The physical vs. the spiritual

On the previous thread, under The “spiritual” meaning of bread, Lukas wrote:

Which brings me to a point that seems to be coming up over and over – the relative value of the physical versus the spiritual. Here’s one final attempt to clarify my understanding.

It boils down to this: our physical reality (body) is temporary; our spiritual reality (soul) is eternal. So while I deny that physical reality is worthless, nevertheless I assert that its value is limited and derives directly in proportion to its relationship to spiritual reality. Without this relationship, it would in fact be useless to humanity. Also, purely logically, what is the value of that which is limited compared to that which is infinite?

Generally speaking, I agree. Spiritual things are better than physical things. But (and this is a very important but) such a statement is extremely vague. Spiritual and physical what? In what context?

Which is better, a spiritual car or a physical car? Spiritual health or physical health? A spiritual strawberry or a physical strawberry? I disagree with the notion that in every respect, an object with the word “spiritual” in front of it is to be preferred over an object with the word “physical” in front of it.

Imagine missing work one day, and then when your boss asks you about it, you say, “Even if I wasn’t there physically, I was there spiritually, and that’s more important.” You have a duty to God to do your work, and you do your work by being there physically. You also need to be there spiritually, but you can’t be there spiritually if you’re not also there physically. So in this context, the spiritual is in a way dependent on the physical.

If you are trying to demonstrate that something in the Bible should be taken figuratively, it is not enough merely to explain that in a general way spiritualness is superior to physicalness.

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8 Responses

  1. Well, I think the original context of my comments should make it pretty clear what I am talking about. Is there anyone who is unclear about it?

    I’m saying that the health that Jesus restored people to, the life He raised them up into, the nourishment (bread) He provided for them, and the the life He Himself was resurrected to, were spiritual.

    As I demonstrated (perhaps awkwardly, and surely insufficiently) I believe that this understanding of the Bible, of Christianity, is supported by the Bible itself, especially the words of Christ. I also am trying to say that a material/fundamentalist interpretation of Christ’s teachings and works detract from His true station, majesty and truth.

    Jonah said:
    If you are trying to demonstrate that something in the Bible should be taken figuratively, it is not enough merely to explain that in a general way spiritualness is superior to physicalness.

    Well, I have also been attempting to use reason and the words of Jesus as much as possible. The post I left under the previous thread that compares 11 different statements Jesus about the nature of bread, His body, His Teachings, Salvation etc. was an attempt to avoid “merely explain(ing) in a general way” and go straight to the source.

  2. “Well, I think the original context of my comments should make it pretty clear what I am talking about. Is there anyone who is unclear about it?”

    It is pretty clear to anyone that really wants to understand what you mean. The Bible sometimes employs metaphorical and figurative language. It uses physical things to teach about greater things- realities that are spiritual.

    Jonah states- “If you are trying to demonstrate that something in the Bible should be taken figuratively, it is not enough merely to explain that in a general way spiritualness is superior to physicalness.”

    I don’t think this is merely what Lucas has done.

    What would you, Jonah, consider sufficent explaination to demonstrate whether or not something in the Bible should be understood figuratively?

    Pete

  3. Lukas wrote:
    I’m saying that the health that Jesus restored people to, the life He raised them up into, the nourishment (bread) He provided for them, and the the life He Himself was resurrected to, were spiritual.

    Yes, Christ restores people’s spiritual health. He also restores physical health. Why is it necessary to emphasize one and deemphasize the other?

    Puc Fada asked:
    What would you, Jonah, consider sufficent explaination to demonstrate whether or not something in the Bible should be understood figuratively?

    Not much. Most everything in the Bible has at least one figurative meaning.

    My point is not that the Bible should only be read literally. It is a Baha’i myth that non-Baha’is only read their scriptures literally. My point is that just because spiritual health is better than physical health, it does not necessarily follow that whenever the Bible mentions health, that it must mean spiritual health. That is basically the argument Lukas is making, because that is how he is setting out to prove that when the Bible speaks of resurrection, it means spiritual resurrection.

  4. Jonah:
    Yes, Christ restores people’s spiritual health. He also restores physical health. Why is it necessary to emphasize one and deemphasize the other?

    Lukas:
    Um, I may as well ask you the same question. From my perspective, “mainstream” interpretation over-emphasizes the material aspect of Christ’s works to the point that the spiritual component is often entirely overlooked, if not outright denied.

    To me this is a distortion of the essence of Christ’s ministry, works and message, as it puts something of limited value ahead of something of infinite value.

    As I said before: I believe that focusing on the material component of the life and works of the Christ effectively demeans and belittles His true power, beauty and glory by attracting our attention to the realm of limitations (material reality) and away from His eternal, imperishable, spiritual Kingdom.

    Therefore it is important to me to call our attention back to His Kingdom, which is first and foremost in the hearts (figuratively, mind you!) of His followers; I am trying, however feebly, to help restore the balance of perspective on a spiritual text that has come to be understood in an overly material way.

