Monday, November 22, 2010

Reconciling the Physical and the Spiritual

There’s a kind of war going on in scientific circles. Some scientists are trying to diminish the things that make humans unique from the other animals. Our use of tools? Chimps, birds, elephants, dolphins and octopi also use tools. Opposable thumbs? Most primates have them. The importance of the relative brain size of humans compared to other creatures is disputed as well. Even chimps and African Grey parrots seem to be able to learn and use language appropriately. There is nothing that human beings have that is not possessed in some degree by the other animals.

On the other hand, there are scientists who point out significant differences in humans, such as our upright posture, our shoulder, our throat, our smaller jaw, our ability to cry tears, and our sheer versatility. There’s the fact that, unlike all other animals, humans are not limited to one climate or region or continent. And we don’t adapt by changing our physiology but through developing our technology. Which, though tools, are considerably more sophisticated than those other animals create and use. The difference in the DNA of humans and chimps may be less than 2% but the fact remains that the most versatile tool chimps have devised is the stick. My not very smart phone can wake me up, keep track of my appointments, take photos and videos, play music, check my emails, give me a ten day weather forecast, my location by GPS and access the web including an online medical dictionary, several translations of the Bible, and Wikipedia. At some point differences in degree are so great that they might as well be differences in kind. St. Francis-in-the-Keys and Canterbury Cathedral are both Anglican churches but the differences in size and complexity are so vast that any detailed comparison would only serve to highlight the dissimilarities.

Still, biologically, we are mammals. And that brings us to our sermon suggestion question. It concerns “the duality of human nature--animal vs. spiritual. How to resolve the dichotomy without neglecting either side or self-destructive.” It’s an old question. The Greeks wrestled with it and decided we were spiritual beings trapped in physical bodies. The Gnostics smuggled that idea into the church. But the Bible sees us as the union of body and spirit. In Genesis 2, God forms Adam from the earth and breathes into him the breath or spirit of life. The 2 can only be separated in theory or by death. Contrary to popular belief, Christians don’t believe in a disembodied afterlife but, as we say in the Creed, “the resurrection of the dead.” God plans to reintegrate our bodies and spirits, or as John Polkinghorne puts it, save our software and install it in new hardware.

After all, if God became incarnate in Jesus Christ, then our bodies cannot be inherently bad. And indeed, they come with an operating system that allows us to learn how to walk, use language, even to seek God. But just as computer software is built on earlier versions, so we have programming that comes from our animal heritage. We are inborn tendencies to fright, to fight, to reproduce. and we need to control these proclivities lest our lives and our societies devolve into chaos. Yet we have physical needs that we cannot ignore. How does one achieve balance?

One way is to understand what those needs are and what they aren’t. For instance, we need food and water. Healthy food, of course, and neither too little nor too much. And that’s a good way to deal with all of our needs: in moderation. We need clothing, shelter, sleep and the healthiest option is always somewhere between too much and too little. Or as Goldilocks put it--just right.

A good deal of our problems with our bodies is paying them too little or too much attention. Too little and we can fall into extreme asceticism, a form of self-denial that goes beyond reasonable self-discipline. This is something Paul cautioned against in his first letter to Timothy. He warns his protégé against those who “forbid marriage and demand abstinence from foods…for everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, provided it is received with thanksgiving, for it is sanctified by God’s word and prayer.” We should not reject the good things God has created for us to use and enjoy.

On the other hand, just as eating or drinking too much is unhealthy, so is overindulgence in our other needs. We need clothing but we all know people who pay too much attention to clothing and have way too many clothes than is reasonable. We need shelter but nobody needs a mansion unless they have an extremely large family. There really is too much of a good thing.

I drew much of my list of needs from the lower tier of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. But I think he has mislabeled one of the things on the list of physical needs: sex. Maslow should have put physical affection in there instead. The lack of physical affection can cause babies to die, even if their other physical needs are met. Those who survive have severe psychological problems. Physical touch lowers blood pressure, relieves stress and releases oxytocin, the chemical that binds humans. Physical affection is a need, even if it’s just a hug.

