Spirit and Matter and Life

Dead matter.  That’s how I saw the material world.  My understanding of Jesus added to this world view, “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless” (John 6:63).  I understood this statement of Jesus according to the science I was raised with.  The atoms, chemicals, material compounds were all dead matter.  There was the spiritual world which is alive, and there was the physical world made up of dead matter, atoms, chemicals, material compounds.  “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless.”  Even Nature was made up of dead matter.

The cells in our bodies, the leaves on trees, the soil in which plants grow are all made up of atoms, chemicals, and material compounds which are dead matter, I thought.  This world view is called Cartesian dualism.  Renee Descartes tried to come up with a theory to account for the relationship between spirit and matter.  Willing your arm to move is spiritual.  Wanting, or willing, is spiritual.  But your arm is physical.  How can something spiritual like the will affect something physical like your arm?  I’m not sure Descartes ever came up with a satisfactory solution to this problem.  But he described the problem well—movements of the soul are spiritual; movements of the body are material.  “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless.”  Actually, Cartesian dualism actually goes back to Plato.  In Plato, there are two worlds: the world of the unchanging Ideal Forms, or ideas (ideai, eide) and the world of matter (hyle).  For Plato, what is really real, and our eternal home, is in the world of Ideal Forms; we end up on earth through a fall from the realm of Ideal Forms.  So the separation of spirit and matter can be traced way back to Plato.

While early Christians were sympathetic to Plato, notably Augustine and Gregory of Nyssa, there is a problem with Plato.  The Bible says that when God created Nature, God called it “very good” (Genesis 1:31).  Plato’s contempt for the material world is not shared by Christians.  Nature is created by God and is good; we are meant to be born here by God’s creative design.

But is matter dead?  Is the theory of matter that I grew up with true?  I am not a physicist.  But after reflection on Swedenborg’s theology, and after dialogue with a Cree elder, and from what I know about contemporary quantum physics, I think there’s only a thin veil between spirit and matter—not the drastic gulf one finds in Plato and Descartes.

Quantum physics tells us that matter is continually in flux.  Sub-atomic particles are popping into existence and vanishing out of existence all the time.  Atoms and molecules are continually vibrating.  Electrons are more a shell of probability than they are particles that are here or there.  Furthermore, matter is not solid.  Consider atoms.  The electron shell around a nucleus is like a pea in the middle of Shea Stadium.  There is that much space between the electron shell and the protons and neutrons in the nucleus.  But not empty space.  There are electromagnetic fields, gravitational fields, and all manner of other forms of energy that make up “dead matter.”  Energy fields such as the electromagnetic field permeates all of the universe.  Our very thoughts are electromagnetic impulses.  Sparks.  Electromagnetic energy.  If our thoughts are electric sparks and if electromagnetic fields permeate everything—even rocks—how different are our thoughts from rocks?  From the matter in our thoughts and the matter in rocks.  Both are made up of sub-atomic particles and energy fields that are always in flux—are alive?

The veil between spirit and matter is very thin, probably porous.  Now, I don’t think matter is dead.  Now, I see God in all God’s creation.  Now I revere Nature as I do Nature’s Creator.

Truth, Fact, and Meaning

The things we are most certain of mean the least to us.  The things that mean the most to us, we are least certain of.  The difference is between fact and truth.  We are certain of facts, we believe truths.  A chemical redox equation can be duplicated anywhere, any time, and the results will be the same.  A redox equation is fact.  But does it mean anything to us how may electrons switch valences?  Of course, the batteries that depend on redox equations power our cars and cell phones, and they matter a great deal to us.  But the certainty of the equation itself doesn’t matter much to me.  On the other hand, the fact that there are eternal consequences to the way I live now matters a great deal to me.  The truth that there is a loving Creator watching over me, leading me, guiding me towards eternally lasting happiness matters a great deal to me.  But the existence of God is a belief, not a provable fact.  The reality of eternal life is also a belief, not a provable fact.

