Finding a Christian (metaphysical) View of Nature, Part II
by J. Michael Jones
The Implications of our View on the Material on our View of Nature. While Platonic Dualism found a welcoming home within the Church, the Rousseauian view of nature (I’m using nature here as a sub category under material) has completely swept western culture as the dominant view. In review, Jean-Jacques Rousseau saw nature in its raw form as perfect, even after the Fall of Adam. He believed that every time humans touch nature, they make it worse. This is the fundamental view today and it is a philosophical view and not one of science. This is an over-simplification, but if there was no Rousseau (who was also influenced by Hume, Locke, and others) there would be no signs in the grocery store such as, “Natural,” “Nature Made,” “Organic,” “unprocessed,” “Non-GMO,” and the more recent, “Ancient” as in ancient grains. These terms carry very positive connotations about being healthy, but it is not based in real science but on the emotional overlays of Rousseauian theory. All those terms are other ways of saying that product has less human touching and therefore, assumed, to be better. In reality, human intervention can be good, or it can be bad, but it is not intrinsically just one or the other. Our Navigator staff in college staff sold us Shaklee vitamins. He implied they were better than other vitamins because they were from a natural source (less touching by humans), implying that was being closer to what God wanted.
To a scientist, a chemical is a chemical, no matter if it came from a plant or a lab. That health risks must be evaluated on the rational science behind it, not on the broad notions that non-intervention is better than intervention. For me, if I ever eat the meat of a puffer fish (highly poisonous), I want there to be a lot of interventions by humans. I want it to be well-processed by a well-trained—preferably Japanese—chef.
Rousseau was reacting to the perverted Christian notion that the material, including nature, was inferior and dirty and our role was to exploit it. So, he swung to the opposite direction, advocating that we completely leave it alone. But the Biblical view is that sin has damaged nature and our role is to bring it back as close to the state of Eden as we can. We are to be stewards of the earth, not pillagers thereof. While nature is full of toxins, carcinogens and poisons, humans have also introduced plenty more. But the good or ills of anything can’t be measured by the amount of human manipulation or the lack thereof, but by the merits of those goods or ills alone.
The Theological Implications of Your View on the Material. First, look at how your perspective influences your theological notions of spirituality. If you adopt the Platonic-Christian view of the material, then you would believe that your soul is an unattached mist (Pythagoras called this “Metempsychosis”) and therefore has great fluidity. It can change on a dime, just with the will. In that case you believe in a system of obtaining spirituality that is hierarchical. You start to see yourself as a good person, soon after becoming a Christian, then a godly person, and finally—through this distorted view of sanctification—a saint. You also measure others’ spirituality with the same false parameters (which are usually built on skillful pretense). You start to over-trust yourself or your spiritual leaders, until you are greatly disappointed.
Likewise, those things which are above the material, the so-called “supranatural,” have great merit in this system. That’s why so many seek miracles to authenticate spiritual experience. The true Biblical perspective is that everything this side of nothing, including the material, is a miracle because God made it out of nothing. This was the thinking behind Albert Einstein’s statement, “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” It makes no sense that God put up a wall between the created-material and the created-immaterial and only the immaterial is of value. There is no less a presence of God where someone’s cancer is cured by the most sophisticated medical treatments, based on decades of research by smart and dedicated people (using the brains God has given them) and relying on the complex biological systems (which God has created) than where the cancer just disappears with the assumption it was by a “miracle.”
In the Platonic-Christian model, your concept of God is the other, in the ether, higher than this nasty world. We are reminded of the influence of Platonic philosophy every time we attend a Christian funeral (as I did yesterday). The theme is repeated over and over, “He (or she) is in a better place now. They have been set free of the bondage of this world.” While those statements offer some comfort to the grieving, there is a complete disregard for the scriptural notions about our eternity being connected to this repaired and renewed earth. The Greek word for paradise (παραδείσῳ or paradeisō), as appears in Luke 23:43 when Jesus is speaking to the thief on the cross, is from the Persian word to imply an enclosed garden, much like Eden. A real, material garden.
In Platonic-Christian model, God can be respected, honored, and feared, but He is not a God that you can imagine has felt empathy with what you have felt. It is harder to imagine this God finding pleasure in your physical work, your art, your rest, your hobbies, and your idleness. He would only have pleasure in your transcendence from the mundane. The Platonic-Christian view of the eschatology is that this nasty world will end, and we will spend eternity as immaterial vapors in an immaterial numinous place.
