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.

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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.]

Faith in Unbelief

I am one struggling to have faith in unbelief.

Contrary to many, I feel that religion is a positive force in the world.  Where else will a person find teachings that oppose the excessive consumption, greed, and vanity of western capitalist culture?  Where else will a person be valued not by the clothes they wear, but by who they are?

The May meeting of the Faith and Order Convening table of the National Council of Churches of Christ USA just concluded.  There are 38 different Christian denominations that are members of the NCCC USA.  I think that we do a pretty good job of working together considering the differences among our 38 denominations.  Some may find it hard to believe that there are 38 different Christian denominations–and I don’t think that there should be.

As a Swedenborgian in the NCCC USA, I have an uphill battle.  Despite the good will we have for one another, there are still religious prejudices.  Although there is an impressive list of poets, philosophers, and literati who have been avid readers of Swedenborg, the Swedenborgian connection has been actively suppressed.  Scholars and theologians don’t want a Swedenborg in their world.

For things like this, and other division-causing reasons, some have turned away from religion.  Perhaps many.  As a believer, this concerns me.  Religion has taught me so much wisdom, and has guided me out of hellish behaviours that I can’t imagine life without it.

But spiritual people, who aren’t religious, do find guidance and a higher power.  Where, I wonder, and how do such people find their way to God?  I know that God flows into every heart and mind and guides.  Even without God, people live good lives and have conscience.

I would have to have a trust in humanity to believe that without the nurture of religion, people will find their way to a life dedicated to others, and not themselves.  To believe that unbelievers have it in them to save themselves and the world around them, and to care.  Robert Frost puts it well, “Whether we have it in us to save ourselves unaided.”  It’s that “unaided” that gives me pause.  Without God, without religion, where does humanity find that power to save–save themselves, and the world?

I am one struggling to have faith in unbelief.