When the spirit necessarily includes the letter

[W]e must say this, that if we take “letter” in the sense of the literal formulation of a commandment and “spirit” in the sense of the intention and meaning of the commandment, it is never possible to fulfill the spirit without fulfilling the letter when moral commandments including an absolute veto are in question. For example, an absolute veto is found in the moral commandments: “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” “Thou shalt not curse,” or “Thou shalt not sacrifice to idols or deny God.” Here it is absolutely impossible to claim that someone could ever depart from the letter without violating the spirit, that is, without sinning.

It makes no sense to say that although someone committed adultery in the literal sense of the word he remains true to the spirit of the commandment—if we take “spirit” in the sense of the meaning and intention of the commandment. The formulation here is such that “spirit” necessarily includes the letter, so that the possibility of any departure from the letter without violating the spirit is excluded regardless of the circumstances.

Dietrich von Hildebrand, True Morality and Its Counterfeits, New York:David McKay Company (1955).

Truth and innocence are boring

As in the intellectual field there exists a perversion according to which an interesting, complicated, intelligent error is preferred to a simple, evident truth, so there exists also a moral perversion that leads us to prefer the dramatic, interesting tension of a tragic sin to simple innocence.

Dietrich von Hildebrand, True Morality and Its Counterfeits, New York:David McKay Company (1955), pp. 44-45.

Is the physical higher than the spiritual?

Bruce Charlton argues once again that the solid is better than the spiritual, this time on his own blog under the title “Why is incarnation (being embodied) a higher state than life as a pure spirit?“.


He starts out saying that the idea behind “one of the most profound, yet simple, insights of Mormon theology” is that “God is incarnate”, and that “this mortal life is primarily about ‘getting a body’ – the work of Jesus Christ was (in part) to enable all men to be resurrected, and live eternally incarnate (and cleansed of corruption). This, Bruce says, “was a breakthrough in theology”.

It may be a breakthrough, but it’s entirely consistent with traditional Christian doctrine. Any Catholic can say without fear of violating orthodoxy that God became incarnate, that this mortal life is about us getting bodies, and that Jesus’ work was to enable all men to live eternally in resurrected bodies freed from corruption.

Admittedly when Bruce says “God is incarnate”, what he probably means is that God the Father has a physical body, and not that Jesus – God the Son – became incarnate (though he believes that too). But my point is, Bruce’s statement of Christ’s work and the purpose of our life on earth seems to have no relation to whether or not the Father has a body.


Why, then, is it a problem to believe that God is not embodied? And why is it a “breakthrough” to believe that he is? By “breakthrough” I assume Bruce means that it solves some previously intractable problem. But what problem does it solve?

According to Bruce the problem is that “the religious tradition has tended strongly towards seeing pure spiritual life as a higher form of life than embodiment.” Christians have “often lapsed into talking about the body as corruption and the spirit as higher and purer and more divine. Consequently, mortal incarnate life was often perceived as intrinsically second rate or actually pointless, compared with spiritual life in Heaven.”

That last sentence is correct, and in fact I will say it right now: Mortal incarnate life as lived by fallen humanity is “second rate” compared with spiritual life in heaven. But not because it’s worse to live in a body. Does Bruce think that traditional Christians believe it’s best to be freed from our bodies, in order to become pure spirits in heaven — and never to be resurrected? Does he think that on the day of resurrection Christians will recoil in horror, begging to be spared the “second rate” life of living in a body once again?

Obviously this has never been the teaching of the traditional Christian Church. It has always been taught dogmatically that Christians who die in the state of grace will be resurrected and will live forever with Christ, in heaven, in their resurrected bodies, and that this is paradise.

Bruce argues that because there has arisen repeatedly thoughout history the heresy that spirit is good and matter is evil, therefore the Mormon doctrine that God the Father is embodied solves this problem once and for all. But there’s another way of solving this problem once and for all:  which is the traditional teaching that matter, like everything else God made, is good, and that the problem with living on earth in a human body is not the body per se but the consequences on the human body resulting from the Fall; and that it’s therefore necessary to discipline the body by fasting and penance in order not to be ruled by the body but to rule it, and thereby to avoid sin and attain to the resurrection of our bodies, after which we will be free from the consequences of the Fall and able to enjoy our bodies to the full without fear of their leading us into sin.


