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3. Psyched Out: Scientism and the Question of Humanity

“Hey! I’m depraved on account of I’m deprived!”

— West Side Story (1961)

While the findings and speculations of modern science pose a formidable challenge to Christian faith, it might seem that this challenge is merely theoretical. But theory and practice — faith and values — are interrelated; what one thinks affects how one lives.1 This becomes obvious when we turn from the natural sciences to the “social sciences” — or, more broadly, the human sciences — which attempt to utilize methods similar to the natural sciences (mathematical analysis, experimentation, the use of technology to enhance observation, etc.) for the purpose of gaining knowledge of human beings. Psychology, in particular, has direct concern not merely to acquire information or develop theories to explain human phenomena, but also to propose remedies and develop solutions to human problems. Thus psychology has aspects to it which are both descriptive — information about what people actually do — and prescriptive — instruction as to what people should do. This means that psychology can pose direct challenges to both the faith and values of Christian people.

In this chapter, we will look at three questions which our society has in large measure turned to psychology to answer. (1) What are we? (2) Why do we do the things we do? (3) What can be done to change the things we do?

Modern Man in Search of a Soul2

One stubborn difficulty above all else has frustrated the modern humanistic scientific ideal to attain a completely naturalistic explanation of everything. Like Henry Fonda’s lone juror in Twelve Angry Men, this one dissenting voice is from the scientists’ perspective delaying the obvious verdict and keeping them from going home and watching the ball game. Who is the spoiler who won’t let the scientists go home? We are — humanity is the mystery that refuses to be explained.

The Soulless Science

For well over a century the theorists of psychology have attempted to explain humanity. Their efforts have been ably chronicled by Morton Hunt in his authoritative work The Story of Psychology. The goal of the nineteenth-century German thinkers who pioneered the early developments of what became modern psychology was that it should be a purely physical science — “psychology without a soul,” as they called it.3 Wilhelm Wundt, often considered the father of psychology, wrote early in his career:

As soon as the psyche is viewed as a natural phenomenon, and psychology as a natural science, the experimental methods must also be capable of full application to this science.4

Later, though, he described psychology as a “science of the mind” (probably the best rendering of Geisteswissenschaft), only part of which was strictly a natural science.5 Still, Wundt upheld essentially an empiricist ideal of psychology as a science, dismissing any approach to the subject (including that of William James) that did not fit that rigorous ideal.

James himself agreed that psychology, as he understood it, was not a science, though it hoped to be when it grew up:

A string of raw facts; a little gossip and wrangle about opinions; a little classification and generalization on the mere descriptive level; a strong prejudice that we have states of mind, and that our brain conditions them: but not a single law in the sense in which physics shows us laws, not a single proposition from which any consequence can causally be deduced. This is no science, it is only the hope of a science.6

James believed that the complex processes of the mind had evolved according to Darwinian principles of natural selection. The deductive speculations of philosophers and theologians might seem to lead to the existence of an immaterial soul, but an inductive, scientific study of psychology had no place for such an idea.

Metaphysics or theology may prove the Soul to exist; but for psychology the hypothesis of such a substantial principle of unity is superfluous.7

What we have here is a turning point in the history of thought. Up until the end of the nineteenth century it was commonly assumed or accepted that human beings had a spiritual dimension that transcended the physical body, and the only question that was vigorously debated was just how this soul or spirit was related to the body. In the wake of Darwinism the very existence of a supernatural or transcendent spiritual reality came under fire, and the burden of proof was assigned to those who would attribute any aspect of human behavior to an immaterial soul. C. Lloyd Morgan, a pioneer in animal and comparative psychology, put the point this way in 1894:

In no case may we interpret an action as the outcome of the exercise of a higher psychical faculty if it can be interpreted as the exercise of one which stands lower in the psychological scale.8

This idea that there is no soul distinct from the body dominated psychology throughout most of the twentieth century. Sigmund Freud, the founder of the influential psychoanalysis school of thought in psychology, certainly held to the scientistic ideal, as Hunt explains.

