Spirit and Matter

Could you go more deeply into the concept of dualism between spirit and matter? Our second reflection will try to flesh out some of what may have been a bit complicated and puzzling in the first little interview. What seems most difficult in addressing, let alone experiencing ourselves in a “community of life” is the necessary shifting of our worldview -- especially since “worldviews,” although they influence our every move, are mostly unconscious.In the last conversation we reflected on the dualism that has been the foundation of the western world’s understanding of itself for the last five thousand or more years.

spirito e materiaspirit an matterIt received its rational underpinning during the Hellenic period – the time of Plato and Aristotle in particular – and was adopted by Christianity during the first centuries of its missionary activity in the Greco-Roman world. Dualism seeks understanding by way of differentiation, by separating and analyzing and defining. When we define things, we stress their uniqueness. We set limits around them. (That is, in fact what the word “de-fine” means.) This, of course, leads to seeing things as apart from each other and certainly from ourselves. It also almost automatically leads to comparisons -- viewing some things as better than others and vice versa. In a dualistic world it is only natural then to see the human species as superior to other species. From this it follows that we see ourselves as having the right to dominate and control those lower and less intelligent.

Since the Greek perspective separated the world into the world of spirit (permanent, reliable, unencumbered by death and decay) and the world of matter (forever changing, unreliable, subject to death and decay), human self-understanding was also divided internally (soul and body). We found ourselves having a superior and an inferior aspect to our nature. One was to be honored and cultivated, the other, to be controlled, chastised, and even despised.

dualismodualismAs our culture progressed through the ages, the split between matter and spirit, body and soul widened. What came to be known as the “secular world” stressed the primacy of matter (materialism) and the mechanical universe. Here we find the world perspective emphasized in the first issue of Conversations. The religious perspective stressed the primacy of the spirit. Initially, because of Papal political power, it dominated science, but slowly, especially during the Renaissance, and ultimately Modernity, science separated from religious domination, and the two realms began to regard each other with suspicion and mutual disdain.

Religion held on to the primacy of the spirit. The closer one’s lifestyle was to the spiritual realm, the higher on the ladder of perfection one could consider oneself. Our fear of the body with its urges and appetites often gave way to hatred and loathing. Much of the religious literature of the past encouraged this. The general anxiety about sexuality and consequent misogyny that has pervaded the Christian (and also the Muslim) religions is grounded in dualism. The superiority of religious life and the priesthood over marriage, the emphasis on physical acts of mortification aimed at controlling physical urges, the horror at nudity in art, and even the disdain for manual labor from which one had to abstain as much as possible on Sundays are all rooted in the chasm created by a dualistic worldview.

Sr. Barbara Fiand, SND

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