Craig Sowder happened to mention in a recent blog entry that “the Lord tells us that his word is to be "in our hearts". The heart, of course, is not the blood pumping muscle in our chest, but the inner source of all that man is, and out of his heart flows all that he does.”
This was just a casual aside, and really had nothing to do with the rest of his entry, but it struck me as an odd clarification. Back when I was a Christian, I would have probably not even stopped to think about it- at best I would have stopped and nodded along with him. But now that I’m free of the fog of religious assumptions, I’d like to take a look at why that clarification needs to be made.
First of all, a superficial reading of his statement should be pretty obvious as dead wrong to any rational person. The heart is the central organ of the cardiovascular system, and its function provides all tissues in the body with nutrients, removes wastes, provides quick access for immune cells, and in short, keeps us alive. It is clearly a natural entity, and not supernatural in any way.
So why does Craig feel the need to contradict this fact of physiology so obvious that it’s taught in middle school health classes? Well, old habits die hard.
The workings of human anatomy were largely unknown to ancient peoples, and though they were aware that living people had a certain quality of “life” that was lost when they died, they couldn’t figure out what exactly it was. The most obvious change was that people stopped breathing completely, and so the logical conclusion was that the breath was the living force. Now, of course, we know that breathing is nothing more than gas exchange, and it's one of a number of processes that terminate upon death, but hey, they’re primitive, give them a break. It didn’t take too long for this idea that a material life force to lose coherency, however. The concept that breath was life eventually morphed into the idea that a spirit was life, and we can see this as a vestigial linguistic remnant in both ancient Hebrew and Greek, the languages of the Christian Bible. In both, the same word can be used for both concepts; רוּחַ (ruwach) in Hebrew and πνεύμα (pneuma) in Greek.
The other obvious physical termination at death is the loss of cardiovascular pulse. The earliest experts in human anatomy, the Egyptians, concluded that the heart must be the central organ of life, partially because of its association with blood, partially because of its (more or less) central location, and partially because they didn’t know any better. In their mummification rituals, the heart was removed and placed in its own sacred urn to signify its importance. The brain was unceremoniously removed and discarded as so much trash. This cardiocentrist view of human anatomy remained the norm throughout most of the ancient world, and was by far the most dominant for a long time. Eventually, further anatomical research by the Greeks led to the discovery of the nervous system, and eventually the great Greek physician Hippocrates wrote definitively from the cerebrocentrist perspective. Science really hasn’t looked back since, but the damage to popular understanding had already been done.
The main problem, as is the case with virtually all religious problems, comes from trying to fit a supernatural concept into a natural framework. The idea of the “soul” or the “spirit” is essential to most religions, including Christianity. Christianity teaches that every person has a soul, so the obvious question is… where is the soul? For the cardiocentrist world of ancient history, the answer was obvious- the heart. The heart was believed to contain the center of the natural life force, so of course it was also the center of the supernatural life force. This idea is reflected in the language of the Bible- in Hebrew, the word most often translated as “heart” in English is לֵבָב (lebab), although the word נֶפֶשׁ (nephesh) is also translated as “heart,” but is more commonly translated as “soul.” Both words are seemingly interchangeable, as seen in passages from the Hebrew scriptures.
Deuteronomy 6: “You shall love Yahweh your God with all your heart (לֵבָב) and with all your soul (נֶפֶשׁ) and with all your might.”
Notice that the words for “heart” and “soul” are used in parallel- a similar theme throughout the Hebrew scriptures. There’s also a parallel drawn between the concept of “heart” and “spirit” using the word “ruwach” that I mentioned above.
Daniel 5: “But when his heart (לֵבָב) was lifted up and his spirit (רוּחַ) became so proud that he behaved arrogantly, he was deposed from his royal throne and his glory was taken away from him.”
