Memento, homo, quia pulvis es …
If “spirit” exists, and has the qualities and character it is said to have, then the existence of matter makes no sense at all, and you have to explain it. The old Platonists at least had the intellectual honesty to admit that matter was an anomaly in a spiritual world and they came up with the theory that it was a dungeon of punishment for an alleged “fall” from the world of ideas. To become fully human, you had to escape matter (your body) and get back home. Their offspring, the neo-Platonists 500 years later, were more sophisticated about it. They claimed matter was “non-being” in the process of being “conquered” by being. To be fully human you had to conquer your portion of it, your body, and fill it with spirit. The program for “spiritualizing” your flesh was called “spirituality.” The Greek Christians were inspired by neo-Platonism and, although they were restricted by the Hebrew insistence that creation was “good,” they still treated “matter” as a vile corrupted appendage that needed to be “spiritualized” through ritual and ascetical purification to make it human. So, the ancients of our Greek dualist tradition all agreed that matter was a serious problem … it was a “spiritual” problem because it caused problems for the spirit. Matter for all of them was real, powerful and fully alive — hell bent on the wrong things. It was matter that accounted for evil in the world. Spirit had to struggle with matter because matter was the agent of evil and could derail our spiritual destiny.
But with the onset of modern times, matter ceased being a “problem,” because by reducing it to utter lifeless inertness, supine before the awesome power of technology (mind), its “spiritual” significance was eviscerated entirely. Technology took the spiritual struggle out of dominating matter; it ceased requiring personal engagement. Moderns are complete “idealists,” and reductionism is the flip-side of idealism. They don’t call matter “corrupt” and corrupting, that’s old wives’ tales. Matter is no longer evil, it’s worse. For them matter is treated as if it did not exist. Nothing but “mind” really exists. Humans are “minds” created by a “Mind-God,” and the presence of matter as the universal matrix is simply a minor (temporary) glitch whose significance can be effectively ignored because technology (mind) has or will shortly dispense with it. Matter does not matter. We no longer need to “worry” about it. It is simply manipulated out of the way, or manipulated for our whims and pleasures by our technology. It’s treated as an obstacle to be eliminated … like the way time and distance disappear before the magic of high-speed travel and electronic communication. Matter to the moderns is not real, it’s a trivial impediment to our gratifications with no intrinsic significance or meaning whatsoever.
Modern religious dualists share this perspective. Two recent and otherwise excellent books by Paul Knitter and Harvey Cox, both focused on updating Christian thinking, do not even consider the issue of our material existence. Of all the new knowledge and various cultural factors they use to confront and re-evaluate our tradition, the discoveries of the material sciences and organic evolution are completely left out of both. To me, these theologians seem lost in the mind. Is it insignificant to them that we now know it was matter that evolved mind to serve its needs not the other way around? It’s so easy to get lost in our heads. And then we can’t understand what people are, and what they have to do … and so we construct societies and economic systems that are anti-human. Our dualist religions are a cause of this mis-understanding.
It means that our human cultural products, and religion is one of them, have no context, no ground. They just float there … like they hang from sky hooks. Knitter for example, relates to “creation” from the point of view of a “God” who is love. But beautiful as that is, please notice, it still retains the traditional image of the human being as a mind, the product of another mental agent — “God” — another mind. The flesh, the body, the earth, even as medium, is left out. It’s as if science and the world it has revealed over the last two centuries never existed. The actual organic, material etiology for the entire panoply of human activities is simply omitted. There is a Haitian proverb that says, “Behind the mountains, there are more mountains.” For these cerebral theologians, there are only the near mountains they can see. How can you talk about mysticism, as Knitter does, and not take the universal picture into account — the farther mountains and more mountains that stretch on out to the sea — the ground on which we stand? Even if you really thought a “mental” God created by using material evolution only as a means for other “mental” ends … why isn’t the choice of means itself a significant element of your analysis of who this “God” is and why he does what he does? Matter is ignored. I am totally mystified.
To all this I respond: Given the utter incompatibility between matter and spirit, there is only one possible explanation why matter exists at all — and that is because it has to exist, there is nothing else. There is no spirit, for if there were, there would be nothing else but spirit. Matter is here because it is all there is; matter is existence itself. It was matter that produced mind, not the other way around … mind is a material function. From this you can get a sense of exactly how alienated we are from ourselves. We have been “turned around” a full 1800. “We turn the world upside down and then stand on our heads to look at it.” Of course we are constantly frustrated — we have no idea who the hell we are. We live in a DisneyLand of the mind. We have no respect for the sacred material matrix in which we live and move and have our being … which spawned us and owns us … whose family name we bear. As a result, we’ve lost our sense of belonging, and the meaning of life, and we sleep-walk into never-neverland of the “mind” in search of it. But what we come back with from that “other world” is a fairy-tale that evaporates like a dream at the “awakening” — i.e., when matter reasserts its proprietary rights in a way that cannot be denied — at the death event … when we are called home to the bosom of our “mother.” “… et in pulverem reverteris.”
We must begin to re-interpret our religious traditions radically. They encapsulate a great deal of human wisdom gleaned and garnered through the millennia, and they encourage us to a profound love of existence. But their vision of that reality was flawed because they lacked the tools to see it clearly. That’s nothing new. It’s happened to us many times before. Imagine what a shock it was for us to discover that the earth revolved around the sun and not the sun around the earth. We still can hardly believe it when we watch the sun “rise” and “set” everyday for our delighted eyes as it has since the beginning of the human appreciation of the beautiful. The same is true of our understanding of ourselves and “God.” We are matter’s energy and so is “God” because matter’s energy is all there is. There is nothing else. There is no remainder. Matter made mind … mind did not make matter. And in us matter continues to make an ever clearer and more perfect “mind” with the love, compassion and respect for reality-as-it-is that our heritage inspires.
We must own up to our family name, and take pride in it. We have to stop despising our grubby and grasping origins. We are earth … we come from earth and unto earth we return. We can trust it. It spawned us and gave us eyes to gaze in wonder at this raucous “experiment in green.” If we are already the result of such awesome marvels, what future must it hold in store? As material energy we have been part of this creative evolving “family” for 13.7 billion years and maybe even more … we will always be part of it wherever it goes and whatever it does.
P.S. The books referred to above are:
Paul F. Knitter, Without Buddha I could not be a Christian, Oneworld pr. Oxford, 2009
Harvey Cox, The Future of Faith, Harper One, 2009