Friday, August 6, 2010

The Matter of Matter and Why it Matters

or, why resurrection and transfiguration matter

In my last post, I suggested that the resurrection of Jesus, (resurrected—fully and physically alive, empty tomb and all) is essential to Christian faith. One of the reasons this matters is that it affects how we understand matter to matter and what hope we have for the material reality of this world and our material bodies and histories.

Classically, there are two options for addressing matter. Christianity promises a third.

1. Matter is all that matters – the materialist option. In that case, the best we can do is try to avoid as much suffering as possible and "enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can," as The Misfit says in Flannery O'Connor's A Good Man is Hard to Find. You can also try to avoid inflicting any more pain than necessary. You can even seek to alleviate and prevent it if that's how you want to spend your minutes. Or, like The Misfit, you can enjoy "No pleasure but meanness." But, it’s all a matter of taste which you choose. The most we can hope for is that sooner or later, one way or another, each of us will be put out of her or his misery by the oblivion of death.

2. Matter doesn’t really matter – one or another version of spiritualism or Gnosticism. The material world and its tragic history is at most an insignificant backdrop to spiritual drama, or it is a bad and yucky thing, or it is an illusion. The hope then is that we can escape through one or another system of spiritual or mindful liberation. Or we can hope that whatever is eternal will finally shuffle off the mortal coil of material, bodily existence and move on to some realm of spiritual bliss.

3. Christianity offers something rather different in resurrection and transfiguration – matter matters, but it is not all that matters and it matters in a direction. The material world is created by God and declared good. It has been blessed by its being assumed by divinity in the incarnation. In spite of its tragic history, the material world is all part of creation destined for New Creation in resurrection. Matter matters.

If one assumes either 1 or 2, any talk of "resurrection" must be understood as metaphorical with, at best, only tangential connection with the physical and material. It is a spiritual reality only. But, the hope of Christianity is based on a real, physical, material resurrection. First of all, the resurrection of Jesus in the 1st century. But, we also affirm in the Creeds that we believe in (and base our hope in) "the resurrection of the body". And what we hope for matters.

While the evil we humans commit, collaborate with, and suffer under always has a spiritual dimension, it is real, physical, and historical. The trauma, tragedy, and terror are in real space, in real time. The contradictions we live under are historical, not metaphorical or merely spiritual. The Christian hope is not that we will somehow be merely liberated or escape from the trauma, tragedy, and terror of evil, sin, and death - either in our personal stories or in the story of human history. Our hope is that it has been addressed and redressed in the incarnation and crucifixion (here, here, and here) and that it will all be transfigured in resurrection.

I wonder if, when we say we believe in the resurrection of the body, what we are saying is about more than the resurrection of individual bodies (while certainly that as well). Rather, it is the whole Human body stretched out on the rack of history. It is that body that was incorporated in the Incarnation. When Jesus Christ rose again on the third day, so did the promise of the resurrection/transfiguration of all the very material, historical sin and suffering – not metaphorically, but really and physically. A real, physical resurrection matters. There just might be hope that the very real, physical torture and suffering of history (and the persons caught in it as victims, perpetrators and collaborators) does not get the last word and that Death and its servants do not win. And because material reality matters and matters in a particular direction, we cannot but tend to the real material realities that affect physical bodies and the rest of creation.

Matter matters and, rejoicing in the power of the resurrection, we live in the hope that it (including us God-breathed, material, embodied creatures) will be transfigured in resurrection glory.


Jim said...

Agreed. I think Paul's summation, "If there is no resurrection...." stands for all. One may, I suppose accept that Jesus and the disciples did things, said certain things and suffered some things without believing that He lives. Whatever that belief is, Christianity it is something else.


A. D. Hunt said...

I was just reading William Temple this morning and he had this to say:

"But if Christianity is true, the spiritual and the material are not in themselves naturally hostile, though they easily enough become so; they are mutually supplementary.

The spiritual is only active, perhaps only actual (if these are to be distinguished), so far as it possesses and expresses itself through the material; the material only realizes its own potentialities when the spiritual dwells in it and controls it." - "The Christian Conception of History"

Matt Gunter said...

Jim and Tony,

Exactly. One of the perpetual temptations is to try to be more spiritual than God.

Temple rarely disappoints.

Anonymous said...

And in the Eucharist we are lifted up by God's grace into participation in the reconciliation of spirit and matter that is the the Incarnation and the Eschaton.

Matt Gunter said...

Yes. The centrality of the Eucharist and the recognition of the real presence of Christ in the consecrated bread and wine is witness to our belief in the blessedness of the matter of creation and our expectation that the whole of creation will be made new. And it is participation in that newness as well as summons to live now in anticipation of the New Creation.