I suppose Bruce’s argument boils down to this: When Christians believe that God is pure spirit, this causes them to consider spirit the highest and best thing, and to denigrate the body. Whereas if they believe God is embodied, then they will respect and revere matter and their own bodies.

But didn’t Christians already believe that God was embodied, before Mormonism came along? Did we not believe that Christ was embodied, and that he was God?

On the other hand, don’t we and the Mormons also believe in the divinity of the Holy Spirit? Yet according to Mormon teaching the Holy Spirit “is a personage of spirit, without a body of flesh and bones.” There is no more contradiction between the Father being unembodied and matter being good, than there is between the Holy Spirit being unembodied and matter being good; is there?

The heresy that matter is evil arises not because of the Father being unembodied, but because of man’s fallen nature. The heretic sees that his body leads him into sin through the various lusts of the flesh. He finds it virtually impossible to prevent this. He reads in the scriptures that “[T]he one who sows to his flesh will reap corruption from the flesh, but the one who sows to the Spirit will reap eternal life from the Spirit” (Jn. 6:63); “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing” (Gal. 6:8); “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak” (Mt. 26:41). He concludes that the spirit is good and the body is evil. If this heresy could be defeated by abandoning the belief in God’s spiritual nature, perhaps it could be defeated even more effectively by excising these verses from the scriptures. But we don’t abandon truth to defeat heresy.

Heresy is always a perversion of truth, a skewing or exaggeration of one truth at the expense of others. People can pervert any doctrine they want. The doctrine of God’s being embodied is itself susceptible of being skewed or exaggerated at the expense of other truths (and I would argue that it has; but that’s another topic), thus giving rise to heresy.

But the heresy of bodies being evil is not a skewing of the belief in God’s spiritual nature. This part they get exactly right: That God is pure spirit and free of bodily concupiscence. The part they skew is the doctrine of the Fall. Rather than thinking of their bodies as good things under a curse as a result of sin, but capable of redemption, they think of them as bad things through and through. They think this way despite the Church’s insistence that the body is good, and despite the proof of the body’s eventual glorification and redemption that is provided by Christ’s Resurrection.


Bruce asks, “So, why is incarnation a higher state than pure spirit? Why is it a spiritual progression to ‘get a body’?”

He answers by explaining that we’re not “ghosts in machines”, but rather, composites of body and soul. We don’t inhabit our bodies like a man wearing a suit; “rather, the two become one”. But again this is no improvement on traditional orthodoxy, since it is traditional orthodoxy.

Next he explains that by becoming incarnate, “the immaterial spirit comes to inhabit the material world. The soul thereby attains the fullest possible integration with the whole of reality.”

This argument makes sense on the assumption of the Mormon belief that we have all existed from eternity as disembodied “intelligences”. Since it’s the nature of human beings to have a body, naturally we are happier in bodies. Probably it would feel like a great advantage, after an eternity of being disembodied, finally to have a chance to be embodied, not only on this earth but forevermore.

But according to traditional Christian belief, body and soul are created at one and the same time, as a complete whole. There is no time when we exist as disembodied spirits, excepting the interval between death and resurrection. For orthodox Christians there is no eternal, disembodied preexistence from which obtaining a body constitutes a great relief and the solution to a long-endured privation.


Bruce writes that “Incarnation is more a matter of concentration than of constraint”.

Again this seems to address the problem of preexisting, disembodied spirits, or intelligences. Joseph Smith writes in the scriptural book of the Doctrine & Covenants, “There is no such thing as immaterial matter. All spirit is matter, but it is more fine or pure, and can only be discerned by purer eyes; We cannot see it; but when our bodies are purified we shall see that it is all matter.” D&C 131:7-8. With this in mind the idea of “concentration” makes sense. Smith seems to have in mind spirits who are not entirely immaterial, but who are made up of a finer matter than that with which we are familiar. In this context it might make sense to speak of the concentration of this “fine”, “pure” matter into something more solid, as being an advantage, enabling us to interact with the denser matter of our world.

But if we’re speaking not of fine matter but of pure spirit, what is there to concentrate into matter? Pure spirit is not dissipated matter in need of concentration; it’s no matter at all.


Bruce writes that “enhanced creative power is a product of that greater concentration and of fuller self-awareness, which is characteristic of the incarnate soul”.