All his life Freud was firmly convinced that no aspect of mind existed apart from the brain and that physical processes in its neurons are the materials of the phenomena of mind. Also, as a scientist he was a thorough determinist; he believed that every mental event has its causes, and that free will is only an illusion.9

Likewise behavioral psychology assumed the nonexistence of the soul and set as its goal the complete scientific description of human beings as animals. James B. Watson, the first advocate of an explicit behaviorism, published an article in 1913 that has been called the Behaviorist Manifesto. In it he asserted:

Psychology as the behaviorist views it is a purely objective experimental branch of natural science. Its theoretical goal is the prediction and control of behavior.10

Watson’s reference to the “control” of behavior made clear that psychology was not merely a descriptive study, but sought to understand human nature in order to control it and change it. The famous behaviorist B. F. Skinner (1904-1990) popularized this approach to psychology through his books, articles, and television appearances. The behaviorists looked upon human beings as physical beings operating strictly according to mechanistic laws of physics and chemistry. On such a view the soul is an irrelevant and unverifiable entity that apparently does nothing and can therefore safely be dismissed as, in the words of Sir Gilbert Ryle, a British behaviorist, “the ghost in the machine.”

Thus, corresponding to the “God of the gaps” problem facing the natural sciences, psychology introduced what we may call the “man of the gaps” problem. More specifically, psychology has raised the “soul of the gaps” problem: are human beings merely highly intelligent animals, or do we have a “soul” or “spirit” that transcends the biological? If we do have souls, what do they do, if anything, that is distinct from the operations of the body — and specifically, the brain?

The Revival of the Soul

Beginning in the 1960s, the mechanistic, materialistic view of human nature championed by most forms of psychological theory began to break down. There are several reasons why this occurred.

First of all, most psychologists finally concluded that human beings were simply too complex for the scientific ideal of complete physiological, causal explanation to be realized. This did not mean necessarily that the soul existed, but it did make it much more difficult to argue that the soul did not exist.

Second, the evolutionary premise underlying modern psychology came under increasing attack from all sides — not just from conservative Christians, but also from scientists and other thinkers of a wide variety of religious and agnostic positions. As explained in the preceding chapter, the theory of naturalistic evolution as an explanation of the origins of all life and even of the human race has never achieved a consensus inside or out of the scientific community. And if evolution is not true, the door is wide open for an affirmation of the creation of humanity by a supernatural God and our endowment by that Creator with an immaterial soul. Even many evolutionists have abandoned a purely materialistic account of evolution and have affirmed a spiritual dimension to the universe as a whole — and such an affirmation, of course, suggests that a similar spiritual dimension may exist in human beings.

Third, the spiritual vacuum created by the rise of secular humanist culture could not be maintained, since nature evidently abhors a vacuum as much in society as in space. Carl Jung, a former associate of Freud who sought a more positive view of the spiritual and religious dimensions of human life than the atheist Freud would allow, in the heyday of materialistic psychology had described modern man as “in search of a soul.” Jung’s own religious orientation was mystical and occultic, and in time the culture caught up with him. The 1960s saw the rise of the counterculture and the explosion of interest in the occult, “psychedelic” experiences through the use of drugs, and (in a more sober key) the mystical spirituality of the Eastern religions. By the 1980s this amorphous turning inward had come to be known somewhat loosely as the New Age movement. By 1992 a book by Thomas Moore entitled Care of the Soul could become a national bestseller. The author, a former Catholic monk, is a mystical teacher and psychotherapist heavily influenced by Jung.11

Admittedly, the “soul” of these mystical traditions is not quite the same as that of traditional Christian and Jewish beliefs. In many cases this soul is seen as an immanent aspect of the human person — “a quality or dimension of experiencing life and ourselves,” says Moore, having to do “with depth, value, relatedness, heart, and personal substance.”12 But mystical and New Age believers are much more open to the idea of the soul as capable of existing after death; indeed, most New Agers accept the idea of reincarnation as basic to their world view.

Ultimately the problem with a soulless view of human nature is that it cheapens the human experience. Modern psychologists that resist the idea of a soul generally view human beings in an oversimplified, narrow perspective that does not do justice to the profundity and mystery of “the human equation.” Such an approach, whether it involves “psychologizing” human beings or applying any other single perspective as a total explanation of human nature, is called reductionism. There are reductionistic tendencies in much of modern sociology, anthropology, and even history, but the problem has probably been most acute in psychology.

