Classical Greek philosophy had a generally low opinion of matter and the physical body. Philosophers considered matter inferior to form/mind/spirit, and regarded the body as a "prison" of the soul, which dragged the soul down from high intellectual persuits by its demands for physical sustenance and gratification.
This was the prevailing secular attitude toward physicality at the beginning of the Christian era. Thus early Christianity, with its high regard and respect for the human body, found itself opposed to the views of the larger culture. The tension is evident in Acts 17, where Saint Paul is trying to preach the Gospel to the Athenians. He seems to have their rapt attention until he mentions the Resurrection of Christ (vs 31). Some of the Athenians then begin to mock him (vs 32), since the concept of physical resurrection seemed absurd to the ancient Greek mentality. Why would a soul freed by death wish to re-enter its former "prison"?
This distain for matter became an article of faith among the Gnostics, a diverse bunch of small religious sects whose beliefs consisted of various syncretistic blends of pagan, Zoroastrian, Christian and other concepts. Though each sect held many different beliefs, all claimed that matter is evil, created by an evil god, called the Demiurge or Ialdabaoth. (They often identified this god with the Creator-God of Genesis, and thus with the God of Israel. Not surprisingly, many of these sects were quite anti-Semetic).
Early Christians consistently opposed these views, recognizing them as foreign to the teachings of the Apostles, who faithfully handed down the instruction of Jesus Christ Himself. The Christians maintained that there is only One True God (Mark 12:29), Who is Infinite Goodness by nature (Matthew 19:17), and that this Deity alone created both spirit and matter. Thus the material world is good, not evil, as the Scripture says: "And God saw all the things that he had made, and they were very good" (Genesis 1:31). Nature manifests the divine attributes (Romans 1:20), and the whole universe declares God's glory (Psalm 19:1).
Creator and Creation
Though essentially distinct from and infinitely greater than creation, God is not distant from it. Scripture teaches that the Creator fills, enfolds and sustains all things:
"Do I not fill heaven and earth? saith the Lord" (Jer 23:24).God also loves all creatures with infinite love and compassion:
"In him we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:28).
"The Lord is sweet to all, and his tender mercies are over all his works." (Psalm 144:9)
"For you love all things that are, and hate none of the things which you made;
for how could you appoint or make anything you hated? And how could anything
endure if you did not will it? Or be preserved, if not called by you? But you
spare all, because they are yours, O Lord, lover of souls."(Wisdom 11:24-27).
Evil and the Creation
What about evil, then? Does God love it? No, for God did not create it.
Evil does not exist in the same way as good; evil is a "negative" existence, like a void or a vacuum. Evil is the absence of good, the negation of God's infinite Goodness and the goodness of creation.
If creation is a beautiful tapestry woven by the hands of the Almighty, evil is a tear in the fabric, made by the willful disobedience of intelligent creatures.
Evil is emptiness, a spiritual void, a metaphysical vacuum. At some point in our lives we all experience the frightful void of evil - within our very selves! The inner void, the "black hole" which we experience within our souls, is none other than original sin. In an earlier article (Grace and the Catholic View of Salvation) we saw that original sin is primarily the lack of God's gracious Presence in the soul, as a result of the Fall. When our first parents disobeyed God, they rejected Divine Grace, evicting it from their souls. All that was left was an emptiness where Grace had been. This emptiness is now the condition of our souls, unless re-infused with sanctifying grace in Baptism.
The Fall and Redemption in Relation to Matter
Created by the same all-good Deity, spirit and matter originally existed in divine harmony, without conflict or tension. Yet the first human sin, the first "tear" in creation, created a rift between matter and spirit. Now the flesh struggles against the spirit (Galatians 5:17). God never intended that such animosity should exist between the two orders of creation, evil brought on this disorder (I Co 14:33).
One cannot say that spirit is good and matter evil, as if the Fall tainted only the material world. The original sin effected both spirit and matter. 2 Corinthians speaks of defilement of flesh and spirit (7:1).
In fact, there is no such thing as "perfect evil"! It cannot possibly exist, because evil is a condition imposed upon creation, and creation is finite, limited by nature. Thus while Goodness is infinite, evil is not.
God wills to reconcile matter and spirit, body and soul. The Incarnation began this process.
As we shall see in the next two articles, the Incarnation is the most powerful proof of the goodness of matter, and the basis for the sacramental character of the Catholic faith.
God's Relationship to Creation: Different Views Examined
As we have seen, Mother Church teaches that God infinitely transcends creation (that is, the Divine Nature is infinitely greater than any created nature),and is also immanent to all creatures, sustaining their distinct existence at every level. This is the meaning of omnipresence, the orthodox Christian view of God's relationship to creation.
However, some thinkers throughout the centuries have postulated other theories of God's relation to the cosmos. Though not held by Mother Church, they are interesting to examine.
The first is Pantheism. This is the belief that "God" is identical with the universe. This theory radically identifies God with creation. A pantheist believes that there is no God apart from the cosmos; if we speak of "God" at all, it is the universe of which we speak.