There’s a fair bit of overlap between the meaning of the three words, and only one of them has anything to do with a coherent concept. Unfortunately, there’s really nothing in the Hebrew scriptures to firmly cement the word “lebab” as a reference to an anatomical organ- no mention of any physiological aspect of the heart at all. It’s really as if the concept has been completely bastardized by supernatural thinking. As an interesting aside, there is no clear word in ancient Hebrew for the English word, “mind.” The instances in which the word “mind” is used in English translations divide pretty evenly into all three words: heart, spirit, and soul. Since the equivocation of those three falters into incoherence, it’s clear that the Hebrew scriptures fail to provide any basic accuracy of human physiology.
But what about the later Christian scriptures? The Christians were largely Greek-speakers and influenced by Greek culture- surely they were aware of the change from cardiocentrism to cerebrocentrism?
Unfortunately not. The Christian scriptures use the Greek word, καρδιά (kardia), which properly refers to the heart, but which is also given equivalent meaning with the concepts of “soul” and “spirit,” just as in the Hebrew scriptures. Passages in the Christian scriptures clearly indicate that the heart is the center of reason, and not the brain (in fact, the word brain occurs nowhere in the Bible at all).
Matthew 13: “In their case the prophecy of Isaiah is being fulfilled, which says, ‘You will keep on hearing, but will not understand; you will keep on seeing, but will not perceive; for the heart (καρδιά) of this people has become dull, with their ears they scarcely hear, and they have closed their eyes, otherwise they would see with their eyes, hear with their ears, and understand with their heart (καρδιά) and return, and I would heal them.’”
Mark 2: “But some of the scribes were sitting there and reasoning in their hearts (καρδιά),”
These passages certainly seem to be talking about the heart as a physical organ, but they’ve clearly blundered- the heart is not an organ that reasons- the brain is. This recognition of the heart as a physical organ is compounded by another passage.
Mark 7: “And He said to them, "Are you so lacking in understanding also? Do you not understand that whatever goes into the man from outside cannot defile him, because it does not go into his heart (καρδιά), but into his stomach, and is eliminated?”
I realize that there’s a figurative point being made here, but the illustration draws on the literal relationship between two anatomical components. And the situation doesn’t get any better when we find “καρδιά” being confused with “ψυχή” (psyche), translated as soul.
1 Peter 1: “Since you have in obedience to the truth purified your souls (ψυχή) for a sincere love of the brethren, fervently love one another from the heart (καρδιά),”
2 Peter 2: “having eyes full of adultery that never cease from sin, enticing unstable souls (ψυχή), having a heart (καρδιά) trained in greed, accursed children;”
And we find the same thing happening with the word for “spirit,” πνεύμα (pneuma).
1 Peter 3: “but let it be the hidden person of the heart (καρδιά), with the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit (πνεύμα), which is precious in the sight of God.”
And to add insult to injury, the word for “mind,” διάνοια (dianoia).
Hebrews 8: “For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel: After those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws into their minds (διάνοια), and I will write them on their hearts (καρδιά).”
And why not combine all three in a Synoptic echo of the Deuteronomy passge quoted above?
Mark 12: “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart (καρδιά), and with all your soul (ψυχή), and with all your mind (διάνοια), and with all your strength.”
Matthew 22: “And He said to him, " You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart (καρδιά), and with all your soul (ψυχή), and with all your mind (διάνοια).’”
Luke 10: “And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart (καρδιά), and with all your soul (ψυχή), and with all your strength, and with all your mind (διάνοια); and your neighbor as yourself.”
It should be pretty clear by now why people like Craig find it necessary to distinguish between a natural organ and a supernatural incoherent concept- their scriptures hopelessly muddle coherency with incoherency. But does that even solve the problem? If the natural heart really is the seat of the soul, and the center of one’s supernatural essence, then does a heart transplant patient also receive the soul of its donor? (A theme explored by many cheesy horror movies, by the way) If the two are completely separate, then why is there a need to use the word “heart” in any supernatural context at all? I would think that “soul” would suffice easily. Most likely, if they weren’t bound to their cardiocentrist scriptures, that would be what would happen- all mention of the heart as a spiritual organ would vanish in favor of the equally incoherent but unencumbered by natural science concept of the soul. The fact that “heart” is still used is a testament more to the fact that Christians are cobbled to their scriptures, and even in the face of natural science, still cling to ancient incoherency.