Most psychology is relentlessly reductionistic. It is in the business of reducing things to a size where they can be examined with psychological calipers or fit into psychological categories. For example, a psychoanalytically trained psychologist will tend to look at a great painting not as a reflection of man’s search for the Good and the Beautiful, but as a sublimation of the sex drive.13

The increasingly widespread recognition of the inadequacy of such an approach to human experience has led to a revival of interest in the soul and to more spiritual or religious ways of viewing human nature. In addition, various phenomena have been seen as providing a scientific confirmation of the existence of the soul, most notably near-death experiences (though these remain vigorously debated). New Age and other mystical interpreters of human nature generally continue to look to science to unlock the secrets of human nature and experience. This is because, in their view, all reality is ultimately one, and therefore no distinction between the natural and the supernatural will fit into their world view.

Many of the transpersonal psychologists still seem to assume that transcendent or spiritual experience is a special kind of natural phenomenon. . . . They understand the traditional religious disciplines, both physical (e.g., fasting, yoga) and mental (e.g., meditation, spiritual reading, Buddhist koans), as natural practices that facilitate mental detachment to the point where one can eventually have a peak, or transcendent, spiritual high.14

In the midst of this revival of belief in the soul and the importance of spiritual matters, Christians need to offer a clear understanding of human nature and the soul that takes into account the current diversity of views and the genuine advances in knowledge about human nature that psychology has yielded. While we can and should continue to make the case for the reality of the soul as a distinct aspect of human nature,15 we need to take into account the evidence that human beings are fundamentally constituted as a unity. It appears, for example, no longer possible to hold that the soul inhabits a specific region of the body or part of the brain. It is also evidently not possible to attribute certain mental functions of a living human being to the soul alone.

Moreover, while the Bible certainly teaches that human beings have souls that can and do exist separately from the body after death (e.g., Matt. 10:28; Rev. 6:9-11; cf. Luke 16:9-31; 23:43; Phil. 1:21-23), it also views death as an unnatural division of what was intended to be a unity (Gen. 2:7; 3:19; 1 Cor. 15:26). For this reason, biblical theologians have suggested describing the biblical view as a “holistic duality” rather than simply as a dualism or dichotomy.16

One alternative to the traditional dualism or duality view favored by some Christians is to interpret the Bible as teaching that human nature is a trichotomy of body, soul, and spirit. As this position is often defined, the body is the actual material part, the soul consists of the mind, will, and emotions, while the spirit is the Godward part of human nature that gives us our capacity for worship and spiritual experience.

It appears that on this view the soul can be regarded as a completely natural part of human nature. (For example, some trichotomists hold that animals have souls but not spirits.) If so, trichotomy would allow all observable, empirical behavior as well as all mental states to have a natural basis, while affirming a transcendent, spiritual part of human nature inaccessible to the scientist.

The view is not without difficulties, however. For one thing, the biblical warrant for trichotomy is slender. Only one text actually mentions the three supposed “parts” together (1 Thess. 5:23), but their respective functions and interrelations are not specified. The terms “soul” and “spirit” are used interchangeably in some cases (e.g., Luke 1:46-47; 1 Pet. 3:4). Paul can use a variety of pairs of terms to signify two essential aspects of human nature; thus he speaks of the body, flesh, or outer man, in contrast to the heart, mind, spirit, or inner man (Rom. 2:28-29; 7:18-25; 12:1-2; 1 Cor. 5:4-5; 7:34; 2 Cor. 4:16; 7:1).

While a rigid distinction between spirit and soul cannot be sustained from the Bible, the trichotomist position does make an important contribution to the discussion about human nature. The immaterial aspect of the human person does not have two “parts,” but it does have two orientations. Our mind or inner person serves to connect us both to the physical world in which we as physical, biological creatures live, and to the spiritual, supernatural world or realm of God (and the angels) to which our spirits depart at the death of our bodies. We are natural creatures, but we also have a capacity for transcendence — for spiritual experiences, for worship of God, and for existence beyond the grave.17

Modern Man in Search of a Cure

Regrettably, while we human beings have a capacity for transcendence, we also have a capacity for travesty. We have such noble and lofty ideals, and sometimes we even seem to realize them, but more often than not we disappoint ourselves by attitudes and behaviors that seem unworthy of the name human. What is wrong with us, and what can be done about it? These are also questions which during the past century our society has asked psychology to answer.

