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Homo Capax Dei

Concilium 2015/4

Homo Capax Dei

(Man is capable of receiving God):
Neurosciences and the
new Image of God

Theological debate, describing the divine reality in analogous form only,

draws on knowledge based on specific sciences for selection of the analo
gies deployed. This knowledge base is both negative (questioning freedom
of choice, criticism of projections and antromorphisms, deception and self
deception) and positive, since it can also reinform longstanding theologi
cal concepts. In particular, natura pura and potentia obedientialis, drawn
from the tradition of Thomas Aquinas tradition stand out. Through these,
the integrity of the nature and autonomy of his knowledge are preemi
nent. This autonomy also implies that the scientific debate is symmetrical
regarding the existence or not of the objects of faith. This works to the
defence of the notion of homo capax dei, which can be both supported and
reshaped through contemporary neurosciences.
Key words: Neurosciences, homo capax dei, projection, natura pura,
potentia obedientialis


The greater part of the body of literature about the link between
neurosciences1 and religion talks to religious experience, which is to be
expected, given that this approachs reach goes no further than what people
experience, as set out in reports and controlled research. From these can
be described the difference between religiosity (the way in which people
express themselves through religion) and religion (which stresses the
institutional aspects and the plurality of historic forms). In turn, religion

is thus distinguished from theology - the former speaks mostly to the

practice, where the latter incorporates both Christian doctrine and a
rational reflection upon it.
This essay limits itself to judeo-christian theology, not purporting to make
value-judgements with regard to other religions. As we shall see, the role of
a well founded theological anthropology is essential to the understanding
of an affirmation of God (or not) when faced with developments in
neuroscience. It should be said at the outset that we are not dealing with so
called neurotheology, a controversial term2 and which does not engage
with theology in its proper sense. We prefer rather to concentrate on the
autonomous nature of the theological discourse in relation to science, and
vice versa, although mutual influences may well arise.
And we shall touch on these influences, in particular regarding the
image of God.

Negative reading of traditional beliefs by neurosciences

When we talk of God and of His relationship to human beings, modem

science would appear to highlight the continuing relevance of Psalm 8. As
we know, this short Psalm contains two sections, the first more negative in
essence, where the psalmist indicates the insignificance of mankind before
the majesty of divine creation (vs. 4,5). The positive part comes in the
second section with the exaltation of humanity raised to the status of co
creator and participant in the divine regime of the creation (vs. 6-9).
Taking the negative section first, we ask: what are some of the implications
with which we are presented by advances in neurosciences? Can we say,
in rapid brushstrokes, that these give continuity to the humiliation of man
as a relevant being with the context of the universe? If physics has already
reduced the position of our planet to a less expressive level removed from
the centre of the cosmos, if biology has reduced the human species to
one amongst many, rising more by chance in the immense evolutionary
dynamic, and finally if psychoanalysis indicates that we are the slaves of
our unconfessed desires, then neuroscience takes us further: it reduces
the mind (and thus the soul) to a cerebral epiphenomenon. The brain, in
its turn, happens at the end of a long biological evolution with no prior
plan, emerging in a less than adequate organ, that functions mechanically
through biochemical and electric impulses. It is a monist vision of the
world, and has a direct impact on traditional notions of the soul.