I grew up in a family that thought only science was truth.  Even art was devalued.  Math, engineering, chemistry, mechanics–these were the things that mattered.  These were the things they called truth.  The meaning a person finds in a poem, was not considered truth.  In fact, it wasn’t considered at all.  In the Turgenev novel I’m reading, the nihilist Bazarov deprecates belief, the arts, and aristocratic values.  He believes in nothing.  This abandonment of belief thrusts him into science.  He thinks that only science is certain.

But there is much truth in poems, like Robert Frost’s The Mending Wall.  “Something there is that does not love a wall.”  There is a feeling in us that wants connection among fellow humans and doesn’t love walls that come between us.  But Frost is an artist, not a scientist.  I don’t think it can be proven that there is a human antipathy to walls that come between us.  But I agree with Frost.  I believe he is correct.  The Mending Wall means more to me than the existence of quarks.  Quarks can be proved, Frosts truths can’t.  Neither can God’s love for humanity, nor the reality of afterlife.  But even if the things that matter most to me can’t be proven, my life is more fulfilling when I act upon the truths I believe.  I don’t see how science can direct me to a full and fulfilling life, even if the facts it discovers are provable.  The things that matter most to humans are not provable; the things that are provable hold least meaning to us.

THE LEXICON OF LANGUAGE

Human community is the lexicon of language
Shared speech defines word and syntax
I know holy language, spoken among
Those self-identified spiritual
The lexicon of holy books, prayer, chant, doctrines
To whom these matter
I know ecstasy and peace
I know sin and craving
Shadow only exists by sunshine
I know secular language, spoken among
Those self-identified disinterested to spirituality
The lexicon of sciences, literature, arts, pop-culture, ego-gratification, social standing
To whom only these matter, or matter largely
I know class, sophistication, cultivation
I act the fool, commit faux-pas, social blunders
What honest human doesn’t, can’t, won’t
Secular language grounds the holy
As bark encloses trees, skin encloses the body, callous
Only flowers are unprotected

What Happened to the Christian Message?

Christianity spread like wildfire in the first few centuries CE—when it was illegal and punishable by a horrible death.  Today, mainline churches are aging, shrinking, and dwindling.   What was it that caught on to such a phenomenal degree in the early Roman Empire?  What happened to the Christian message today?  What is the Christian message?

There is a story in Acts about an Ethiopian eunuch who heard the Christian message from Philip, while riding home in his chariot.  They even passed by some water in the desert, and the Ethiopian asked to be baptized in it.  What was Philip’s message that so impressed the Ethiopian?  All Acts says is that Philip told him the good news about Jesus.  The earliest Christian message was, “He is risen!”  And I doubt that much Christian doctrine had evolved by the time of Philip’s conversation with the Ethiopian.

We have lots of doctrine now.  Swedenborg wrote 30 volumes of doctrine.  Then there’s the Church Fathers, the Catholic History of doctrines which they call the Catholic Tradition, Luther’s body of writings, Calvin, Westley, and all sorts of other Christian theologians.

And consider the setting of the Acts story.  The conversion of the Ethiopian occurred while they were riding on a chariot in the desert.  They weren’t in a magnificent cathedral.  They weren’t in a simple chapel.  The conversation happened in the midst of their life situation.

Mainline churches and even Jewish synagogues do pretty close to the same thing.  There are Bible readings, prayers, and a sermon.  People mostly sit there and listen, while the priest, minister, or rabbi preaches to the congregation.  It’s all very passive.  True, people do sing hymns, and recite psalms.  But I wonder if the problem with contemporary Christianity is the form, and not the content.  The way church services go, rather than the message of Jesus.

I can’t imagine that people have changed that much since Roman times.  I can’t imagine that the message of Jesus isn’t relevant.  In ancient Rome, there were temples everywhere, and people even sacrificed to the “spirit” of things like road intersections, rivers and sacred places, woods, and the Roman gods.  I heard a scholar say that pretty nearly everywhere in ancient Rome was sacred—woods, temple grounds, rivers, roads, lakes, everything.  Were the ancient Romans more tuned to religion than we are now?