Here Bruce makes bald assertions: that the “concentration” involved in becoming embodied gives one fuller self-awareness, resulting in “enhanced creative power”. But what basis is there for saying that a pure spirit is less self-aware than an embodied man? It seems to me the opposite: An embodied man lives within time, and therefore experiences reality one moment at a time. He also lives in space and experiences reality one “space” at a time, the space in which his physical body happens to be located. His eyes see the physical things that are in his field of vision. Can an embodied man see every part of his body at once? Can he see inside his body with his physical eyes? How conscious is he of the workings of his inner organs?

If a physical body is higher than a spiritual mind, this implies that his thoughts have a physical rather than a spiritual basis. Are his thoughts, then, physically contained within his brain? Aside from the philosophical difficulties this presents, how many of his thoughts can he think at one time? Has he perfect awareness of his subconscious at every moment? Has he full and complete understanding of his feelings and emotions?

It seems that a being of pure spirit, not limited in space or time, would have a more complete awareness of his entire self, than a being made up of trillions of cells and dependent on those cells for his self-awareness. All of those cells are him, according to Bruce, since he is, and doesn’t merely inhabit, his body. So full self-awareness must include awareness of every one of those cells. But the cells themselves in a physical being are what provide that self-awareness. Can they be both the means and the object of awareness, simultaneously? Can a sensor sense itself?

Thus there are inherent limits to the self-awareness of a physical being, which don’t apply to a pure spirit.

If on the other hand it is argued that a physical being can be entirely self-aware by means other than his physical organs and the cells which make up his body, what means can those be but spiritual ones? Yet if a physical being attains complete self-awareness through spiritual means, then in what way is the physical said to be higher?


Bruce argues that by not being incarnated, the pure spirit is excluded from the material realm, and therefore is not in touch with the whole of reality.

This argument rests on the assumption that “the whole of reality” was not created by a pure spirit in the first place; thus in arguing for a Mormon metaphysics, it assumes a Mormon metaphysics.

There is nothing logically contradictory about a pure spirit creating material reality and holding it in existence, as orthodox Christians have held for millennia. And if this is what God does, then clearly he’s not out of touch with material reality.

Bruce himself writes that “What happens with incarnation is that the immaterial spirit comes to inhabit the material world.” But if immaterial spirits can have no contact with the material world, then how can they “come to inhabit” it? Isn’t incarnation (under this description) the fusion, so to speak, of the immaterial with the material, such that the former now interacts with and controls the latter? But if spirit can interact with matter in these circumstances, why can’t it do so under other circumstances?

There is a commonly held notion that the immaterial can’t have awareness of and interaction with the material, on the ground that matter can only be affected by other matter, or at least physical forces. Thus as Bruce asserts, pure spirit is excluded from the material realm. But this is based on scientific findings, science being the observation and testing of physical phenomena using physical organs and instruments. Science obviously can say nothing about spirit, therefore the exclusion of spirit from scientific explanations of material phenomena proves nothing. If spirit were involved in the process of holding material reality in existence, science could know nothing about it. Science also can know nothing as to whether a being of pure spirit can observe material reality or interact with it.

We’re tempted to conclude that because “material” and “immaterial” are opposites, never the twain may meet. But the very concept of immaterial beings “coming to inhabit the material world” belies this conclusion. It’s hard to understand how one can hold both views without contradicting oneself. Can they interact or can’t they?


Bruce says that when a spiritual being is incarnated, he now has the physical realm open to him, from which he previously was excluded. But what if he is incarnated as an amoeba? How much of the physical realm does that give him contact with?

On the other hand, what if he is incarnated as a being the size of the entire universe? Wouldn’t that render life on earth microscopic to him, or indeed, subatomic? How much physical interaction could he then have with the physical realm as we think of it? Since a body must always be of a specific size and scale, isn’t a physical being always excluded from interacting with the great swaths of physical reality that are beyond his scale?

A spirit, not being limited by size, can in theory observe, interact with and grasp everything in the universe, from atoms to the universe as a whole; whereas a physical being, to the extent that he is physical, can only interact with things on more or less the same scale as himself. This isn’t to say that his spirit might not be able to interact with physical things outside of the scale which he inhabits. This is what human beings do when pondering and making discoveries about subatomic particles and aspects of the universe which are beyond our direct observation: When we ponder and theorize about them, we are interacting with them not physically, but mentally; which is another way of saying spiritually. Doesn’t this make the spiritual less limited than the physical? and therefore higher?