Eduardo R. Cruz
An initial question, therefore, which might arise in various branches of
biological science is the following: how could an omniscient and bountiful
God, create an organ so inefficient and prone to error as our brain? This
limitation conditions other important questions. The first that stands out is
that of free will. Studies on how thought happens show that the decisions
we take always occur a fraction of a second before our rational deliberations
(Mecklenberger 2012, 95-96). For many writers, this broad dimension of
unconsciousness renders obsolete traditional discourses on free will, drawn
from Greco-roman philosophy, and that persisted in the Enlightenment.
That is to say, there is no sovereign subject, free and responsible, master of
his own destiny. Nevertheless, these critics still talk in terms of a secondary
free will, the result of rational deliberation on what is concrete (Dennett
1984). In any event, the controversy is broad in its extent.
Contemporary science also highlights the elements of deception and
self deception inherent in the images we make of the world around us and
of ourselves. What Freud and others talked of at the beginning of the 20th
century is today corroborated by neuroscience - our thoughts are linked
to our desires and produce illusions, and the only way to avoid these is
through the rigour and objectivity of scientific methods (see Baril 2006;
Cf. Rizzuto 1979).
In other words when we consider the ways in which the images of God
and other religious elements are produced in our brain, we come to the
conclusion, unacceptable to theists, that that which we consider to be
part of the external reality to man, is nothing more than a projection, a
byproduct of our mind. In this case, as already foreseen by Feuerbach for
theology, this is no more than a discipline which argues about a pseudo
reality, a fantastic house of cards destined to collapse beneath the breath
of critical thought.
The doctrine of Imago Dei, central to the theme of this article, would
similarly be reduced to a bringing together of pious propositions, pieces of
fiction in the effort to lend some level of dignity to mankind. The equation
is as if reversed, with a resulting imago hominis proposed within the figure
of a fantastic being. This dual possibility was proposed by Alexander and
Andrew Fingelkurts: Is our brain hardwired to produce God, or is our
brain hardwired to perceive God? (Fingelkurts and Fingelkurts 2009 [my
italics]). If human nature is informed directly by what results from the
facts provided by natural sciences, then the effective image of man sits
well below the ideal posited by the doctrine in question.

Homo Capax Dei

Nevertheless, these facts also have much to teach us, particularly when
we consider the inadequacy of a rationalistic philosophy of man and God.
Recent descriptions of free will, for example, have led positive law to
introduce nuances when the responsibilities of defendants are on trial. For
theology, in its turn, the relations between nature and grace are reconfigured:
if grace perfects nature, then nature must necessarily contain a philosophical
reflection, influenced by the facts given us by natural science. For example,
the recent emphasis placed by neurosciences on the corporal dimension
of the mind, and the consequent affirmation that the emotions have a far
more profound impact on the emotions than had previously been though
(Damasio), underlines the role of the emotions in how we lead our lives and
shows to what point the affections shape the very notion of the soul.

Positive reading of the image of God: Homo Capax Dei

We have set out briefly above, some of the negative ways in which
neurosciences tend to affect our traditional beliefs in God and in mankind.
However, and with no sacrifice to the intellect, we can equally interpret
the facts in ways which qualify and even reinforce traditional beliefs such
as, for example, we have seen expressed, in Psalm 8. Such reinterpretation
touches on matters particularly dear to western tradition, such as freewill,
Imago Dei, the state of the soul, the doctrine of incarnation, the intermediate
state after death and the resurrection of the body.
At this point, we consider an update of what might be Homo capax dei
to be particularly relevant. As far as appears, neurosciences may give way
to any description of the human brain as incorporated, whilst deeming it
fit to be receptive to and converse with God.
The formula mentioned above is little quoted in contemporary writing,
although it was popularized by Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. It deals
with mans natural capacity to receive the grace necessary for a closer
proximity to God. The Catholic catechism, for example, well reflects this
thinking when in its first part it talks of the profession of faith (no. 35)
teaching: Mans faculties make him capable of coming to a knowledge
of the existence of a personal God. That is the desire for God is part of
human nature and that empirical science can provide a foundation for such
a proposition, albeit ambiguous.
Nevertheless, we should also bear in mind the limited reach of
neurosciences in talking of divine reality, as set out above. This field of

