This week’s posts have been about astrophysics–what scientists are finding out about cosmology and how the universe is put together. You may wonder: What is physics doing in a nature and spirituality blog? My answer: Focusing on THIS world–or this universe–because in my view it’s what any truly useful spirituality does.
As someone who teaches religious studies in a graduate program, I am always amazed at how much of American religion and spirituality today focuses on somewhere else–on an afterlife or on an etherized, “pure” existence apart from the body or even on catching a spaceship to elsewhere. It’s as if THIS world was a place to escape from if at all possible. (Or, in its kinder, gentler form, a place to learn something on our way to elsewhere. Earth as school in preparation for the “real” world. Blech.)
What all these “elsewhere” spiritualities share is an idea of “spirit” as different from “body.” Plato popularized the trend. He didn’t start it–plenty of people before him thought the body was the prison of the soul–but it was Plato’s focus on some ideal world that set Western cultures down the path of comparing “here” to “elsewhere” in a way that puts THIS world in a bad light.
So to speak. Plato’s famous cave allegory likened THIS world to an underground prison in which we have been chained all our lives, where the only thing we can see is the cave wall before us and the flickering shadows cast on it by the small campfire at our backs. Now suppose one of us breaks free of this prison and manages to crawl to the surface: How to make sense of that dazzling, bright world? The world of our senses, said Plato, is like that cave with its flickering shadows; the mental world of ideal forms, freed from the chains of the body, is the bright sunlit reality–more real by far than this poor excuse of a world called physical reality.
Still, Plato thought the soul and body resided together, if somewhat uneasily, in each person. In fact, the soul had a kind of physicality; it took up space. (Anyone remember the Star Trek race of Trills? For Plato–and people a thousand years after him–soul was like a symbiont, physically present within a person.)
It took Descartes at the dawn of the scientific revolution to forever remove spirit from body–and cause us four hundred years later to automatically think “elsewhere” when we hear “spirituality.” Descartes is famous for “I think, therefore I am,” but it was something else he said that forever sealed the fate of spirituality. People in Descartes’s time thought that body and spirit (or mind) were so completely fused that Descartes took pains to state the opposite in the extreme:
There is nothing included in the concept of body that belongs to the mind, and nothing in that of mind that belongs to the body.
In one fell swoop, he sliced mind away from body. Body was physical while mind (or spirit, a synonym at that time) was nonphysical. And never, in Western cultures, have they met up again in the four hundred years since.
Shades of Plato, echoes of Descartes–the gulf between body and spirit (or mind) is so great in the Western mind that we find it almost impossible to conceive of a spirituality of THIS world. It’s why anyone hearing “spirituality” automatically thinks “elsewhere”–some disembodied reality, some spirit world different from or in conflict with THIS world.
But THIS world is the one we live in–the world you can touch with your fingertips and measure with lab instruments, the world of physics and biology and chemistry. THIS world is full also of things you can’t touch, like feelings and stories and creativity and values–things that shape our lives just as surely as the visible, tangible objects that science studies.
And precisely here, where stories and galaxies dance, is where a truly useful spirituality is found. It is a spirituality of THIS world.
Update: This post was drawn from my book, Kissed by a Fox: And Other Stories of Friendship in Nature, published in 2012. More about the book at kissedbyafox.com.