Is the physical higher than the spiritual? (yet again)

Bruce Charlton again argues that bodies are “better” than spirits (posted on Junior Ganymede with a link to the full article on his personal blog). (See previous installments on this topic here and here.)

• Contrasting Mormonism with traditional Christianity

He begins as usual by contrasting the Mormon position on the physical versus the spiritual, with what he takes to be the traditional Christian view. He thinks traditional Christians believe that it’s “better” to be a spirit than a body, indeed that bodies are bad while spirits are good. Accordingly Christians secretly wish, even if we won’t admit it, that we could be pure spirits floating freely, and not weighed down by physical bodies.

But the fact that one thing is higher than another, doesn’t imply logically that the lower thing is bad. We hold beings of pure spirit to be higher (more excellent) than composite beings of spirit and matter. Nevertheless we hold composite beings of spirit and matter to be marvels of God’s creation.

Similarly, composite beings of spirit and matter are higher than beings of matter only; but it doesn’t follow that beings of matter only are bad. We hold plants and animals to be marvels of creation and sources of beauty and wonder as well.

In fact we hold all of God’s creation to be very, very good, from the highest and most powerful creature of pure spirit, to the very ground we walk on, and the atoms of which it’s composed. We don’t wish rocks could become plants; nor plants animals; nor animals human beings. And for the same reason we don’t wish human beings to be angels (unembodied creatures of pure intellect). All creatures have their respective, and perfectly respectable, places in the hierarchy of creation.

• God envy?

Possibly, Bruce himself wishes to be the highest form of creature in existence, and will never be satisfied with anything less — and therefore assumes that traditional Christians take the same view. If pure spirits are considered higher, then ipso facto, traditional Christians must wish to be pure spirits. But taken to its logical conclusion, this would require all Christians to wish that they were God himself, the unique and all-powerful Lord of creation. Yet surely the wish to be God has no part in traditional orthodox Christianity. Nor does the wish to be an angel.

I can say with absolute sincerity that my religion has never led me to wish I were anything but fully human. Certainly I’d like to be freed from my body in its fallen state and burdened with concupiscence — but not so that I can be free-floating and disembodied. What fulfillment would that hold? For me, fulfillment is a body in its prime, healthy and strong, with all its needs met, not always trying to tempt me to sin but obeying my will.

• Are spirits physical?

Bruce asks, “Why bother mucking-around ‘confined’ in bodies [after the resurrection] when we might we free-ranging spirits…?”

Speaking of spirits as “free-ranging,” Bruce apparently conceives of them as material beings, albeit of a more “diffuse” type. He also speaks of their needing to be “insulated” from one another lest they become commingled; all of which betrays a material understanding of spirit. This echoes Joseph Smith’s understanding of the nature of spirit, when he wrote that “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.)

I suspect therefore that what Bruce is actually comparing is the Mormon notion of spirit with the Mormon notion of bodies. I might in fact agree with Bruce, that solid, earthly bodies are superior to spirits made of much weaker stuff. A spirit of this type I suppose might be weaker both mentally and physically than an embodied personage.

But this has no relation to the traditional Christian understanding of spirit as an immaterial intellect. To such a being, words like “diffuse” and “free-ranging” are flatly inapplicable. Since a spirit has no parts, there is nothing in him to diffuse. Since he is not located in space, there is no “where” in which he may range, nor would he feel confined to one place such that he might feel the wandering urge.

• Are thoughts physical?

Bruce contends that “the spirit mind is permeable” (“permeable” being another term implying materiality). Therefore, “when a spirit thinks, the thoughts may not be his or her own thoughts”. Bodies, then, are “methods or mechanisms by which minds are ‘insulated’ from other minds, and concentrated” (note again the implication of materiality in these terms).

Bruce seems to be conceiving of thoughts as material things which, if not contained within a body and thereby “insulated” from other spirits, will wander about and get mixed up, like radio signals, with the thoughts of other spirits, and no one will know whose is whose. Perhaps he is again projecting his own, human experience of thought onto immaterial beings.

Embodied humans can’t help but think in terms of phantasms — mental representations of physical things, whether pictures or sounds, or spoken or spelled-out words. We constantly imagine the things that we think about and put them into some sort of physical form in our minds.

