One of the ways in which it is often necessary for us from the West to think differently is in how we think about matter. Since the Enlightenment, western thinking has become more and more materialistic. This doesn’t refer to an emphasis or reliance on money (though that is also true!) but rather a view of reality that denies the spiritual. A materialistic view of reality sees reality solely in terms of natural cause and effect operating in a system that is free from spiritual (supernatural) influence. If something happens that isn’t understood, the fundamental assumption is that there must be a natural explanation.
Of course materialism is false, dangerous, and very un-biblical. As Jesus followers within western culture one of the ways we learn to think differently (thanks www.bobhamp.com) is in recognizing the reality of a spiritual realm and the influence of this realm upon and within our material world. God has truly created both the heavens and the earth.
In this process of learning to think differently, it is possible we do not quite go far enough. We begin as materialists and begin to recognize, believe in, and even interact with a spiritual dimension to reality. This is certainly an improvement. We often stop short, however, of seeing the full extent to which the spiritual dimension of reality saturates all reality. In stopping short in this way, we hold the spiritual and material aspects of creation as being completely distinct from each other. There is a distinction. This is undeniable. But what is the nature of that distinction and what are its limits?
For instance, it seems clear that there are spiritual realities that are not material. Heaven, as the place where God lives and as the domain of angels and believing loved ones who have died is presented in the Bible as a non-material reality. Not all spiritual things are material. But does it necessarily follow then that not all material things are spiritual? That is not a logical necessity and is also not supported scripturally.
All of material Creation was spoken into existence by God.
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.(ESV)
We know that God’s word is Spirit. So all of material Creation has its origin in God’s word, that which is non-material/spiritual. We also know that material Creation is sustained moment by moment by that which is spiritual.
3 He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high,(ESV)
All material creation has its origin in the non-material and is sustained by the non-material. Material existence is fundamentally spiritual in nature. Not all things are material. All things are spiritual (nod to Rob Bell here, but I haven’t seen his presentation by that title). If this is true, then words like “supernatural” are thereby redefined. Instead of seeing the supernatural in terms of spiritual reality invading non-spiritual reality, it is perhaps better understood in terms of material reality, out of sync with the spiritual reality that is both its origin and sustenance, being brought back into alignment. “Miracle” becomes simply the descriptor we use to put words to our observation of this realignment. If my eyes are blind it is nevertheless miraculous, in a technical sense, for my blind eyes have their origin and sustenance in God’s word, which is spiritual. All of creation is miraculous in that sense, for because God opened his mouth and spoke, something material became where previously there was nothing material. If God then speaks and heals my blind eyes, then this “miracle” doesn’t actually belong in a different category than the overall miracle of material existence as a result of God’s life giving creative word. But I still use the word “miracle” to describe the effect of God’s word in bringing my eyes back into alignment with his original design.
In this integrated worldview, where the spiritual nature of nature is affirmed, I gain a better understanding of several things – communion and water baptism for instance. In a dualistic view where I see the material and spiritual as being non-integrated, I must view these very physical things (water, bread, wine, or grape-juice if you like me are a Bible-Belt Dweller) as being simply symbolic. They are physical things which represent, point toward a spiritual reality. But with an integrated view, I am able to affirm the non-symbolic language scripture uses to describe the spiritual significance of baptism and communion. An integrated view helps me understand the importance of sexual purity, for no longer do I view the physical aspect of intimacy as being merely material. Instead the spiritual oneness that results from this physical act fits well within my overall view of reality. With an integrated worldview, I understand how laying my hands on the sick can serve as a conduit a release of spiritual power resulting in healing. With an integrated worldview I have a grid through which to understand how my body can be the Temple of the Holy Spirit. With an integrated worldview I can understand how people can suffer from demonization. With an integrated worldview I understand the biblical emphasis on the resurrection of the body as the anchor of our future hope in contrast with the more popular non-material hope of eternity in heaven after we die. With an integrated worldview, I have a context for understanding Revelation 21, where the New Jerusalem descends to earth and heaven and earth become the same place.
Without thinking differently about matter and spirit much of scripture will seem foreign. Once I begin to embrace an integrated spiritual/material worldview, much that I read in scripture will elegantly snap into place in terms of both my understanding and even my experience. It’s an important adjustment.