    I have been wondering if you personally believe certain of Christ’s works to be devoid of the spiritual component. Do you believe that the feeding of the crowds, for example, was ONLY a physical reality, that there was NOT a spiritual “figurative” meaning to His feeding them? If so, why? As you said, “most everything in the Bible has at least one figurative meaning.”

    If not, if you believe that His feeding of the crowds could plausibly be interpreted as, say, nourishing them spiritually through His Teachings, then the only things about which we actually seem to disagree is how certain it is reasonable to be about the “miracle” (physical) component of this act, and this same component’s relative value when compared to the spiritual/figurative meaning of it.

    Jonah:
    Most everything in the Bible has at least one figurative meaning.My point is not that the Bible should only be read literally. It is a Baha’i myth that non-Baha’is only read their scriptures literally.

    Lukas:
    I would point out that OF COURSE I KNOW that all non-Baha’is do not read scripture purely literally, as should any fair-minded person and as does every single other Baha’i of whose opinion on the matter I personally am aware.

    Jonah:
    My point is that just because spiritual health is better than physical health, it does not necessarily follow that whenever the Bible mentions health, that it must mean spiritual health.

    Lukas:
    I agree – in like manner whenever the Bible mentions health, it would be a mistake to automatically assume that it is necessarily talking about physical health, either as the exclusive intended meaning or even as one of the many possible figurative meanings.

    Jonah:
    That is basically the argument Lukas is making, because that is how he is setting out to prove that when the Bible speaks of resurrection, it means spiritual resurrection.

    Lukas:
    No. As I have been repeating ad nauseum, I think it would be a mistake to categorically discount or reject a material component to the works of Christ. I just think, for reasons that are hopefully very clear to anyone who has read the Baha’i Writings (or even just my posts), that material components of these acts/works of Christ are by their very nature less important than the spiritual components/possible figurative meanings.

    In the case of the bodily resurrection of Christ, that is one specific example that Baha’is do not accept as literal/material truth. However, as to most of the miracles/works of Christ, there is not any authoritative Baha’i interpretation, and it is impossible to prove whether they occurred physically. In such cases, my point is to show that their physical occurrence is not necessarily central to the reality of the act of Christ anyway, so why worry about something that cannot be proved when the spiritual component is what matters more anyway?

  5. Puc Fada asked:
    What would you, Jonah, consider sufficent explaination to demonstrate whether or not something in the Bible should be understood figuratively?

    Lucas answered “Not much.”

    Since what Lucas provides as explaination for taking something figurativly is considered insufficient explaination by you, please tell me what exactly does a “not much” explaination entail in order to qualify as sufficent?

    Pete

  6. Lukas, your entire comment is based on a false premise. Mainstream Christianity does not emphasize the physical aspect of Christ’s actions to the point of overlooking or denying the spiritual aspect. (I assume by “spiritual” you either mean figurative or you mean pertaining to the person’s spirit – either meaning applies.) Even if I wanted to, I wouldn’t know how to interpret an act by Christ in solely physical terms. I don’t know what that would look like. Everything we do has a spiritual component, because everything we do is done by a rational being with a soul.

    And to repeat myself, I’m still puzzled as to how you can mentally separate the physical and spiritual “components” of an act. Our physical actions (at least, those that are willed) arise from and reflect our inner dispositions. The only actions we perform that have no spiritual significance are reflexes and metabolic processes – i.e. those that are purely biological. Whenever our will is involved, our spirit is involved. That is basic Christian theology.

    When you say that we Christians ignore the “spiritual component” of the miracle of the loaves, it sounds to me like you’re saying we believe Christ did it unconsciously, as if we was unaware of what was happening, or as if it happened automatically, like digestion. In other words, you sound ridiculous. I don’t mean that as an insult; I just don’t have time right now to find a more delicate way to put it.

    I know what you’re trying to say, because I used to live and breathe the Baha’i writings. But the way Baha’is categorize and conceptualize things, and the terminology they use, doesn’t make sense when interfacing with Christianity. When I was a Baha’i, I got frustrated with Christians I tried to teach. I’d think, “Why don’t they get it? Why are they so block-headed?”

    Now that I’m on the other side, hearing Baha’i arguments after becoming a Christian believer and deepening in Christian theology, I understand why they didn’t get it. My speech didn’t resonate with them because I made these strange assumptions about Christianity that didn’t jibe with their knowledge and experience, and I used jargon and made arguments that seemed strained or contrived.

    I say this in hopes that you and other Baha’i readers will understand that other religions are not simply truncated or distorted versions of the Baha’i Faith. They are entirely different conceptual universes.

    It’s like languages. Let’s say there’s an Iranian who only speaks Persian. You can’t communicate with him by speaking English with a Persian accent. They won’t understand what you’re saying. That’s what Baha’is are usually like when they teach people of other faiths. They speak Baha’i with a Christian accent. Christianity has a different vocabulary and a different grammar from the Baha’i Faith.

  7. Jonah said:
    Mainstream Christianity does not emphasize the physical aspect of Christ’s actions to the point of overlooking or denying the spiritual aspect.