Any phantasm that enters our mind we assume to have come from within, since we don’t know how else it could get there. Therefore Bruce, when he imagines spirits roaming free without boundaries, can’t help but imagine stray phantasms strewn about here and there, intermingling with the phantasms emitted by other unbounded spirits. In which case, how would a spirit know whether a phantasm entering his mind was his own or that of another?

But what if spirits (as held by traditional Christians) don’t think in phantasms? In that case no stray phantasms would exist that might be strewn about and broadcast, as a spirit wandered about among his fellows.

Another way to think of it, is that Bruce seems to conceive of a spirit’s thought as an item of common currency, in the way that material things are common currency among you and I. We can both look at the same sunset or eat the same food, or hear the same words, and often have the same reaction to it, or understand the same thing by it. It’s something external to both of us, which we both can access through our senses.

But are the thoughts of spirits common currency in this sense, such that either of two spirits who happen to be in close proximity (assuming the applicability of that term) can share the same thought, in the way that two embodied humans can share the experience of hearing the same spoken word? Or can a spirit very well distinguish his own thoughts from  those of other spirits? Are the thoughts of each spirit, in fact, private to himself?

St. Thomas Aquinas argues that each individual angel is a species unto himself. In which case, maybe the thoughts of one angel are not immediately translatable into the thoughts of another, even assuming that each angel’s thoughts were not private to himself.

• Phantasms an advantage?

Bruce’s point in all this, is that embodied beings are better because they have “greater agency” than disembodied beings, partly because their thoughts don’t get confused with those of others.

But I might argue that a spirit has greater agency, since he is not limited to acquiring his knowledge through his senses, nor by a discursive reasoning process. A spirit sees all sides of a problem or issue at once, and grasps its implications immediately, without having to work through it step-by-step.

It’s possible that a resurrected human being could do the same. Since Jesus after his resurrection could walk through walls and appear and disappear, maybe the limitations we experience due to our materiality don’t exist in the resurrected state. Nevertheless, even if we do shed some of our earthly, bodily limitations in heaven, why believe that we will surpass beings of pure spirit in our ability to think quickly and clearly? In what way could a body, especially an earthly body — itself lacking intelligence and always demanding a part of our attention — be a help rather than a hindrance to quick, clear thinking?

• ‘Better given certain premises’ versus ‘better per se’

Bruce also makes the following argument for “why bodies are better”:

“To answer this seems to require a sense of divine limitation which is anathema to most Christians – even though the Bible is full of it… full, that is, of an apparently accepted implicit assumption that God can only achieve certain purposes by certain linear and sequential actions – that God is limited in how he can achieve things, and that God achieving things requires time as well as the consent of Men.”

This argument seems unintentionally ironic: Once one accepts that God is limited, it becomes easier to understand why bodies are better. Doesn’t this assume that a body is a limitation?

Another way of stating the argument is that assuming all things, including God himself, are not separate from, but must act within a material universe, then it’s better to be a material being. But isn’t this just a truism?

Working under the assumption that you have to make things happen in a step-by-step manner — i.e. in a material manner — then a material body is an advantage. But that’s just saying that in a material environment, concrete bodies are better than wispy bodies or no bodies. If you assume that all things having to do with salvation must be carried out within such an environment, then a material body is better, or even necessary.

Indeed. That would explain why God gave us bodies on this earth, and why Jesus became incarnate. It was his will that his plan of salvation should be enacted within his own material creation.

But it doesn’t follow from this premise that bodies are higher and better than spirits per se. Nor does it follow that it’s better for God himself to be an embodied personage — unless you assume at the start that he needs a body to work out his salvation within a material environment, like us.

In short, Bruce fails to distinguish between “better for us given God’s purposes and the environment in which he has placed us,” and “better per se.” As St. Thomas writes,

“All natural things were produced by the Divine art, and so may be called God’s works of art. Now every artist intends to give to his work the best disposition; not absolutely the best, but the best as regards the proposed end; and even if this entails some defect, the artist cares not: thus, for instance, when man makes himself a saw for the purpose of cutting, he makes it of iron, which is suitable for the object in view; and he does not prefer to make it of glass, though this be a more beautiful material, because this very beauty would be an obstacle to the end he has in view. Therefore God gave to each natural being the best disposition; not absolutely so, but in the view of its proper end.”

ST I, Q. 91, A. 3.