The Islamic view of Allah has even a greater influence of Plato (and others) thinking than Christianity, at least at this point in history, so they see God even more in this light. This view of the material permits the acts of terrorism. If this world is insignificant as compared to the immaterial, then driving a truck-full of explosives into a nursery school is worth the immaterial gain. The Medieval Church did the similar acts of violence around the world with the same logic.
On the other hand, the Biblical concept would see that the Fall of Adam has penetrated deeply into the material. None of us have perfect circuits in our brains, or perfect bodies. History is not perfect either but has real injury. Wounded human history is dangerous. All things do not happen for a reason, as a Hallmark card would declare. Some things work for our harm, because of the consequences of sin in the material world. That sin is real, and it is not conquerable (by us), although it is our call to oppose it. But, with this view, we would also have a deep dependence on the mercies of God and the redemption of Christ.
With a more Biblical view, we would also look at all other people as soulmates, as comrades in a fallen world. We, with great humility, would see even the most evil people with the attitude of, “but for the grace of God, there goes I.”
The Psychological Implications of Your View of the Material. I can remember a vivid moment in 1984 when I first learned that depression could sometimes be “endogenous.” A paper was just released where a blood test, call the dexamethasone suppression test, could predict if the depression was organic (meaning from brain structure—either genetically or environmentally acquired) or because of emotional factors. I was a solid evangelical at the time. I remember shaking my head and laughing—more like sneering—at the physician with who showed me the study. As an evangelical, unknowingly, I had been taught the Platonic-Christian model of the material, rather than the Biblical model.
If the material is insufficient, then the Christian twist to the Platonic view is that the “spiritual” is all that matters. We are Heaven-bound creatures with no investment in this ball of nasty dirt we call Earth. Even the word dirt has its roots in the Middle English with two meanings, nasty shit or the substance of this earth.
Following that thought, the psyche or self (we can use the Christian word “soul” here too) therefore has no union with the physical body. The cranium is where this ghostly, immaterial, us resides. The soul is not attached to the brain any more than water is attached to a glass picture that contains it. Therefore, it would make no sense that something structural within the brain, either from our genetic makeup or physical and emotional traumas, could be causing depression. In our eyes then, all parts of the human character, judgement, happiness or sadness, the things that make up the fruits of the spirit, sexual orientation or identity, are the results of personal, moral choices.
With trepidation, I will share a personal story how I have struggled my entire life with a general anxiety disorder. It was present in my preschool years and up until the present. After spending enormous energy—much more than I should have—trying to understand it though introspection, I suspect that it is from a genetic cause. I say this because I’ve had no childhood trauma to account for such an early manifestation of anxiety. My dear mother, who I just lost a few weeks ago, struggled from severe anxiety her entire life requiring her to be medicated up until the end. Some would say that maybe she taught me to be anxious, yet I have three siblings who endured the same mother without such an affliction.
The reason I share this with some apprehension is that the usual assumption in the Christian community—if not the community at large—for someone to declare their anxiety as genetic problem is a sorry excuse at best. That my anxiety must be from a deep moral failure. If it makes anyone feel better, this was my own assumption for most of my life. I lived perpetually in a state of shame. Men are not supposed to be anxious, especially godly men. I was told that countless times by my college Navigator leader.
However, anxiety has been my lifelong nemesis. If I were a Muslim, it would represent my personal jihad (which is the Muslims’ rite to struggle). However, in defense of myself, I will say that I’ve spent uncountable hours (in the thousands) working on this through prayer, Bible study, verse memorization, exercises in trusting God, listening to lectures and sermons, reading books, attending seminars, meeting with psychologists, all with some help but no cure. Also, for the sake of “exposure,” I took up rock climbing and mountaineering because of my acrophobia. I signed up for a coast-to-coast speaking tour when I worked at Mayo Clinic, because of my glossophobia (fear of public speaking). So, in both cases, leading up to each of the exposures, climbing a mountain or speaking in a hotel ballroom in front of hundreds of people, I would lay awake for night after night in a cold sweat.
In the case of the psychological, if we had the more Biblical perspective of the material, we would believe that God created the material and saw that it was good. Different from the Platonic-Christian view, it is also real. The material matter does matter. God is our biological father and the material Earth is our mother. I don’t mean this in an animistic or pantheistic way. Of course, God is the creator of all, including the Earth and it is subject to Him as His creation. But we have this material bond with planet Earth, and all the material that God intended. Jesus deliberately spat on the dirt and made mud to heal a blind man’s eyes. It was his destiny to die on a material tree and be put into the material ground to exonerate us.
