While visiting a friend in Troy NY last year, he told us a delightful story of an unusual relationship that developed at a local restaurant. The restaurant employed two chefs. Neither of them had many friends because of their extreme cynicism, yet in meeting one another this cynicism became the very bond of their friendship. To the amusement of the other employees, they would often pass one another during the day and say, “Remember, nothing matters.”
Well, a tragic accident almost claimed the life of one of the chefs. It left him in a coma and when he awoke he had no control over his body. For many months, he had to re-learn everything – how to crawl, how to make sounds, how to walk, how to talk. His friend eventually gathered the courage to go and see him and upon his arrival, his recovering friend took his hand and with great difficulty said, “Everything matters!”
In this series of articles we explore different views on what it means to be human. My hope is that it leaves you with a sense of… “everything matters.”
In the last article we considered the idea of spirit, soul and body. This trichotomy divides human nature into three separate parts and then develops a hierarchy of dominance. We concluded that this approach often leads to a fractured human experience in which the intellectual, emotional and bodily experiences are devalued and suppressed.
The alternative theories about human nature can be broadly categorized into dualism and monism. Dualism, as the name indicates, recognizes two parts in what makes us human. Monism sees the human with all its complexities as a single reality. Within these categories there is great diversity as well. As such I do not pretend that these articles offer a comprehensive theological survey of these ideas. My aim is rather to distill some of the ideas that have been of benefit in my personal story and invite you to ask some questions and think with me.
There is a richness of experience available to us where beauty is found not only in the spectacular but also in the ordinary. It is so easy to miss this in what is right in front of us. When we cultivate concepts that fragment the human experience, when we justify ideas that despise aspects of our humanity as worthless, we rob ourselves of a tremendous gift.
Dualistic view of human nature
There is a specific kind of dualism that underlies many of our conversations about spiritual things. It is so deeply embedded in our theological concepts that we are often not aware of its presence. It’s the platonic dualism that was adopted in early Christian conversations with Hellenistic philosophers.
Plato and his mates asked a very simple question: How do we understand and describe the essence of any thing? In short the answer they came up with was: there is a part that changes continually and a part that does not change. For example, an oak tree may have many leaves and even if some of the leaves fall off, it remains an oak tree. And so two very general categories of understanding were developed, namely: non-essential attributes and changeless essence. It was imagined that this changeless part derived its essence from an eternal realm of perfect form. Within this context, every material object – whether its a tree, an animal or a human being, is a copy of a perfect form that exists in the eternal realm. Early Christian theologians grabbed hold of this definition of eternity and equated it to the spirit realm.
Admittedly there are more sophisticated ways of understanding Plato’s thought, but the way it has been adopted into Christian theology can for the most part be simplified to the belief in two distinct substances, namely material substance and spiritual substance.
The Philosophical Problem
Successive philosophers built upon these categories of understanding. But eventually a fundamental shift took place. Plato’s original idea that ‘substance’ is the most important category and all other attributes, including the relationship between these attributes were secondary, was being questioned.
It became clear to many that one cannot simply separate the substance of a thing from its relationships and attributes. If we continue with the example of the oak tree, it might be obvious that a fallen leaf does not change the essence of the tree, but what if all the leaves were to fall? What if we remove some branches and transplant it to another location? Is it still the same oak tree? At some stage we have to acknowledge that the attributes of the tree do affect the substance of the tree.
Many such arguments began to make it clear that any substance is the combination of all its attributes and their relationships – that there is no independent spirit substance without the relationship of all attributes. And so a fundamental shift happened that moved away from substance metaphysics to relationality.
This is relevant because although philosophical understanding advanced, many theological concepts remained stuck in the second and third century’s categories of understanding as we’ll see in the next section.
In the 2018 Mimesis Academy curriculum the origin and development of these ideas are explored in greater depth.
Platonic Dualism in Christian Thought
As this form of dualism was absorbed into early Christian theology, eternal changelessness was first applied to God. But these categories of understanding necessarily also affected the way in which all reality was perceived, including human nature. Dualism, as applied to Christian theology, most often takes the form of recognizing two distinct substances, namely material and spiritual.
Let me make it as relevant as I can by looking at an example from the faith communities I am familiar with:
Within many Christian communities it is assumed that every individual person is, or has, a spirit which was designed and created by God. It is accepted that there is an actual substance that is non-material that co-exists with the material substance. In some streams this is made dependent on a born-again experience, but that is not relevant for this discussion. This spirit substance is what can communicate with God most intimately, and it derives its perfection and its innocence not from anything the person does, but as a gift from God. It is often referred to as the true self.
And I can understand the appeal of these ideas. Many believers are coming out of religious systems in which there was an emphasis on them becoming better – becoming better behaved, becoming more spiritual, attending more meetings etc. This performance based religion makes the approval of God dependent on living according to a certain standard.