There have been groups of Christians — condemned by the Church as heretics — who made Bruce’s mistake in reverse: They assumed that because our bodies were stricken with concupiscence owing to the Fall, that bodies, and all matter, were bad per se. Happiness, they thought, consisted in liberation from the physical. But this is the same error as Bruce’s: They said that because bodies are bad within this particular environment, they’re bad always and everywhere; whereas Bruce says that because bodies are advantageous, indeed essential, within this particular environment, they’re advantageous always and everywhere.

But the traditional Christian view of spirits being higher than bodies assumes not the contingent perspective of creation, but the absolute perspective of eternity.

Confusion or order?

“The universe is either a confusion, an intermingling of atoms, and a scattering; or it is unity and order and providence. If it is the former, why do I wish to tarry amid such a haphazard confusion and disorder? Why do I care about anything but how I may at last become earth? And why do I trouble myself, for my elements will be scattered, whatever I do. But if the other supposition is true, I revere, I stand firm, and I trust in him who governs.”

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Ch. VI, para. 10, trans. by George Long.

What’s interesting to me is how this illustrates the fact that faith is a choice, an act of will. We don’t know with scientific certainty which of the two options is the true one, therefore we’re free to choose to believe that the universe is aimless, or that it’s ordered. If it’s the former, then why care what happens? In fact, why not leave this life as soon as possible? The fact that we don’t, perhaps betrays us.

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.

A scriptural apologetic for the Mass

The following was written in response to a question posed to me privately. It covers things I’ve posted about before, but I like going over the same ground multiple times in case something turns up that I missed before. I welcome any comments or corrections.

St. Paul writes, “Christ our Passover has been sacrificed, therefore let us celebrate the feast ….” 1 Cor. 5:7.

There is a lot of meaning in this verse. First, Paul refers to Christ as “our Passover”. This evidently means that the original Passover lamb was a foreshadowing of Christ. The original Passover sacrifice, then, was a foreshadowing of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross.

At the original Passover, the children of Israel were told that if they sacrificed a lamb and put its blood on the lintels of their houses, they would be saved from the Angel of Death. But those were not the only instructions: They also had to consume the Passover lamb. It had to be completely gone by morning; that which they couldn’t eat had to be burned. (Ex. 12:10.)

Why did the lamb have to be eaten? What’s the point?

St. Paul in another place writes, ‘Consider the people of Israel: are not those who eat the sacrifices participants in the altar?’ (1 Cor. 10:18.)

It would seem, then, that eating of the sacrifice makes you a participant in the sacrifice. Not everyone could literally take part in the sacrifice: It only took one man to kill the lamb and smear the blood on the lintel. But by eating the lamb, everyone else was also enabled to participate in the sacrifice which saved them.

This clarifies Paul’s meaning when he said (a couple verses earlier), ‘The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?’ (1 Cor. 10:16.) In other words, when we eat the bread and drink the cup, are we not participating in Christ’s sacrifice?

In support of this, we may look to Jesus’ words at the Last Supper. He didn’t merely say “this is my body, this is my blood.” Rather, he said “This is my body which will be given up for you,” and “This is my blood which will be shed for you.” Giving up his body, and shedding his blood, obviously refers to his sacrifice on the Cross. Therefore, “Take this and eat it” means “Eat my body given in sacrifice,” and likewise as to the blood.

So clearly, when Paul says the bread is a participation in Christ’s body, he means that eating the bread and drinking the cup makes us participants in Christ’s sacrifice. I think this is virtually beyond doubt.

He further drives the point home when he says, ‘You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. Or shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy?’ (1 Cor. 10:21.) This is in the context of admonishing people not to eat meat sacrificed to idols. Why? Because that makes us participants in sacrifices to idols; which makes us idolators. Whereas God, being a Jealous God, won’t stand for us partaking of the “table [altar] of the Lord and the table [altar] of demons”.

All this being so clear, serves to clarify the traditional, obvious and correct interpretation of John 6: ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink.’ (Jn. 6:53-54.)

Christ’s sacrifice saves us. But how, exactly, does it save us? It saves us through the Mass: You must eat Christ’s body given in sacrifice, and drink his blood shed in sacrifice, in order to have life in you. Christ’s sacrifice saves us by uniting us to himself, thereby enabling us to offer his sacrifice in our own behalf.

