Friday, September 7, 2007

Matter, Life, Spirit: It's the Order

Spirit, Matter, Life, thought the Story of Everything.

"Matter, Life, Spirit," said the man.

The Story winced. That was it--the very thing he would never get used to. Not the words, but the order of the words. It was what the man put first: Matter, not Spirit. (from The Story of Everything, Ch. 24)

The plot: it's how you arrange Matter, Life, and Spirit when you tell a Story of Everything. It's the order in which you put them. The order will tell you what the words mean. Which comes first? Which comes last?

We associate stories in which Spirit comes first with the Book of Genesis, but that's not exactly correct. In the opening verses of that book, Matter co-exists with Spirit. The earth is already present, although "without form"--literally a "trackless waste and emptiness." Water is present too, and a divine wind, sometimes translated as the "Spirit of God," is described as moving over it. It is only much later, in an obscure verse, that the Bible refers to God as making heaven and earth "of things that were not" (2 Maccabees 7:28).

In the Old Story of Everything, Spirit comes first. It assumes the role of creator, designer, unmoved mover, primal cause. The material universe comes out of its action. So does the living universe. First Spirit, then Matter, then Life.

In the New Story, it's almost the inverse. Matter comes first and Spirit comes at the end, with Life as the intermediary. The appearance of Spirit is so sudden and so recent that we're still not sure what to make of it. Part of the problem is that it's come out in us! We are the locus of its emergence and the only locus that we know of.

So what do Matter, Life, and Spirit mean? Philosophy, religion, and science have spent millennia on that question, but my attention span is minutes. So in the next three blogs I'll simply try to grasp their meaning in the New Story. Matter will be tough. It has a lot to account for now that it's in the lead-off position. Spirit will be tougher. It moves two positions, not one, from opener to closer. That's twice the work of redefinition. The definition of Life should be easy by comparison. It's Matter-plus. And there's the rub, of course: plus what exactly?

Make no mistake: a Story of Everything has to cover Matter, Life, and Spirit even if it chooses to call them something else. Make your story linear and put the three in whatever order you choose. Make your story circular and put whichever at the point of origin and return. Make your story hierarchical and stack the three of them up. But you've got to touch all the bases and you've got to say how you did it. Stay tuned.




Burne White said...

Since there was no beginning,the matter that gained life gained spirit simultaneously.

Anonymous said...

I thought about this as a visual artist. Artists usually followed Spirit-Matter-Life as they work. But, stretching my thoughts, I recognized there was at least one case where Matter-Life-Spirit prevailed.
God is the Spirit; Matter is the World/Universe-a tangible object; Life is what we are, the plants and animals. Spirit is God telling an artist to recognize beauty. Matter is second when picking up a brush, pen or pencil and applying to canvas or paper. Life is the result, an artistic interpretation born from the inner spirit.
But then I thought of a sculpturing episode where the sequence Matter-Life-Spirit applied. With clay in hand and gazing at the woman model, a rectangular block is twisted into the shape of her torso. Smaller lumps form the head, arms, hands, legs, feet and breasts. What emerges is an accurate depiction of the model. Somewhere in the sequence of events, the lumps (matter) became a (life) form and caught the spirit (the interpretation of the model).

Anonymous said...

You might not be surprised when I tell you I was replying with a quote from Teilhard’s “Mystical Milieu”. I sat for a long time last night and again this morning thinking about the subject. With just a blank comment window, I put the laptop on the desk read a bit from Merton’s “New Seeds of Contemplation” and then turned to the bookmark in “Meditations with Teilhard de Chardin” where I left off yesterday. This is what I found there.

“The creative operation of God does not simply mold us like soft clay. It is a Fire that animates all it touches, a spirit that gives life. So it is in living that we should give ourselves to that creative action, imitate it, and identify with it.”

Of further interest, the facing page had this quote.

“Reflection: the transition which is like a second birth from simple Life to Life Squared.”

Anonymous said...

What's the matter if matter brought up spirit and not the other way around?

Anonymous said...

Deep Mystery

Deep mystery this:
from the plenitude of the void springs being
from being laughs life
from life sings mind
from mind dances love
only to return through death's dark portal
to the enigma of the plenitude of the void
for who knows what new springing.

A Poem from Charlie Finn's collection, "For the Mystically Inclined"

Anonymous said...

In our Western Culture we tend to think in a dualistic fashion (This is, in fact, the basis of much of our science, and, indeed, if I understand it correctly, the manner in which a computer works.), while what Kotre asks us to do is to think about three things, not two. These three things are matter, life, spirit, and it is the way in which we arrange them in our thinking that determines what our result is. In the Judeo-Christian scheme of things it goes spirit (God), who created matter (the universe), and from which came life (us). Science would have us believe that it was matter (dark matter/energy) first, then life, then spirit (the realm of ideas, feelings, belief, etc.). The problem is, I think, that neither way of thinking is totally accurate; if either were the case, then we might as well chuck it all in—the mystery of life is solved.

What I like about Kotre is that he does ask us to think about three things, not two. It’s like a poem. First there are words, abstractions that we create as sort of a shorthand for thinking about and understanding our physical world. Next there are ways in which we arrange words to convey certain meanings. If I were to say to you the words “night, night, holy, silent” you instantly know that something isn’t quite right about that, and your linear mind automatically corrects it to “silent night, holy night”. As soon as the words are rearranged into what we view as their proper order, meaning and emotion shift from confusion and irritation that the words aren’t in the proper order to a feeling of relief and joy that the words are in their proper order. Now, if we were to do this with a person from Saudi Arabia who is just learning English, both cases would only be the words themselves, and there would be no meaning or emotion attached to either sets of them. So, first there are words (matter), then there are certain meanings (life) that we ascribe to them.

Lastly, there is the spiritual dimension. We describe it as “indescribable”. How can we describe something that is indescribable? We can’t, so, instead we make it a paradox. Kind of like the old Certs commercial, “it’s two, two mints in one”. Parker Palmer, in his book The Courage to Teach, talks about paradox this way. The opposite of a truth is an untruth, whereas the opposite of a profound truth is a more profound truth. And so it is with Spirit, it is a most profound truth that we each discover for ourselves and make into our own more profound truth. As cold is not the opposite of heat, it is merely the absence of heat, so we know spirit by its absence or presence. It is an indescribable truth. The line from John Denver’s song Country Roads “country roads, take me home, to the place I belong” evoke a certain spirit as do the words from Robert Frost’s poem Stopping in the Woods on a Snowy Evening “for I have miles to go before I sleep”. And, isn’t it a miracle that we can see the connection between the two?