    After carefully rereading your last post, I think I see what has been causing misunderstanding. I did not intend to assert that mainstream Christian interpretation denies any and all spiritual component of Christ’s works, insofar as a miracle is inherently spiritual as well as physical; what I should have said is “from my perspective, ‘mainstream’ Christianity frequently interprets Christ’s acts exclusively as miracles, to the point that additional, alternate, figurative and purely spiritual interpretations are often entirely overlooked, if not outright denied.”

    PLEASE correct me if I’m wrong, but if I have this straight, you believe that Christ feeding the crowds was necessarily a miracle (i.e. materially real), and seem to deny the possibility that there was an additional figurative meaning intended in the gospels, specifically that feeding the crowds bread could be understood as spiritually educating/nourishing them.

    I believe that the feeding of the crowds may or may not have been a literally/physically real miracle, but was necessarily a spiritual reality. In addition, receiving spiritual guidance, sustenance, and education, and having your heart and soul touched by the living spirit of love that emanates from Christ Himself is far more important than eating physical bread, no matter how amazing its origin.

    So to repeat myself with adjusted verbiage (and these are very sincere questions, I hope you understand):

    I have been wondering if you personally believe certain of Christ’s works to be devoid of other, non-miracle, purely spiritual components. Do you believe that the feeding of the crowds, for example, was ONLY a miracle, that there were NOT additional spiritual, “figurative” meanings to His feeding them? If so, why? As you said, “most everything in the Bible has at least one figurative meaning.”

    If this is not the case, if you believe that His feeding of the crowds could plausibly be interpreted as, say, nourishing them spiritually through His Teachings, then the only things about which we actually seem to disagree are how certain it is reasonable to be about the physical component of this act (its “miracle-ness”), and this same component’s relative value when compared to other spiritual/figurative meanings of it.

    Does this make more sense now?

    Jonah said:
    I’m still puzzled as to how you can mentally separate the physical and spiritual “components” of an act.

    I see what you mean if we are talking about “miracles” as opposed to “acts.” Obviously a miracle is by definition both spiritual and physical. As you said, “When you say that we Christians ignore the “spiritual component” of the miracle of the loaves, it sounds to me like you’re saying we believe Christ did it unconsciously, as if we was unaware of what was happening, or as if it happened automatically, like digestion.”

    This is why, a few posts back, I started using the terms “acts” and “works” instead of “miracles,” because with your help I understood how my terminology could be confusing. I forgot to make that distinction in my last post on this thread, for which I apologize. Anyway, I have complete confidence in the reality of the acts and works of Jesus, but I am not at all certain as to which of them were in fact miracles, nor do I think such a distinction is important or particularly relevant as long as the inner, spiritual nature of the act is understood.

    By the way, interpreting the acts of Christ exclusively as miracles (with necessarily a physical component) is what, in my understanding, Baha’is mean when they say interpreting literally or materially or physically (as opposed to spiritually). So Jonah has clarified that since a miracle is by definition also a spiritual phenomenon, this use of terminology wouldn’t make sense to many Christians. In like manner, claiming that a miracles-based interpretation of scripture is not literal and material would not, without this explanation, necessarily make sense to a Baha’i. Anyway, while it does seem to reflect some difference in values between Baha’is and many Christians, it’s ultimately a matter of definitions and terminology as far as I can tell. Thanks for helping me learn about it!

  8. Lukas wrote:
    PLEASE correct me if I’m wrong, but if I have this straight, you believe that Christ feeding the crowds was necessarily a miracle (i.e. materially real), and seem to deny the possibility that there was an additional figurative meaning intended in the gospels, specifically that feeding the crowds bread could be understood as spiritually educating/nourishing them.

    I don’t deny that possibility. The event literally happened, AND we can ascribe figurative significance(s) to it. Both/and. Both/and. NOT either/or.

    When reading the account of the feeding of the five thousand, if someone sees in that account that God nourishes our souls, that is a perfectly acceptable interpretation.

    The Gospel writers crafted their accounts very deliberately. Things aren’t there just because they happened. Each account is there because it teaches us about ourselves and about God.

    You talk about the relative importance of the physical and spiritual “components” of this event. I think this is dangerous because it risks making one’s interpretation more important than the event that is being interpreted. If you interpret the story to mean that God nourishes us, that’s legitimate, but that is not the only possible interpretation. There are others that are also valid. But if you say that we can disregard the physicalness of the act (by being “agnostic” about whether it actually occurred), and focus on the lesson that God nourishes us, then the other possible interpretations are disregarded too.

    To get an idea of what other sorts of meanings a Christian might derive from the story of the miracle of the loaves, read St. John Chrysostom’s sermon on the passage in Matthew 14. Chrysostom was the Patriarch of Constantinople at the beginning of the 400s, but when he gave these sermons on Matthew, if I remember correctly, he was a priest in the city of Antioch in the 380s. He is considered one of the greatest preachers in the history of Christianity, and is one of the Fathers of the Church.

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