We’re saved by faith, certainly. What else but faith could enable us to believe that we must eat his flesh and drink his blood, and that doing so saves us? Looking at this claim from the perspective of the flesh, it sounds absurd. Jesus is standing right there. You can see that his flesh is not bread. Eating bread is not the same as eating flesh. This is judging by our natural faculties, in other words our flesh. But it’s the spirit that has faith and accepts Jesus’ words, no matter how impossible they may sound to us, knowing that he is God and incapable of deceiving us, and that nothing is impossible to him. If he says “You must eat my flesh”, it must be true in some sense; likewise if he says “Eating my flesh saves you”. The only thing left is to figure out how we can do such a thing.

When I think of Christ’s sacrifice being perpetually offered, I don’t think of him suffering and dying over and over, but as perpetually offering his one sacrifice. It doesn’t seem that this would be any great trick, both he and the Father being eternal, and therefore all things being present to them. I think of “a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain”, as referred to in Rev. 5:6 (which, by the way, seems to be a scene of worship), standing perpetually before the Father’s throne, constantly interceding for us (Heb. 7:24-25). “Intercede” means literally to “go between”. In other words, Jesus stands between us and the Father, looking as though he had been slain — slain and yet alive, that is, the risen Jesus.

It’s those who participate in his sacrifice — via the Mass — who are being interceded for. As Jesus offers himself, and the Father is pleased with his offering, the Father is pleased with our offering as well — since it’s the same offering. We ourselves are offering the best offering we could possibly offer: The perfectly spotless Lamb of God.

I don’t know of any other theory of how Christ’s sacrifice saves us, that is half as coherent as the Mass.

More on the place of philosophy in Christianity — heart versus head?

Some argue that philosophy has played too large a part in religion, both historically and in the lives of some Christians today. They argue that Christianity is not a matter of the head, but of the heart. Religion is a relationship, not a set of propositions.

My previous post, “Is philosophy necessary to Christianity?” (consisting almost entirely of excerpts from another author), makes the point that when philosophy is neglected, religion deteriorates, and something else must fill the void. Some resort to spreading religion by violence; some substitute sentimentalism and emotion for reasonable discussion; some submit doctrinal and moral questions to the standards of empirical science.

This post too will consist mostly of quotes from another author (no point in my trying to improve on the way he expresses it), addressing the question of “heart versus head” — is religion primarily a matter of “experiencing” God in one’s “heart”, so that efforts at understanding his nature are superfluous? a fine hobby but entirely dispensable? Are they indeed (heart and head) mutually exclusive? Or is the intellect an equally valid way of “experiencing” God?

In his blog post “Putnam and analytical Thomism, Part II” (posted on the Edward Feser blog, May 22, 2016), Edward Feser considers the views of philosopher Hilary Putnam (a religious Jew) with regard to St. Thomas Aquinas’ arguments for God’s existence. According to Feser, Putnam argues that “religion is ultimately more a matter of the heart than of the head. The idea seems to be that proofs of God’s existence and philosophical analysis of the divine nature, while salutary and important, are, ultimately, compelling only when viewed from the standpoint of someone already attracted to a religious way of life. How one comes to be attracted to it in the first place is, in [their] view, an ‘experiential’ matter.”

What sorts of experience Putnam has in mind is not entirely clear — perhaps it is ethical experience or aesthetic experience, or perhaps he sees religious experience as something sui generis. … In any event, variations on this “more heart than head” theme are a staple of modern theology….

There is, from a Thomistic point of view, a deep problem in this, and also a deep irony. The problem is this. From the Thomistic point of view, [the] bifurcation of religion and metaphysics, and of the “experiential” and the “intellectual,” is simply false, and certainly question-begging. For according to the doctrine of the transcendentals — a key part of Thomistic metaphysics — being, unity, truth, goodness, and (on at least some versions of the doctrine) beauty, are all convertible, the same thing looked at from different points of view. Hence when the will is drawn toward God as the highest good, or our affective nature delights in God as supremely beautiful, they are not grasping something different from what the Thomist theologian describes as Being Itself, or the Neo-Platonic philosopher characterizes as the supreme unity, or the rationalist philosopher conceives of as the Sufficient Reason for the existence of things. These are all just different avenues to one and the same divine reality.

