaps a great deal more than philosophy, religion, or even science realized until very recently, is to be social.[5]

            Despite the limits built into its findings, these qualitative and relational aspects observed by neuroscience help draw attention, if not point us, to what is primary in human development.

            The surrounding context still needs to be more inclusive and to expand our epistemic field for a complete context to compose the human narrative. If the qualitative and relational cannot be further distinguished to take us deeper than the brain, the human narrative is relegated to some form of determinism, and thereby likely is composed by selfish genes.

            As we transition further from a simple object in quantitative terms to a complex subject who is constituted jointly in qualitative and relational terms, we need to more deeply account for human development if the human person truly is to emerge in the human context. Two major responses attempting to account for this in theological anthropology are noted here.

            For many in theological anthropology, the gap in the complexity of human development historically has been assumed to be closed by making a qualitative shift to dualism (body and soul/spirit). Whatever its variation, dualism signifies the constituting basis that is considered to distinguish the human person from the beginning. Even more important—and perhaps its primary concern exposing its limits—dualism accounts for the continued existence of the person in the future, namely after bodily death.

            The body and soul issue will be discussed further in Section II, “The Person in God’s Context.” In our current discussion of human development, body and soul are better rendered the quantitative (outer aspect, dimension, even substance) of the person and the qualitative (inner aspect, dimension substance) of the person, with the qualitative as primary and necessary to distinguish the whole person. The problem then needing to be addressed is if the qualitative can be separated from the quantitative, for example, as different substances; and the question needing to be answered is what kind of person remains after such a separation?

            Some elements of Greek philosophy separate the immaterial from the material, hereby providing a basis for the separate existence of body and soul. This influence has prevailed in much theological anthropology discourse, yet we have to think (and likely rethink) beyond these terms in order to gain the depth of understanding of the whole in which the human person is distinguished in ontology and function (discussed further in chap. 4). This understanding must by the nature of being whole go beyond fragmentary thinking and terms, and further than their narrow epistemic field and deeper than their limited epistemic process.

            There is little doubt that human beings have both an inner and an outer aspect or dimension—which modern science increasingly affirms in its limited heuristic process—but much dispute over an inner substance. Neuroscience helps highlight the inner but quantifies its function. This is problematic because the integrity of the qualitative is compromised or lost if it is determined by the quantitative. Understandably, dualism is promoted in order to both distinguish the inner in its significance and constitute its primacy for human being. In spite of good intentions, dualism also compromises the integrity of the inner by disembodying the qualitative; that is, by making the qualitative inner a separate entity, this fragments the whole person (defined from inner out and not from outer in as neuroscience does), thereby inadvertently rendering the human person to reduced ontology and function—as if to be “without shame” in the primordial garden but also without being “naked”. Moreover, disembodying the qualitative reduces human ontology and function to an over-individualized condition that also de-relationalizes the primacy of relationships in the Creator’s design and purpose to be whole—“not good for the individual to be apart” from this whole. The sum result, then, no longer distinguishes this qualitative in the primary nor can this qualitative constitute human development in the primacy of relationships necessary to be whole.

            What’s at stake here is not whether the qualitative survives in the form of the soul but whether the person can and ever does emerge from a disembodied (and de-relationalized) qualitative condition. If it does, then this prompts, even begs, the question ‘why were we embodied (and relationalized) in the beginning?’—a condition that would leave us without purpose and meaning that is contrary to “naked and without confusion” and is “not good to be apart.”

            Certainly, it also is not good for the body to be apart from the qualitative and defining human beings only from the outer in without the depth of significance of the inner. Dualism, however, was an unnecessary attempt to establish the qualitative, and is not successful in constituting what is primary in human being and for being human.  The search for wholeness has been warranted, yet its outcome remains elusive in the human context. Forms of monism have been promoted, perhaps less about finding the whole and more about countering dualism. Nonreductive physicality is one form of monism suggested to define human nature and determine human development.

            The transition from a simple object in quantitative terms to a complex subject in whole terms (quantitative, qualitative and relational) is not without struggle that often involves conflict and even contradiction. In my opinion, nonreductive physicalism reflects this struggle. Those who promote nonreductive physicality rightfully want to have the qualitative in all its functional significance, yet while maintaining the qualitative’s interrelated condition with the quantitative (namely the body, notably the brain) in mutual effectiveness (not necessarily bilateral in cause)—an apparent ongoing struggle for its advocates. Their alternative duality (advocating no substance) is proposed in direct conflict with dualism (advocating substance of soul) in order to compose the human narrative with the primary context of the physical without its determinism. Physicalism alone is deterministic, which is a reduction of human ontology and function. In attempting to avoid this reductionism intrinsic to physicalism, supervenience—that is, higher level function of mental processes effectively acting on lower level function for a more complete outcome based on the whole and not mere parts, without denying dependence on physical processes—becomes the recourse for determinism by establishing this top-down causal efficacy in mutual effectiveness with the quantitative. Hence, the label of nonreductive physicalism/physicality.

