Remembering Macrina, the Church Mother Who Comforted the Grieving With Scientific Thinking

In AD 379, Basil the Great, one of the men who contributed to the Nicene Creed, died. Basil and his brother Gregory of Nyssa were two of the three Cappadocian Fathers­—men responsible for major theological decisions made in the early life of the Christian church. What is less well known is that they also had an older sister, Macrina. She was deeply precious to them for her love, her insight, and her wisdom; they even called her “Teacher.”

Macrina, who was also on her deathbed at the time, summoned up her last reserves of strength to reassure her struggling brother Gregory that he need not despair; the three of them would one day be together again. Amazingly, in order to provide evidence for this hope of resurrection, Macrina chose a topic that even today remains one of intense scientific scrutiny: the precise form and the objective reality of the mind.

As a matter of fact, this subject—and its cousin, the so-called “problem of consciousness”—has enjoyed a resurgence among philosophers, biologists, and even physicists in the last two decades. Are we humans, as possessors of “minds,” somehow more than just the sum of our parts? The debate has raged one way and the other, but the experts are no nearer a consensus today than they ever have been. It would seem therefore that Macrina, in grappling with the issue nearly 2,000 years ago, was more than a little ahead of the curve.

Intending to offer her grieving brother a hope of reunion, Macrina decided to prove to him that the very essence of a person—their mind—is not just real but eternal. To do so is a tough task; especially when we consider the awkward fact that we cannot physically detect this “mind” in the first place. This notion, however, of non-visible existence would have resonated very well with Gregory—after all, he had worked alongside his brother on the famous Christian creed and had approved the words:

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth,
and of all things visible and invisible

Rather than turning to vague notions of mysticism or appealing to unspecified spirituality, though, Macrina opts for observations about the natural world—by today’s definition, a scientific activity to make her transcendental point. The heart of her argument is this: The mind cannot be purely physical because it rises above the purely physical with its thought. The passage in which she shows this is really quite remarkable and worth looking at in its entirety:

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Source: Christianity Today