Spiritual Stuff?

Scripture Readings: Genesis 1:1-5, Mark 10:17-22

Spirituality is much talked about these days, but the word is not used in English translations of the Bible. Yet, the Bible is full of references to the Spirit of God and the spirit within various persons, as well as unclean and evil spirits. The New Testament also talks a great deal about the Holy Spirit, and Paul writes about "spiritual worship" (Rom. 12:1), "spiritual gifts" (1 Cor. 12:1), "spiritual wisdom" (Col. 1:9), "spiritual songs" (Col. 3:16), and the resurrection of "a spiritual body" rather than a physical body (1 Cor. 15:44).

Genesis depicts the Spirit of God at the beginning of creation as a wind, and Christians often have thought of the Holy Spirit as "the breath" of God. Today, however, these metaphors have lost much of their power for us. In our religious language "spiritual" refers to what is not material. For us, Spirit is not so much a wind or the breath of God, but our word for the dimension of life that is not material.

This dualistic view of matter and spirit seemed inevitable once Isaac Newton began to reveal the math behind the mysteries of the universe. Yet, today we know from quantum physics that matter is mostly empty space rather than "material," that energy and matter are interchangeable, and that the stuff of the universe is either a wave or a particle (depending on what we look for). So, we no longer have to speak of "spirit" to refer to a dimension of matter that seems to have purpose and creativity, and that even seems to make choices. Our quantum view of matter finds all this in the math, and thus offers us a view of reality more mysterious than we ever imagined.

Does this new view of space, time, matter and energy affect our Christian faith? For most of us, probably not. Quantum physics is too strange, and we lack the metaphors that would help us incorporate its insights into our everyday life. Nonetheless, our awareness that matter is not merely material may lure us to think in new ways about what is spiritual.

An image from the Buddhist tradition might help us look for a new understanding materiality and spirituality. Buddhists suggest that attaining enlightenment is like crossing a stream and discovering that the other shore is really the shore we left. For Buddhists, being "awake" means seeing through the apparent duality of life. There is only one shore, one reality.

Can we see that spirit and matter are not different realities? Can we move beyond the dualistic language about nature and the supernatural that dominates Christian thought? Might a quantum view of reality enable us to see that even as matter is energy, the stuff of our world is spiritual?

If so, then we need not look outside our material world for what is spiritual. Applying the New Testament metaphor, we will find "the kingdom of God" here and not in a supernatural world.

Keeping this in mind, consider the passage from Mark 10:17-22. A devout Jew asks Jesus, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" In the gospel of Mark, Jesus responds by saying, "You know the commandments." And then he recites moral precepts from the Law of Moses. When the man says he has kept all these commandments, we expect to hear Jesus challenge him. Aren’t we all sinners? Isn’t this man being arrogant and self-righteous? But, Jesus does not criticize the devout Jew. On the contrary, we read that "Jesus loved him." It is love, not judgment, that prompts Jesus to say to him: "You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me."

This teaching seems to support the belief that the spiritual world is in heaven, rather than on the earth. Jesus is calling the man to give away his material stuff, and to join the wandering disciples on their spiritual journey, so he will "have treasure in heaven." Isn’t this all about inheriting life after death? Doesn’t it mean the spiritual life requires rejecting the world? Isn’t this a clear case of biblical dualism, which compels us to choose between the spiritual and material realms?

If this were so, Jesus would have invited the man to an extended spiritual retreat. This is not, however, what happens. Jesus challenges the man to "follow me.” Yet, what lies ahead for those who have followed Jesus? Where does Jesus lead them? They journey not to into the wilderness to pray and meditate, but into villages and towns where Jesus heals and teaches. In the New Testament gospels the "spirituality" of Jesus is lived out fully in the everyday world.

We hear occasionally that Jesus withdraws to pray, but the gospels have almost no teachings about how to pray, worship, and lead a spiritual life, if this is understood as separating from the everyday world. The ministry of Jesus is material – it concerns food and debts, relationships with neighbors, and leaving families to found a new community of faith. Furthermore, the story ends, not in Qumran by the Dead Sea where devout Jews were living apart from the world, but in Jerusalem on a wooden cross that clearly represents the terrifying power of the Roman Empire.

The material world, the world of stuff, the world in which first century Christians lived and the world in which we live, is where the "spiritual" is. Matter is full of spirit. We are on the other shore already. The kingdom of God is among us and within us. Everything is spiritual stuff.

We need now to apply this lesson to the natural world, in which we live and move and have our being. Conserving energy, recycling, and living simply is today a way of responding to the call of Jesus. Living simply so that others can simply live is a spiritual life.

St. Francis, who gave away all his wealth and lived with the poor, discovered the kingdom of God not only in simplicity but also in the flowers and animals of the earth. In poverty he came to a new awareness of the mystery of God in creation. He spoke to the flowers and prayed for animals. He embraced all the "spiritual stuff" of life, in faith and love.

Spirit and matter are not separate worlds. Reality is material and spiritual. Life is in the real world, and love is about real people. If we embrace the material stuff of our lives, we’ll be able to let go of it, share it, even give it away. Because it’s all spiritual stuff, and so are we. 

October 20, 2002

 Bob@rtraer.com © Robert Traer 2016