Although there have been dissenting voices heard in the psychological establishment, by far the most common and influential answer to the human problem is that people are basically good and the solution is to be found in appreciating and connecting to that basic goodness. Kilpatrick puts it bluntly:

It is very nearly the First Commandment of the psychological society that we should accept ourselves as we are. . . . Much of the content of humanistic psychology derives from the central assumption that man is good and has no inclination toward evil. Selfishness, aggression, and other undesirable behaviors are blamed on man’s environment, not on man himself. The biblical notion that man is weakened by sin is either implicitly or explicitly rejected by most psychologists of this persuasion. 18

Perhaps the only emendation to Kilpatrick’s description of the psychological view of human evil is that undesirable behaviors are blamed not only on the environment but also on physiology — whether genetic predispositions, chemical imbalances, glands, or other biological factors. Indeed, the major debate that raged throughout the twentieth century was not about whether human behavior was determined — almost all psychologists and other social scientists have assumed that it was. The big debate has been over whether human behavior is determined more by biological or environmental factors — the so-called “nature versus nurture” debate.19

The No-Fault Society

As most people know, the application of psychological “explanations” to human behavior has resulted in a weakening of belief in personal responsibility. In the American court system there have been countless cases in which psychological or societal factors were cited by the defense in support of a plea of innocence or at least diminished responsibility. Such an approach was pioneered by Clarence Darrow, the agnostic trial lawyer probably best remembered for his defense on behalf of the ACLU of John Scopes in the 1925 “monkey trial” (discussed in the previous chapter). Just a few years earlier in the notorious Leopold and Loeb murder case, Darrow had won an acquittal of the two young men on the grounds that their act of violence was the fault of society. In recent years such rationalizations have become so outrageous that something of a backlash has begun to take place. In A Nation of Victims, Charles Sykes reports some of these absurd cases of psychological excuses for unacceptable behavior. One school employee who was fired for constantly showing up late to work gave as his excuse that he had “chronic lateness syndrome.” An FBI agent who was fired for embezzling $2000 from the agency and gambling it away was reinstated by a court ruling that found his gambling habit to be a “handicap.”20

Such excuses for misbehavior have always had their critics. One basic problem with such psychologizing is that quite frequently the blame is merely shifted around from one person to the next, as the following poem illustrates:

At three I had a feeling of
Ambivalence toward my brothers.
And as it follows naturally
I poisoned all my lovers.
But now I’m happy; I have learned
The lesson this has taught;
That everything I do that’s wrong
Is someone else’s fault. 21

A further problem for such blame shifting is that it leads to a logical dilemma. If it’s always someone else’s fault, then it is somehow everyone’s fault and at the same time no one’s fault! Thus the “blame game” becomes a vicious circle in which any explanation of human evil is possible and no explanation is without problems. One of the more interesting expressions of this vicious circularity came in a song in the musical West Side Story, in which the members of a street gang play various parts and satirize the adults’ explanations for their delinquency.

Dear kindly Sergeant Krupke, you gotta understand,
It’s just our bringing up-ke that gets us out of hand,
Our mothers all are junkies, our fathers all are drunks,
Golly Moses, naturally we’re punks!

Gee Officer Krupke, we’re very upset,
We never had the love that every child oughta get.
We ain’t no delinquents, we’re misunderstood,
Deep down inside us there is good, there is good.
There is good, there is good, there is untapped good,
Like inside the worst of us is good. . . .

Dear kindly Judge your honor, my parents treat me rough,
With all their marijuana, they won’t give me a puff.
They didn’t want to have me, but somehow I was had.
Leapin’ lizards, that’s why I’m so bad!

Yes, Officer Krupke, you’re really a square —
This boy don’t need a judge, he needs an analyst’s care.
It’s just his neurosis that oughta be curbed,
He’s psychologically disturbed. . . .

Boy [to psychologist]:
My daddy beats my mommy, my mommy clobbers me,
My grandpa is a Commie, my grandma pushes tea,
My sister wears a mustache, my brother wears a dress;
Goodness, gracious, that’s why I’m a mess!