Eduardo R. Cruz
science describes and explains processes of the brain as they relate to the
world. By way of explanation, everything that is imported by the brain, is the
image that it makes of the world, be it exterior or interior, be it concrete (e.g.
when a tree is perceived and described as such), or more intellectual (e.g. the
concept of justice). In consequence, neurosciences, when they talk of God,
only see Him as a projection of hopes and fears, happiness and human
fulfilment and not as something external with a real existence.
As is known, the term projection acquired negative connotations after
its use by those opposed to religion with the intention of attacking the
divine figure as the origin of religion and of good. But this connotation is
not mandatory. For example, the cognitive science of religion, in recent
developments, speaks of gods as a normal product of the brain, and of
children as intuitive theists (Barrett 2004; 2012). Other scientists talk of the
origin of the belief in life after death and in a moral God who both chastises
and is compassionate (Norenzayan 2013). Just as the everyday believer
finds his God with difficulty within the arid discussions of science, he
has also to understand that his belief is not a merely simple cultural
Before going further, we should set out briefly the intense debate under
way in the field theology. This is taking place between those who propose
the possibility of a pure nature, which precedes divine grace in creation
and which can be studied in its own terms, and those who, in the footsteps
of Henri de Lubac, place emphasis on the presence of grace in the being
and acts of man (Mulcahy 2008). In essence, what we have here is a
dispute about the legacy of Thomas Aquinas.
According to Aquinas and subsequent tradition, a series of concepts
gets mixed, not always in harmony. Drawing on them we can pick out:
human nature; the laws of nature; natura pura, nature and grace; the
natural desire to see God; potentia obedentialis\ natural order. It is not
the case that we should analyze them one by one but rather establish a
principle that inclines us to follow some of them: respect for integrity
and autonomy of nature, and its study by qualified scientists. In such a
case, the laws of nature should remain autonomous, and divine action in the
world should not violate them, but merely perfect them.
In terms of obedential potency, Thomas Aquinas argues as follows:
Now it must be borne in mind that in the human soul, as in every creature,
there is a double passive power: one in comparison with a natural agent;
the other in comparison with the first agent, which can reduce any creature

Homo Capax Dei

to a higher act than a natural agent can reduce it, and this is usually called
the obediential power of a creature (ST III, q . l l , a.l,co). In order to
facilitate our understanding, we turn to a quote from the new New Catholic
Encyclopedia (2nd edition), which states the following on the subject:
If the laws of nature are fixed by God, how can He work a miracle
without upsetting these laws and betraying a lack of wisdom?
Theologians answer with the concept of obediential potency:
although the creature has no positive capacity or exigency to be
changed miraculously, its being is subject or obedient to what God
wills to do in it beyond the activity of ordinary causes so long as no
contradiction occurs. The creature is purely passive; God can do in
it whatever is not repugnant to its nature. As author and governor
of creatures, God includes in His providence the extraordinary
interventions of His power. (Principe 2002, 509a)
The difference between the term natura pura and potentia obedentialis is
controversial, but this does not matter to the neurosciences point of view,
since the notion of grace does not belong in the domain of science. We
can say that for the sciences, everything happens as if nature is completely
autonomous from divinity. It would be something like the principle of
Hugo Grotius for Natural law: Etsi Deus non daretur (As if God did not
exist). What this demands of theology is that it understands the sciences
on their own terms, as set out above. It must assume, as a provisional
hypothesis, a human nature where the desire for God is seemingly added
subsequently to an anthropology that does not originate from Him.4

A reconfiguring of the natural knowledge of God

The big issue with this notion of pure nature and its associations is that
man knows himself only too well, so to speak. And where are the negative
sides of the functioning of our brain, that we set out earlier? The solution
pointed out is that that human nature was corrupted by original sin and so,
therefore, after the fall mankind perceived reality only imperfectly through
a translucent pane. But there is no fine detail, only a qualitative indication,
like a nature, slightly obscured. We believe that neurosciences, without
getting themselves into the doctrines of creation and the fall, can give
some facts relating to this obscuring of reason and will. As our projections

Eduardo R. Cruz

Homo Capax Dei

of divinity are somewhat idolatrous (Cf. Psalm 135 (134), 15-18),

neurosciences can also describe them in more objective terms, and so it
seems to us that consideration of the doctrine of the Deus Absconditus and
the emphasis on the analogical discourse about God are necessary. It has
always been maintained that the debate on divine reality not be reduced to
being about one in and of itself but rather be an analogical description in
human terms. The description of divinity in anthropomorphic terms is not
in itself problematical as some critics of religion allege; it only becomes
such when taken literally. Thus the theological debate is enriched when
the difficulties raised by these projections are taken into account.