For these reasons it appears to me that the Father’s having a physical body solves problems that are themselves created by Bruce’s assumed Mormon-based metaphysics. If only the physical can create, and it can only create the physical, and then only by rearranging matter, then all creation must be physical, in which case the non-physical is nothing; and even if we grant that it’s not nothing, it is still cut off from the physical simply by virtue of being non-physical.

Whereas if we assume that God is a spirit who created the material and maintains it constantly in existence, then the spiritual and the material are both good and can interact with each other. But the spiritual is higher since it rules over the physical. In the case of human beings, through the effects of the Fall, the physical rebels, and it’s a struggle for the spiritual to maintain the proper mastery. But we’ve been provided a remedy for this ailment through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. By faith in him we believe, not that we will be freed from our bodies, but that they will be resurrected and once again properly subject to the spirit and therefore freed from the effects of concupiscence (of which Christians can have occasional foretastes even in this life).

I agree that being embodied is a higher state than being unembodied or disembodied for a human being, since it’s our nature to be embodied; but that it’s a higher state absolutely, I don’t think Bruce has shown.

Liberalism and Art, Part 3

(Further thoughts on the topic begun here and continued here.)

The issue for me is not so much that modernist forms of art developed at all, it’s that you can no longer do traditionalist forms of art without being considered “retrograde” or stagnant and opposed to “progress”. I see no reason why modernist art could not have developed side-by-side with a continually-evolving traditionalist art, except that the progressive art establishment wouldn’t have it. You had to be all-in with “progress” or you would get nowhere in the art world.

Again I think of this as a top-down effect. There has always been bottom-up music, that is, folk music, which was in a sense unstudied and informal, as contrasted with the more formal and (dare I say it?) refined and highly developed music of the upper classes. That folk music contrasted with formal music didn’t make it bad. It just was what it was: the music of the folks. Aren’t rock and R&B and other informal genres something like the 20th Century’s folk music?

As I think more about it, I realize that what I’ve been trying to describe is the corruption, not of all art but of specifically upper-class, formal art, the kind you learn in elite colleges and art schools; and by “corruption” I mean, again, the abandonment of the creation of beauty as being the main goal of art. And again this coincides with the rise of liberalism/progressivism among the same class of people, the educated upper classes. By top-down I mean that although it originates in the educated upper classes, obviously it filters down to the lower classes – as does liberalism itself — through media and the educational system.

(By the way, as I said before, I don’t pretend to know what I’m talking about on this topic. It’s just something I’ve been thinking about and thought I would throw it out there and see what people think.)

Liberalism, Protestantism and Rock-and-Roll, Part 2

(Just some more ruminations on coolness and liberalism (see part 1 here). I don’t claim expertise in art or history, I’m just winging it based on what I have absorbed through my general reading, so feel free to correct me where I’m wrong.)

I think that the cool is a peculiarly modern phenomenon. In past ages fashions in e.g. painting and architecture progressed, in that they changed from age to age, but the goal in every age was to enhance or at least perpetuate the good that came before, to take the good points of one architectural or painting style and incorporate them into another that was just as good if not better. If the new thing was judged worse then it would fail; it wouldn’t thrive because it was “cool”.

But at some point we went off the tracks, and things were praised and celebrated not for being better but for being new and therefore exciting. In painting I would guess this occurred in the mid-19th Century, perhaps with Impressionism. By this time painting had been perfected. This isn’t to say there was nothing left to paint, but painting had gotten as good as it could get in terms of reproducing beautiful visual images of the real world. All that was left was to paint the infinite variety of beautiful things there are to paint, using more or less the same methods that had been perfected over centuries.


But Impressionism was a usurpation of the traditional methods — a break with orthodoxy — and it seems to me (as a rank layman) that from then on the goal was no longer good painting, but innovation for its own sake, leading to more and more outrageous painting styles or “schools”. Thus, “progress” in painting was measured not by inherent merit, but by how far it departed from orthodoxy. The same thing happened, more or less, in the other creative arts: sculpture, architecture, music, poetry and literature.


Things “progressed” without any claim that they were getting closer to a fixed goal of “goodness”; in fact they were progressing only in the sense of moving further from orthodoxy.


The rise of cool coincides with the rise of progressivism, both being parasites of orthodoxy. Neither would be what it is, were there no orthodoxy with which to contrast itself.

