Spiritual Matters

You and I are made up of something we call “matter.” It’s a simple, commonplace term that elides the utter complexity which is hiding behind it.

The molecular stuff that makes us up is made up of atoms, which in turn are made up of electrons, protons, and neutrons, and the latter two are made up of even smaller entities called quarks. These particles exchange other particles, such as photons and gluons, and so in a sense these make us up too. The Standard Model of particle physics, one of science’s greatest theoretical achievements, describes the observations amazingly well. Behind all this, we strongly suspect that matter is made up of something more fundamental, but we don’t know if it’s “superstrings” or “quantum loops” or “twistors” or whatever. And don’t get me started on dark matter and dark energy.

But in our daily experience, we don’t see any of this directly. What we observe is a vast array of entities from planets, stars, and galaxies to plants, animals, and microorganisms and everything in between, including ourselves. This leads to an important question—are all of these things just inevitable outcomes from the laws of fundamental physics?

The position that everything is ultimately explained in terms of physics is often called “reductionism.” Many scientists believe that, and why not? We are made up of those particles and forces, after all. For some things—like the formation of stars, planets, and galaxies—the laws governing their origin and evolution are indeed straightforwardly reducible to the more fundamental laws. But some scientists believe that new laws and principles of nature “emerge” at higher levels of reality, like biology and human consciousness, though these are certainly constrained by what physics makes possible.

People who believe in a Creator God believe in yet another level, usually referred to as “spiritual.” For many, “spiritual” things typically pertain to a realm entirely separate from the world of matter. Christianity, however, puts matter at the very center of what it means to be “spiritual.” In order to establish a spiritual relationship with people, God became a human being in the person of Jesus.

For Christians, the spirituality of matter runs deeper still: we practice baptism with water as an act commanded by Jesus, and the Eucharist (communion) is the meal in which we remember Jesus and he promises to be present with us. Of course, Christians have profound disagreements about what is exactly happening in these rites, but mainstream theology has always affirmed that God is working in some way through them. In this sense at the very least, the matter is “spiritual.”

A material component

Today, it can sound downright odd to suggest that matter can be “spiritual.” Yet, we must remember that we are embodied persons. If we are going to be spiritual, it will inevitably have a material component. As C. S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity:

There is no good trying to be more spiritual than God. God never meant man to be a purely spiritual creature. That is why He uses material things like bread and wine to put the new life into us. We may think this rather crude and unspiritual. God does not: He invented eating. He likes matter. He invented it.

We may also resist the spirituality of matter because we are committed to a reductionist or mechanical view of the world, where only physics tells us what matter is really all about. But even if we are not so inclined, we may worry that accepting such spiritual ideas opens us up to a situation where the laws of physics can no longer be trusted to hold in everyday life, which would make science impossible. I for one would like the laws of fluid mechanics to stay put, especially if I am in an airplane at 39,000 feet.

But this does not have to be the case. The bread and wine in the Eucharist are still bread and wine. Any experiment that would be done on water which has been used for baptism would give the same result as if it had just been poured from a tap instead. Of course, Christians believe that something “real” has happened when we participate in the sacraments, but at an entirely different level of description and reality. We don’t have to deny the laws of physics at all or believe that they have been suspended in some way. We just don’t think that they represent the sum total of all that “matters” about matter. As philosopher Edward Feser puts it in his book Aristotle’s Revenge: The Metaphysical Foundations of Physical and Biological Science:

A blueprint can tell you a lot about a building, and has considerable practical utility insofar as it enables you to predict which rooms you will see as you enter the building and when you make your way up the stairs, how big the rooms will be, etc. All the same, the blueprint hardly tells you everything there is to know about the building, such as the color of the walls or the temperature inside the rooms …

… the representation of the physical universe afforded us by empiriometric science, and by mathematical physics in particular, is like a blueprint. It tells us a great deal about physical reality and thereby allows us to predict and control nature to a considerable extent. But the representation physics gives us does not tell us everything there is to know about physical reality …

At one level, then, we humans are indeed accurately described as complex collections of elementary particles and forces. But that doesn’t mean we have to be reduced to them. We also share the basic structures of biology with the rest of life on Earth. We are intelligent primates who have developed language, technology, art, and society.

Finally, we are loved by a Creator who uses the material world to communicate something of himself to us. For me, this is a compelling vision of the spirituality of matter, which can coexist quite happily with science.

John ZuHone is an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.