Yes, Officer Krupke, he shouldn’t be here,
This boy don’t need a couch, he needs a useful career.
Society’s played him a terrible trick,
Und sociologically he’s sick. . . .

Social worker:
Yes, Officer Krupke, you’ve done it again.
This boy don’t need a job, he needs a year in the pen.
It ain’t just a question of misunderstood,
Deep down inside him, he’s no good.

We’re no good, we’re no good, we’re no earthly good,
Like the worst of us is no damn good. . . .
Dear Officer Krupke, we’re down on our knees,
’Cause no on wants a fellow with a social disease. . . .22

What is fascinating about this song is that while it clearly identifies the oversimplistic explanations prevalent in our culture for human wrongdoing, it offers no alternative — and neither does the play (or film) as a whole. Postmodern man knows that there is something wrong with these reductionistic analyses of human nature, but is unclear as to what to put in their place.

Beyond Simplistic Answers

In the Christian view, human nature is neither good nor bad without qualification. God created human beings good (Gen. 1:26-31), but the first human couple fell into sin and passed a disposition to sin down to all their descendants (Gen. 3; Rom. 5:12-14). Even after the Fall, human beings are creatures with the dignity of being “in God’s image” (Gen. 1:26-27; 9:6; James 3:9), and as such are capable of good. Yet, according to the Bible and corroborated by our universal experience, all of us fall woefully short of realizing our ideal and our potential for good (Rom. 3:23). Thus, while it would not be correct to say that human beings are “basically good,” it would also not be correct to say that human beings are basically or essentially bad. Rather, human beings are good creatures whose goodness has been severely compromised and corrupted. We are walking contradictions, creatures who aspire to a seemingly romantic vision of glory and who occasionally and fleetingly come close to realizing it, while so often wallowing in base desires and selfish ambitions.

Only the biblical world view can make sense of human experience. The secular view of human beings as merely very smart animals denies the glorious potential we know is within us, while the New Age view of human beings as gods who have forgotten their divinity denies the humiliating reality of our daily failures that we would desperately like to forget but usually cannot. The Christian perception of humanity, by contrast, is refreshingly fair and realistic — neither denying our dignity nor ignoring our ignominy.

If we return to the West Side Story song “Dear Officer Krupke” for a moment, noticeably absent from the review of possible diagnoses of the human condition was the possibility that all human beings — gang members, police officers, judges, psychologists, and social workers — are suffering, not from a mere “social disease,” but more fundamentally from a spiritual disease. But in the popular culture of the past two generations or so, this idea is rarely even considered. It is no accident that the character of the priest in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (on which West Side Story was based) has been replaced with a hapless store owner.

If humanistic psychology does allow that human beings suffer from a spiritual disease at all, that disease would be temporary amnesia. Nearly every variety of psychology in the twentieth century has prescribed some kind of recollection or remembrance therapy as the solution to psychological and behavior problems. The psychoanalytic search for buried memories in the unconscious mind, the secular humanistic advice to tell ourselves that we’re “O.K.,” and the New Age, transpersonal psychological pursuit of the divinity within, are all variations on a theme — that wholeness, wellness, and the fulfillment of our human potential are to be found within ourselves with the resources we already have. Vitz’s criticism of modern psychological approaches to life is to the point:

This goal of self-realization or self-actualization is at heart a gnostic one, in which the commandment “Know and express thyself” has replaced the Judeo-Christian commandment “Love God and others.” 23

In maintaining that the spiritual dimension of the human condition and problem is primary, it is neither necessary nor desirable for Christians to ignore or minimize the physiological, psychological, or sociological dimensions of human life. The answer to psychological reductionism is not to replace it with a theological reductionism. What Christians need to do is to develop an approach to understanding human behavior that takes all aspects of the human condition fully into account. What makes the theological or spiritual perspective primary is that, unlike the physiological, psychological, or sociological perspectives, Christian theology offers a transcendent perspective on the human condition based on the special, verbal revelation of God in Scripture. The Christian doctrine of humanity provides an orientation to the whole of human nature. To be human is to be a biological, rational being, living in a physical environment in relationship with other human beings and with other creatures, and enjoying a spiritual capacity and potential for relationship with God unique among earthly creatures — a potential thwarted by sin. Thus Christian doctrine allows for a more full-orbed, coherent appreciation of human nature in all its complexity and seeming contradictions than can be gained through the reductionistic philosophies of psychologism or New Age mysticism.