Maybe.  Science took over in the 19th and 20th centuries, including psychology.  Science gives us a world view that doesn’t need God.  This would be unthinkable in Roman times.  Even merchant ships sacrificed to Poseidon to give them safe travel.  Psychology has taken upon itself the task of legislating morality to us.  Psychology has taught us to be vulnerable, to be open, to express our anger, to seek self-gratification, self-expression, self-fulfillment, and also to love and work.  But psychology’s message doesn’t include God, says nothing about God as the grounding for morality, as a soft science, is not spiritual.  Then there is the legacy of the Enlightenment and Immanuel Kant.  The upshot of Kant’s philosophy is that we don’t need revealed scripture, or even God, or religions, because reason can lead us into moral behaviors.  All these forces have made the message of religion less relevant.

But there is still a large percentage of people today who call themselves spiritual but not religious.  Spirituality has not diminished even if religions have.  Why are spiritual people saying that they are not religious?  Maybe it is because what they think religion means.  On the simplest level, maybe religion conjures up images of sitting in a building listening to a preacher talking at you.  Then there are some of the doctrines that have evolved over the centuries and millennia.  Christians teach that God gets angry at humans, that God punishes, that God calls for genocide, that God murders unbelievers, that God casts the wicked into hell.  These are behaviors that we disapprove of in humans—in fact, these are behaviors that Christians teach believers not to do, and yet God does them.  If I believed these things, I wouldn’t be religious either.  But my God is loving, is all love, can do nothing but love, forgive, and seek to make humans happy.  Maybe my beliefs aren’t all that Biblical, but they are Swedenborgian.

The Christian message I hear, and I believe, is the message of love.  God loves, Jesus loves, and we are invited to love God and to love one another.  That message is in all the Gospels, which were written in the first century CE.  It is likely that that message was told to the Ethiopian.  This message of love was taught in a time when people were murdered in the Coliseum for entertainment.  A time when roads were lined with people being crucified.  When gladiators killed to entertain the masses.  This society heard the message of love and Christianity flourished as an underground movement.  If a society like that of ancient Rome responded to the Christian message of love, would an enlightened society like ours respond less?

I don’t think the message of love falls on deaf ears today.  I don’t think that science has rendered us dead to spirituality completely.  Though apathy is widespread today, I believe that people still care.  I think that the problem with Christianity today is that the original message has gotten buried under human thinking and church traditions.  Philip converted the Ethiopian on his chariot.  If Christianity can integrate with the workaday world, perhaps it will resurrect.  I don’t think the Christian message means sitting facing the altar listening to p preacher hold forth.  It can mean that, for those who like it, but doesn’t have to be.  Then there are all those messages of hate in the name of the church that turn people off.  I think the message of love is still relevant.  While churches are dwindling, I’m not sure that the Christian message is.

Dupery for Dupery

I was talking about God with an acquaintance who told me, “I just don’t see enough evidence.”  The absence of evidence led this acquaintance to disbelieve in God.  I made the observation that lack of evidence does not disprove.  His disbelief in God was on the same level of my belief in God.  Neither were founded on proof.  My acquaintance’s disbelief was actually a fear of being duped.  My belief was actually a hope that God is real.  His disbelief is fear; my belief is hope.  Both positions are emotive, not logical.

What I am talking about is not my own idea.  It was formulated in the nineteenth century by the philosopher William James.  I am paraphrasing James’ wordy language in the above paragraph.  James says it better—and funnier—but he is hard to read.  James says,

“To preach scepticism to us as a duty until ‘sufficient evidence’ for religion be found, is tantamount therefore to telling us, when in presence of the religious hypothesis, that to yield to our fear of its being error is wiser and better than to yield to our hope that it may be true. . . . Dupery for dupery, what proof is there that dupery through hope is so much worse than dupery through fear ? I, for one, can see no proof; and I simply refuse obedience to the scientist’s command to imitate his kind of option, . . .” (The Will to Believe).

Dupery for Dupery.  Is my hope worse than my acquaintance’s fear?  With a philosopher’s precision, James distinguishes between two approaches to truth.  There is the quest for truth and there is the avoidance of error.  Those are two different paths.  James:

“Believe truth! Shun error!-these, we see, are two materially different laws; . . . We may regard the chase for truth as paramount, and the avoidance of error as secondary; or we may, on the other hand, treat the avoidance of error as more imperative, and let truth take its chance.”