Hence it simply cannot be the case (contrary to what “more heart than head” types seem to think) that to yearn for God as the highest good or to experience him as supreme beauty is necessarily deeper or more profound or genuine than to know him intellectually as the First Cause, as Being Itself, etc. And while it is true that when we are drawn to God, the will and affective side of our nature do indeed tend to operate no less than the intellect does, that is not because the former alone are doing the “real” work, but rather because since being, truth, goodness, beauty, etc. are convertible, what the intellect grasps as true and real is, unsurprisingly, also going to attract the will under the guise of goodness, and our affective nature under the guise of beauty. To be sure, human beings being as diverse as they are, some people are bound to be drawn to God more under the guise of goodness or beauty than under the more philosophical guises of First Cause, Sufficient Reason, or what have you. Nothing necessarily wrong with that. But the more metaphysical conceptions are hardly less legitimate, or somehow second-class — nor could they be given that we are essentially rational animals.

Indeed, there is a sense in which the metaphysical conceptions are more fundamental. The transcendentals are transcendental properties of being — truth is being as intelligible, the good is being as desired by the will, and so forth. But being is the characteristic subject matter of metaphysics. Hence to understand how the various guises under which we grasp God — as Being Itself, as the highest good, as supremely beautiful, etc. — all fit together requires metaphysical inquiry. Moreover, to understand why goodness, beauty, etc. are not mere subjective reactions that we project onto the world, but are genuine features of reality itself, also requires understanding their relation to being.

Hence while Putnam is certainly correct to think that a purely philosophical approach to religion would be gravely deficient, it goes too far to suggest that it would be a “metaphysical illusion.” On the contrary, without metaphysics, it is the purely ethical and/or affective approaches to religion which stand in danger of being exposed as illusory. This is by no means to say that most or even very many religious believers ought to be expected to pursue philosophy, or are even capable of doing so. But somebody had better be able and willing to do it. Metaphysics must always be a part of religion even if it is not the whole of it.

Compassion, Law and Righteousness

[The following was originally part of another post, but I wanted to post it separately for ease of finding and referring to it in the future.]

Some argue that Jesus made compassion more important than adherence and obedience to religious dogma or morals, therefore he would allow, for example, gay marriage, or divorce and re-marriage, rather than let people suffer the pain of being forbidden to marry, receive Communion, etc.

I would agree that Jesus considered compassion more important than observance of the Law – that is, the Law of Moses or the Mosaic Law – but not more important than righteousness.

His specific criticism of the religious authorities was that they would bend over backwards to make sure the letter of the law was fulfilled in every particular, while acting in a manner exhibiting indifference to the demands of righteousness and compassion. Thus, the scribes and Pharisees would neglect the care of their aged parents by claiming that their money was “corban”, or consecrated to God, and therefore not available to them. In this way they put on a show of obeying the Law, while disobeying the direct commandment to honor their fathers and mothers. (Mk. 7:1-13.)

The way the subject arose was that the scribes and Pharisees were criticizing Jesus’ disciples for not washing their hands before eating. This really ticks Jesus off and he lets them have it for honoring God with their lips while their hearts are far from him, and “teaching as doctrines the precepts of men” (Mk. 7:7).

Jesus never condemns obedience to the Law, but he hates it when people obey the Law while neglecting moral righteousness. The Law is not about righteousness per se, but about ritual cleanness and uncleanness. It’s about what you have to do in order to participate in the sacrificial and other religious rituals prescribed under the Law. It’s wrong to disobey these things because God commanded the Israelites to carry them out. But it’s wrong for that reason alone, and not because of any unrighteousness inherent in, for example, eating the meat of animals with cloven hoofs, or touching a dead body.

Jesus’ message is that he’s more concerned about things that are inherently righteous or unrighteous, than about ritual cleanness or uncleanness. Thus, it’s far more important to feed the hungry and care for widows and orphans than to wash your hands before eating. A good Jew should do both, but to do the latter while neglecting the former is, for him, the height of hypocrisy.

The story of the woman caught in adultery (Jn. 8:1-11) again provides a point of illustration:

“The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, ‘Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such. What do you say about her?’”

Jesus, of course, says that the one who is without sin should cast the first stone. Do we not, then, have it straight from Jesus’ mouth: Sexual sins don’t matter since we’re all sinners anyway? Doesn’t this show that the real sin is persecuting those who commit sexual sins?

But look at how the story ends:

“Jesus looked up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, Lord.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again.’”

Jesus’ command “do not sin again” has two implications: First, that her sin was really a sin; and second, that she must stop it.

What, then, is the lesson of the story? I would suggest that one lesson is that, again, righteousness is more important than adherence to the Law.