Sex, while definitely a need in regards to perpetuating the species, is not, strictly speaking, an individual need. The desire for it, though, is strong enough to feel as if it were. Even animals recognize that the desire for sex can and should be controlled for the common good. Among most social animals, only an alpha male or a queen or an alpha couple are allowed to mate. The others may not, often at the risk of expulsion from the pack or family, or even on pain of death. Unlike lack of food, water, or even exposure to the elements, going without sex won’t kill you. Overindulging, on the other hand, can, through disease or jealousy. Like other animals, we need to observe certain restrictions when it comes to sex.

In the Bible, sex is reserved for marriage. And most human societies agree. Within marriage, sex is important for the health of the relationship. In fact, the first commandment in the Bible is for humanity to be fruitful and multiply. The Song of Songs is a very sensual poem of married love. Sex is a gift from God and as Paul said, everything created by God is good, provided it is received with thankfulness, and sanctified by God’s word and prayer. That‘s what we do when we bless a wedding.

And it goes without saying, that sex should always be loving and never humiliating, degrading or harmful. As our prayer book says, marriage is meant for the couple’s mutual joy.

We have other needs as well, needs that are not physical. Some are social, like belonging to a family or group. Others are spiritual. Some scientists think that because belief in God is universal it must have an evolutionary advantage, something that caused humans who had it to thrive and the humans who didn’t to die off. They think it has to do with ensuring that people cooperate with one another. In fact, studies show that when reminded of God, people tend to be kind and helpful even to those outside their own family or group. It works better than simply being reminded of religion in general.

Belief in God activates several specific parts of the brain and brain chemicals. The evidence shows that, contrary to what some non-believers think, belief in God is normal and natural. We are hardwired for it.

But does that make it good? As we’ve seen in regards to certain biological urges, just because something occurs in nature or is the norm, that doesn’t necessarily make it good or beneficial. But belief in God has been clinically shown to reduce anxiety and promote healing and good physical health.

Neglecting our spiritual lives is bad for us in the same way that neglecting exercise or good hygiene is. It may not kill you as quickly as neglecting to eat, but overall it takes a toll on our spiritual and even physical health. In a study of women 50 years old and up, those who attend religious services weekly were 20% less likely to die in any given year. Religious observance is associated with 2 to 3 years of additional life. That’s on par with taking statin drugs for cholesterol.

Can you, as with eating, overdo religion? Yes. Studies show that people who only go to religious services get not only health and personal benefits but are kind and helpful to other members of their group. However, they are also more likely to think and act negatively towards those outside their faith. Jesus denounced the Pharisees who got so caught up in the minutiae of religion that they lost track of its most basic principles of justice and compassion to the marginalized and outsiders. Those same studies show that people who have a strong prayer life as well, those who have a direct relationship with God, are more altruistic to all people, including those who don’t belong to their faith or ethnic group. So it is vital to be connected not just with a religious group but with God himself.

We are amphibians, C.S. Lewis said, adapted to live in both the spiritual and physical worlds. We are not meant to live exclusively in either, so balance is important. The best way to do that is to obey the 2 great commandments Jesus laid out. By loving God, we stay in touch with the source of spiritual health, and by loving our neighbor as ourselves we stay connected with the physical world. As James reminds us, faith must manifest itself in the physical world as works to be genuine. As I’ve said before, the physical gives expression to the spiritual and the spiritual gives meaning to the physical. In that sense, our every action in this world should be sacramental, a giving of spiritual grace in some concrete form.

We need to reject the false dichotomy between the spiritual and the physical. When we try to divorce them, or overemphasize one at the expense of the other, we get into trouble. They are meant to go together in harmony. Sin and temptation, especially the temptation to oversimplify the situation, make achieving this balance hard but not impossible.

Above all, we must do everything in love and with gratitude to the God who created the world and everything in it as good gifts to be used wisely for the good of all. Or sometimes just enjoyed for what they are: physical expressions of his love.

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