proofs of the existence of God were wiped out by modem science, and
especially by neurosciences - so only faith can bring the divine reality
close to us.
Faith, however, also can be found within human bounds. As Vaillant
said, the line between trust and self comforting illusion is very faint
(Vaillant 2008, 75). But the resolution of this ambiguity is not only the
product of scientific advance. It is, on a practical level, from empathy
and disinterested love that faith develops with a greater probability of
So it is that we see an apparent contradiction, accentuated by
neurosciences: on the one hand, in the natural order of things the
mechanical elements of human action co-exist with his innate capacity for
freedom of action and to transcend his condition - Homo Capax Dei. On
the other, the God to whom man aspires can only be known through faith,
which is a free reaction to a divine call, logically precedent.
We say that this contradiction is only apparent as it is more a matter
of dialectic tension, something foreshadowed by many authors over the
centuries.6 There is nothing in neurosciences that prevents the description
of this tension in modem terms.
To sum up, neurosciences, in and of themselves do not confirm negative
or positive images of God. If it is understood how science explains the
functioning of the mechanisms of the brain, it cannot do more than present
human nature as being in a state of self reference. But it is also interested
in the human brain as capable of cooperating and being involved with
others, or rather, in the functioning of the brain as a fabulous incorporated
organism that is engaged with the social world. In this case, neurosciences
not only show the emergence and the contradictions of morality and
religion, but also open the way for images of God which emerge from
the brain (Jeeves and Brown 2009; Gijsbers 2003). In describing it within
the context of faith in such an interesting and ambiguous way, we can so
understand in greater detail the classic idea of Homo Capax Dei at the
same time, both part of nature and with divine attributes.

How to continue to defend the notion that man is capax dei?

Amongst contemporary writings, we might put forward, for example, the

efforts of the psychiatrist and neuroscientist George Vaillant in indicating
the way in which negative and positive emotions, products of the brain,
arise in the bio-cultural development of humanity.5 The negative emotions
(such as those linked to the seven deadly sins) are indicative of mans
incapacity, on his own, to participate in divine existence. And the positive
emotions which he identifies ( faith, compassion etc...) are no more than
the virtues sustained by western philosophical and theological tradition.
But there is a description, in some detail, of how these emotions arise in
the limbic system of the brain - on account of these biological roots, the
occurrence and cultivation of such emotions becomes possible without the
necessity of an intolerable burden of human liberty. So it is precisely on
this point that we can talk of the capacity of man to be worthy of divine
It is not possible here to sum up Vaillants arguments, but from them it
is adequate to conclude that God receives, in both negative and positive
terms, a creature with the capacity to recognize Him. It is not really
necessary here to have a new concept of God, although anthropological
theology could take on a quite different aspect. The image of the Christian
God, presented in such detail by theological tradition, seems to survive the
criticisms of contemporary neurosciences. Given this, instead of having
recourse to Romans 1:20 to establish a theology of a natural recognition of
God, perhaps it would be better to opt for the Letter to the Hebrews 11:3:
By faith we understand that the world was created by the word of God, so
that what is seen was made out of things that do not appear (RSV). The

Translated by Christopher Lawrence

1. We use neurosciences in the plural given the range of subdisciplines and usage by the
scientific community.
2. For a description of the associated issues,see , e.g., Brandt (2010) and Blume (20l1).


Eduardo R. Cruz
3. It is good to remember that there is a universal level of grace, inherent in the act
of creation and another, granted specifically to man through the exercise of choice
4. See also Jennings (2013).
5. This tension can also be seen in the Magisterium of the Catholic Church. The Cathecism
not only affirms that, Our holy mother, the Church, holds and teaches that God, the first
principle and least end of all things, can be known with certainty from the created world by
the natural light of human reason (36) but also, Since our knowledge of God is limited, our
language about him is equally so. We can name God only by taking creatures as our starting
point, and in accordance with our limited human ways of knowing and thinking (40).

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