As someone noted (I can’t remember who or I would credit him), by its own logic, progressivism must end up eating its own tail. It’s not moving towards something, upon reaching which it will be satisfied. Rather by definition it must be perpetually finding fault with orthodoxy, in order to have something to make progress on. But what happens when progressivism is othodoxy? Then it must attack that which has “progressed” the least.

When that happens, I think some of today’s progressives will discover to their chagrin that they’ve become conservatives. In this finite world, nothing is perfect. But according to progressivism, the imperfect isn’t merely capable of improvement, but is in fact wicked. If someone doesn’t actively desire to change it, then he is wickedly keeping it from progressing, for some wicked reason; he’s hateful in some manner and trying to oppress people. He’s a conservative.

One may avoid that fate only by resolving to be always on the crest of the progressive wave. The problem with that plan, is that God alone knows where the wave is headed.

Liberalism is like Protestantism and Rock-and-Roll

It has been noted by many that Protestantism, for a long time, virtually defined itself (if it doesn’t still) as “not-Catholicism”. Thus the two main “pillars” of Protestantism are, in essence, negative: Sola scriptura — no authority outside scripture; and sola fide – no works. Most Protestants would also define themselves by the doctrine that there is only One Mediator, which translates to “no priesthood” (and therefore no sacraments) and “no intercession of the saints”.

Rock music – indeed rock culture – also defines itself negatively, since “rock-and-roll” basically signifies rebellion. The motto of rock culture, “Sex, drugs and rock-and-roll”, is a rebellion against chastity and self-control, sobriety and responsibility. Even the music itself defines itself by its throwing off of restraint and moderation.

The basic idea underlying rock music is the concept of “cool”. But cool itself is meaningless except in relation to what is considered “square”. Square is normal and cool is skewed.

Take for example the fad in recent years of wearing suits that are too small. Men who wear their suits that way think it looks cool. But it’s only cool because it is in fact too small. Too small compared to what? Compared to what is generally considered a correct and proper fit, that is, a good fit. If everyone wore their suits too small, and had been doing so for the past 50 years and more, then there would be nothing cool about wearing small suits, since everyone from security guards to CEOs would be wearing them that way, and it would be normal and square. As far as I know, small suits were in vogue only once before, during the 1960s. Therefore over the past 75 years or so, small suits have been an aberration. Before long they will go out of style again, and in 20 years people will be embarrassed to see pictures of themselves wearing small suits. Eventually they may come back, but only after normal-size suits have been re-established as the norm, since only then will small suits appear cool again. They will again be defying the norm.

The cool, then, is a parasite on the normal. Or as I prefer to put it, a parasite on the good, since the normal is the good. Rock music is a parasite on good music, that is, music that has been under constant development for many years and has been perfected, so much so that it is largely taken for granted. It has become square. Men’s suits and women’s dresses have long since been perfected. It’s no longer possible to make a better suit or dress than has ever been made before, and tailors have long since mastered the art of making a suit or dress fit perfectly. A good-fitting, tasteful suit or dress really hasn’t changed much since the days of Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn. So the quest of fashion designers for the past several decades instead has been to make suits and dresses abnormal in one way or another, either with strange colors or fabrics, an exaggerated cut (huge lapels, skinny ties), or a fit that is either too large or too small (overbroad shoulders or highwater pants). That is, to skew the normal. If a good suit is what Cary Grant would have worn, then one that is too large or too small is a departure from the good. Music that is deliberately too loud or ugly is a departure from good music.

Liberalism too, like rock music and fashion, must be always progressing. Many have remarked on the irony of liberalism: How does it know it’s progressing when it has no fixed goal by which to measure progress? But it seems that liberalism does have a standard, and that standard is the normal, the square, the good. Or, what Chesterton would have called the orthodox. Progressivism means moving away from orthodoxy in one way or another: Either by skewing it or exaggerating or what have you. Thus, liberalism too is a parasite: It has no meaning apart from orthodoxy.

Fashion, rock music and liberalism are all considered to be on the “cool” side of the cultural spectrum; while conservatism, classical music and conventional dress (men in suits, women in dresses, both well-fitting) are “square”. This is why conservatism can never compete with liberalism for the “cool factor”: By definition we are committed to the good, the normal and the orthodox, and are therefore uncool.

I’m fine with that. One of the things that impresses me so much about the Catholic faith is that it’s not a parasite. It has the power to be orthodoxy. Relative to it, other things may be progressive and cool and modern. But the Faith is relative to nothing. It’s the Thing.