The Importance of Matter and Nature

In an earlier entry, I advocated the view that relationships are primary and substance comes into existence as a result of one or more relationships. Now, I’ll try to produce a more balanced view by saying why we Christians, perhaps others as well, should consider substance (or `essence’ in the usual philosophical talk) to be necessary for our very existence. In particular, I will be assuming that our substance is the physical matter of our bodies and the human natures into which that matter is formed.

We are brought into existence by God’s acts-of-being, though I view that as a two stage process. In the first stage, God created what I call the Primordial Universe, manifested truths or being that is pure in some sense I can’t yet define. In the second stage, the stage described in pagan myths and the first verses of Genesis, God shaped that pure being into a particular universe — the one we are part of.

We are brought into existence by God’s acts-of-being, but we are not ourselves acts-of-being nor do we have any control over our existence or non-existence. God can resurrect those who kill themselves thinking to end their existence for ever. He can leave dead those who think that they will go on to some Disneyland where they will continue to enjoy the sort of life to which they accustomed themselves. It is for God to decide who will be companions to His Son, though we can start out presuming He will select those who are trying to be such companions during their earthly lives.

Our substance is God’s way of giving us some limited independence from Him. We can’t know what that means since God is all-powerful and those who thought it impossible for creatures to have any true freedom had some good arguments. Despite those arguments, we do experience something of a freedom but we do not exercise that freedom by way of anything deserving the name ‘free-will’.

A human being should not even desire free-will because of the implications of the ability to act in a truly random way. For God the Creator, this ability to act in a truly random way means that He could bring into existence a Primordial Universe from nothingness and then shape that Primordial Universe into a particularized universe, the universe of which we are part. Our freedom consists, so far as I can tell, entirely in nudging ourselves towards an acceptance of God’s wishes for us. This nudging process can be less painful and almost invisible when it begins in early childhood but few the Christian parents with the faith and courage and integrity to raise their children to be Christians in a world where non-Christian behavior seems to lead to much in the way of safety and comfort, in a word — prosperity.

To look at matters from a different point of view, the freedom we have as creatures is to help in shaping our selves, our stuff and our relationships to others including God. This gives us a very limited freedom, important in allowing us to accept God’s offer to share in His life, but limited. The term ‘free-will’ is a term that is used predominately to speak of the ability of autonomous agents to make decisions independent of ties to the past or even to one’s inborn nature.  Most importantly in the marketplace world which liberalism has created, free-will allows us to choose from bundles of goods. But we do not have that sort of freedom simply because we are not autonomous agents. We cannot choose freely nor does the liberal idea of bundles of goods mean anything. In fact, experience over the past few decades of rapid decay indicates this sort of view — when taken seriously — is most likely to lead to people being trapped in bad habits and immoral ways of life which they selected as adolescents. We see this in the teen-aged rockers of the 50s and 60s who continue to make asses of themselves on the stage even when they are grandfathers and nearly great-grandfathers.

George Berkeley, a key thinker in the history of liberalism, despite his own self-understanding as being a traditional Christian, defined spirit — the human soul was one example — as the form of being which thinks, wills, and acts. It is this soul which is autonomous for its ties to the particularity of matter are accidental. It is this soul which could be happy in an age where men can choose to become women and women can choose to become anything but mothers. This modern age is most certainly not to the likings of a human being who is a particular physical being and satisfied to be so. It is that particular physical being which has a particular moral nature. A being which is an immortal soul, a spirit as defined by Berkeley and the likes of Emerson and Thoreau, has no particular moral nature. This being is an ‘agent’ as Berkeley himself said, an autonomous agent in the thought of those who followed him on the path to modernity. That agent may choose to accept a system of morality, but that system will be an external set of rules. This is radically different from a man’s experience of his moral nature, to say the least, and it’s radically inconsistent with the Catholic view that our moral natures will be completed by grace. Our morality is in us and not a law imposed upon us or freely accepted by us.

I don’t know if God could have created such a spiritual creature as Berkeley or Emerson or Thoreau imagined themselves to be. I do know, the Bible tells me so, He created us that some of us could become companions for His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. I also know that our physical nature with its needs and constraints do not allow us to choose freely even amongst the very limited range of ‘bundles of goods’ offered by nature. Even the unnatural bundles of goods we see offered to us in the modern world show a complete lack of the powerful imagination which would have to be part of a true free-will.

We have some freedom, enough freedom to accept or reject salvation and even enough freedom to become good or bad men by the standards of our particular beliefs, but we have no freedom grand enough to deserve the term ‘free-will’. Only God could have that sort of freedom, or — in the fevered imaginations of some, that sort of freedom would also be found in a creature formed of the same substance as God. Mostly we have the freedom to move within the constraints and limitations of our human natures.

So far as I can tell, Berkeley put himself in an embarrassing position for a Christian — he defined the ‘stuff’ of God and the true ‘soul-stuff’ of man as being basically the same. Berkeley’s God seems to have the one additional power to create and destroy other beings, but that seems pretty paltry for the God of Jesus Christ and not even the sort of ‘difference’ which would be appropriate to a God who showed His power most explicitly as He allowed His Son to be tortured and crucified. God’s power to create is one aspect of His true life, most especially of the love shared by Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

When we think of God being made of divine substance, we’re already in trouble. We limit Him rather than letting Him define Himself. One particular bit of trouble comes in when we begin to think of bodies of truths as somehow existing separately from God so that He becomes a thinker like us, a processor of truths which lie beyond His creative powers. Deism is implicit in such a view just as dualistic or polytheistic paganism is implicit in the oft-stated belief of many Christians that God intended this world to be different than it is. God is all-powerful and He created the world as He wished it to be. In this world are the creatures from whom He will choose His Son’s companions. In this world, such creatures come to be potential companions of the Son of God by reacting properly to the very forces of disorder which can even include those describable as evil.

I don’t have any deep theories as to why God chose to create such a world or why He chose to Incarnate His Son as a member of a species of apes. In “To See a World…”, I merely told a story which is coherent in the way of a story. The sheer particularity of that story is a result of God’s free-will decision as to which type of a world to create and then which specific world to create. That sheer particularity of God’s decisions as a Creator also argue against us having anything describable by ‘free-will’, that term which has been taken over by liberal thought with its refusal to see a man as being bound, or even constrained, by his particular nature or his particular history. God created particular creatures and not creatures able to will freely from even a wide range of possibilities let alone an infinite catalog of bundles of goods.

Whatever views Christians may have of free-will, it has been used in the modern world mostly to allow men to escape the Christian traditions of their forefathers. And now it has the practical role of allowing redefinition of a woman’s very biological nature in societies which would collapse into poverty if their economies were not expanding explosively into new needs, the satisfaction of new desires descovered to irritate into movement the alleged free-wills of human creatures melting down into marketplace widgets.

A free-will is exactly what a true liberal wants to have because he would be what he desires to be and would rather cease to exist than to be forced to be what he was born to be. I’m not sure why a Christian would want a free-will or why he would imagine he has one.

Substance is what we have, where I consider substance to be both the underlying matter of our bodies and also our well-defined biological natures. More exactly, we have the substance which allows us to be formed into the sorts of companions God chose for His Son. Substance is what we need because we are particular beings. If we will to be other than our substance, we will an end to our existence. We cannot become gods or spirits or autonomous agents just because we are particular creatures with adrenal glands and sexual organs and pre-frontal lobes in our brains.