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.