Tuesday, February 8, 2011

On a breath

Scientific materialism – the belief that all existence is purely material (with nothing like spirit or mind as separate from bio-chemical processes) is fatally flawed at its core. The corollary to this flaw is the belief that since all existence is purely material, there is only non-existence after death for us humans.

Here is the flaw: if all thoughts, feelings, imagination, memory – in effect, all personality is purely the result of random bio-chemical material recombining in irrational flux – then this very thought (about irrational randomness) is just that – random and irrational. The thinker of this thought (that all existence is purely material) cannot sneak a truth-claim into the mix by asserting that this one thought is exempt from his law. Either all thought is purely bio-chemically determined, or not. If it is, then this thought is neither true nor false – it is simply a chemical reaction. Truth is a function of meaning, and meaning is a function of mind and spirit – not mere chemicals randomly combining.

The implication of this flaw, it seems to me, is that pure materialism cannot be practiced at all as a form of human thinking or philosophy or belief. You must stop before you begin, or admit that your philosophy is meaningless and then just exist for seventy-odd years, eventually turning to dust. None of your thought is valid, true or false, nor has it any other form of meaningful value beyond its randomness and biological existence.

Going to the opposite extreme, let’s say that existence is purely spiritual – that the material aspect is not real. This is essentially what Hindu and Buddhist mysticism declare: the universe is maya or samsara – the dream, the fiction, the delusion. Material existence is an illusion destined to be dispelled by a purely spiritual enlightenment.

If the material universe is simply a semblance or delusion that must be overcome in order to attain Nirvana or Samadhi (enlightenment), then our personalities, with all their quirks and peculiarities – our particular personhoods – are ultimately part of the illusion. Here too we need to stop before we begin, because if we do not really exist, but are part of the cosmic delusion. We cannot really matter, nor can our thought matter in any real sense in such a cosmos. We are not even real – so how can our thoughts about this matter or mean anything?

Both pure spiritualism and pure materialism crash and burn from the starting gate.

My personal dilemma: where is my father now that he is dead? His life – his breath – has literally expired and will have no in-spiration again unless and until there is something like a bodily resurrection in which his breath returns.

If he existed as merely material elements and bio-chemical matter operating in a meaningless universe – mere life, call it – then that bio-matter has begun to turn back to basic elements with no other animation than the bacteria and other parasitic organisms that will corrupt his beloved body now that he is interred.

If he was part of the all-soul of Hindu mysticism, then his individuality is no more. He has already reincarnated in some other form, some other body and no is longer my dad. His ultimate destiny according to this view is merging with the infinite soul – in effect, to become God (that cosmic reservoir of being that has no differentiation such as my father, Bill Herman). He is either food for worms or has transmigrated to another form of existence in the cosmic dream, the maya.

But my faith tells me that the existence of Bill Herman is unique, irreplaceable, and must not be meaningless material or undifferentiated soul. He was a person, is a person, will always be a person. Ultimately my faith – biblical Christianity – claims for my dad ultimate reality. He is permanent, and despite this temporary break in our relationship, we will enjoy each other forever.

Those who cite brain science as proof that personality is bio-chemical in origin have not thought clearly about their belief, as my thoughts above show. Undoubtedly the reality of personhood is a complex mixture of material and spiritual existence. Moreover, in all likelihood there is a profound weaving together of the material and spiritual basis of persons – a bio-chemical Bill Herman as well as a spiritual one. This is where the biblical belief in bodily resurrection becomes pivotal. We are raised both material and spiritual once the theo-drama is completed.

But that is another whole meditation, the theo-drama – the eschatological – the final end toward which all things tend. For now I consider only my dad.

Either the dead are raised again and reconstituted in bodily form or they remain rotted and dust in their graves. There is no halfway with this one. If the dead are raised bodily and are then brought face to face with their Maker, then I shall see my father again. If not, that’s it, it is done, his existence is completed and over. But is such a universe acceptable?

I think not. And I also think that those who say they accept such an existence are not really being honest with themselves. To accept meaninglessness is to accept the most basic defeat. In order to honestly deal with this, one would have to opt for the Stoic’s account at best. But pathos is the highest reality of the Stoic. Resignation to ultimate meaninglessness requires a toughness of heart and mind that is superhuman if it is totally honest. It also requires moment-to-moment acquiescence to a form of daily delusion.

We all act as though life means something, as though persons matter, as though we live forever. To believe that we are only dust that is temporarily moistened and animated whose only destination is to become dust again would disable our ability to choose, to act, and especially to act heroically or morally. To have a moral compass we need to believe in meaning – or at least to be temporarily deluded into believing our actions count for something beyond random bio-chemical activity.

Bill Herman was, is, and will be unique – irreplaceable, loveable, and inestimably valuable. In order for this to be true, there must be some form of ongoing existence – not purely material, not purely spiritual. Rather, there must be that complex and elegant thing we call life and meaning and personhood. And God is the ground of that life, that personality.

The Person of God is the ground of all meaning, all relationship, all love and personal existence. Our breath is borrowed from that Breath, the ruah, the Spirit of God and we have been given that breath, that spirit as that which animates us for eternal life.

Bill Herman’s breath has only temporarily ceased. This I believe.