Sunday, August 5, 2012

Materialism and Spiritualism - Homily Notes for 18th Sunday

Brothers and sisters: I declare and testify in the Lord that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do,in the futility of their mind

You must no longer live as the Gentiles do… in the futility of their mind….
What is futility? It is a lack of effectiveness, a lack of purpose or meaning. To be futile is to be useless, fruitless. It is to plant crops in the spring, only to see a drought—farming becoming futile: fruitless.
Paul exhorts us, then, not to be futile, not to live as the Gentiles do.
But what does Paul mean, “To live as the Gentiles do”? How would our living be different if we lived as though there wasn’t a personal God present among us?

Let's look at two such worldviews.

"But you had to lead us into this desert to make the whole community die of famine!"

            The first way is materialism. Materialism is, simply, the belief that “what you see is what you get.” Materialism is the belief that when it comes to the world, the only thing that “is” is material stuff, matter—nothing of spirit, nothing mysterious, nothing ‘beneath the surface.’ What you see is what you get. This would adversely affect one’s belief in the Eucharist: if all that the Eucharist is is what we see, then the Eucharist is just bread (because bread is all that we see). Likewise with marriage: all that the materialist sees is the man and the woman; he doesn’t see the sacramental bond, the two becoming one flesh, the participation in the Trinity. And so marriage for the materialist is just a contract; the sacrament doesn’t actually change the man and woman. And, of course, since one cannot see God, the materialist is quick to believe that God does not exist—or is, at best, quite absent.
So how does the materialist explain himself in the world? Where does he come from? First, he sees himself as a product of evolution or of chance or the product of chemicals randomly coming together. His morality, likewise, is grounded in the processes of chemical reactions coming together or chance or, in the case of evolution, the Darwinian theory of “survival of the fittest.” “Survival of the fittest" is the theory that species interact and adapt according to threats and environment, and those species that do not adapt or are weak—those species will not survive. Only the fittest survive. With such a moral system, “right” and “wrong” are not defined in terms of God’s laws, but in terms of who is stronger. And bigger. And faster.
When a materialist is faced with the logical consequences of his worldview, however, he finds it tough to live out. So, for example, say you are at a bar with your materialistic friend. Let’s say he’s shorter than you and he has ponied-up to the bar to get a drink. Because you are snarky, you decide to take his morality out for a spin. And so you push him out the way and cut in line to get a drink first. Your friend is offended and says “Hey, that’s not fair!” But what about his morality makes what you did "not fair"? You’ve just lived his morality. You've lived out "survival of the fittest"! The fact is: if there is no God nor an objective ground for morality other than “survival of the fittest” or chance, then who is to say that you can’t push your friend out of the way?
(Of course, because your friend finds your action unfair reveals to us that he does have a morality beyond survival of the fittest. He does believe in right and wrong—but how are those defined? He can’t tell us where he gets those notions).
The reality is that he and many people define right and wrong by whether or not they like something. “I do not like this, so that must be wrong.” Or, “I do like this, so that must be right.” In such a worldview, however, morality is arbitrary. It’s just a matter of “taste” or how we’re feeling that day.

A professor lecturing on ethics once started his class with exactly that sentiment. He said: “there is no objective right and wrong. Ethics exist only culturally and on a consensus…” He then started to talk about the Eskimos near the Bering Straight who, when their elderly become too sick to take care of, simply send their elderly into the Bering Sea to die.
Is the professor’s conclusion right?—that right and wrong are simply a matter of culture and taste? A student stood up in that class and asked: “Professor, according to what you have just said about cultural consensus and right and wrong, then you mean that we can’t say that what Hitler did was wrong? You mean to say that the best we can say is that “we don’t like what he did” and “most people don’t like what he did”? Why shouldn’t Hitler obliterate those he perceives to be inferior, then?—especially when the consensus of his country is ok with it (or is at least apathetic towards it)? How could we stand up and say, “No, that’s wrong”?
If there is no God and the world is simply the result of the survival of the fittest or of chance, then we really cannot say of anything—even something as terrible as the holocaust—that that is objectively right or wrong. There cannot be “black and white”—there can only be gray. All fifty shades of it.

