When but not of” the world of ordinary
When we die, provided we have met certain requirements, we enter into this spiritual dimension where we spend a joyful eternity. A strong Christian tradition, derived from what seems to be Paul’s negativity towards sensuality and sex, teaches aversion to the imperfect world of the senses. We become “holy” when we are liberated from bodily needs through rigorous ascetic discipline or some special gift from God. These elements of asceticism and other-worldliness appealed strongly to the Fathers and Doctors of the early Christian Church. Augustine of Hippo in his Confessions indicated the profound influence on his religious thinking of this sort of dualistic Neoplatonism.
It became generally accepted, at least in theory, by the medieval church as the ideal of Christian living, a testimony to the enormous influence Augustine’s writing has had on the Church. Bertrand Russell points out that Christian dualism showed itself in medieval society in a number of ways. He writes: “The medieval world, as contrasted with the world of antiquity, is characterised by various forms of dualism … clergy and laity … Latin and Teuton … the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the world … the spirit and the flesh”.
Traditionally, the Church has seen itself as “in but not of” the world of ordinary life and imperfect experience. A number of 19th- and 20th-century thinkers and writers have been influenced by Neoplatonism. Among them were several of the most important British Romantic poets, including William Wordsworth, John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley. In the 20th century, many Christian thinkers began to seek a more holistic way of perceiving and talking about reality. This had gradually been forced on them by an increasing appreciation of the unity of nature.
The “butterfly effect” speculates, for example, that the death of a butterfly in ages past might have changed the entire course of history, so deep is the unity of cause and effect. Quantum mechanics implies that every particle in the universe is linked with every other particle. Affect one and all are affected. Similarly, factories in one country which spew out toxic chemicals can poison another society thousands of kilometres away. A rise in the price of oil damages the economies of every country except the suppliers of oil – and even theirs in the longer run.
It is now becoming apparent to many aware people throughout the world that we live in a system of cause and effect which does not allow us to be irresponsible in any area of life without eventually feeling the negative impact. In short, dualism is rapidly being replaced by the concept of interlocking systems. The idea of two realms or dimensions of reality – the really “real” and the partly real, the spiritual and the physical, the holy and the ordinary – is being replaced by the unity of the universe as an unbounded system entire in itself.
In the 21st century, many groups of Christians seek to diminish distance and difference between themselves and ordinary life. They perceive their ministry as integrated into society, into the worlds of business and politics for example. Not only is ordinary life not merely a reflection of something real and better, there is nothing “more real” or “better”. This is what is. This is what God has created and it is good. We can, by definition, know nothing else.
So church attendance becomes less a moving into holiness out of imperfect life on Sundays, and more an expression and celebration of aspects of everyday living in a good world created by God. Life is not thought of as sinful in itself, corrupted way back by the sin of Adam and Eve. There is no better dimension after which we should hanker. This is it. This is what God created and we are meant to make the best of it we can. Some religious groups, perhaps threatened by the continuing explosion of human knowledge, have retreated into rigid forms of fundamentalism.
They seek to differentiate themselves from “corrupt” and “ungodly” society. If this is not possible, they attempt to change aspects of ordinary life to fit their beliefs. This rests upon an assumption that, through revelation (via the Bible or the Pope, for instance), they have access to absolute truth. Others must therefore conform to this absolute truth, which is valid for all people for all time. The implications of abandoning Neoplatonism are huge, so deeply are its assumptions and conclusions embedded in Western society.