Tuesday, 10 August 2010

matter and spirit

This post is prompted by too much time spent in waiting rooms and hospitals reading my copies of Faith Magazine. As much as I appreciate their thoughtful and mostly well researched articles, I can not buy into their philosophy and some aspects of it are really beginning to trouble me. I’ve posted on this before. This post deals with their insistence on saying that humans are creatures of matter and spirit. I can’t find this anywhere in the catechism and as a physicist I have real issues with “matter” as a distinct thing in itself. All will be explained if you care to read on….

Sandwiched as we are between the feasts of the Transfiguration and the Assumption, it seem a worthwhile exercise to devote some time to meditation on our fallen, human nature.

It is legitimate to refer to humans as being both body and soul. To avoid any dualistic interpretations, the separation between body and soul only occurs with our death; that ultimate expression of our fallen nature. It is not correct to refer to body and soul as two separate entities outside of this context. I do wonder if one of the reasons Moses and Elijah were able to appear with our Lord and the Transfiguration is that this separation never happened with them, Moses left no earthly remains and Elijah was seen to go to heaven in a chariot. For whatever reasons, and despite their entirely human nature, the scandal of the separation of body and soul never took place with these two. It is less of a mystery that the Immaculate Conception was also assumed into heaven, body and soul.

The Catechism (404-409) refers to our fallen nature when talking about Original Sin, in doing so, our nature is not sub-divided into body and soul.

What about referring to our nature as being made of matter and spirit? At first glance it may appear to be saying the same thing as saying we are body and soul. However, it is a much sharper distinction and those who divide us in this way see matter and spirit as two separate elements in our composition. Two relevant quotes from the Faith Movement (who like the matter/spirit distinction) are at the bottom of this piece and the rest of my blog makes some reference to their claims.

Firstly, it is important to say that matter isn’t body, because spirit isn’t soul. St Paul makes the distinction between spirit and soul in 1 Thess 5:23. This means that body/soul or matter/spirit distinctions are not simply a matter of language.

So, is it plausible to divide us into distinct elements of matter and spirit when it is so implausible to divide us into distinct body and soul? It is certainly necessary for the Faith Movement’s philosophy which says that Original Sin is transmitted via “material laws”. My big problem with this is that as a physicist I don’t actually find matter all that “mattery”. Each individual atom is mostly empty space, with a gap equivalent in size to the distance between the sun and the earth between the nucleus of the atom and its orbiting electrons (whatever they are). That we actually experience the solidity of sold matter is all to do with how we see it and how we feel it and these experiences are actually down to electromagnetic phenomena (waves and fields wherein forces are felt) and have nothing to do with the particle nature of the matter. I will also strongly attack the claim that matter is deterministic. If, when playing snooker, you knew everything about your cue, the force with which you struck the cue ball and the subsequent spin and momentum of that ball you could still NOT determine how the balls would break on the table. Determinism is decidedly limited and indeed ends up being probabilistic, you can only say that given certain original conditions, there are various probabilities associated with the possible outcomes.

This limited sense of determinism that actually exists for material objects could also apply to the spirit. Indeed the spirit is even more deterministic than matter, it either tends towards God or away from God and the environment (spiritual or material) in which one’s spirit finds itself may very much influence the direction in which it goes. In other words I’d say matter and spirit very much influence each other and making them separate elements serves no purpose. Spirit then ceases to be totally free, it is only the act of the will combined with the grace of God, that frees it totally. The act of will on its own enslaves the spirit to worship of self and evil.

One final meditation: think about St Peter, walking towards Our Lord across the water. This is a total, willful act of Faith. When his faith fails him “he begins to sink”. This, to me is a much neglected but remarkable phrase. If physics took over as his faith failed, he would sink like a stone and flail about. “Beginning to sink” for a man walking on water shows that there is a very fuzzy dividing line between things of the spirit and things of matter, if indeed there is a line at all.

Quotes from the Faith Movement below:

FAITH movement offers a new synthesis of science and the Catholic faith as proclaimed by the Church's teaching authority (Magisterium). In a perspective of creation through evolution we can show clearly the transcendent existence of God and the essential distinction of matter and spirit. Within this perspective we can also understand more clearly the disaster of sin and its wounding effect. We offer a vision of God as the true Environment of human beings, in whom we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28); of his unfolding purpose in the relationship of Word and grace through the prophets; and of Jesus Christ - the Son of God and Son of Man - as Lord of creation, Heir of the Ages and the one who redeems and fulfils our humanity.

The Wound Of Sin: Original And Personal
Matter is by nature programmed and deterministic. Spirit is by nature free to accept or refuse the good. Human beings are both body and soul. According to the biblical tradition the first generation of mankind tragically introduced into our nature a wound to our natural integration into control and direction, by the deliberate choice of evil. This wound is then passed on by the material laws of inheritance to every generation. Original sin disorientates the 'life-sense' of mankind by which we naturally seek fulfilment in God and harmony with one another. It alienates us from the goodness of God and frustrates our natural desire for communion with our Creator and gives us a tendency to sin, disordering our desires. Personal choices for evil further damage our nature and distance us from the perfection God intends for us. The answer to the confusion and conflict within ourselves caused by sin must be both an act of merciful forgiveness and a work of healing.


Ttony said...

I don't understand enough (scientifically, theologically or philosphically) to join in the discussion, though i think I understand enough to follow it, but a) I'm glad it's happening and b) I hope somebody engages with you over this.

But don't make yourself ill over it.

Rita said...


I don't understand enough either, I just find myself full of questions.

Anonymous said...

I don't understand enough either, but what really gets me is YOUR last paragraph, on "the beginning to sink" of Peter, and the fuzzy dividing line. I never really thought about that, now apparent, gradual process of sinking.

Gosh now that I think about it, it makes me think of the gradual process of sinking as it relates to the moral life as well. I guess most of us rarely just totally jump out of faith, or out of moral rightness, we usually slowly slide out of it into a morass of deepening darkness.

Anyway, it is food for thought. I'll have to think about this.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts and question.

Autumn said...

Definitely out of my depth!!!