Our material brains are the hardware on which our souls rest as software. Brain structure does matter and is intimately attached to who we are. It is not perfect as all the material is under the Fall. So, with this paradigm, people are born with; personality traits, tendencies toward cheerfulness, depression or anxiety, sexual orientations, or where the sexuality identity of their brains may not match that of their genitals. Life events can alter this material brain as well. It could be a brain injury or a serious emotional trauma (e.g. PTSD) that changes the circuits, lending us more to anxiety or depression. Yes, within the immaterial, we can make changes. I have chosen to work on my anxiety for my entire adult life. If I had not, I would be in much worse shape. However, I never expect a cure, because the material is real, not just a shadow and the brain… not so pliable.
The Social Implications of Your View on the Material. Our view of the material also has a profound influence on our social perspectives. If human behavior is built upon the fluid choices of the soul, then our personal choices are defined by our character. There is no excuse for bad behavior. Bad people do bad things and good people do good things. You can continue down this line of thinking that the dumb are dumb by their own choices. That the rich are those who work the hardest and the poor are those who are the laziest, and that the refugee is a refugee by their own making.
In this way of thinking, not only does the material layout of the brain have no influence on your outcome, but neither does your upbringing. If you are a drug abuser, poor, violent and with mental health problems, then it does not matter if you were raised in horrible world of violence and despair. Those things can’t matter because, in this scenario, your character is not built on the material, but upon your spiritual character.
Ben Carson is the darling of the Evangelicals because he proves to the world that coming out of the “ghetto” is one’s own moral choice. Therefore, we don’t need to listen to those who cannot pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. We don’t need to have empathy for those who are the product of generations of discrimination at the best and total abuse at the worst. Neither do we need to have sympathy for those running from war because it was their choice to create such a bad culture where war runs rampant (which are often proxy wars by the “civilized” superpowers, being played out on their soil).
The Platonic Dualistic view (the universe is divided between the material and the immaterial, and the immaterial is all that matters) sits on one end of the social spectrum. That end is most attractive to the affluent, those who had nice, stable upbringings, and who have fewer issues of mental illness. It always feels good to believe that you have things so good because you have earned it and others don’t because they have characters inferior to yours. This end is also very attractive to the Christian, because within the Christian’s value of spirituality, they want to, at least appear, that they are good because of their personal good choices.
On the extreme opposite end of this spectrum rests those who hold the Impersonal Universe perspective on the material. For them, there is nothing but the material. There is no God, no spirituality and no choice. If the universe came into being by chance and now follows the laws of physics, it is a deterministic view of being or what is called a natural fatalism. If we are a serial killer, we are not culpable, because the physics, including the physics and biochemistry of brain function is fixed. In that model we are just robots anyway, carbon-based robots. Robots who smash and kill other robots have no less value than robots that save other robots in the Impersonal Universe.
The Political Implications of Your View on the Material. The political connects directly to the social. On the far right of the political spectrum are those who believe that all behavior is determined by simple free moral choice because we are immaterial and can change at any moment, if we have the moral will. So that side gravitates toward “personal responsibility.” This would mean harsher imprisonments for criminals. Seeing the poor and mentally ill as deserving the state they are in (and not funding programs to help them), and the same being true for immigrants and refugees. This would lead to not only less money for social services and more for the military to protect us from the bad guys. This side is most appealing to the Evangelical because it supports the Platonic view of the material, which as I have mentioned, the Church has-erroneously—adopted.
On the far left, there is yet another quandary. They correspond to the Impersonal Universe view, which states that there can be no sin, no failures and no fault. This side would favor pure socialism as the best form of justice as it is a no-fault position. Everyone should have the same salary, the same benefits, punishments should be soft and there are no bad guys.
Summary; Finding a Christian View of the Material, Based on Scripture. In Genesis 1:31, it says, “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the sixth day.” (NIV). So, all that God has created, was created outside Himself, created in measurable material and was very good. An expansion of this simple text is that the physical earth is very good, all the creatures are very good, and all the humans are intrinsically good because they are the result of this creative act of God. However, sin is also real and has influence this material world. The influence is also material, hardened and persistent.
We look to God for immediate redemption, from a justification perspective. However, the road to bringing redemption in our material universe, including our own brains, is slow and methodical. We therefore look at others with an exhausting grace. Jesus knew this well. He held people accountable, “go your way and sin no more,” but loved them deeply, knowing that the blemishes within our souls are written in stone, not smoke.