Saturday, October 09, 2010

Matter/Spirit Dualism

In my previous post, "Dorothy Sayers and the Aliveness of All Things", I discussed the way Sayers went to such lengths to establish what she termed “the intimate unison between spirit and matter.” To a large degree Sayers was legitimately reacting against the disjunction between the material world and the spiritual that was a recurring motif in 20th century Protestant discourse. James Campbell was typical when, in 1924, he observed that,
“When the material world perishes, we shall find ourselves in the spiritual world; when the dream of life ends, we shall awake in the world of reality; when our connection with this world comes to a close, we shall find ourselves in our eternal spirit home.” 
Behind Campbell’s words lay the assumption that matter and spirit are not merely distinguishable, in the way that men and women are distinguishable, but that they are utterly divisible and contradistinct, similar to the antithesis between light and darkness. Over and against the traditional of historic Christian theology which had maintained that the doctrines of Creation, Incarnation and Resurrection made possible the marrying together of matter and spirit, much popular evangelicalism of the 20th century seemed to be following the Gnostics in urging their divorce. Nowhere was this more evident than in the nascent Platonism opposed by Sayers which made the doctrine of the soul’s immortality, rather than bodily resurrection, the central locus of the Christian’s hope.


To a large extent, however, Sayers has been a voice crying in the wilderness. At the close of the century, Time Magazine reported that two thirds of Americans who say they believe in a resurrection of the dead do not believe they will have bodies after the resurrection.  How dead people can be resurrected without them having bodies afterwards remained unexplained. Yet what is even more surprising is that the two thirds who answered this question were not without a pedigree in a wider corpus of late 20th century Protestant thought. In his 1974 publication, Where on Earth is Heaven?, Arthur Travis stated that, “We shall not need or desire the things associated with our present physical bodies, simply because we shall not possess physical bodies in heaven.”  Travis was followed by Leon Morris who, in his commentary on Revelation, wrote, “...we must not understand that the heavenly city will be as material as present earthly cities.”  

On a popular level, the matter/spirit dichotomy exercises just as potent of a primacy. Not too long ago I picked up a leaflet from a local Calvary Chapel church in America which outlined the “Ten Great Doctrines of the Bible.” Significantly, none of the ten doctrines listed made any reference to the resurrection body, and the doctrine of salvation was defined as entirely relating to heaven: “Salvation deals with the afterlife, heaven, hell, and whether or not it is safe to die.” The doctrine of man, on the other hand, had nothing to do with our bodies outside the context of rejecting evolution. The doctrine of “Future Things” made no mention of the new heavens and the new earth, but dealt instead with “the end of the world, and eternity.” This is only one example of the upstairs-downstairs type of thinking that permeates contemporary evangelicalism, in which the unquestioned operating assumption is that what is invisible and non-physical is more spiritual. Radio broadcaster Tony Alamo made this explicit when he said, “The way we communicate with the material world is with our bodies. The way we communicate with the spiritual world is with our spirit.”

A testament to this dualism is the fact that the secular community now routinely assumes that the Gnostic notion of eternal disembodiment is the orthodox Christian hope. In his “compendium of everything you ever wanted to know about death”, Biochemical researcher Brian Innes observed that “current orthodox Christianity no longer holds to the belief in physical resurrection, preferring the concept of the eternal existence of the soul, although some creeds still cling to the old ideas.”  It is equally revealing that after N.T. Wright published his popular book Surprised by Hope, setting forth the historic Christian hope of physical bodily resurrection, ABC news referred to the idea that “God will literally remake our physical bodies” as “a radical departure from traditional belief.”  What the secular community takes as read for traditional Christian belief now includes the very Gnosticism that Sayers so vigorously opposed.

Some contemporary scholars have even gone so far as to argue that the Gnostic position – and the implicit theology of much contemporary Protestantism - actually was the teaching of the historic church.  Similarly, Colleen McDannel and Bernhard Lang contend that
“The resurrected bodies of Pauline thought are not material but ‘spiritual.’ The bodies of those Christians who happen to be alive at the time of the resurrection will be changed ‘in a twinkling of an eye’ into spiritual beings that are immortal.”  “The physical body (in contrast to the resurrected body) may be compared to a tent or garment where the ego, the soul, lives. According to Paul, God will prepare another home or garment for the soul after the death of the body.”
The authors’ attempted to root their view in a dualism between material and spiritual and between earthly and divine, says as much about contemporary Protestant preoccupations as it does these authors’ anachronistic historiography.

Sayers contended that this seemingly irrelevant point of theology – how we relate spirit and matter – has enormous implications in how we understand both the world around us and the part we have to play in that world. If Sayers was correct, then it should come as no surprise that the kaleidoscope of postures making up contemporary evangelicalism includes a significant strain emphasizing the relative unimportance of the present material life. Having unconsciously folded the basic tenets of Gnosticism into the evangelical faith, it is now commonplace for evangelicals to assert that the only work which lasts forever is the work of saving souls while salvation is routinely assumed to be salvation from the physical space-time universe. (For more about this, see my article, “Resurrection or Disembodiment? Gnosticism in Evangelical Theology”)

The work of raising families, building cathedrals, reading novels and trimming hedges are only of temporal importance, while only evangelism is of eternal significance. For example, in his book The Purpose Driven Life, Pastor Rick Warren takes it for granted that one’s mission is saving souls, while one’s vocational labours derive eternal value only to the degree that they serve the ends of the former.
Your mission has eternal significance. It will impact the eternal destiny of other people, so it's more important than any job, achievement, or goal you will reach during your life on earth. The consequences of your mission will last forever; the consequences of your job will not....The clock is ticking down on your life mission, so don't delay another day.
Warren’s dichotomy between mission work and the ordinary work one does for a job was echoed (or echoed, depending on which came first) In Britain, a well known pastor has urged similarly:
the eternal benefits of gospel ministry seem to clearly outweigh the more temporary benefits of creation ministry. Put crudely, while medical help can delay death for a few years, it is only gospel ministry that can rescue us from an eternity in the horrors of hell for an eternity of joy in the new creation. The priority of gospel ministry is clear from the relative benefits of each.
While not wanting to oversimplify the theological issues at stake, it is noteworthy that the implied dualism between mission and vocation or between gospel ministry and creation ministry closely parallels the matter/spirit disjunction that Dorothy Sayers’ opposed. (See "Dorothy Sayers and the Aliveness of All Things") Mission and gospel relate to the “spiritual” end of saving souls, while our vocation and work with creation have only temporal value since such tasks are occupied only with the material world.

To learn what the historic Protestant answer is to this dualism, see my article


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