But even the atheist perceives that there is right and wrong. For example, one of the biggest reasons I see that a person becomes an atheist is the Problem of Evil. It goes like this: “If there exists an all-good and all-powerful God, then He would not allow evil and suffering to exist. But since there is evil and suffering in the world, then an all-good, all-powerful God must not exist.” (Of course, I could explain to the atheist about how some suffering has value-- like the Olympian who works hard for a gold medal-- and how evil is simply the absence of God--like cold is the absence of heat--but instead of doing that, I enter into the atheist’s materialistic worldview and I ask him: “where did you get that notion of right and wrong?”)
The atheist cannot tell me where he got that notion of fairness. And that is ironic, not only because he can’t tell me the foundation of his belief, but also because he uses the Christian worldview of good and evil to try to explain away God. Our worldview predicated upon God is the only way he could explain something as objectively evil. And yet, the atheist uses that as a means to try and undermine God's existence. Strange.

And so, it goes without saying that the futility of the Gentile’s mind affects the reality of knowledge. Let's step into the unbeliever’s worldview once more: if there is no God and everything is reducible to matter and chemicals and chance, then even our thoughts are simply reducible to chemicals and chance. At which point, the atheist can’t be mad at us for believing, because belief itself would just the result of chemicals and chance—and his beliefs would be the result of chemicals and chance too! So why even debate or study? Why write things down or try to convince, especially if it's all due to pre-determined processes or processes of chance?
But atheists debate and write and want to convince. This means that they do believe that thinking is more than just chemicals and chance. But when pressed on what other kind of foundation that might be, the atheist undermines the primacy of place he gives his faculty reason and says, “well, we just can’t know.”
And that’s ironic: here, the unbeliever wants to be rational, but he holds an irrational view of the universe. He simply says: “nobody knows for sure; but I’m sure you’re wrong.” That sounds like an ungrounded statement of belief to me—like a kind of fideism of which people like Bill Maher accuse Christians.

“The Mystery of Faith”

At the heart of the Mass, immediately after the consecration, the priest says over the Eucharist: “The Mystery of Faith.” When I was growing up, I understood that “mystery” meant something that we could not know, something that had no answer. But that’s not what mystery is. Mystery is like the ocean: mystery is vast and knowable, but not completely knowable at once. We must probe its depths. This is what faith does. Faith is not blindness, but the means by which diving into that ocean is possible-- like in a submarine and exploring the treasures the ocean holds. Therefore, mystery and faith are not blindness—rather, there is great light in them; we know things for certain in them.
The reality is, it’s the atheist and materialist’s views that are blind: they say, “well, we just can’t know.” For them, the God and the world aren't mysterious. They are dead.

"This is the work of God, that you believe in the one he sent."

            Before we end today’s reflection, we must look at the other side of the Gentile’s futile mind; because, you see, materialism was the reaction to something, namely: spiritualism. Spiritualism is the belief that everything is reducible to spirit. For the spiritualist, matter is of little or no value. Now, I’m not critiquing the Holy Spirit or how we are called to lead a spiritual life. Rather, I am talking about an over-spiritualization of things like that we would see in the New Age movements where everything is ethereal and spiritual and connected without distinction. We also see it in some forms of our brothers and sisters in Protestant communities. This last one might surprise you. So, let’s talk about that.
            If you’ve ever had someone close to you die, you’ve probably had someone come up to you and try to comfort you by saying: “Well, she’s an angel in heaven now.” But that’s trite. And it’s also wrong. We don’t become angels when we die. When we die, our body and soul are separated, yes. Our bodies decompose and our souls go either to hell—if we have not followed God’s laws—or to heaven—if we have. (I’ll save purgatory for another homily…). Now, we are a soul either in hell or heaven UNTIL the final judgment on the last day WHEN there is then the resurrection of the body. Our bodies are raised up, perfected and glorified (if we are in heaven) and then re-joined to our soul. In heaven, we are what we are here on earth: human beings; fleshy spirits; spiritualized bodies. A great difference is the glory. But we are not angels. Angels are spirit. They have no material body. But we do. And so does Jesus.
            The spiritualist denies the importance of matter. And so they focus on how Jesus gave the Holy Spirit to the Church and how the Church is a spiritual community. What they forget is that the Holy Spirit literally came upon matter: upon the apostles. And so the Church has a body-- it has structure and visible form. The spiritualist forgets that God has used matter all throughout His history: He used water in a flood, a bush on fire, an sea of water, manna, a nation of people, a king, prophets, a woman,… They forget that the Holy Spirit came upon Mary-- and God, who is Spirit, became FLESH. Matter. This does not change when Jesus ascends into heaven body and soul, nor does it change when the Holy Spirit comes upon the bodies and souls of the apostles. So too, God still uses material which He imbues with the Holy Spirit when He uses water in baptism, bread and wine in the Eucharist, and the person and words of a priest in the confessional.
            The spiritualist’s worldview, therefore, doesn't like the Catholic Church or Her sacraments. "I don't need any mediator between me and God" he says. This worldview can be boiled down into to the acronym WWJD—you know the bracelets: “What Would Jesus Do?” The problem with that acronym is that it requires a subordinating clause: “What would Jesus do IF….” If what? “… If He was here.” What would Jesus do if He was here. Now, we all understand the point of the bracelet: it’s a reminder to be moral. It’s to remind us: “If Jesus were in my moral quandary right now, what would he do?”
            The problem with that is, it places Jesus at a distance and it makes Him purely spiritual. He is remote. Not only that, but it then leaves it up to us to come up with our own morality based on what we think Jesus would do-- not on what He actually did and does. What the bracelet should say is: “Jesus”—we’re being personal because He is here—“Jesus, what are you doing and what have you done?” This would correctly describe reality: that Jesus isn’t just spiritually present or symbolically present, but that He is really present and has been really present. And that’s why we address Him personally: “Jesus…” Instead of just spiritually thinking about Him as like a concept.

