Dr. Arjan Plaisier, secretary of the general synod of the Protestant Church in the Netherlands on a debate who man is.
Who is man? The other day the Jacobi church in Utrecht filled up with people for a public debate on this topic. Two scholars crossed swords with each other: Dick Swaab and Herman van Praag. The first states: man is his brains. The latter says: man is spirit. There was a strikingly great interest. This question is up to date. That is not really astonishing. It is about nothing less than the question who we are.
I will not enter into the debate itself, I was not present there.
The idea of Swaab fits into a longer row. In this row are statements like: man ‘is’ what he eats (it sounds better in German: der Mensch ist was er isst). Man ‘is’ his descent. Man ‘is’ his environment. So now man is brains. And since your brains are genetically determined, man is pretty much fixed. Add to that the influence of the environment which stimulates the brain and you have got it. According to Swaab religion is an explicable phenomenon. Brains, stimulated in a certain manner, prompt religion.
The drive behind these theories is the will to explain man. Man ‘is’ his brains. That is all. That is the complete picture. Everything we think is just production of the brain. There is something else behind this. If we know man completely, we can also control him better.
Centuries ago the mathematic and scientist Pascal wrote: “Man is infinitely beyond man”. With that he protested against a “just” explanation. Man is just an animal. He is just brains. I raise my hat for all pure science, but I think this is poor. Man is infinitely beyond man. Man is more than brains and longs for ‘eternity, deep deep eternity’ (Nietzsche). Therefore let us try in a different manner than Swaab and colleagues: ‘man is the child of wonder’. Or: ‘man is an arrow of longing for eternity’. Or: ‘Man reflects God.’ Then the world suddenly becomes greater, deeper, ‘more human’.
Just the mind. The difference between us is the mind. More brains, less brains, brains stimulated this way, brains stimulated that way. I prefer a different world. The world that reaches from murderer to saint. A world in which in the eleventh hour the murderer still is allowed to share the fate of the saint and the saint falls into the canyon of temptation at 5 minutes to 12. The world in which the poor in spirit is blessed and a wise and intelligent one has little to peck at. A world Jesus is part of.
In Swaab’s world everything adds up. The only thing is: it is all so confined, as limited as a house with a door too small to knock on. ‘Behold, I stand at the door, and knock’, Jesus says. And what a liberation is it to be allowed to open the door.