Sweet soul music

Being a Person: Where Faith and Science Meet

John Habgood <em>Hodder & Stoughton, 307pp, £8.99</em

It belongs to human nature to seek and to ascribe meaning. Art makes land into landscape; history converts events into episodes; music turns noises into notes; and then there is the interpretation of human kind itself: animals understood as persons. Sometimes interpretations "see" what is not there; sometimes they see what is there through enlarging or distorting lenses; and sometimes they see it exactly as it is. The aim of philosophy is to describe reality in the most general yet informative terms. Christian theology shares something of this responsibility but it also seeks to engage the particularities of human experience so far as these bear upon sin and sanctification.

It is no easy task to be a serious theologian nowadays and few seem qualified for the undertaking. In general, interpretative fields of study are attractive to second- and third-rate minds: for knowing little, and understanding less, they may yet have much to say. This condition bedevils the social sciences, art and literary theory, non-analytic branches of philosophy and religious and theological studies. I once attended a conference on Catholic education at which a participant (a Jesuit academic) objected to my making a distinction between Christian and non-Christian theology on the grounds that this was unhelpfully divisive. I could only assume that he had confused the roles of community relations officer and intellectual inquirer.

More recently, I found myself quoted alongside a prominent Episcopalian churchman who was reported as saying: "There is nothing that should exclude people from the full life of the church." No doubt he had good pastoral intentions but as a piece of Christian moral theology it is ill-informed. Christ forgave sinners who sought repentance telling them to sin no more; he did not say "come all ye whatever your ongoing practices and lifestyles and be accommodated herein". And I doubt that the bishop really thinks that active racists, child abusers and "queer bashers" have a place in "the full life of the church".

Against this background of undisciplined thought it is cheering to read a work by a prominent churchman that combines significant knowledge, intellectual rigour and moral seriousness in the effort to address a central question for faith and reason: that of the essential nature of persons. John Habgood was Archbishop of York from 1983-95, having moved there from being Bishop of Durham since 1973. He approaches his topic via Kafka-inspired worries about cultural threats to the possibility of finding personal meaning in human existence, and the mundane reality of the Tony Bland case. Two questions are pressed with increasing discomfort: in what does our existence as persons consist? And when does our personhood begin and end?

Tony Bland - or should we say that which was Tony Bland? - persisted in a vegetative state for two or three years following the Hillsborough disaster. Towards the end of this period his parents, with the support of his doctor, requested that he be allowed to die. But the procedure eventually followed was one of active withholding of food, not one of letting die. Whatever the act/omission distinction comes to, the Tony Bland case was generally recognised to be significant: with the approval of High Court judges a human life was intentionally brought to an end by starvation.

Habgood was and remains troubled by this issue, as he does by that of abortion; and this book is an attempt to address those moral problems by providing a scientific-cum-philosophical-cum-theological account of personhood and its limits. He finds it necessary to discuss brains, persons and souls. He clearly has no doubts about the importance of the first, is enthusiastic about the second and is fashionably unsure about the third. While resisting materialist reductionism he appears to regard the existence of a functioning brain and central nervous system as necessary and sufficient for consciousness. He thinks, however, that personhood is a condition attained through interaction with others.

Some chapters are readily intelligible by virtue of drawing on familiar ideas: personal meaning as created and sustained by relationships with others; holistic features as emergent in complex systems; language as a creative medium of self-understanding. By contrast, few readers will be able to make much of the exposition of trinitarian theology. Later he discusses aspects of evolutionary theory with greater assurance, but I found him too ready to accept the adequacy of naturalistic explanations of thought and language. The role of God is taken to be that of creator and sustainer of the whole cosmic show, but having placed divine creation in the background Habgood does not then try to show the need for it.

The book proceeds in the direction of abstraction; starting with threats to personal being, Habgood draws back to consider the meaning of such existence. Towards the end he returns to the Bland case and other similar problems, but the journey from and back to the familiar is too long by about a third, and if readers feel that throughout they have maintained a clear idea of the regions through which they have travelled then that is almost certainly an illusion. For my own part I would have welcomed an index. Since significant meaning is very relevant to the author's theme it would have been good had he drawn on spiritual theology to the same extent that he does on science and philosophy. If the human condition is one of seeking and ascribing meaning, then among the highest accomplishments of humanity are the hard-won insights of the spiritual masters. Mother Julian of Norwich reports Christ as saying: "And all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well." I do not know what the implication of these words might be for the Tony Bland case, but I would look to a Christian bishop to help me understand them. Perhaps John Habgood may considering writing a sequel: Being a Person: where spirituality and experience meet.

Professor John Haldane is head of the School of Philosophical and Anthropological Studies and director, Centre for Philosophy and Public Affairs, University of St Andrews

This article first appeared in the 27 November 1998 issue of the New Statesman, How the left hijacked the family