            Since nonreductive physicality is formulated with the primary context of the physical, we need to understand it is also shaped in the human context and by all that prevails in it along with the physical. Taking this into consideration, it is highly likely that nonreductive physicality with its indispensable function of supervenience—in its struggle as noted above—consists of a naturalistic fallacy: identifying what “is” with what “ought” to be. That is, by pointing to a top-down causal influence from mental processes that emerges for levels of causal efficacy—notably as brains have become larger and more complex—supervenience assumes that this is a higher level function influencing lower level function in a way significant for the whole over merely parts. Moreover, if McGilchrist is correct about left-right hemisphere brain functions (noted in chap. 1), this so-called higher level function could be merely the left hemisphere’s dominance over the distinctly qualitative right hemisphere. In other words, nonreductive physicalism confuses what is (the prevalence of the quantitative and the prevailing condition of reductionism) with what ought to be (the primacy of the qualitative and the prominence of the whole person).

            What ought to be indeed ought to be but the human person does not emerge from what ought to be; and no assumption will make what is what ought to be. Human development progresses only from what actually exists; and what prevails is fragmentary and reduced, therefore unable to function whole or develop wholeness. Supervenience not only confuses what ought to be with what will be when supervened, but it also ignores the reality that its mental processes have been shaped by the fragmentation prevailing in what is.                   

            The complex human subject-person needs to be understood beyond developments of the brain and the surrounding social context. We have to go further and deeper for this understanding of the person to be complete. Human beings are subjected to and become subject to a broader and deeper influence from reductionism, rendering them more to an object position (implicitly or unknowingly) in quantitative terms from outer in and thus constraining subject human person from emerging and developing. This influence, for example, is noted in pervasive efforts of self-determination, which define the person from outer in by what one does and has. Such pervading efforts increasingly necessitate limiting the epistemic field (or composing context) in order to establish, accordingly, the certainty in anthropology needed to highlight the centrality of self in epistemology (cognition and information processing) and human function (behavior regulation, cf. Gen 11:1-5). Engagement in this reductionism (explicitly or implicitly, knowingly or inadvertently) renders all of us and our development to a narrowed epistemic field yielding only reduced ontology and function—the result of what is despite pointing to a supervening top-down influence of what ought to be. In my assessment, nonreductive physicalism works out of a narrow epistemic field that limits its understanding of the qualitative, the primary and the whole constituting human ontology and function, whereby it also contradicts itself in reduced ontology and function—to be discussed further in Section II.

            The complex subject emerges and develops in person-consciousness from the inner out, which is distinguished conjointly by the qualitative as primary and by the primacy of relationships to vulnerably constitute whole ontology and function. This distinguishes the person-consciousness of being “whole-ly naked from the depth of ‘inner’ and the full embodiment of ‘out’, and not disappointed in relationship together.” Anything less and any substitutes of the primary and this primacy render human development to an object position in self-consciousness from the outer in to signify reduced ontology and function—that is, being “naked in fragmentary parts and covering up the whole to avoid being vulnerable.”

            The question persists, then, for all persons, “On what basis are you naked?”


Human Identity Formation

            There is no significance to deliberations of human being in isolation, as if human life can be observed in a vacuum. Subject-person is complex because of qualitative involvement in relationships within the surrounding social context; and the subject’s qualitative-relational involvement is critical to understand for who and what define the person emerging. Aristotle considered relations only in quantitative terms that, unlike substances, cannot exist independently. This led to a hard distinction between substances and relations, in which relations are not essential, for example, to what a human being is. This, as F. LeRon Shults notes in his discussion on theological anthropology, “came to be orthodoxy in Western philosophy that the relations of a thing to other things are not essential to defining or knowing what that thing is.”[6] Aristotle’s model may be used as a Procrustean bed to shape a simple object but it cannot contain the complex subject-person, whose ontological identity is also composed in relationships with others. The qualitative and the relational converge dynamically and irreducibly in the integral process of identity formation for the complex subject-person.

