Krista's Journal: The Spirit as an Emergent Life Force

March 12, 2009

In the summer of 2005, a few colleagues and I went to the Chautauqua Institution's week on "The Brain." We were invited by Chautauqua's Religion Department, which was focusing in that same week on the nature of love. Those two subject areas might seem, on the surface, to deal with distinctly separate realms of human reality — reason and emotion. But one of the lessons of the week was that modern science is turning up an intricate and fascinating interrelationship between them. What we are learning about "the three pound human brain," as Sherwin Nuland likes to refer to it, may compel us to reconcile western civilization's split between body and spirit. Sherwin Nuland first translated his personal knowledge of human physiology into literature with his award-winning bestseller, How We Die. He epitomizes a phenomenon I've observed among scientists of many disciplines: he is possessed of a passion for his subject borne, perhaps counter-intuitively, of rational observation and scientific expertise. "I want others to know what I know," he wrote in the introduction to his 1997 book, The Wisdom of the Body. After he had chronicled processes of human death in How We Die, he delved into the primary processes that support and sustain human life — how we live. Years of treating disease in the body left him in awe, above all, of the fact of health as a norm. Knowing what can go wrong, he says, has given him a tremendous respect for much more that goes right, moment to moment. He chose as the epigraph to The Wisdom of the Body this thought of St. Augustine:

Men go forth to wonder at the heights of mountains, the huge waves of the sea, the broad flow of the rivers, the vast compass of the ocean, the courses of the stars: and they pass by themselves without wondering.

But "wonder" for St. Augustine was a religious experience that drove back to a creator. Dr. Nuland looks within the body not only for the source of his wonder but for the driving force of his capacity for wonder itself. He makes the provocative suggestion that what we call the human spirit — our capacity for beauty and love, our drive to create balance in life and moral order in society — is an evolutionary accomplishment of the most complex organism on the planet, the human brain. Within our very beings, he says, we sense the threat of chaos, and we sometimes yield to it. But overwhelmingly, individually and collectively, we seek balance. We transcend mere impulse and reason. Sherwin Nuland has given himself over to charting transcendence rooted in flesh and blood and bone, DNA and neurotransmitter and enzyme. I can't help noticing as I trace the line with Sherwin Nuland that I trace with all of my guests — the intersection of large ideas with concrete experience — how his personal story mirrors the development of his thinking. He had a difficult early life, which he describes in his autobiographical work, Lost in America. In his 40's, he almost succumbed to a grave spiral of clinical depression. He lost the Orthodox Jewish faith of his childhood, but gained an animating faith in human realities that he had spent his career exploring. One of his favorite quotes, attributed to Philo of Alexandria, has now become one of my favorite quotes: "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle." Sherwin Nuland is another voice for On Being who does not espouse a formal religious belief. However, his ideas might richly inform many religious perspectives; and as he admits, they do not rule out the idea of a creator. We have an interesting exchange about how his concept of the spirit as emergent in human life and relationship corresponds intriguingly, in fact, with the Hebrew biblical word for "soul" — nephesh, in English transliteration. His idea of our bodies evolving our spirits could also be heard as parallel to the suggestion of the physicist/theologian John Polkinghorne. Polkinghorne believes in a God who did something "more clever" than create a ready-made world — a God who, instead, created a world that could make itself.

Recommended Reading

Image of How We Live
Author: Sherwin B. Nuland
Publisher: Vintage (1998)
Binding: Paperback, 432 pages

Many people read and cherished How We Die. The Wisdom of the Body -- in paperback, How We Live -- is an equally compelling, informative, and literary work. I also enjoyed reading Sherwin Nuland's biographical look at Maimonides.

Voices on the Radio

was a clinical professor of surgery at Yale University, where he also taught bioethics and medical history. His books include How We Die, Lost in America, Maimonides, and How We Live: The Wisdom of the Body.