We love the material because of the immaterial

Contributor G. at Junior Ganymede writes, “I am religious, but not spiritual. I hate all that fleshless sanctity. Give me the Spirit that dwells in earthly tabernacles.”

Also, “Earthly wants are wonderful. He incarnated us so we could have them. They are part of the divine nature. To want is earthly. What is earthly is divine. God wants.”

And, “We associate desire with sin. That is wrong. Sinners do not want too much. Sinners want too little.”

Finally, “They say the problem with greed is that you can never have enough. I say that is the only good thing about greed. I want it all. Embrace the gospel like a bandit, grabbing blessings with both hands.”

This is basically a comment to G.’s post, but it’s too lengthy to put in a comment box.

I’m not sure I disagree with G., partly since I’m not sure what his point is. It’s about characters in old books who self-abnegate, and he somehow relates this to fleshless sanctity, since they don’t make their (corporeal?) wants known lest others feel obliged to fulfill them.

Again I don’t necessarily disagree, with the possible exception of his statement, “what is earthly is divine”. If the words “earthly” and “divine” have a scriptural meaning, they seem to stand for a contrast. St. Paul for one says, “Walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Gal. 5:15). And St. John: “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world-the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions-is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.” (1 Jn. 2:15-17.)

I don’t take this to mean that the world and the good things of the world are bad, but that what is good about material things is itself immaterial.

When Christians say that material things are not to be desired, the point is not that they shouldn’t be desired at all, but that they shouldn’t be desired as ends in themselves. C.S. Lewis in Surprised by Joy describes “joy” as an experience of longing for what is beyond the material. He would feel joy in viewing a beautiful sunset, but would lose it in the act of trying to embrace it. Going back to the same spot on the same day at the same time in the following year, would not ensure you the same experience of joy because the joy is not in the sunset itself, rather the sunset points to something beyond itself.

Traditional (as opposed to Mormon) Christians don’t dispute that you should grab the blessings of the Gospel with both hands. But they would say that the blessings of material things are only good insofar as they point to the immaterial. We love to serve good food and wine at a Christmas feast, but the joy of the feast consists not in the food and wine themselves but in the spirit of the event they commemorate. There’s no sin in enjoying food and wine commemorating nothing in particular, but they bring true joy when we see in them God’s bounty and his kind providence.

A story is told of St. Catherine of Siena who, as a child, ran away from home with her brother, with the intention of going to a Muslim land to suffer martrydom. Why? Because martrydom sends you directly to heaven. This, if misguided, is nonetheless grabbing the blessings of the Gospel with both hands — actually desiring the ultimate physical harm for the sake of the ultimate spiritual blessing.

G. observes, “Sinners do not want too much. Sinners want too little.” Indeed. Wanting the whole world is wanting too little, for “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?” But he who loses his life will gain it. (Mt. 16:25-26.) This is the great irony of the Gospel as illustrated in the Crucifixion: Your greatest gain comes from laying down your earthly life. This doesn’t have to mean literal death; you can lay down your life in countless ways on a daily basis. Love itself is a laying down of one’s life — “No greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (Jn. 15:13.) Thus some of the Christian martyrs were said to have gone joyfully to their deaths for faith in the reward that follows.

I love the book A Christmas Carol. I also love a particular copy that I own. I love its design and the way it’s printed. But would I love it so much if it were Nietzsche or Marx, instead of Dickens? I love not only the physical body of the book, but I love it still more for its content. In fact I would love the content no matter what physical form it took (whereas my love for the physical form of a book might be spoiled by bad content). The content then is non-physical; it’s the meaning and message that Dickens intended to convey from his mind to his readers’, when he expressed his thoughts in a physical medium.

Or again I love my wife. But what if someone were physically identical to my wife, but not my wife? Would I love her as much as my wife? Certainly I would find her beautiful, but she would lack the “content,” the immaterial substance, of my wife.

I agree that it’s well and good to love the material together with the immaterial, but I contend that the immaterial is what makes the material lovable. Possibly G. doesn’t disagree.

One thought on “We love the material because of the immaterial

  1. Pingback: We love the material because of the immaterial, part 2 | Petty Armchair Popery

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