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Nature: Matter or mater?

In which of the two senses – "matter" or mater – are you a "materialist"?

Mark Corner:

[Anthropomorphized images of God] may lead us to undervalue the significance of the impersonal. ... [I wonder] whether there isn't a link between [Western] neglect of the physical environment...and a tendency to relate to God simply as a "person out there", unconnected to anything as "denigrating" as matter.

Pope John Paul II:

Moreover, once all reference to God has been removed, it is not surprising that the meaning of everything else becomes profoundly distorted. Nature itself, from being "mater" (mother), is now reduced to being "matter", and is subjected to every kind of manipulation. This is the direction in which a certain technical and scientific way of thinking, prevalent in present-day culture, appears to be leading when it rejects the very idea that there is a truth of creation which must be acknowledged, or a plan of God for life which must be respected. Something similar happens when concern about the consequences of such a "freedom without law" leads some people to the opposite position of a "law without freedom", as for example in ideologies which consider it unlawful to interfere in any way with nature, practically "divinizing" it. Again, this is a misunderstanding of nature's dependence on the plan of the Creator. Thus it is clear that the loss of contact with God's wise design is the deepest root of modern man's confusion, both when this loss leads to a freedom without rules and when it leaves man in "fear" of his freedom.

By living "as if God did not exist", man not only loses sight of the mystery of God, but also of the mystery of the world and the mystery of his own being.

James Hillman said the matter/mater verbal similarity is "neither a coincidence nor a joke," and Patrick Harpur expanded on this:

...although in one sense materialism represented the successful reduction of Dame Kind to the soulless machinery of matter, in another sense it was itself the successful ambush of rationalism by the ‘mother’ it had spurned — the etymological connection between the Latin mater, mother, and materia, matter, ‘is neither a coincidence nor a joke’.

Susan Griffin:

To be made an object is in itself a humiliation. To be made a thing is to become a being without a will...But to this degradation, the reduction of a whole being with a soul to mere matter, we must add the knowledge that matter itself is despised, and hated in its very essence. We read, for instance, in the phrase 'to feel like shit,' the quintessence of humiliation. For in the pornographic culture, humiliation emanates from the material.

Edward Abbey:

You call me, sir, a rank materialist – sir, I accept the appellation, and I accept with pride, sir, and glory. Never shall this flower of the spirit reject the good earth from which it grows – never shall I live in an alabaster spirit-city, separated from my mother by concrete or gold, by white robes, ineffables, or multicolored sewage and communication systems, not this n-----, no sir!

Or, a third option: measured?

Robert Anton Wilson:

It has often been observed that there is marked similarity between the words for matter in Indo-European languages (Latin materium, French matiere, etc.) and the words for measurement (French metre, English measure, etc.). More interestingly, both groups seem to relate to the words for mother (Latin mater, German mutter, French mere).

Carol S. Pearson:

There is a profound disrespect for human beings in modern life. Business encourages us to think of ourselves as human capital. Advertising appeals to our fears and insecurities to try to get us to buy products we do not need. Too many religious institutions teach people to be good but do not help them know who they are. Too many psychologists see their job as helping people learn to accommodate to what is, not to take their journeys and find out what could be. Too many educational institutions train people to be cogs in the economic machine, rather than educating them about how to be fully human.

Basically, we are viewed as products or commodities, to be either sold to the highest bidder or improved so that eventually we will be more valuable. Neither view respects the human soul or the human mind except as used as an acquisitive tool. As a consequence, people increasingly are disrespectful of themselves. Too many of us seek to fill our emptiness with food, or drink, or drugs, or obsessive and frantic activity. The much-lamented pace of modern life is not inevitable – it is a cover for its emptiness. If we keep in motion, we create the illusion of meaning.

Christopher Phillips:

"Many of the most barbaric acts in human history were carried out by those moved by what they deemed unalloyed, sublime spirituality. Perhaps if their spiritual and sensual sides had been cultivated in tandem, as Socrates modeled and exhorted, they might have acted with more humanity."


Chris Clarke:

"Interaction within a network including the perspectives of animal and of non-living systems is an essential part of the stability of our world. Yet here Heron follows the experience of Abram (1997), that this interaction [with an object, such as a person gazing on a bowl] can be a ‘reciprocity,’ in being perceived as having the same empathic character as our interactions with other people. ... Participation at this level suggests that we can play a role with other objects in negotiating their appearance, just as in conversation or communion with another person we negotiate our joint way of being."