If we are talking about something that doesn’t matter all that much—like the appearance of sunbeams being due to a colloidal suspension of water in the sky—maybe fear of being duped is more important than the quest for truth.  But if something matters a whole lot—such as whether I should devote my life to love and thereby find eternal happiness—then fear of being duped may not be as important as the hypothesis that there is a God.  In the case of something that matters a whole lot, I think holding a belief that could be true based on some evidence may be more important than disbelieving out of a fear of being duped due to insufficient evidence.

Living life spiritually is something that we cannot be neutral about.  Either we decide to live spiritually, or we wait for sufficient evidence, all the while living according to only material norms.  But we can’t wait in some neutral space between spirituality and materialism.  People can live good lives, but not spiritual lives.  Spirituality to me means living from spiritual motives, for spiritual purposes, according to spiritual norms.  Without spiritual intentionality, good people appear to be living according to civil law, habit, common sense, but not conscience.  And I think there’s a difference.

So we’re back to the quest for truth and the fear of being duped.  James quotes Fitzjames Stephen effectively.  And I’ll let James’ use of Stephen conclude my reflections, too:

“We stand on a mountain pass in the midst of whirling snow and blinding mist through which we get glimpses now and then of paths which may be deceptive. If we stand still we shall be frozen to death. If we take the wrong road we shall be dashed to pieces. We do not certainly know whether there is any right one. What must we do? ‘ Be strong and of a good courage.’ Act for the best, hope for the best, and take what comes. . . . If death ends all, we cannot meet death better.” [Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, p. 353, second edition. London, 1874.]

The Applicability of Experience

From science, I learned to sift through irrelevant information and find the essential fact.

This has helped me chair meetings.

From lectures in school, I learned to listen well.

This has helped me minister to my neighbour.

From writing term papers, I learned to express complex ideas simply.

This has helped me to talk.

From reading poetry, I learned to capture volumes in sentences.

This has helped me to write.

From adversity, I learned perseverance.

This has brought me accomplishments.

From broken dreams, I learned to bear pain.

This has taught me to love.

Well-Rounded and Alienation

In the renaissance period, the character ideal was to be well-rounded.  The various character virtues a courtier was supposed to acquire were listed in Castigione’s “Book of the Courtier.”  Among them were knowledge of the classical languages, aesthetic appreciation, musical proficiency, literary knowledge and practice, poetic ability, historical knowledge, philosophical knowledge and reasoning ability, wit and good manners, wrestling.  In general, the liberal arts.  Plato had another similar list of virtues in his “The Republic,” and Aristotle, also, in “The Nicomachean Ethics.”

Today, it is hard to figure out what character virtues western society values.  Society has become so fragmented that it is impossible to discern what the twenty-first century person is to aspire to.  Consequently, people tend to stay within the prescriptions of their career and family.  Emerson decried this form of society.  He said, “The priest becomes a form; the attorney, a statute book; the mechanic, a machine; the sailor, a rope of a ship” (The American Scholar).

I have tried to widen my horizons by becoming more of a renaissance man, a more well-rounded individual than someone defined by his profession, geographical region, and family relations.  But I have found that by being well-rounded, I am rather alienated and that I don’t really fit in anywhere.  In a bar, I sound too intellectual and like I’m putting on airs; in a university, I sound too raw and unrefined; in a church, too worldly and in my denomination, too interfaith oriented; in secular society, too spiritual; among intellectuals, too uninhibited; among scientists, too literary, etc . . . I like the character I have developed in my pilgrimage on this planet.  My soul is rich from having lived a variety of lives–academic, spiritual, philosophical, construction worker, poet, minister, lover and friend, scientist.  But for all this, I am not a dilettante.  I have a strong enough background in a discipline which I practice.  But I am not only my discipline.  I am not a form, a statute book, a machine, a rope, a test-tube, a hammer, a library.  I am a man.  A happy man.  A man with wide horizons.  I do not mind that I don’t really fit into a narrow social box.  When I was growing up I was taught to do your own thing.  I have done that, continue to do that, and my world is many worlds.

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