Thursday, April 14, 2016

Does Christianity require a belief in matter?

The doctrines of incarnation, resurrection and real presence certainly require us to believe ordinary language existence claims about bodies, bread and wine. It's hard to take Scripture to be inspired without believing ordinary language existence claims about plants, animals, mountains, seas, etc. But do we need to believe that there is matter?

A search of the Church Councils up to and including the First Vatican Council turns up nothing dogmatic about "matter" in the relevant sense of the word (I am not including the technical sense of "matter of a sacrament" in sacramental theology). Searching for "material" finds some talk of material weapons, material flesh, and material food and drink. But I think that it would seem to me to be an overreach to take the Councils to be dogmatically teaching that weapons, flesh and food and drink are material. Rather, the relevant distinction seems to be between the spiritual weapons, spiritual flesh and spiritual food and drink and their ordinary earthly versions, rather than teach something about the nature of the ordinary versions, except that they differ from the spiritual.

I used to think that we need to believe hylomorphism. After all, the Fifth Lateran Council teaches that the soul is the form of the body. But while this gives us the morphê (form) part of hylomorphism, it doesn't give use the hyle (matter) part. We need to believe that the soul is the form of the body; not that it is the form of the matter.

If this reading of the Tradition is right, then Christian philosophers do not need to try to figure out the knotty question of what constitutes materiality. We have to accept, in some way, the existence of bodies, bread and wine, but we don't have to say that these things fall into some philosophically important kind like "matter". The handful of statements about "material" things we can simply understand in the vague way as about "things relevantly like ordinary things around us", without thinking that matter is any kind of metaphysically or physically important kind. We don't have to worry that if it turns out on our best science that physical reality is constituted by fields rather than particles, then we will have a conflict between faith and science. We still would have to find a way of locating bodies, bread and wine within physical reality, but we would not have to identify them with bits of matter.

Of course, it may turn out that the concept of matter has philosophical or scientific use apart from the needs of faith. But I have a suspicion that thinking about the nature of the body may be more promising than thinking about the nature of matter.


Unknown said...

Interesting piece, thanks. How do you think traditional beliefs concerning angels would fit into this?

Alexander R Pruss said...

It's a majority view in the Tradition that angels are immaterial, though it's not an official teaching. There are, however, Church Fathers who thought otherwise, e.g., Athanasius who thought angels were made of subtle matter.

Anonymous said...

As a Christian immaterialist (of the Berkelian variety, essentially), I (relatively) long ago came to the conclusion that not only does Christianity not require the existence of matter to be coherent, but there are no good philosophical reasons to believe in the existence of matter and good reasons not to do so...hence, immaterialism.

Anyway, I might also point out two recent publications that came out about this topic:

1) Idealism and Christian Philosophy by Steven B. Cowan and James S. Spiegel; and

2) Idealism and Christian Theology by Joshua R. Farris and S. Mark Hamilton.

Read the first one and am soon to buy the second. Quite good so far.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I wasn't defending idealism, though that's one way of denying the existence of matter. I definitely want to be a realist about the physical world around us, not just in the cheating way that Berkeley is. However, I think it's definitely unclear whether the correct physics will have a concept that answers well to the word "matter". It might have fields rather than particles, say.