Clive Barker:

"They had methods of interrogation, he knew, even with dead people. They'd lay him in an ice room and examine him minutely, and when they'd studied him from the outside they'd start looking at his inside, and oh! what things they'd find. They'd saw off the top of his skull and take out his brain; examine it for tumors, slice it thinly like expensive ham, probe at it in a hundred ways to find out the why and how of him. But that wouldn't work, would it? He, of all people, should know that. You cut up a thing that's alive and beautiful to find out how it's alive and why it's beautiful and before you know it, it's neither of those things, and you're standing there with blood on your face and tears in your sight and only the terrible ache of guilt to show for it. No, they'd get nothing from his brain, they'd have to look further than that. They'd have to unzip him from neck to pubis, snip his ribs and fold them back. Only then could they unravel his guts, and rummage in his stomach, and juggle his liver and lights. There, oh yes, there, they'd find plenty to feast their eyes on."

Thomas Moore:

If things have soul, then they can also suffer and become neurotic: such is the nature of soul. Care of the soul therefore entails looking out for things, noticing where and how they are suffering, seeing their neuroses, and nursing them back to health. Robert Sardello suggests that a building have a resident therapist to take care of it in its suffering. He is not talking about care for the human residents, but for the building itself. His suggestion implies that we don't usually concern ourselves with the state of things, and tolerate much more ugliness and neglect in the things of our society than we should endure. We don't seem to realize how much our own pain reflects the diseases of our things.
* * *
Houses are boarded up, windows are smashed, wood is rotting, weeds have grown wild. We behold such a scene and think, the solution is to solve the problem of poverty. But why not feel for the things themselves. We are seeing things in a suffering condition — sick, broken, and dying. The disease before us is our failure in relation to the world. What is it in us that can allow the things of the world to become so distressed and to show so many symptoms without a nursing response from us? What are we doing when we treat things so badly?
* * *
When our citizens spray-paint a trolley or subway or a bridge or a sidewalk, clearly they are not just angry at society. They are raging at things.
* * *
We are also angry at things that we feel no longer serve us. Many of the rusting objects that pollute our city streets are outmoded or no longer functioning tools. If we define a thing only in terms of its function, when it no longer functions we have no feeling for it. We discard it without a proper burial. And yet old things eventually reveal that they hold a great deal of soul. I live among many small old New England farms and frequently see, for example, an old horse-drawn rake sitting beautifully in a pasture, or an old barn leaning into the wind, or the shell of a once stately house transformed now into a splendid ruin. These bits of evidence of past times seem literally to glow with soul.
J. B. Jackson, a historian of landscapes, makes a crucial point about such things in his essay 'The Necessity for Ruins.' Things in decay, he says, express a theology of birth, death, and redemption. In other words, our things, like us, have to die. We pretend to make things that will last forever, but we know that everything has a definite lifespan.


Mark Corner, Does God Exist? New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991. p. 79

John Paul II. Evangelium Vitae [The Gospel of Life]. Papal Encyclical, Rome, March 25, 1995. Official Vatican English translation. 1.22

James Hillman, The Dream and the Underworld, New York, 1979. p. 69.

Patrick Harpur. The Philosopher's Secret Fire: A History of the Imagination (2002). Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2003. p. 54.

Susan Griffin, Pornography and Silence, quoted by Starhawk, Truth or Dare, p 163

Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire, p 54

Robert Anton Wilson. Coincidance: A Head Test. (1988) Temple, Ariz.: New Falcon Publications, 1996. p 38.

Carol S. Pearson. Awakening the Heroes Within: Twelve Archetypes to Help Us Find Ourselves and Transform Our World. HarperSanFrancisco, 1991. p. 4.

Christopher Phillips. Socrates in Love: Philosophy for a Die-Hard Romantic. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 2007. p. 52.

Chris Clarke. “Construction and reality: reflections on philosophy and spiritual/psychotic experience.” Printed in Psychosis and Spirituality: Exploring the New Frontier. ed. Isabel Clarke. London and Philadelphia: Whurr, 2001. pp. 156-157.

Clive Barker. The Damnation Game. (1985) New York: Charter Books, 1988. pp. 86-87.

Thomas Moore. Care of the Soul: A Guide for Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Life. (1992) New York: HarperPerennial, 1994. pp. 272-3, 273-274, 274, 275.


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