Watts: “If we want to keep the old language, still using such terms as ‘spiritual’ and ‘material’, the spiritual must mean ‘the indefinable’, that which, because it is living, must ever escape the framework of any fixed form. Matter is spirit named.”
Question: Why would we want to keep the “old language”? If it’s increasingly irrelevant to our contemporary experience and worldview, what motivation is there for holding on to the traditional dualism of spiritual versus material, soul versus body, God versus world? No doubt, thinking in terms of simple oppositions (this versus that, either/or) makes things much simpler than trying to feel our way through countless shades of gray.
I have been giving my support all along to the critique of a major structural piece in our Western worldview called metaphysical realism. If you have been following the conversation so far, you might have thought to yourself along the way, “I don’t ever remember standing up to confess belief in metaphysical realism. I’m not sure I believe it, either.” But here’s the thing: this particular piece of our collective worldview is so crucial to its structural integrity that its placement is not left to individual choice. Therefore it is technically not even a belief, but rather an assumption – more like the mental container that supports belief.
Assumptions aren’t “visible” like beliefs, they are not consciously held or verbally confessed.Typically we inherit them, imbibing them with our mother’s milk, or like picking up a box in order to carry the objects inside. They are sewn into the very fabric of our language and insinuate themselves into the neural networks of our brains.
In our inherited worldview the terms spirit and matter name two separate realities that come together in each of us, as the frequently conflicted marriage of soul and body. Expanding outward from this tense union, soul moves along one trajectory connecting us to God, while body moves along a second trajectory, into the world.
We have played out this dualism in our mythologies with dramatic flair: spirit versus matter, God or the world, soul without body. Apocalyptic stories of Armageddon and the Second Coming of Jesus have kept many believers in an attitude of suspicion and detachment. God’s in control, they say. Everything happens for a reason. We need to wait patiently. In the meantime, this tangled knot of body-and-soul continues to unwind and lose its integrity. We’ve become lazy, irresponsible, self-involved and chronically ill.
Now take a second look at the basic assumption, that reality is dualistic. What if instead of accepting the primary terms as mutually exclusive of one another, we regarded them as poles of one continuum? Rather than trying to figure out how these opposites come together, we then have the challenge of figuring out how we have managed to tease them apart in the first place. What if spirit and matter, soul and body – even God and world – are two sides of the same reality? Instead of a duality, we live in a polarity; instead of managing oppositions (either/or), our real task is to live meaningfully with paradoxes (both/and).
Watts invites us to (re)consider reality as both spirit and matter, mystery and meaning, oneness and multiplicity, the nameless and what we can name. But before we proceed to break these polarities into dualities and take sides, try to appreciate spirit as the mystery in our meaning, the hidden ground of all things, the vital force in matter, the creative and elusive presence in which we live and move and have our being.
Obviously, to go there means that I have to surrender many convictions that have so far kept my world neat, tidy and predictable. There is security in a narrow mind.