Hence a true pantheist denies the existence of a personal, transcendent God who can hear prayers and grant petitions. God is reduced to a certain "divine quality" which the pantheist thinks he or she perceives in nature. Because of this, some theologians actually consider pantheism a form of atheism, since it really denies the existence of "God" as most Western religions understand Him.
Pantheism finds no support in Sacred Scripture, which begins with the words "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" (Genesis 1:1). From the start, the Bible distinguishes between Creator and creation. The Psalmist clearly distinguishes between God and creation on the basis of the former's immutability and the latter's constant change:
"In the beginning, O Lord, you founded the earth; and the heavens are the works of your hands. They shall perish, but you remain; all of them shall grow old like a garment, and as a vesture you shall change them, and they shall be changed. But you are always the same, and your years shall not fail" (Psalm 102:26-28).If God were identical with creation, He would change with it, not remain "always the same".
Some philosophers throughout history have embraced an "opposite" theory known as Deism. Deists believe that God is utterly separate from creation, which is self-sustaining. Many deists also believe that God created the universe and then left it to run on its own. He either watches it run down or perhaps abandons it, leaving us all alone!
Like Pantheism, Deism also contradicts Scripture, which from Genesis to Revelation presents a God intimately involved in creation, and particulary in human affairs.
If Pantheism overemphasizes the immanence of God at the expense of His transcendence, then Deism does the opposite; positing an utterly transcendent God who remains aloof from creation. The Christian teaching that God is omnipresent, however, strikes a balance between these two extremes. God is utterly distinct from His creation, yet as close to it as He can possibly be without losing His identity to it.
Ironically, both Pantheism and Deism have what might be called "atheistic" tendancies. As we saw above, pantheism is quasi-atheistic since it denies the existence of a personal, miracle-working God. Yet Deism, while professing a belief in God, generally denies that He performs miracles or hears prayers. A consistent deist would not bother praying to this distant, unconcerned Deity, since what use would that be? Hence Deism logically leads to a "practical atheism", that is, living as if there is no God.
Though both theories hold opposite views of God's relation to creatures, both essentially end up in the same place: practical atheism!
The third theory to consider is Panentheism. This belief lies somewhere between Pantheism and Omnipresence. Panentheists believe that God is "incarnate" in the cosmos; it is His "body" and thus part of His nature, yet He "transcends" it in a sense, even as our souls transcend our bodies through their intelligence and will. The "God" of Panentheism, therefore, is like a "cosmic Intelligence" behind the universe.
(This is commonly confused with Pantheism, but the two are quite different. Pantheism denies the existence of a personal God, while the God of Panentheism is still "personal", not completely subsumed in creation.)
This theory often has an "evolutionary" element to it. Some panentheists, known as "process theologians" believe that the evolution of the universe and life are but manifestations of an evolution taking place in God. God created the universe, they say, because He grew to a point in His personal evolution where He realized that He had to become "embodied" in order to continue to evolve.
This, of course, does not correspond to the biblical Revelation that God is unchanging (Malachi 3:10) or to the teaching of Mother Church that God is the First Cause and "Unmoved Mover". Revelation never depicts God as united with creation except in the Incarnation of Christ. That is the only instance in which panentheism is correct, for the Sacred Humanity of Christ is both a creature and the "body of God". But the same cannot be said of all creation.
I have never heard a name for the final theory, but since it stands somewhere in between Omnipresence and Deism, I will call it "Semi-Deism". For a nameless theory, this one is pretty popular! A lot of lay people actually hold this view of God (even if theologians don't).
This is the belief that God is "up in heaven" (a place usually vaguely imaged as somewhere in the stratosphere among the clouds). He is seated on a throne up there, but unlike the God of Deism, He is aware of and concerned with what goes on down here, and may even get involved. He does so by either exercising some kind of "power" from His throne, or perhaps by actually "coming down" from heaven to perform a miracle (and presumably returning to His cloud after He is done!).
This crude image of an anthropomorphic God on His throne in the clouds seems at first to have some biblical basis, but only in a hyper-literal reading of it. As we saw above, the God of the Bible is also presented as an omnipresent Spirit; this is the truer image of God. Depictions of God as an "old man" with eyes, ears, hands, etc. are figures of speech.
To illustrate how these five concepts relate to each other, let us place them on a continuum:
The left side represents "immmanence", the right "trancendence". At the far left, Pantheism so stresses the immanence of God as to identify Him with the cosmos. Panentheism tries to postulate a partial identification with the cosmos, but still weighs to heavily on the "immanence" side of the equation. At the far right, Deism overemphasizes the Divine transcendence, leaving us with a God not the least bit immanent. "Semi-Deism" imagines an anthropomorphic "old man in the clouds" who is only partially involved in the history of the world.
In the middle stands Omnipresence, the view which perfectly balances both extremes. In a certain sense, the Christian concept fulfils the needs expressed by each of the other four concepts.