The task facing Christians entering the third millennium is to uphold the biblical view of human nature and sin while recognizing and benefiting from the genuine insights that modern psychology and the other human sciences have produced. Like it or not, modern science has shown and is continuing to show that physiological and environmental factors play much larger roles in human behavior than most Christians were willing to acknowledge in the past. The proper response to these findings is not to discount them in the interests of preserving the traditional view, but to work hard to understand how these findings can enhance or refine the Christian view. Efforts toward that end, commonly called the integration of psychology and Christian theology, are still in the early stages. While many such efforts will have to be judged inadequate or even wrong-headed, in the long run the Christian community will be the stronger for it. We have what the psychologists, the psychotherapists, and their patients are ultimately seeking: the key to understanding ourselves. That key is our identity as creatures made in the image of God and suffering from the effects of a broken relationship with God. If we can communicate this message in a way that fully coheres with the genuine insights into the human condition that are discovered in the human sciences, ours will be a clear message of realism and hope in a world in desperate need of both.

1 The point is developed in Robert M. Bowman, Jr., Orthodoxy and Heresy: A Biblical Guide to Doctrinal Discernment (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992), 16-17.

2 Cf. Carl Jung, Modern Man in Search of a Soul (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1933).

3 Quoted in Morton Hunt, The Story of Psychology (New York: Doubleday, 1993), 129.

4 Wilhelm Wundt, Contributions to the Theory of Sense Perception (1862), quoted in Hunt, The Story of Psychology, 129.

5 Hunt, The Story of Psychology, 138.

6 William James, Psychology (1892), as cited in Hunt, Story of Psychology, 145.

7 James, Psychology (1892), as cited in Hunt, Story of Psychology, 158.

8 C. Lloyd Morgan, An Introduction to Comparative Psychology (London: Walter Scott, 1909 [1894]), 53, cited in Hunt, Story of Psychology, 244.

9 Hunt, Story of Psychology, 184-85.

10 James B. Watson, “Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It,” Psychological Review 20 (1913), cited in Hunt, Story of Psychology, 256.

11 Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul: A Guide for Cultivating the Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Life (New York: Harper Perennial, 1992).

12 Ibid., 5.

13 William Kirk Kilpatrick, The Emperor’s New Clothes: The Naked Truth about the New Psychology (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1985), 22-23.

14 Vitz, Psychology as Religion, 119.

15 An excellent philosophical case for the reality of the soul is the essay by J. P. Moreland, “A Defense of a Substance Dualist View of the Soul,” in Christian Perspectives on Being Human: A Multidisciplinary Approach to Integration, ed. J. P. Moreland and David M. Ciocchi (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993), 55-79; see also Gary Habermas and J. P. Moreland, Immortality: The Other Side of Death (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1992).

16 John W. Cooper, Body, Soul, and Life Everlasting: Biblical Anthropology and the Monism-Dualism Debate (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989).

17 The reality of our capacity for transcendence, and the various ways that this transcendence has been understood, receives helpful treatment in Norman L. Geisler and Winfried Corduan, Philosophy of Religion, 2d ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1988).

18 Kilpatrick, Emperor’s New Clothes, 20, 44-45.

19 See chapter 4 of Enduring Issues in Psychology, ed. Toni Blake, Opposing Viewpoints series (San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1995), for a collection of essays from varying perspectives on the nature-nurture debate.

20 Charles J. Sykes, A Nation of Victims: The Decay of the American Culture (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992), 3, cited in Vitz, Psychology as Religion, 86.

21 Anna Russell, “Psychiatric Folksong,” quoted in Paul C. Vitz, Psychology as Religion: The Cult of Self-Worship, 2d ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 61 n. 7.

22 “Dear Officer Krupke,” in West Side Story (1957; film version 1961), lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.

23 Vitz, Psychology as Religion, 3. By “gnostic” Vitz means an approach to the human problem that finds the solution in knowledge (Greek, gnosis).

Related Topics: Apologetics