            Identity formation is not a simple process. No single identity forms the whole of a person’s identity, which can include physical, family, social, cultural, ethnic, racial, class, age and gender identities. Yet, there are primary and secondary identities that go into defining who and what persons are. The determining process for our identities involves the extent and depth of our relationships. It is not only critical for any anthropology to understand this but vital in theological anthropology for who emerges and what develops and survives.

            Relationality (notably social relatedness and community) has received increasing attention in theological anthropology, and rightly so; Aristotle’s influence has been too far-reaching and longstanding. A distinction needs to be made about relationality, however, between simple association and complex relationship. Simple objects have simple associations but cannot have complex relationship since that requires the vulnerable involvement of a subject for reciprocal relationship together. Complex subjects can have complex relationships but also simple associations, depending on the level of their involvement—with vulnerability the determining factor, an issue noticeably absent in theological anthropology. The extent and depth of involvement determines having either complex relationship or simple association; and it is on this basis that identities are formed and their significance is determined.

            Relationships are the key to human identity. The identity of who and what emerge, develop and thereby survive is keyed to the quantitative (simple association) or qualitative (complex relationship) significance of their relationships. Accordingly, the identity of the person emerging, developing and surviving is contingent on the extent and depth of distinctly vulnerable relationships. Yet, being vulnerable is rarely addressed, if discussed at all, in theological anthropology’s focus on relationality. The dynamic tension between “they were naked, that is, whole-ly embodied before each other from inner out, and were not confused” and “they were embodied before each other from outer in, and they put on masks” discloses the extent of the relationships of the persons in the primordial garden, and reveals the depth of their involvement; and on this basis, it determined who and what emerged, developed and survived. Theological anthropology needs to account for these relationships. Here again, it is critical for all persons to understand (1) on what basis we are naked and (2) what needs to be addressed in our relationships in order for human identity to be complete.

            Furthermore, integral to this relational process is the primary ontological identity that constitutes human identity. The Creator’s question “Where are you?” is not a referential question seeking information about the location of the person. This is a critical question in relational language, which composes the primary relational context and process, seeking to establish the whole of who and what human identity is. Relationships, therefore, become the hermeneutical, epistemological and ontological keys to knowing and understanding the human person, unlocking the doors to both defining the who of human being and determining the what of being human.

            Reciprocal relationships with others, foremost with the whole of God, feed back the epistemological clarification and hermeneutic correction necessary for whole knowledge and understanding of the person and persons together in relationships. And theological anthropology continues to need this epistemological clarification and hermeneutic correction for its ontology and function to be whole. This relational context and process is indispensable for knowing and understanding the human person, and irreplaceable for deeply knowing and understanding other persons (including God, cf. Jer 9:24), and, likely most important, fully knowing and understanding even our own person. Without this vulnerable level of relational involvement, the identity of the person whom we think we know and understand is a mere assumption having little if any basis in reality.


            There are no shortcuts to the development of the person constituted in whole ontology and function. The human context presents ongoing challenges to the person with alternatives of anything less and any substitute of the whole, which fragment the person in epistemological illusion and ontological simulation that can only signify reduced ontology and function. The whole person does not emerge until the human context sufficiently includes the primary contexts needed to compose the human narrative in complete context. Moreover, of immeasurable importance, while the whole person does not emerge apart from complete context, the person does not develop and survive unless this person in the surrounding context can adequately address the human condition.

            It is critically within and inescapably from the human condition that theological anthropology must account for the integrated development of the complex subject and complex relationships in order for the whole person clearly to be distinguished in its discourse and, indeed, to be significant in the lives of its proponents. The person who is presented and lived can be nothing less and no substitute.

            Therefore, the question once again emerges to pursue our person, which theological anthropology cannot avoid: “Where are you?”



[1] Quoted from an interview in The Los Angeles Times, November 30, 2013. See also Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986).

[2] Francisco J. Ayala, “Human Nature: One Evolutionist’s View,” in Warren S. Brown, Nancey Murphy and H. Norton Malony, eds., Whatever Happened to the Soul?  Scientific and Theological Portraits of Human Nature (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998), 38-39.

[3] Jaron Lanier, You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010), 3-20.

[4] Antonio Damasio, Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain (New York: Pantheon Books, 2010), 242, 56, 259, 262.

[5] John T. Cacioppo and William Patrick, loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection (New York: W.W. Norton, 2008), x, 8, 11, 15, 127, 167, 201.

[6] F. LeRon Shults, Reforming Theological Anthropology: After the Philosophical Turn to Relationality (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 15.





©2014 T. Dave Matsuo

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