I was having a conversation with a patient earlier last week. I didn’t know how she had seen me before. But she knew me as a ‘deeply religious man’ now after learning of my studies. She found herself even apologizing for her painful reactions.‘Oh s—-!’ I was amused. Poor thing. But her next comment made me pause.
She believed that humans needed to have all their physical needs met before they would even consider their spiritual ones. She was studying in grad school and knew something of Maslow’s hierarchy which postulates that humans first seek to have physical needs met before climbing up to the relational and then the spiritual ones. The highest goal of this pyramid was self actualization.
Now that I think about it, it has some freaky similarities to NeoPlatonism. Anyways I digress. To her most of her life’s problems stemmed from her physical health and her relationships. She just had no room for spirituality. Is spirituality and religion simply a luxury? Is it something that only the rich can pursue? If this were the case, religion would flourish amongst the wealthy and powerful.
I realized that there’s some superficial truth to what she’s saying. It’s hard for people to worry about their eternal destinies when they don’t even know if they have a destiny for tomorrow. And we don’t lack stories of celebrities like Morgan Freeman going on a spiritual pilgrimage before returning to the West with their new found wisdom.
But a look at both Jesus’ words and the history of Christianity and Western society would question this.
While Christianity often meets people where they’re at first, whether it’s by building orphanages or feeding the homeless, it does not seek to replace its message with its deeds. A person is not just a soul trapped in a body but an embodied soul. And Christians have always believed that God is most glorified and humans most satisfied when both body and soul are healthy. The well fed and the hungry die equally without being reconciled to God.
Christianity experienced the greatest growth in the early church in the urban margins before branching out to the rural and upper classes of Rome. It has continued to flourish likewise in the suburbs of Nigeria or Iran. And if we look at Western society as a whole, we live in the most materially abundant and safe time in its history. Yet people have never been more irreligious. Religion has no place in government or media, nor even in schools or family gatherings.
How do I make sense of these paradoxes? A rich and poor religion and physical and spiritual needs. I think there’s a spirituality that is only for the rich young ruler and a true one that everyone needs. There’s a search for spirituality that’s nothing more than self justification for one’s life, medicated by techniques like ‘mindfulness’ or ‘meditation’. They’re both equally devoid of context and any meaning. There’s a way of living that seeks only physical needs and the spiritual as an add on to one’s life. And there’s a way of living that sees the spiritual in the physical.
Jesus himself brings this great paradox to earth in his incarnation where the divine and human unite and the finite and infinite meet. Jesus shows us that God cares about both equally. Yet he affirms the primacy of the spiritual. All of the material world and its finitude is seen in relation to the infinite and immaterial God. Life and death as we know it are therefore only symptoms which we describe as ‘sleep’. Our physical life is simply the outpouring of our spiritual life. We exist either towards eternal life in God or death and separation from him.
What I’m trying to say is that Maslow’s pyramid is really a circle (or is it a spiral?). When Jesus fed the 5000 by the sea of Tiberias, he reprimanded the crowds for only following him for their physical appetites. They saw the event as nothing more than a free meal and him as nothing more than a food truck. But if only they knew who the one multiplying the bread was! They would have asked for the food which never perishes which was to believe in Jesus. Peter his apostle recognized this when he admitted that Jesus had the ‘words of life’. Where else could he go?
We’re constantly surrounded by worries – where we’ll live, how much we’ll have for our families and if the world is becoming a better place for our children. It’s easy to see our physical problems because they’re our most urgent ones. And an abstract spirituality that simply offers therapeutic techniques is just not worth looking at in such a state. But if we rightly understand life as a manifestation of the spiritual then our physical predicament becomes much more serious.
We die because we’re dead spiritually. Like our ancestor Adam, we’re separated from God and turned out from the garden of Eden. Men work to draw their food from the earth and then return to the ground they were taken from, finally consumed by their labors. Women bring others into the world through great pain and expend their life in those of their children before passing on. A physically needy world is a curse. I have no doubt about it. But in some ways it’s also a dream. Jesus has entered that dream to make reality known, to show us the spiritual in the physical and finally to remake it for our good. If only we would trust him as he ought to be. What I wish I’d said to her was ‘come and see’.