Note that the scribes and Pharisees say to Jesus, “[I]n the law Moses commanded us to stone such.” They’re eager to comply with the letter of the Law, like good Jews. But do they care about righteousness? Jesus thinks not. Therefore he tests them: “Oh, you care about righteousness, do you? In that case, let whoever is righteous among you cast the first stone.” When he puts it that way, they fail the test. If they really cared about righteousness, wouldn’t at least one of them be righteous himself, and therefore worthy of casting a stone? They were all eager to stone someone for a violation of the Law, but all admitted that they were no more righteous than she was.

Whereas Jesus’ actions do serve the cause of righteousness. In what way? By telling the woman, “Sin no more. I don’t condemn you [to death], but you must repent of your sins. You cannot keep behaving unrighteously.” He has compassion towards her by sparing her from stoning, but only so that he can bring her to repentance. Thus, both his compassion and his reproof serve the cause of righteousness. If she had died, the cause of righteousness would not have been advanced; but by saving her life, he is able to encourage her not to continue in unrighteousness, but to act righteously thenceforth.

Note, therefore, that adherence to the Mosaic Law is the thing above which Jesus is elevating compassion. And it’s not compassion per se that he is elevating, but righteousness generally. Jesus hates it when people are sticklers for complying with the letter of the Law, while being indifferent to righteousness. How much more horrified would he be at the idea of jettisoning righteousness altogether for the sake of compassion?

Indeed, it’s a mistake to believe that Jesus would consider it compassionate to leave sin uncorrected. Sins are what he has come to save us from. What is compassionate about abandoning someone to his sins without trying to correct him?

“I tell you, … unless you repent you will all likewise perish.” Lk. 13:5. Why would he want us to perish?

“[After healing a lame man], Jesus found him in the temple, and said to him, ‘See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse befall you.’” Jn. 5:14. Why would he want something worse to befall us?

“Jesus answered them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, every one who commits sin is a slave to sin.’” Jn. 8:34. Why would he want us to be slaves to sin?

“Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” Lk. 15:7.

Turtles All the Way Down

Reblogged from The Underground Thomist:

Whenever we say that some being, P, is wise, we can ask the further question “Why should P be considered wise?”  In every such case there are two possible answers.  One is that P is the first principle of wisdom, its very root and unchangeable meaning – that it isn’t wise because of something else, but is the very thing that makes other wise things wise.  You [the blogger’s interlocutor] don’t want to give that answer, because to you, first principles seem to be arbitrary, just because no further reason can be given for them.  You want to say that if P should be considered wise, the reason must lie in the fact that it conforms to some deeper standard – call it P2.

Very well.  But wait:  Now we have to ask “Why should P2 be considered wise?”  Again, there are two possible answers.  Either P2 is the very root and meaning of wisdom, or it isn’t.  Again you worry that this makes it arbitrary, so suppose we say it isn’t.  In that case, P2 must be wise not because it is the very root and meaning of wisdom, but because it conforms to some still deeper standard – call it P3.

As you can see, if you continue to object to a root and meaning of wisdom, then we are going to have an infinite regress of reasons for considering P wise:  P is wise because it conforms to P2, P2 is wise because it conforms to P3, P3 is wise because it conforms to P4, and so on without end.  But an infinite regress of explanations is no an explanation at all.  If you are worried about arbitrariness, the thing to avoid isn’t a necessary first principle, but an infinite regress.

Thus we must believe that at some point the regress has to stop.  We do, finally, arrive at something, call it P Prime, which is the very root and meaning of wisdom.  And if that is what it is, then just because it doesn’t depend on anything else, it cannot be other than it is.  And just because it cannot be other than it is, it isn’t arbitrary.  A mystery, yes, in the sense that it is greater than our minds.  But arbitrary, no.

I am not sure what tempts us to think that something is arbitrary just because it cannot be other than it is.  We don’t say that the arithmetical principle that two things equal to a third thing are equal to each other is arbitrary.  We say that it is a standard by which we can tell what other things are arbitrary.  I think we should think that way here.

But P Prime is much more than a principle of arithmetic.  As we continue to reflect, we find P Prime to be not only the very root and meaning of wisdom, but the very root and meaning of being, of goodness, of beauty, and of everything that is worthy of admiration.  In P Prime we find even the very root and meaning of Personhood, so we are right to view P Prime not as It, but as Him.

This necessary being P Prime is what we call God.  We Christians make the further daring claim that He is the very God of our faith and has come among us.