Of Material and Spiritual

Photo by Angus Gray at Unsplash

Selfishness or selflessness?  Hard to find many defending selfishness or saying a word against selflessness.  Yet these two concepts are intertwined in thousands of years of philosophical debate over materialism and immaterialism.  While those two philosophical ideas appear as opposites, they each are, at most, half of reality.  Indulged in, each can lean toward a self-centered view of the world, the materialist surrounding himself with all that he can grasp, the immaterialist indulging in a cocoon of isolation from which he never emerges.

As most of us go about our daily lives, it may seem hard to conceive of the libraries of books filled with one side arguing that all that our senses constantly perceive is all that there is, while another school of thought just as vehemently asserts that it is all illusion, that the material is a false cloak covering spiritual reality.  Which is right, and which is wrong, and does it matter?  Can we bring the ideas together?

To shorten a very lengthy debate, materialists contend that the history of the progress of mankind is the story of overcoming physical obstacles and learning how to make the elements yield to our control, resulting in longer, healthier, more productive lives.  In similarly abbreviated fashion, the contention of immaterialists—sometimes referred to as spiritualists—is that at the end of the day all that physical “progress” means nothing, that its focus makes no one happy, that it chains people to an aggressive pursuit and struggle against one another that fails to bring lasting joy, instead feeding greed, covetousness, and hostility.  There is much more to the arguments, but that is their flavor.

To engage the debate on more practical terms, the materialist might argue that the spiritualist, by rejecting a very material world, is starving while living in a garden, dwelling in poverty amidst plenty.  The spiritualist might reply that the materialist may satisfy his appetites by feasting, but in the end he will still die, and by failing to transcend his surroundings he will die unhappy, having accomplished nothing lasting.

You may consider yourself partial to neither approach.  That would be understandable and proper, for man is by nature physical and spiritual.  The scholarly division is contrived, unnatural, isolating indivisible halves of existence.  The gospel of Jesus Christ, however, embraces the complete man.  When Jesus, as Creator, “saw every thing that he had made” of a very physical earth that included man and woman, He pronounced it all “very good” (Genesis 1:31).  Later, in our times, Jesus declared, “And it pleaseth God that he hath given all these things unto man; for unto this end were they made to be used . . .” (Doctrine and Covenants 59:20)  Furthermore, the scriptures teach, “there is a spirit in man” (Job 32:8).

The material is real; we are immersed in it.  As spirit children of a Heavenly Father, our challenge is to put our spirits in charge of the physical things, to control our environment as the Father does.  The physical is not here to slow us down or to bind our spirits.  Neither is it an instrument of penance for us to overcome and then be done with.  The material exists to facilitate our development and enhance our being.  We became more when our spirits united with our bodies.  The material is here to be used, first for learning and then for doing.  Joy comes in discovering how to use the physical well.  We are to subdue the earth, to become masters over the physical, not masters from the physical or to escape from the material.

The evil is when we shorten our vision, no longer employing the material for our growth and progression but becoming slaves to wanton appetites, food and drink devolving into our gods of gluttony and drunkenness, material things becoming objects of avarice instead of instruments of service.  We come to worship our tools, betraying our divine heritage as makers and wielders of tools.

The truth of the whole matter is found in the union of the spiritual with the material.  As children of God, it is our heritage to become like our Father.  Growing in the love of God, we govern our appetites and enlist our tools in the cause of ennobling one another.

The Master, Jesus Christ, explained it this way:

For man is spirit.  The elements are eternal, and spirit and element, inseparably connected receive a fulness of joy.  And when separated, man cannot receive a fulness of joy.  (Doctrine and Covenants 93:33, 34)

God created this very material world out of available elements, placed our spirits into physical bodies to learn how to control material things.  Christ was Himself born into a physical body that He also might enjoy the union of spirit and element.  Then He  willingly surrendered that union in death so that He might be resurrected from the dead, inseparably united as spirit and body, ensuring that for all of us the separation of spirit from body would be merely temporary while the unity of spirit with body, and the joy of that union, could last forever.

In so doing, Christ, and each of us, may receive the fulness of eternal joy that only our combined nature can achieve.

About Wayne Abernathy
I am a disciple of Jesus Christ. I am the husband of one wife, the father of 5 children, and grandfather of 14 (and counting). In my career I have served on the staff of the U.S. Senate for some 20 years, including as staff director of the Senate Banking Committee. For just over 2 years I was the Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Financial Institutions. Just recently, I retired from the American Bankers Association, where for 15 years I was an Executive Vice President, for financial institutions policy and regulatory affairs. I am most comfortable at home, where I like to read and write.

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