Dualism: Living in a Material World

Because I can’t reference Lady Gaga all the time; and Madonna was the Lady Gaga of the 80’s (or have I got that backward?).

I’ve talked about dualism a lot here; but it’s been in a more general vein.  That is, I’ve talked about dualistic tendencies in historical Christianity and the backlash against these in modern times.  I haven’t looked in detail at the different flavors of dualism:  ethical, metaphysical, and so on.  Since what I’m looking at in this series is the relationship of orthodox Christianity to Gnosticism, especially any common grounds they may share; since my contention is that there’s more such common ground that is generally assumed; and since Gnosticism posits a spirit/matter duality; for all these reasons, as I continue my quest for a Gnostic orthodoxy, I want to examine the issue of matter and the spirit in this post.

I take the dichotomy as real, of course.  Philosophical materialism–the view that nothing but matter and energy exists–would deny the existence of “spirit”; but I do not subscribe to a materialist worldview.  Almost all forms of Christianity accept the existence of spirit as well as matter, though attitudes towards the two may differ.  For the purposes of discussion here, the material universe is understood to mean the physical universe, made of matter and energy (which are, after all, different forms of the same thing)  which interact according to the four fundamental forces (electromagnetic, weak nuclear, strong nuclear, and gravity), and which is observable by scientific methods.

Spirit, on the other hand, is neither matter nor energy (though it’s often thought of in terms much like the latter); it is not “present” in the material universe, since location is a property of material objects; it can interact with matter and energy, though; and finally, in accordance with traditional theology, it is immortal and indestructible, and it is simple (that is, non-composite; not made up of constituent parts, like material objects are).  God and the angels are pure spirits, and our souls are spirits which are “attached” to–or, better, “associated with”–our bodies.

So much as this most Christians (and also Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and members of many other religions) would agree.  Traditional Christians also have been ambivalent about the material, as opposed to the spiritual, world.  The difference between Christian and Gnostic theology has traditionally been held to be that Gnostics viewed matter as irremediably evil, whereas Christians viewed it as fundamentally good.  These views extend to the differing ideas as to who is responsible for matter.  Christians, considering it basically good, attribute its creation to God; whereas Gnostics, considering God to be perfectly good and matter to be evil, deny He made it, attributing it, rather, to the Demiurge.

More recent studies of Gnosticism have debated whether they saw matter as totally bad; and Christianity of the more orthodox varieties, as noted, has not unambiguously seen it as totally good, so there is nuance and room for debate on the issue.  I don’t want to focus there, anyway, since that would be beyond my depth.  I also don’t want to argue about matter per se–how is iron or an electron or electricity “evil”?  What I want to look at is more conceptual and theological.

First, our bodies are material, and like all material things, subject to dissolution.  That is, we are mortal–eventually we die.  Generally, humans don’t view this as a positive state of affairs, so matter is “bad” for us in terms of making us mortal.  Matter is also limited, by definition.  As I’ve discussed before, our minds are impeded and hampered by the limitations of our body and the material world.  Our souls are of course also finite–the only infinite spirit is God–but that is a different kind of limitation from that of embodiment. These two things, though are not necessarily evil.  After all, any kind of creation implies limitations.  God only is infinite–anything He creates is perforce limited and finite.  Limitation implies “evil”–or perhaps better, “imperfection”–by its very nature.  In the language of Thomism, all created beings have privations–that is, “lacks”.  Privation is an “evil” in the sense of a lack of perfection, or in an abstract ontological way, but not “evil” in the usual sense of how we use that word.

Thus, death per se is a limitation, but not necessarily an evil (as discussed here, Tolkien thought our attitude towards death, not death itself, was the problem). Likewise, the limitations of our material bodies may be irksome, but they are not necessarily evil.  Once more, it may be more a matter of our attitudes than of ontology.

The place at which the issue become interesting is in the origin of the material cosmos.  The traditional Christian view is that the universe was fully good, to the greatest extent possible for a created, finite entity, in its original state as created by God.  This is what I take issue with.  As I’ve discussed at greater length in the past, there’s no way, in my view, to avoid admitting that evil in massively large quantities has existed in the material cosmos long before mankind came on the scene; and that such evil seems to be integral to the cosmos itself.  I won’t rehash those arguments; suffice it to say that it seems beyond belief to say that a world containing animals that kill each other in nasty ways, natural disasters, diseases that target humans and animals specifically in interesting and nasty ways, cancer, and other such things is somehow “very good”.  It’s untenable to argue that such things are the result of the Fall; but then, they would seem to indicate a rather sadistic God as their creator.

Well, I go along with Christians and Gnostics in denying that God is like this.  I don’t attribute to Him a world of ichneumonids, malaria, leukemia, and so on.  Thus, insofar as the universe is like this, I do not attribute it to Him.  I thus tread between the orthodox, who attribute the world’s creation to God and all the evils to the Fall (or other unspecified factors), on the one hand, and the Gnostics, who attribute it to the Demiurge, washing God’s hands of all involvement, on the other.  I think that God did make the material world; but I think that the fallen spirits–the Devil and his minions, if you want to use that terminology, or the Archons, if you’re of a more Gnostic bent–screwed it up.  This happened in the atemporal milieu of the Pleroma, and so while one can say that God made the cosmos good and that the demons messed it up “later”, it’s vital to remember that from our perspective within the system, the “marring” (Tolkien’s term) of the universe is simultaneous with its coming into being.  For us, it’s always been marred, has never been “very good”; but from God’s perspective it once was, at least in His intent.

This is not so far off from either system.  Even in Gnostic systems, the material world, created as it was by an offspring of one of the Aeons emanated from God, is ultimately derivative of Him; and even for the orthodox, God, at least through His permissive will–what He allows–is responsible in some sense for an imperfect and highly flawed cosmos.  I think it’s more a matter of emphasis than anything else.

Of course, the implications here are that God is in some sense not exactly “good” in the way we generally define that term; but that is something I’ll defer until later posts.  Suffice it to say that in the ultimate outcome of things, my faith is that all tears will be  dried, all wounds healed, and perfect goodness will win the day.  In the meantime, I think a  healthy suspicion of the material world–not wholesale rejection, but not simpleminded warm, fuzzy embracing, either–is a good habit of mind to cultivate.

Part of the series Dualism.

Also part of the series Towards a Gnostic Orthodoxy.

Posted on 30/09/2012, in 80's, Christianity, Gnosticism, metaphysics, music, philosophy, pop, religion, theology, videos and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

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