The other day a robber took an elderly man by surprise, grabbed his wallet and briefcase, beat him up and left. The man remained on the ground, unable to lift himself, defeated and hurting. Eventually someone passed by and offered him a hand.
People search for numerous ways to avoid this kind of tragedy. Yet a simple if unfeasible solution could be proposed: so many of these hurts and tragedies could be avoided if we simply did not have bodies, if you think about it. If we were just souls, just immaterial beings floating around and communicating hermetically, we would not be able to stab a knife into someone’s chest. We would be pure and clean, hygienic like the air, without surfaces to shower or polish. We would be minds free of the animal nature that binds us to the earth and to mortality. There would remain the abstract pleasures of the mind and soul.
This disembodied bliss is actually what many forms of spirituality offer. Considering the material world inferior or evil, they teach that spiritual progress consists in emptying oneself until we merge with the void. This is how Elizabeth Gilbert described her experience with Eastern spirituality, for example, in her bestselling Eat Pray Love. “I left my body, I left the room, I left the planet, I stepped through time and I entered the void. I was inside the void, but I also was the void, all at the same time.” The height of spiritual advancement is a move beyond matter into the emptiness of nothingness.
Yet a move beyond the body would also mean a move beyond the pleasures of the body. Immaterial souls would not be able to ski down a white mountain, feeling the hush of the wind against our cheeks, smelling the fragrance of snow, arriving weak enough to be restored by a hot bath together with strawberry ice-cream covered with generous chocolate brownies and Rocky Balboa’s triumph song in the background. We would not be able to kiss, to shake hands, to eat, to pee, to communicate with a look more than we can with our words. We would be impoverished.
And that is exactly what Christianity affirms. The most material of religions, as William Temple described it, considers that God created this world and called it good. He fashioned matter and delighted in it. He became a man himself, someone whose first miracle was to turn water into wine. Jesus experienced death, as every other human does, and when he rose back to life, he came not as an immaterial ghost, but as a true body, with nail marks in his hands. Heaven will not be less material still, but we will be raised up in bodily form, and there will be a new earth.
Matter is good; God created it. So let’s care for the environment. Let’s alleviate hunger and cure bodies, instead of meditating our way past them, because God took a body too. Let’s study nature and make science. And let’s enjoy the world as God created it, the material world with its perils and its pleasures, a place where we can climb on trees, offer someone a hand, and of course, eat and pray and love.
 Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat Pray Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia (New York: Penguin, 2006), 264-265
René, such a good reminder and a worthy response. blessings, Renée
I really enjoyed your assessment of the book. I saw the movie last week and I was said seeing that it does not provide any hope to the audience. Taking a one year break to meditate is like treating a terminal patient with Tylenol. People need to know Jesus. The only way to eternal peace!
Hi Renan! I´m yet to see the movie, but the book was very engaging and well-written. But, as you say, different spiritualities lead us to very different directions, eh? The way they look at the body and the material world is just one element among many in which they differ. Cheers!