            Ultimately, the spiritualist is not much different than the materialist. For the spiritualist, God is remote; for the materialist, God is, at best, absent. And this is why I said that materialism was a rejection of spiritualism. The materialist, at heart, wanted real answers to real, earthly problems, but instead he got a trite, emotional response—a response that he saw as being empty and bankrupt. He wasn’t given the Mystery of Faith.
            In today’s readings, we see the materialist and the spiritualist. The materialist simply wants bread. The spiritualist simply wants heaven, without the bread. Jesus offers them the heavenly bread. But this is the paradox: how can something heavenly be united to the earthly? This is the Eucharist. This is the Mystery of Faith. This is the heart of the Incarnation. The unity of matter and spirit. Even you are in this image: you are body and soul.
            As such, and because we work with materialists and spiritualists, we must have an integrated understanding of the human person and the Eucharist. We must not be like the materialistic or spiritualistic Gentiles. Rather, we must see ourselves as unity of body, blood, soul, and humanity; and we must then see the Eucharist as Jesus’ very body, blood, soul, and divinity—given to us not to make us angels, but to turn us simple men into gods-- the God who became Man-- "one body, one spirit in Christ"! And with the further purpose that we can then turn as we depart today and assist our fellow man.

"What sign can you do, that we may see and believe in you?

            Our materialistic friend cannot help but focus on his checkbook when it is low, or maybe he thinks life is all about the acquisition of stuff. But he is like the Olympian who pursues the gold medal—what happens after he gets it, or if never? How depressed our materialistic thoughts make us! This calls us to turn our minds and hearts to the spiritual: to prayer, to the divine, to heaven. But we also do that through the material—for we are oriented that way too. And so, for example, when someone we know is grieving a loss, we bring them into contact with God’s love by giving them a hug, a helping hand, a material sign of love, and we listen. We serve. Then, when the time is right and their heart and mind is ready, we can give the spiritual truth. And if we are grieving a loss, we must seek out our neighbor and not isolate ourselves…

            Our spiritualistic friend cannot help but try to escape the world through trite emotionalism or an avoidance of the earthly stuff of life-- like the Cross. Spiritualists require the renewal of their mind through disciplined study and prayer so that they do not devolve into trite emotionalism—that is, basing their faith on how they feel. They must bear the cross, lean into suffering, contemplate the Stations of the Cross, meditate on the earthly stuff of Jesus’ life....

My friends, let me end today in the way I began, with a question: How would our living be different if we lived as though God is personally present among us right now? For He is truly here. Not just spiritually, but substantially. He doesn’t just give us bread. He doesn’t just give us something spiritual. But He gives us His very self, The Bread of Heaven, His very Body... Blood... Soul... and Divinity.

No comments:

Post a Comment