To bring a message of grace to those who are worn out by such religious obligations, is obviously very good news. The idea that I don’t have to become, but simple rest in what I am is nothing less than salvation in this context. But the declaration that God loves and accepts us unconditionally subtly becomes mixed up with the dualistic idea that this love is based upon a spirit substance that was created by God, independent of anything else I might have been or done. And so there are good aspects of this understanding, but as with the trichotomous understanding of spirit, soul and body, this dualistic understanding has the same weaknesses of fragmenting human experience and devaluing some aspects of it.
Uncreative Stagnancy or Ongoing Creativity?
If what I truly am is a settled reality, a spirit designed and created by God, then what room is left for ongoing creativity? If the true self can only be discovered, if I can only ‘become what I already am’ then what room is there for anything new? Does the future hold any novel possibilities or only an unveiling of what already is?
Plato’s idea of changeless perfection is a beautiful mask… but it hides the fact that such changelessness is uncreative, uninspired, boring sameness. Nothing truly new can come from this realm of perfect form. It is finished. It is done. It is old. It is dead. We attempt to breath some excitement into this realm with phrases such as ‘discover your true self’ or ‘become what you already are’ but in reality nothing creative remains, only an exploration of what was or is. The future is reduced to repetition – nothing truly new awaits.
What if the Creator is still creating? What if divine creativity is not a past event in which a solitary entity designed who and what you are, and ever since tried to get you to discover and conform to that design, but rather… imagine divine creativity presently active in and through your existence, not forcing you to conform to a pre-defined design, but opening up opportunities for you to participate in the adventure of forming and becoming what has never been before. What you are is not simply to be discovered, but you can participate in your ongoing creation – there are possibilities of being not yet realized. Life can be truly novel and truly exciting.
To be the image and likeness of God is not to conform to some pre-defined blueprint of what it means to be human, but rather, it is in our humanity that the boundless generosity, the new possibility and the joyous desire of the undefinable unfolds … and continues to unfold as God re-imagines God-self.
What is Spirit?
What would be the implications for theology if, just like philosophy, it moves away from these third century categories of understanding of substance metaphysics towards relationality? What if spirit is not a spooky otherworldly substance, but the creative movement of relationship?
Maybe relationship will then again be valued as it should, as a creative part of self, instead of a non-essential attribute. If relationship is a non-essential attribute of an eternally changeless self, then it can be discarded as and when we want to.
But what if relationship is the opening up of possibilities, the creative unfolding of a future that is truly new? Can you imagine creation as ongoing and the movements of relationship as the dynamic processes by which this divine logic becomes flesh?
Every connection then becomes sacred, for there is no hard separation between spirit and the material. All of it, the full scope of human experience, whether moments of enlightenment, or the depths of emotions, or the rawness of bodily sensations, all of it is part of the unfolding possibility of being. Everything is spiritually significant for spirit is the connection of all these things into a meaning that transcends any one part of them. Yet spirit does not exist independently of these relationships. It is very revealing that in many languages the word spirit originates in the word breath or wind. It is an unseen movement, yet its reality and effect is obvious.
Eternity in Time?
Plato’s definition of eternity was almost the exact opposite of time. In time things change. In eternity they stay the same. This movement and change was for Plato a sign of its imperfection, consequently perfection became changeless. The relationship between time and eternity therefore became one of opposing forces.
But what if eternity is not the opposite of the temporal, but rather the beauty and meaning found within it? In fact Jesus defined eternal life not in terms of its duration or location, but in terms of relationship (John 17:3) How would our relationship with this material world and with our physical bodies change if we did not view it as non-essential and ultimately meaningless delays towards eternity, but as an interwoven reality?
Maybe eternity is not simply unending time, neither an eternal present dimension which is the opposite of time, but rather, the unique beauty and transcendent meaning of this passing moment. Transcendent because it gathers all the connections of the present moment into a meaning that is larger than this passing moment, and unique precisely because it will never be repeated again.
Plato’s idea that perfection is changeless was also adopted into Christian thought. However, everything in reality changes, even the things that seem really permanent. The idea that for something to be perfect it also has to be changeless, might sound good but there is no instance of such perfect changelessness – it only exists in the realm of abstract ideas and fantasy. The closer a thing gets to being changeless in reality, the more likely it is dead. That goes for ideas as well.
In reality everything that is truly precious to us, is also in the process of changing. I will never again wrestle with my 4 year old son or play hide and seek with my 6 year old daughter. Those relationships are of incalculable value, yet they have changed and continue to change. I still try and wrestle with my 24 old son – now with help from his wife, and I still play games although not hide and seek, with my daughter and her husband. These relationships are still in process, are still changing, and that is what makes them alive. To enjoy what I have now, I cannot try and preserve what I had 20 years ago. Everything changes, and although Plato might not think that’s perfect, it’s just perfect for me.
A budding flower changes, yet every change reveals a form perfect in itself. It contains both the beauty of where it came from and the promise of what it could still be. If the process of change was to stop, it would not be a living flower but most probably an artificial dead imitation.
Oh so much more can be said. Thank you for thinking through these concepts with me. I’m sure it stirred many more questions. We have not yet looked at the scriptural support for these suggestions, neither have we examined Monism, but both these sections will have to wait for the next article.